Out with the old, in with the new
New model gives students full access to all literacy instruction
Prior to moving to Iowa, 6-year-old Kyle Harlan’s main school lesson focused on trying to stop his frequent crying. His lesson? Teachers would record him crying, and then play it back to him.
In their minds, the teachers were trying to shape his behavior.
His mother, Mary Jo, didn’t know better. But that was before she moved to Des Moines and met educator Kristi Wickre.
“I had no clue what was going on with Kyle’s education,” Harlan said. “When we moved here, Kristi opened it all up – she opened my mind to so many things.”
That included a device that enabled Kyle – diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy – to talk.
“He suddenly said, ‘Mom, I love you,’ and I just started crying. My son was talking to me.”
It’s a testament to Wickre’s powerhouse teaching, who assumes all students can – and will – learn. But it’s also a testament to a philosophical change in the way students with significant cognitive disabilities are taught.
“We used to use a traditional readiness model of literacy instruction, where we expected students to learn to read and write only after they had a firm foundation of language,” said Emily Thatcher, a consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “For our students, that literacy model kept them from becoming literate: We have some students who are in the earliest stages of learning to communicate. And yet if speaking is the first thing we focus on, we never get to reading or writing.”
Herself a former special education teacher, Thatcher knows well how children with significant cognitive disabilities had been taught before the Iowa Core.
“When I first started teaching, I didn’t teach my students the entire alphabet but instead only the letters in their name – we focused on splinter skills,” she said. “And in doing so, we limited our students’ outcomes because we didn’t teach them what other kids learned. We did a disservice to them. We are only limited by what we think they can be.”
A philosophical shift on literacy now focuses teaching the skills of reading, writing, speaking, language and listening concurrently. The concurrent model of literacy instruction has been implemented over the last six-or-so years by a team from the Iowa Department of Education, the University of Northern Iowa and the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies of the University of North Carolina.
This literacy instruction is aligned to the Iowa Core English Language Arts Essential Elements. The elements are crafted to align with the Iowa Core, which is a series of challenging standards of what a student should be able to do at specific grade levels. The Essential Elements are targeted for only 1 percent of students on Individualized Education Programs.
“Iowa Core Essential Elements literacy instruction supports increasing students’ receptive and expressive communication,” Thatcher said. “Without literacy skills, students don’t have control over their lives. We segregate and isolate our students when we don’t provide them with literacy skills. We now have a very legitimate and understandable way to provide literacy instruction. It’s transforming our belief system, our expectations, and outcomes for our students.”
The concurrent model is research based, and has been tested in classrooms. To help build capacity statewide, a series of videos created by faculty from the University of Northern Iowa, the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies, UNC Chapel Hill, Iowa educators, and Iowa Public Television has been made showing teachers and students – including Wickre and Kyle – working on literacy skills.
“If you have any doubt, seeing is believing,” Thatcher said.
While Wickre, who teaches at Smouse School in Des Moines, didn’t have any doubts, she did have some concerns.
“I had already done shared readings, but I hadn’t done much writing with my students,” she said. “But I thought that if I am going to do it, I am going to go all in – I will teach the concurrent model.”
Wickre was reminded that when she first starting using the shared reading and computer programs, “We started seeing how engaged the students were throughout the day, and it was like, ‘hey, this is where we need to go.’”
Though academics now take the primary seat in the classroom, life skills are still taught through the lens of academics.
“In teaching life skills, it enables the students to use their academic achievements in a real-world setting,” Wickre said. “This approach to literacy is better for the kids. They simply learn more.”
As for Kyle’s mom, she’s thrilled she made the move to Iowa.
“I can’t imagine what Kyle would be today if we had stayed in Virginia,” Harlan said. “I think we might not even know his personality.”
And personality he has.
One time, a conversation went this way:
Mom: What, Kyle?
Kyle: Wait a minute.
Kyle went through that a couple times before it dawned on her that he was pulling her leg, just like any other teenager. And on a trip to visit relatives in Virginia, there was one frequent and regular message: “Are we there yet?”
And then there was a time when he told his sister – who, by her own mother’s admission, was acting obnoxiously – to “shut up.”
“See? Now we just walked into a teachable moment.”