By Stephanie Stephens, Early Literacy Specialist and Tricia Parker, Senior ELA Content Specialist

November 4, 2019

For the first time since our founding in 2015, EdReports will release reviews of supplemental programs. Traditionally, we have only reviewed year-long, core comprehensive materials, as these programs remain the backbone of classroom curriculum.  

So why supplementals now? We have seen a tremendous consumer demand for reviews of foundational skills programs. With the growing research base indicating the importance of foundational skills to support childhood literacy, districts are clamoring to find resources that meet the demands of college and career-ready standards. 

We also know that many districts are using older English language arts (ELA) materials that do not have strong foundational skills components. Because materials adoptions are expensive and challenging, once programs are selected, it can be very difficult to quickly change to another program. Supplemental materials are often a solution that districts turn to and, increasingly, more districts are turning to EdReports for information as they consider materials purchases. For these reasons EdReports determined that it was critical to get information about supplemental programs into the hands of educators.

As we share these new foundational skills reviews with the field, we’d also like to address some common misconceptions about supplemental materials. If your school or district is considering adopting a supplemental foundational skills program we recommend checking out these tips to support your decision-making.

What Supplemental Foundational Skills Materials Are (and What They Are Not):

Supplemental foundational skills materials are commonly mistaken for a wide variety of curriculum formats. Supplemental programs are: 

  • Designed to plug into an existing comprehensive English language arts program. 
  • Cover foundational skills standards rather than the entire spectrum of ELA standards. For example, foundational skills supplemental programs should include print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency. 
  • Focused on supporting all students in foundational skills development, not just those who demonstrate a skills deficit.  

Supplemental foundational skills materials are not: 

  • Comprehensive core programs. Comprehensive programs address foundational skills standards, but they also cover all ELA standards for a specific band of grade levels. For example, comprehensive programs cover reading, writing, language and grammar, and speaking and listening. 
  • Intended to act as a stand-in for the entirety of a district’s ELA curriculum and instruction. 
  • Intervention programs for kids struggling with reading. Interventions are specifically designed for students who were not able to acquire skills in earlier grades and focus primarily on specific and individual learning rather than whole group learning.

Supplemental programs work hand-in-hand with a comprehensive program when the foundational skills components may not be as complete or as aligned as educators know they should be. Inaccurately distinguishing between supplemental foundational skills, interventions, and core comprehensive programs could leave teachers without the right resources they need to support student literacy.

What to Consider When Adopting A Supplemental Foundational Skills Program

EdReports historically reviews core comprehensive curriculum because they are the backbone of classrooms nationwide. To truly analyze alignment to the standards, we believe it is necessary to look at the entire grade or more. 

However, we know that finding a comprehensive ELA curriculum that is standards-aligned, meets local needs, and fully covers foundational skills is simply not a possibility for many districts. Educators may be searching for ways to supplement what they currently have. If you find yourself in this situation, we propose a few guidelines to inform your process.

Investigate Alignment First: As you examine potential supplemental programs, ask: is it aligned to college and career-standards and does it address all foundational skills required by the standards (rather than a select few such as phonics). Foundational skills are a package deal— they work together to support literacy.  The absence of one can leave students without the tools they need to learn how to read.

Even if the supplemental foundational skills programs you are considering are aligned, your work isn’t done. The supplemental program needs to be compatible with your core comprehensive program, otherwise it won’t matter how high-quality or aligned it is.  

Ensure Your Instructional Approach and Research Base Match: To work together well, it is best for the supplemental and  comprehensive programs to share a matching research base. A research base is the intellectual framework guiding the content in your materials including how skills are presented and how students interact with them. If the research bases aren’t in sync, you’ll have two competing roadmaps, pointing teachers and students in very different directions. 

Additionally, a similar instructional approach (e.g., synthetic vs. analytic) and the order in which reading and writing skills are taught should also be complementary for the two programs. This will help ensure coherence and clarity for teachers and students and avoid teachers spending hours in additional prep time to make the programs more compatible.

Examine the “Scope and Sequence” to Determine Compatibility: Another way of determining compatibility (after you’ve examined the program for alignment) is to take a look at the material’s “scope and sequence.” When does the program introduce letters? When are students completing letter formation and identification? What is the program’s phonics progression? When are students introduced to leveled readers versus decodable texts? All of these questions should be answered in the scope and sequence.

Don’t Forget Assessments: Assessments are also another area worth investigation. Take a look at the assessments to determine if and how the program is evaluating the skills you are trying to build. The structure and content of the assessments will offer insights into how the core and supplemental programs will work together. 

Professional Learning is Key: While examining potential programs, it is important not to lose sight of what happens after materials are selected. Ongoing professional learning to support implementation is key to great materials actually being used well in the classroom. If you select a supplemental program, consider teacher load as you plan additional training and professional development. Keep in mind that teachers will be learning and planning for two different programs—any supports and resources to support that learning and planning will be invaluable and ultimately will benefit students.  

There are no silver bullets. Whether you’re using a comprehensive core curriculum or adding a supplemental program for support, materials alone will not solve every challenge students face as they begin their literacy journey. However, a combination of standards-aligned materials, strong instruction, and professional development can provide a strong foundation to support kids as they strive towards reading and a life of learning.

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