The solution was yet another reform, but this time the impact would be very different. In 2016, the Putnam County School District decided to try a more rigorous literacy curriculum, beginning in the elementary grades—one that included solid phonics instruction and also built the kind of knowledge students would need in order to understand material at upper grade levels. They opted for Core Knowledge Language Arts, or CKLA.
The next year the district piloted CKLA’s “Listening and Learning” strand, which—unlike basal-reader instruction—was organized around specific topics in subjects like history and science. A teacher would spend two to three weeks on each topic, reading aloud about it to the entire class and leading class discussions based on questions provided in a teacher’s guide. Students would also have simpler books to read on their own. The pilot involved one teacher at each elementary school. At Capshaw, that teacher was Fowler, then teaching third grade.
At first, she had serious doubts about the new curriculum. CKLA didn’t explicitly teach comprehension skills, and it covered topics that seemed far too sophisticated for third graders, like the Vikings, ancient Rome, and astronomy. It seemed, she says, that this approach was “taking a big gamble on kids.” And, like many teachers, she didn’t relish the idea of teaching from what she saw as a script.
But Fowler found that her third graders were not only able to understand the material; they also loved it. Eager to learn more, they would often read ahead in their student books. Fowler still tried to make time for students to read books of their choice, but she found they often wanted more books on the CKLA topics. When they clamored to learn more about Pompeii, Fowler appealed to the school librarian for additional books, bought some with her own money, and brought in a friend who had traveled there to do a show-and-tell.
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Fowler was also impressed by the improvement in students’ writing. Writing instruction at Capshaw, as at many schools, had long been a struggle. To prepare kids for the writing component of the state tests, teachers would mimic the test format, providing them with two or three paragraphs of information about a topic like insects and asking them to write a paragraph in response. The kids had trouble producing anything. But with CKLA, they had lots of information to draw on and eagerly wrote multiple paragraphs on the topics in the curriculum.
By the end of the pilot year, all 20 teachers who participated were enthusiastic about the curriculum, and it was tried district-wide the following year. This past spring, Putnam County officially adopted it for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Fowler says she doesn’t worry anymore about CKLA’s “scriptedness”; teachers infuse the lessons with their own personalities. And she values the equity in giving all children access to the same content, regardless of individual reading ability. While Fowler will occasionally work with small groups of students on discrete skills—like coming up with the topic sentence of a paragraph—students no longer routinely work in reading groups. She’s found that all children, including those with a disability like Abby, are able to take in more sophisticated information through listening than through their own reading—and that inspires them to stay engaged. At the end of the school year, Abby told Fowler she would keep reading over the summer. “I’m not going to stop,” she said, bringing Fowler and the girl’s mother to the verge of tears. “I promise you.”