Does your classroom reflect a balance of rich reading, authentic writing, fundamental word study skills or phonics, and joyous read alouds? Does your practice release responsibility of the cognitive heavy-lifting gradually to your students through thinking aloud, explicit modeling, guided practice, and independent application?
Has post-common core testing caused you to rethink every anchor chart and mentor text over a six-pack and a dozen croissant donuts? Fear not. This year, our blog will examine the seamless integration of common core shifts and your balanced literacy practice. We’ll begin with the first critical shift of common core practice: building knowledge.
Common core standards assume educators are helping students construct “a breadth of understanding across topics through content-rich fiction and nonfiction.” (achievethecore.org)
This shift seems obvious, as we’ve encountered a myriad of shark experts, Harry Potter eccentrics, dinosaur hunters, and mythological creature aficionados in our classrooms over the years. Who are these knowledge-craving sages? Where did they go?
They became us. We love topics. Science topics. History topics. Pre-prohibition cocktails. Fly-fishing. Migrant worker rights. Perfectly flaky piecrusts. Our favorite topics are grounded in highly specific knowledge. Our knowledge is predicated on specialized vocabulary, vivid imagery cultivated from diverse texts (film, print, comics, news articles, YouTube Halloween costume how-tos, etc.), discreet skills, and lots of facts to color our dinnertime banter. Our knowledge offers us entry into conversations, careers, relationships, social causes, and special interest groups. Most importantly, knowledge drives our hunger for more learning. Alternatively, gaps in knowledge bar access to these arenas.
The common core knowledge shift demands we help all students build their knowledge reserves. As a result, we need to explicitly teach essential vocabulary, expose students to diverse visual and print texts, and offer opportunities for merging and applying knew knowledge to their world.
Why is this Shift Important?
This shift levels the playing field for our students who face significant barriers to knowledge-building, including those new to the school, region, or country, ELLs, and children with limited access to books, museums, travel, and other experiences. Most importantly, knowledge leverages engagement and drives meaningful synthesis. Several important transformations occur for kids when we build their background knowledge:
- Fluency rates improve on topic-based texts once students have background knowledge and exposure to vocabulary
- Intrinsic motivation builds once students are equipped to effectively question texts, make inferences, and apply new knowledge in meaningful ways
- Comprehension of complex texts is greatly enhanced through knowledge-building
- Students learn to grapple with text to uncover interesting and intricate knowledge
Ten Tips for Shifters: How do we Build Knowledge in a Balanced Literacy Program?
You may be wondering if the knowledge shift will require you to teach content lessons about global warming, Mexican immigration, or crustaceans in ELA or during Readers’ Workshop. Not so! But how do we integrate the shift in a balanced literacy program? Here are ten tips to guide the knowledge paradigm.
Tip 1: Give your genre unit a makeover.
Are you teaching a unit on “historical fiction” or “poetry?” Consider delivering your genre work through a specific topic such as “Fighting for the Right to Education” while reading I am Malala. It’s easy to relate this topic to a region, an important moment in history, and a theme of courage while also building critical knowledge on the subject. Integrate the topical study right into your lesson sequence about word solving strategies, genre characteristics, plot implications, and more. Choose a topic that is novel to students! It’s much more engaging to learn new information than to affirm existing knowledge. Novel topics can build on high-interest subjects while still presenting “fresh” learning. For example, if your students are interested in sea life, consider topics like Crustaceans or Bizarre Creatures of the Mariana Trench. Novel topics level the playing field for learners. Careful selection can ensure that the classroom community learns together and no student is privileged by prior experiences.
Tip 2: Ensure that your makeover identifies a unit topic rather than theme.
A topic comes with a set of distinct vocabulary words necessary for talking, thinking, and writing about the subject. Themes typically employ the vocabulary of everyday speech. If students will need specific words (think: judicial, permafrost, oligarchy, peninsula, or metamorphosis), then you’re building topic knowledge. In contrast, theme-based units, such as courage, friendship, perseverance, and tolerance, do not require specific vocabulary. Themes are important, but only once we’ve built a solid foundation of knowledge to support our thematic claims and views with examples from our world. Find ideas for specific topics at Achieve the Core along with samples of text sets to scaffold knowledge-building. Just borrow topic ideas, not necessary lesson plans for those topical studies!
Tip 3: Let students discover the knowledge.
Don’t stand and deliver knowledge! Build a staircase of texts that help students independently explore a topic with increasing complexity. Provide knowledge-building texts gradually over the course of a unit to allow time to absorb new information, talk to peers about findings, and make connections between texts. Seed text sets with diverse knowledge-building formats including images, tables, charts, maps, diagrams, cartoons, poems, excerpts, microfiction, news articles, picture books, and more. This will make knowledge-building intriguing while ensuring appropriate scaffolding. Model how you hold on to knowledge as you build it over the course of numerous texts. Release responsibility to students to build their own knowledge during independent reading or writing.
Tip 4: Fuse fiction and nonfiction.
Build background knowledge through informational texts to support better comprehension of fictional works. For example, develop knowledge of the Holocaust through nonfiction maps, images, and primary sources, while delving deeper and deeper into The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Alternatively, when studying a nonfiction piece, build knowledge that supports understanding and empathy for characters through related literary works.
Tip 5: Polish up your classroom library organization.
Revise your classroom library labels to emphasize book topics. Sample topic labels on shelves or book bins might include:
- Child Immigration
- Space Travel
- Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Other Earth-Changing Disasters
- At Home in the Desert
- Beasts of the Ocean
These topical labels allow you to mix fiction and nonfiction together in the same bin while encouraging students to infer connections between types of texts in the bin.
Tip 6: Allow DIY text set creation for students.
Allow students to build their own staircase to knowledge by selecting texts from a topical set you have pre-screened. Your broad set can include images, charts, maps, poems, short stories, excerpts, cartoons, timelines, diagrams, and longer texts. Offering DIY text set creation preserves student choice, within a limited selection, while guiding knowledge building around a specific topic. It also paves the way for interesting peer conversations among students who have selected like or unlike text pieces from the “knowledge builder bin.”
Tip 7: Use read alouds to build knowledge along with book adoration.
Read aloud from informational texts to center some whole class discussions on topical knowledge related to literary characters, settings, plot, and author’s purpose. Alternatively, read aloud from works of fiction to illustrate bias about a topic or demonstrate how authors use craft to capture the feelings, tone, and imagery permeating historical events in their literary metaphors.
Tip 8: Use organic tools to hold on to knowledge.
Use familiar techniques like stop and jot, two-column notes, text coding, lifting important lines, and turn and talk to teach students simple, spontaneous strategies for holding onto burgeoning knowledge. Try to avoid graphic organizers and packets that foster dependence on the teacher to direct the way to knowledge. Use teacher-created tools judiciously as accommodations, only when necessary.
Tip 9: Teach vocabulary explicitly.
Help students build knowledge by providing the topical vocabulary “keys” that will unlock meaning in knowledge-building texts. Help students integrate these words by teaching “tier 3 vocabulary” (topic specific words) in context. This will aid independence and hone word-level and sentence-level inferring skills.
Tip 10: Ramp up time for talk.
What’s the fun of being a shark expert if you have no one to gasp at your stories? Offer lots of time for students to share their knowledge discoveries, confusions, and questions. This will grow shared knowledge while developing communication and language skills. Most importantly, teaching others what we’ve learned is the ultimate synthesis of our text encounters.