S2 E6 - How do I create an integrated literacy block?



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Hello. Hello, it's Jocelyn here with the latest episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'm so pleased that you've decided to join me, and I hope that wherever you are in the world, you are finding the teaching of literacy as stimulating and exciting as I do. If that's not the case, If you're feeling overwhelmed, confused, and maybe a little scared, please know that you aren't on your own. We are here to help. You'll find loads of practical information all aimed at helping you develop a highly effective approach to reading and writing instruction in this podcast, but also in the back catalogue of our blog posts and on our YouTube channel and, of course, you'll be able to join our Facebook group on the Structured Literacy Bus where you'll be able to ask a zillion questions and continue to build out your kit bag of teaching techniques.

Today's topic
In today's episode of the podcast, we're going to discuss the issue of creating an integrated literacy block. This episode starts with a trip down memory lane of my early childhood experiences, but the episode is for all grades of primary school. So upper primary folks, stick with me. This episode is for you too. 

As part of my daily work, I speak with schools who are looking for some support to build on the great work they are already doing, and a very common goal is to have an integrated literacy block. Before we get into what an integrated literacy block might look like, we need to have a chat about the word integration and what it means to our teaching practice.

Let's take a trip back in time.
When I was a primary school student in the 1980s, we used to have themes in our classroom. I remember one about frogs and another about dragons. I also remember having a whole term immersed in the book Possum Magic with everything we did grounded in something to do with the story, including Science, Maths and a big event where the teachers drew an outline of Australia on the cement and set up food stations in each of the capital cities. Ah, those were the days. I really can look at all of that through rose-coloured glasses and feel all the nostalgic, warm and fuzzies for a simpler time where children were allowed to be children and teaching was easier.

Except, here's the thing. I'm a person who has always found reading and writing easy to learn. I was taught in an era of education where whole language and balanced literacy instruction were the norm, and I did just fine. Yep, I'm one of those, and in all likelihood, you are too. After all, it's people who enjoy formal learning who usually go off and become teachers. But if I hopped into a time machine and went back to visit my early years classroom, I suspect that what I would see would be a very different picture to the one that I have in my brain. I suspect that I would see some children lapping up all that integration easily, making connections and doing all the things asked of them with relative ease. I also suspect that I'd see a bunch of children going through the motions of the 'activities', not really connecting much at all. Finally, I have certainty that I'd see a group of children completely lost, just trying to keep up or even disengaged.

I want to fully acknowledge that there has been a distinct pushing down of expectations when it comes to literacy and numeracy. What the Foundation year used to be is what preschool is now. In the Northern Territory, that foundation year is even called transition. So I don't want you to think that I'm not aware of that fact or underplay its role in the changing face of schooling. The point I'm trying to make with all of this reflecting and critiquing is that our ideas about integration come from a time when explicit instruction and all its benefits were not widely discussed. They come from a time when we believed that, through immersion in rich experiences, children would pick up what they needed to know. Our ideas are based on flawed pedagogy, based on nice-sounding ideas that had no grounding in evidence.

Shifting our thinking of integration.
When I think of an integrated literacy block, I'm really thinking about connection, not integration the way we used to do it. To me, integration is about teaching Science and English or English and HASS at the same time in the same lessons. It's trying to meld things together and immerse children in a so-called 'rich experience' so they can draw out their learning more efficiently and deeply. The goal of efficient and deep knowledge is one that we all aspire to, but the integration of the 1980s is not the way to achieve that. So when we think about our literacy blocks, I'm going to ask you to shift your language here and refer to connected literacy blocks, not integrated ones. That's your first action for today. Catch yourself when you say integrated and adjust your language to connected. But I need to explain exactly what I'm asking you to reframe. I'm asking you to think not about how you can connect your literacy block to other areas of the curriculum but how you can connect each section of your literacy block to both reading and writing and how you can create a connection between the parts of your block.

The reason that I'm asking you not to focus on connecting your literacy block to other areas of the curriculum is all about cognitive load and the way that human memory works. If you've been a listener of the podcast or participated in any of my trainings, you will likely have heard me talk about cognitive load theory and supporting working memory. You'll be hearing this in other places as well. Working memory is that part of our memory that can hold two to three bits of novel, or new, information for a little while so that we can use it for something else in the future. Working memory is fragile, temporary, and easily overwhelmed. 

If I want my students to learn about the Eureka Stockade in Year Five, I need to focus their learning on Colonial Australia and the events of the Eureka Stockade. I need to explicitly teach vocabulary and background knowledge and provide the opportunity for rehearsal, retrieval and application of this knowledge and vocabulary in a way that doesn't overload working memory or my students' cognitive load. Trying to teach my students about the Eureka Stockade through reading the novel 'The Night They Stormed Eureka' by Jackie French (which is a great book, by the way) is unlikely to equip my students with the knowledge they need to write with detail and insight about the Eureka stockade in an expository piece outlining the causes, events, and implications of this event in history. Similarly, teaching robustly about the Eureka Stockade in history and then asking students to write a narrative featuring events from the Eureka Stockade is unlikely to see my students producing great stories that demonstrate their knowledge of the time period. That is, it won't unless I have explicitly taught them to write great narratives, and they can do this effortlessly. That's the kicker. They have to be able to write the narrative effortlessly to combine that kind of writing with history learning.

Cognitive load theory.
Cognitive load theory outlined by John Sweller and others reminds us that when students don't have the background knowledge and skill they need to perform a given task and then we overload them with extraneous load, such as complex tasks with too little support given to complete it, what we're going to do is overload those students' working memory. When this happens, we might just be tipping students into a fight, flight or freeze response. Students ask to go to the toilet, they get angry and rip up their books, they cry, they cause a ruckus to get thrown out of the classroom, or they might even avoid coming to school altogether. Basically, an integrated approach that does not adequately build students' knowledge and skills sets them and us up for failure.

Now I am not at all saying that I don't think that hands-on learning experiences are important or that we can't make connections between curriculum areas. When I taught about the Eureka Stockade, students consolidated knowledge about the events by building the gold fields on the carpet using blocks we borrowed from an early years classroom. They then created annotations to place into the 3D model that we then later used to quiz our knowledge. What I'm saying is that we need to carefully consider cognitive load when we plan for learning. If I were to teach this again, I'd also have the students reading 'The Night they Stormed Eureka' in English with a focus on building our English-related concepts at the fore. The novel would provide context for learning in history, and the history lessons would build knowledge to comprehend the text, but I wouldn't be trying to teach English and history at the same time in the same lessons. Now that I've got that off my chest let's switch back to the literacy block and the idea of connection.

Creating connection within your literacy block.
We are really used to thinking of our literacy blocks as being divided into reading time and writing time. It's the way we've done it for donkeys years. But there is another way to think about it. What if we thought about the sections of the literacy block as either building foundational skills and knowledge in low-variance routines or working with rich texts to put that knowledge and skills to work? These can be the two areas of the block, and this is a much more streamlined and, I think, effective way to organize our time.

Early years connections.
In the early years, this split looks like an hour to work on phonics, decoding, encoding, and transcription fundamentals. You teach your 15-minute phonics lesson on phoneme-grapheme correspondences alongside 10 minutes for word reading and writing. Students practice these with a partner, and then you read decodable texts that reflect the content you've been learning that day and in the previous days and weeks. Then you take a sentence that comes from a decodable text or contains phoneme-grapheme correspondences that you have been learning and engage students in a joint construction of that sentence. Teaching about the impact of certain words and pronunciation on our understanding of what that text means. We then release responsibility to the students, if that's appropriate, to be able to do their own writing at sentence level.

In this way, you are able to help students view all learning through both reading and writing lenses and create connections between the different tasks. There are no random decontextualised things being learned here. Logical connection and the use of context as part of the gradual release of responsibility makes learning stronger. The more we learn, the more complex the context can be in which I practice those skills.

This also applies to the introduction of morphology concepts in the early years. Our approach to this is to teach morphemes and suffixing conventions in explicit standalone lessons once per fortnight or so but then quickly build these morphemes into the phonics and sentence work we're doing. In this way, you are helping students apply what they've learned in a meaningful context and support them as they transfer new learning to their own work. Then your early years literacy block will have another section that is all about working with rich text to build deeper comprehension and engagement with texts and writing. This is unlikely to be connected to your foundational skill development, but each section of this text-based unit time is connected, and that's what you find in the text-based units inside the Resource Room. The connection between the text used as the stimulus for the unit, the explicit teacher-led lessons in syntax vocabulary, text features, language devices and structures, and then the task that students will complete a summative assessment. There are no random lessons that don't lead to the final summative task. Everything has a purpose in building connection and confidence for students.

Upper Primary literacy
In upper primary, we have a similar division of time. If your students have their phonics done and dusted, you'll be teaching morphology and spelling as your low-variance daily instruction. Resource Room members already have access to over a year's worth of lessons in this area, and we are working on building out Spelling Success in Action 2, covering prefixes and suffixes into something truly amazing. So hold onto your hat; it's coming soon.

While most of the morphology sits in the top of Scarborough's Rope (and that's where Hollis Scarborough puts it. In the top of the rope.) This work supports things like spelling and word-level reading fluency. The other aspect of content that I recommend having as some form of explicit lesson is syntax. We do include syntax in text-based units, but these concepts need frequent review and practical application to consolidate learning. So, 20 minutes a day of explicit teaching and teacher-supported practice in applying new learning at sentence level is really powerful, but you don't have to go creating fantastic things every day. This is also low-variance instruction that can connect with the other work that you are doing.

As with the early years, the final and meatiest part of the literacy block to consider in the upper primary is the text-based unit. Picture books and fiction writing are okay, but I think that we do our students a great service when we have a rich short story or novel excerpt that they can all have in front of them and follow along with. Just as with the early years, these units have a reading and writing focus for each lesson and actively teach children to engage with texts for comprehension and as a stimulus for writing.

In terms of creating a connection between the elements of the literacy block, upper primary teachers have a bit of an easier time of it. You can choose the morpheme you teach to connect with vocabulary from the text you are reading. You can focus your syntax time on teaching and consolidating the skills and knowledge that students will need to be successful in completing the summative task for your text-based unit.

This week's actions
Creating a connected literacy block is not an especially difficult task, but it does take forethought and willingness to let go of some of the things that have been part of our instruction previously. It also requires that we have a deep knowledge of the curriculum and the process of learning to read and write. In order to create connection, you have to start with simplicity. If you have too much going on and if your tasks don't provide the most direct path to success, then building bridges from one part of the block to another gets very messy, very quickly. 

In each episode, I like to leave you with a simple action that you can use to help refine your practice. In this episode, aside from reframing that language of integration as connection, I'm asking you to consider where connections might lie between the existing areas of your literacy block and intentionally take advantage of just one. This could mean being more direct in the connection between your phonics lessons and decodable texts in the early years or choosing a morpheme to teach in upper primary based on a connection to vocabulary in some area of instruction across the curriculum. It could be from your text, from your text-based unit, but it could also be from science or HASS or health. 

That's all from me, everyone. I really hope that you have a terrific week ahead. I'll see you next time. Bye.

Ready to take your writing instruction to the next level?  Join the Resource Room today.

1 comment

Catherine Ramponi

Great reframing of integrated/ion. So many reminders of my primary school education too. Thanks for an insightful podcast.

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