My Turn: Scripted early reading approach no substitute for real teaching

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By MARIA JOSÉ BOTELHO, DEB PATTERSON and CAMILLE CAMMACK

Published: 02-11-2024 2:55 PM

In December, Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley made a proposal that the Legislature mandate that schools use “high-quality” reading curriculum across Massachusetts to “fix the literacy crisis.” Gov. Maura Healey’s recent release of her Literacy Launch initiative promises to expand access to “the right materials and methods” to improve children’s (age 3 to grade 3) reading. We offer an example of a “high-quality” early reading curriculum and demonstrate its contradictions in supporting children’s literacy learning.

As teacher educators, we are committed to preparing teachers who design learning environments and experiences that respect and promote the academic success of all students. We had the opportunity to participate in Massachusetts DESE-sponsored professional development to learn how to use a “high-quality” curriculum, Appleseeds. It is available online to all Massachusetts K-2 teachers and teacher educators. We welcomed the opportunity to explore Appleseeds as a resource to support our teacher and reading specialist candidates in meeting the state standards for early literacy in their teaching and coaching.

Here’s what we learned:

■Appleseeds is open source, which means it is available online, but it is not free. There is a cost to printing its teaching guides, materials, and decodable texts.

■Appleseeds is a scripted curriculum based on whole class teaching in a fixed sequence. Everything teachers say, do, and model is detailed in the teaching guides.

■Appleseeds is informed by a cognitive-psychological understanding of reading. Reading practices are understood as cognitive skills taught systematically. For example, children learn letter-sound patterns in isolation and in sequence.

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■Appleseeds uses decodable texts that use only words that match the letter-sound patterns in lessons, limiting opportunities for meaning making.

Here’s what we learned when we further analyzed and reflected on these materials and practices:

Appleseeds is adapted from the Core Knowledge Sequence developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr. Its perspective suggests that learning is the acquisition of “core knowledge.” This position lacks acknowledgment of the wealth of cultural and linguistic knowledge children bring to school and dismisses other key elements of literacy learning. For children learning English as an additional language, their home language(s) and varieties of English are not recognized as assets.

The decodable texts used for teaching reading lack authenticity and diversity. The stories are contrived, and vocabulary controlled so they don’t invite children’s background knowledge, discussion, and concept development needed for meaningful and purposeful literacy learning. The texts lack sense because word choice is driven solely by phonics. For example, one text says “‘That is a posh spot there!’ Nat said,” focused on the short o sound.

Appleseeds privileges explicit and systematic teaching of reading, which standardizes and reduces literacy to word-level learning. Reading skills are practiced in isolation from each other and other literacies. This practice may yield higher reading scores initially, but these results do not persist over time due to the lack of integration of other thinking and literacy practices.

When we make something systematic, the children go missing. The system dictates the course of learning for all students. For example, a first-grade class may consist of emergent bilinguals and experienced, emergent, and inexperienced readers. Appleseeds instruction does not recognize and draw on their cultural and linguistic diversity.

Appleseeds’ scripted curriculum demoralizes and reduces teachers to technicians, instead of honoring their professional experience. The scripted curriculum dismisses teacher decision making based on children’s strengths and needs. Integrating a scripted curriculum as a model of high-quality curriculum into our coursework conflicts with our social justice commitments to acknowledging and building on children’s multiple languages and literacies.

Appleseeds curriculum contradicts the expectations outlined in the MA Professional Standards for Teachers (PSTs). According to the PSTs, we are expected to mentor our candidates to “engage all students … personalized to accommodate diverse … needs, interests, and levels of readiness.” They are also expected to create learning spaces that “value diversity and [inspire] students to take academic risks, challenge themselves, and claim ownership of their learning.” Appleseeds scripts and materials invite none of the above.

Access to high-quality curriculum materials would be a welcome addition to meeting the high expectations placed on our teacher candidates. As teacher educators, we model that planning for classroom learning begins with the children, building on their experiences (what they know), interests (what they want to know), and needs (what they need to know) in concert with the PSTs, MA Curriculum Frameworks, theories of learning, and content knowledge.

Appleseeds is a clear mismatch between policy and practice. Although identified as a high-quality curriculum, the scripted, rigidly sequenced approach to teaching confuses equality with equity. We guide our teacher candidates and literacy specialists to critically engage with commercially produced teaching materials to explore how they might be one resource out of many for supporting children’s literacy learning in context.

Our analysis shows that the commissioner’s recommendation for a statewide mandated reading curriculum is problematic. Schools need local control. The needs of young children in Springfield, for example, are not the same as the children in Boston. A variety of experiences and needs also exist within each city.

A scripted curriculum determines what teachers say and do through sequenced lessons. Teaching reading requires teachers’ judgment and expertise and multiple approaches. There is no evidence that mandating a curriculum will increase reading scores, but there’s evidence that high-quality lessons are produced when teachers combine observation, conversation, and assessment of student performance and work to inform their pedagogical practice.

We agree with colleagues in the field who argue that there’s no literacy crisis, but there is a long history of political neglect of underserved children. May the governor’s literacy initiative support schools across Massachusetts to center children’s cultural and linguistic knowledge as resources for learning to read as they put these practices to work for meaningful purposes.

Maria José Botelho is professor of language, literacy & culture, coordinator of the Reading & Writing Program and K-12 Reading Specialist Licensure in the Department of Teacher Education & Curriculum Studies at UMass Amherst. Deb Patterson is professor of education, department chair and licensure officer, Western New England University. Camille Cammack is coordinator of Early Childhood Teacher Licensure in the Department of Teacher Education at UMass Amherst.