School is in full swing, and if you walk around any Pentucket elementary school, you will see a myriad of Notice & Wonder charts, anchor posters, and Frayer models papered on the walls of the classrooms. This year, we adopted the Wit & Wisdom English Language Arts curriculum across all elementary schools K-6. After spending the past few years building strong foundational literacy skills, the Wit & Wisdom ELA curriculum fills a need for a clear and consistent scope and sequence for reading, language and writing standards across all schools.
left - Notice/Wonder Chart from First Grade
top - Notice/Wonder Chart from 4th Grade
For a few years, we have used high quality curriculum such as Fundations & Heggerty, combined with strong assessment and tiered instructional practices that support students becoming proficient with phonological and other early literacy skills. We have already seen tremendous gains from the skillful implementation of this curriculum. When we consider Scaborough’s rope, the language and vocabulary that Wit & Wisdom brings into ELA is the other critical piece of building skilled readers.
What separates Wit & Wisdom from other curricula is the heavy emphasis on building knowledge about the world as students engage with literacy. Pentucket students will be diving deeply into topics such as “Outer Space,” “Resilience in the Great Depression,” and “Extreme Settings,” among others. With this knowledge comes vocabulary, background knowledge, language structures and comprehension, all while using authentic literature and integrating writing instruction into the teaching and learning. With the adoption of Wit + Wisdom, we have begun to shift away from teaching reading skills and strategies in favor of a more comprehensive approach that grounds the 90-120 minute literacy block in building knowledge while also establishing strong phonological skills.
This summer, many of our teachers read The Knowledge Gap, a groundbreaking book by Natalie Wexler that discusses the importance of building knowledge through the curriculum in our schools. A growing body of research supports this, emphasizing the crucial role of background knowledge in comprehending what you read. In what has come to be known as “the baseball study” from 1988, Recht and Leslie found that struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball did comparably well comprehending a text about baseball as stronger readers who knew little about the sport. Even when controlling for everything else, the single most important factor in their comprehension was not how well they could read - it was how much they knew about baseball. This was the key. For most students, asking them to think critically about a text on a topic they know little about is as baffling a concept as asking the average American adult to compare the Western and Eastern gorilla.
This inherently makes sense. How can a reader compare and contrast two ideas if they have very little knowledge of either, or both? You may be able to compare and contrast baseball and soccer, but that doesn’t automatically transfer to an ability to proficiently compare and contrast cricket and polo. This inability to do so does not reflect a weakness in high order thinking skills, but rather, a lack of background knowledge. The skills simply don’t transfer this way. Wit & Wisdom allows us to leverage the literacy block to simultaneously build knowledge that can transfer to other texts and other learning.
This is not to say that our elementary teachers have stopped teaching strategies such as main idea, summarizing, and comparing two ideas, all of which are found in grade level standards. However, instead of isolated mini lessons limited to random topics, these reading comprehension strategies are intentionally taught and meaningfully embedded within every Wit & Wisdom lesson to improve our students’ ability to comprehend a text. With Wit & Wisdom, all students are exposed to the same texts on a variety of complex thematic topics, and teachers use intentional scaffolds to ensure that all students have access to grade level text and knowledge.
A powerful component of Wit & Wisdom is the embedded writing that begins with content-centered dialogue. Students spend much of their time engaged in academic discourse with their peers. These opportunities for speaking and listening facilitate social, emotional, and intellectual skills among our learners. Embedded student talk places equity and inclusion at the center. The discussions provide multiple entry points to the learning, as speaking and listening cross all cultural and academic boundaries.
Importantly, research shows that this oral academic language is foundational to written literacy and facilitates students’ written academic language development. Our students are not just learning to write, they are writing to learn, and as students learn more about a topic, the better their writing is likely to be. This writing is integrated into every lesson’s core work, providing students daily opportunities to write through various formats. Visit any elementary classroom and you’ll see learners from kindergarten to grade six engaging in rich dialogue in Socratic Seminars, annotating poetry, expanding their vocabularies with Frayer models, or working collaboratively to summarize the theme of a novel.
6th Grade poetry summary on left and 1st Grade writing using a mentor text.
Implementing a new curriculum and making shifts in the way we teach and learn can be incredibly challenging, and our teachers have gone above and beyond to skillfully implement the high quality tools they have been given. They are raising the rigor and expectations, leading their students through a number of new instructional routines, and guiding them through some “productive struggle” as they work through high level text. They are scaffolding when necessary, and adapting to meet the needs of the students in front of them. Aligned with our foundational skills work, we are building skilled, proficient readers who can make sense of even more complex disciplinary texts when they get to middle and high school. We are looking forward to continuing a great first year of implementation.
Jen Hogan, Literacy & Humanities Coach and Coordinator K-6
Brent Conway, Assistant Superintendent