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Reviewing Core Instruction: Reading

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Public schools are responsible for providing effective education for all students. In order to do this, teachers must consider individual students’ learning needs while also providing daily whole class instruction. In order to balance the needs of all students, schools often implement increasingly more intensive instructional supports based on students’ needs. Such systems are known as Response to Intervention (RTI) or a Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS). A cornerstone of these systems is the adoption and use of core instructional practices as the starting point of all students’ instruction. This blog will review the key features of core instruction for reading, the importance of conducting universal screening in order to evaluate the effects of core reading instruction, methods for strengthening core reading instruction, and considerations related to changing a school’s core reading instruction.

What is Core Instruction?

Core instruction includes the materials and methods in place for teaching ALL students daily lessons in the general education classroom. The term “core” was used to describe daily classroom lessons in the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education Reading First grant program which was available to states from 2002-2008. These grants required awardees to select and use a specific “core” reading instruction program for all students in the participating schools. Such core programs were required to be scientifically-based and used as the first level or “tier” of instruction for all students. In the resulting years, the importance of having “core” reading instruction as the starting point for all students’ reading instruction has been affirmed in the research conducted to evaluate many different efforts to improve reading outcomes.  

Utilizing scientifically-based core reading instruction is important because this instruction provides the initial foundation for all students’ reading outcomes. When used as part of RTI and MTSS efforts, core instruction is also sometimes known as Tier 1. Key features of Tier 1 core instruction are that it:

  • Is universal and provided for all students;
  • Incorporates research about effective reading instruction practices (i.e., it is evidence-based);
  • Is implemented accurately by teachers who have been provided with preparation and training to use the materials and methods according to the research-based practices.

Tier 1 core instruction is an essential component of RTI and MTSS because it provides the foundation for all students. Many — ideally most — students will reach the learning goals as a result of Tier 1 core instruction alone. The most effective tiered supports are possible when 80% or more of students meet the learning goals as a result of core instruction. That said, there are likely to be some students who do not meet the goal when using only core instruction. In order to know the effects of core instruction, universal screening of all students’ reading skills is necessary.

Universal Screening Data

Universal screening involves having all students complete standardized reading assessments so that teachers can review progress toward grade level learning goals.  When all students complete the same assessment, their results can be evaluated to learn both group and individual outcomes. In other words, universal screening data can show the effects of core instruction as well as which students need additional help in order to meet the learning goals. FastBridge Learning® offers universal reading screening assessments for grades K-12, including earlyReading, aReading, and CBMreading.  

When the screening scores indicate that 80% or more of students are meeting the learning goals (e.g., benchmarks or standards) the core instruction is generally understood to be highly effective. When less than 80% of students have scores that meet the goal, school teams can take steps to improve the core reading instruction. These steps include teaching practices that will strengthen core instruction such as reviewing integrity and examining and updating daily teaching schedules to ensure that there is enough time allocated for daily reading lessons.  

Strengthening Core Instruction

There are two main ways that core instruction can be enhanced so that it is as effective as possible: review integrity and integrate targeted practices for small groups. First, teaching integrity can be reviewed to confirm that all of the steps included in the evidence-based procedures are being used in daily classroom lessons. Teaching integrity is important because the accuracy of planned lessons will affect student learning outcomes. The best way to evaluate teaching integrity is to observe randomly selected reading lessons. Such observations should be done using an observation checklist that includes each of the steps in the planned lesson. Many of the most frequently used core reading instruction programs include observation checklists. Such observations provide information about how the planned lessons are being used. If the observations show that the adopted core instruction is not being implemented accurately, then steps to improve accuracy are recommended. However, if the observations show that the core instruction has been implemented accurately, but student scores are much lower than expected, it might be that changing the core reading instruction is the best plan.

Conducting observations requires planning as well as trust among teachers that feedback on teaching practices will be professional and informative. Two ways that observations can be arranged include daily “walk-throughs” of classrooms and instructional tours. Walk-throughs include having key staff such as an instructional coach or team leader literally walk through each classroom during reading instruction on a daily or weekly basis. During these visits of 10-15 minutes each, the observer can take note of lesson elements and how the instruction matches the core reading instruction practices. Instructional tours are another method for conducting observations of reading instruction. These are planned more formally in advance and the observed teacher might prepare a specific lesson that a few colleagues observe. The benefits of both walk throughs and instructional tours will only be realized if the observers share feedback with the teacher. This should be done in a private, planned session where the teacher can also ask the observer(s) questions and plan specific steps to modify instruction. The purpose of lesson observation is to improve reading instruction practices, not to make teachers feel bad.

The second approach to strengthening core instruction is to use targeted small group lessons as part of daily reading instruction time. The recommended time block for daily reading instruction in grades K through 5 is 90 minutes. Some researchers suggest more time for kindergarten and first grade, but at least 90 minutes is important. Within that 90 minute time period, a number of carefully selected whole class, small group, and individual activities should be integrated. For example, a teacher might present a 20 minute whole class lesson about a new skill, then have students practice prior learning individually or as teams while she works with selected small groups of students to re-teach and practice the new skill alongside prior learning. For those students whose screening and other data indicate slower reading progress, the small group lessons can be a very important time for students to experience the lesson again and practice the skills with immediate teacher feedback. The small group time also gives teachers a way to observe carefully how each student is progressing toward reading goals.

Changing the Core

It is important to note that not all core materials and practices will work for all students. In situations where the current core methods have been implemented with integrity, yet more than 20% of students are not reaching the learning goals, it might be worth considering different core reading instruction. In addition, all core instruction should be reviewed on a regular cycle of curriculum adoption and updated as necessary in relation to revised materials and student learning needs. Curriculum adoption decisions can be less stressful if there is a formal process that includes a district-wide committee, rubrics for reviewing materials, formal presentations by publishers to address questions, and detailed plans for professional development to use the new materials. A common frustration that teachers share is that too little professional development to use the adopted materials is provided. Given that most schools experience some amount of teacher turnover every year, having a plan for annual professional development for all adopted core materials and practices is an effective way to make certain that all teachers have initial and refresher training to use the core with integrity.

Providing universal “Tier 1” core reading instruction for all students is an essential part of tiered student supports. Core reading instruction materials and methods should be evidence-based and accompanied by regular professional development for all teachers to ensure that the core can be implemented with integrity. In order to know if core reading instruction is effective, universal screening of all students can be done using one or more FastBridge reading assessments. Core reading instruction can be strengthened through observations and feedback about lessons as well as targeted daily small group lessons. Over time, all core reading instruction needs to be reviewed and updated using a systematic process. When core reading instruction is planned, implemented and evaluated carefully, it will result in better reading outcomes for all students.

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