Creating Order From a Crowded Curriculum
One of the things we can all agree on is that our curriculum is a crowded document. The expectations of what we are supposed to be able to teach, assess and track are, frankly, ridiculous. Before I decided to ‘just keep things simple’ I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ I was supposed to get my little people students to know and do. It was as if I was being asked to be on some kind of teaching game show where I was put in a booth and had to quickly stuff as many marshmallows into a bottle as I could before the buzzer went off. I felt like I was the worst teacher in the universe because I just couldn’t keep track of ALL of the separate pieces of the curriculum.
The English scope and sequence of the Australian Curriculum has 33 different content descriptors for each grade and many of these descriptors are about key skills and knowledge that take a whole year to develop. Every one of these needs to be taught using a gradual release explicit teaching model, repeated throughout the year. Assessment needs to be comprehensive and rigorous and stand up to scrutiny from parents and school leaders. “33”, I hear you say. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad. I might agree with you if we didn’t have another begillion pieces of content to address for maths, science, HASS, Arts, PE, Health, Languages and Technologies. Throw in the fact that we need to meet every child where they are up to AND do all of this amidst swimming lessons, assemblies, theme days, reporting, concerts, carnivals and the other things that seem to conspire to interrupt our instructional routines and you might be left feeling like it is a hopeless and foolish thing to even try and teach it all.
If you have been reading my blog for a while you will know that I would never leave you hanging on the edge of doom and gloom. And true to form, I have good news for you about how you can manage every one of those 33 English content descriptors.
- Actually read the curriculum
When was the last time you actually sat down with the Australia Curriculum English Scope and Sequence and read it? I know that seems like an obvious thing, but so many of us run on the content that we ‘perceive’ we should be teaching, rather than referring to the thing that really guides the way. I KNOW that the curriculum is wishy washy in parts. I KNOW that some of it is just plain dumb (predictable texts – pft!), but it is the thing you need to assess against twice each year. You might well find that what you are trying to get your students to do doesn’t actually match what the curriculum says and that you are trying to push your kids to play a sonata when actually they only have to be able to play a ditty. You can download the Australian Curriculum Scope and Sequence Documents here.
- Think about how much of the curriculum really needs to be taught in targeted groups and how much you can teach whole class, providing adjustment for students who need it. (hint – MOST of it can be taught whole class, including comprehension, text structure and writing).
- Evaluate your current program and ‘activities’ and ask yourself the question, “How does this help my students move closer to achieving the skills and knowledge laid out in the curriculum?” If the answer is, “It doesn’t”, then stop it immediately. You can also ask yourself whether there is a more efficient way to do what you are already doing. How can you ‘kill two birds with one stone’? An example of this would be teaching vocabulary and features of texts to small groups in guided reading. You can very easily switch this up to whole class teaching using a rich text, regardless of age.
- Once you have a clear picture of what you need to be teaching and have evaluated your practice against the content descriptors, reflect on whether you have a streamlined, logical approach or an adhoc, piecemeal one. Using ‘done for you units’ from your favourite subscription site, may appear to save you time, but is also likely to see you teaching in a polka dots approach. A bit here and a bit there, with little connection or cohesion.
Applying this to writing instruction
While teaching reading can require targeted work which might lead you down the ‘small group path’, depending on your set up (really this is around phonics and managing cognitive load so children can learn phoneme grapheme correspondence to mastery), teaching writing presents a fortunate situation. One of the realisations I had around this was when I figured out that writing can absolutely be taught whole class without difficulty, even to a group of children with vastly different levels of skill. This is because the fundamental basis of writing is oral language, which is biologically primary (we are evolved to learn it naturally). Now, of course the physical writing part is not biologically primary, however that falls in the ‘transcription’ area of our teaching which is dealt with separately and explicitly. This occurs largely through our explicit literacy lessons that really should teach decoding and encoding (at word and sentence level) at the same time.
The ‘trick’ to making writing instruction efficient is to think of composition like this:
- We teach children to understand the composition components of writing whole class.
- All children engage orally in all areas, building their skills in vocabulary, syntax, morphology and text structure as appropriate for their age and grade.
- When they physically write, they produce written text at a level that matches their current level of transcription skill.
- We continue to build transcription skills through explicit, systematic instruction at the same time as composition skills, but in separate lessons that specifically meet our students’ learning needs.
What this means is, that when we consider the content descriptors of English and how to teach them, we don’t have to plan separate composition lessons for children at different stages of writing development. We don’t have to feel the guilt that comes from not being able to sit and support a child who cannot write a sentence on their own to try and produce a whole piece of text. We simply don’t ask them to. This is not lowering expectations, but rather respecting that the child can only give us a written piece of work at the level of their current transcription skills.
I appreciate that this view deviates somewhat from what you might be used to, but ask that you consider it. When I freed myself and my students from unrealistic expectations of transcription and increased my expectations about what they could do orally, EVERYONE benefited. Over time, my struggling students’ transcription skills increased so that there was a closer match between their oral and written skills, but along the way they felt supported, successful and encouraged. For my more capable students, the focus on oral language meant that they developed a meta-level understanding of what they were doing and had much greater control over their writing.
I love being able to find win-win teaching solutions that empower all students. It’s my favourite and most rewarding activity.
If you would like to learn more about teaching writing in a way that makes sense, I encourage you to sign up for my new Masterclass, ‘Beyond Genre: Writing Instruction that Makes Sense for the Early Primary Years’.