Curriculum as a Game-Changer in ELA Success

How can a knowledge-rich literacy curriculum engage students and inspire lifelong learning?

By Emily Gasper

Human beings possess an innate curiosity about the world. As educators, we can make the classroom a place where students are thinking, asking questions, debating, writing, expressing, and making connections to the world. A student’s lifelong passion for learning often begins with a favorite book, which provides an opportunity to create a meaningful connection to the world outside those pages.

Student engagement is pivotal in creating lifelong learners and lovers of reading. But how do we make literacy engaging? How do we build an enthusiastic literacy culture among students at all levels that sets them up for English language arts success? A knowledge-rich literacy curriculum is key. 

In a recent webinar, Great Minds hosted a diverse panel of educators who shared similar challenges and aspirations in literacy education. Before implementing a new curriculum, these teachers and their students were unengaged and uninspired.

What are some common barriers to success in the literacy classroom?

For many educators, two common scenarios are sources of frustration in the literacy classroom: a disjointed approach to reading and writing instruction, and a basal approach that falls short of what students and teachers desire. The result? Students are uninterested and discouraged, and the data reflects it.

The students were so used to failing every lesson, they would come in already having the mindset that they can’t do this,” said Mike Taglienti, a Grade 4 teacher and participant in our recent webinar. “They would groan at the text, and every little piece of writing was just such a struggle that the data—it just didn't show the improvement that I wanted to see.”

When asked about student engagement, Dirk Bedford, principal at Meeting Street Academy in South Carolina, added, “I think [students] tried to be engaged; they tried to do what they thought we wanted them to do. But at the end of the day, they didn't love reading, and they didn't love writing because … it wasn't connected in really meaningful ways. It wasn't centered around great text and it wasn't centered around great content.

When student engagement is low, educators are often frustrated because they know their students are capable of greatness. Due to their previous disjointed approach to literacy instruction, Bedford explained, “Our kids weren't strong writers and they weren't the readers that they were capable of being.” It was time for a change.

Students at Saville Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, were recently featured in the Knowledge Matters Campaign. In this photo, kindergarten students learn about months and seasons.

How do you know when it's time for a new curriculum?

For most, the answer is simple: “The students weren’t engaged. The teachers weren’t engaged,” said Beth Joswick, assistant principal at Fort Logan Northgate 3–8 School in Colorado. She continued, “It is incumbent upon us as educators to provide the most high-quality education we could for our students.” Before the curriculum change, the Denver-area school with a high-needs population of 85% minority students and 50% English learners simply was not hitting the mark. 

The need was similar on the opposite coast. “We knew that we had to find a curriculum that was … rigorous enough to meet our big goal, but also we just wanted kids to love reading,” said Katie Robinson, director of assessment and academics at Meeting Street Academy. 

Like most educators, our panelists sought to empower teachers with a more coherent curriculum, build students’ knowledge and lifelong learning, and raise the bar for student achievement. These educators achieved their goals by choosing to select a knowledge-rich literacy curriculum.

What is a knowledge-rich literacy curriculum, and why does it matter?

Rachel Stack, director of humanities at Great Minds, explains: “A knowledge-rich literacy curriculum provides teaching and learning through curated literary and informational texts. These are texts that build knowledge on rich topics in literature, history, science, and visual arts.” With high-quality complex texts, students can study topics like space, the sea, what it means to be an explorer, and more. A knowledge-rich curriculum goes beyond reading words on a page; its rigorous, compelling content engages students and inspires them to want to read, write, and learn.

Another crucial element of a knowledge-rich literacy curriculum is rigor for all. The productive struggle prompted by a rigorous curriculum—one that challenges and supports students at all levels—leads to high student engagement. This productive struggle is achieved by providing multiple entry points for students to engage with content. An entry point may be a text, a painting, an audio clip, or a photograph that inspires students to participate and want to know more. 

The third element is coherence. Many educators have experience using vocabulary workbooks and writing exercises outside the reading block, resulting in a disjointed experience. By contrast, a knowledge-rich literacy curriculum integrates reading, writing, speaking and listening, grammar, and vocabulary as well as interdisciplinary topics. Core practices and instructional routines expand from unit to unit, year to year, as standards build and students’ knowledge grows.

What happens when you adopt a knowledge-rich literacy curriculum?

It’s the “wow” moments in the classroom that inspired many of us to become educators, and that keep us excited about our craft from day to day. These “wow” moments followed naturally for the educators on our panel, after implementing a new curriculum solution. 

The quality of students’ writing is one “wow” moment many educators have shared, as exemplified by Principal Dirk Bedford’s experience: “It's a ‘wow’ moment for me to look at how [fifth-grade students] structure their writing in really organized and logical ways, and how they cite evidence and elaborate in a way that's connected to that evidence, that connects to the main point of what they're writing about. ... I'm blown away by how much they've grown in just this year using  Wit & Wisdom.”

The panelists talked in depth about how Wit & Wisdom supports all students, including English learners and students reading below grade level. “We just noticed that the curriculum really supports a wide range of learners. And now we have so many students who are well above grade level,” said Robinson.

The data also reflects the impressive academic improvement. “We went from 4% of [Grade 4] students at grade level to 25% of students at grade level, and this was only our winter benchmarks. So, we still have a couple more months of teaching to go,” said Bedford. “Our fourth-graders made, on average, 138 percentage points of the year's growth in just one semester.”

The right curriculum is a game-changer.

It’s a common scenario in schools across the country with a disjointed or basal-based literacy program: Students are often disengaged, discouraged, and used to failing. However, in schools like the ones represented in our recent webinar, a new knowledge-rich curriculum has been a game-changer. “They're becoming confident learners that are ready to tackle any text or writing assignment that I put in front of them,” said Taglienti.

To get back to the “wow” moments that motivated many of us to pursue education, we should challenge ourselves to give students the rich, rigorous content they deserve. Once we spark their engagement and enthusiasm and connect texts to the world around them, that’s when the magic happens. 

When you believe your students are capable of greatness, you give them the tools they need to prove you right.