Response to CKLA Article

Questions by Betty Casey, Editor of TulsaKids Magazine
Answers by Lydia Voles, Vice President, Widmeyer-Finn Partners

I reached out to Devin Fletcher at Tulsa Public Schools for an interview when I was writing the Nov. 2019 TulsaKids’ article about Core Knowledge Language Arts (Amplify CKLA), which is used by TPS elementary schools. I never received a response from the TPS administration; however, after the article was published, I did receive a request to respond from Lydia Voles, vice president of Widmeyer-Finn Partners, a public relations firm with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. Widmeyer-Finn is the agency that promotes and markets Amplify.

Q: Describe Amplify, its ownership and which cities/schools use its products.

Voles: A pioneer in K–12 education since 2000, Amplify is leading the way in next-generation curriculum and assessment. Today, Amplify serves five million students in all 50 states, including students in the largest districts in the country: New York City, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Tulsa Public Schools has been using the Amplify CKLA program since 2016.

Since 2015, Amplify’s lead investor has been Emerson Collective, a social change organization focused on education, immigration reform, the environment, media and journalism, and health.

Editor’s Note: Emerson Collective is an organization started by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. According to a Nov. 20, 2015, article in Reuters, she is “the lead investor who funded the buyout of News Corp’s money losing digital education business Amplify… Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp said Sept. 30 that it had sold Amplify to a management team backed by a group of private investors for an undisclosed sum. The identity of the investors was not revealed at the time.” — B.C.

 Q: What is the “gold-standard research” that you refer to about how children learn to read?

Voles: CKLA’s structure is based on “The Simple View of Reading” (Gogh and Tunmer, 1986). This seminal research demonstrates that to read, a person needs to be able to decode the words on the page and then make sense of those words. The first task is made possible by decoding skills and the second by language comprehension ability.

To decode, students must have effective and systematic phonics instruction (Bodrova and Leong, 2006; DeGraaff et al., 2009), which is the basis of the skills strand in CKLA. In addition to solid early language skills, students need to learn background knowledge for later reading comprehension (Dickinson, Golinkoff, and Hirsch-Pasek, 2010; Kintsch, 1994; Neuman and Celano, 2006; Scarborough, Neuman, and Dickinson, 2009). Based on this research, CKLA designed a read-aloud component, the knowledge strand, that blends language support, vocabulary, knowledge building, and listening comprehension skill development in an integrated manner.

The coupling of rigorous skills instruction with research-based knowledge instruction makes CKLA unique. In its early grades, CKLA has a two-strand structure—skills and knowledge. In the upper grades, CKLA presents an integrated instructional strand that synthesizes skills and knowledge activities and prepares students for grappling with texts in middle school and beyond.

Just recently, in November 2019, a group of 12 education organizations—including the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) the National Urban Alliance, and the National Urban League—called on all schools to adopt the research-based approach to teaching reading that CKLA uses.  By the time Amplify started providing CKLA to Tulsa Public Schools in 2016, the program’s efficacy had been demonstrated by a three-year pilot study conducted by the New York City Department of Education that found the fall-to-spring literacy gains of CKLA students were more than double the gains of students at demographically matched comparison schools.

More recently, a 2019 study in Arizona also found that the use of CKLA was a positive predictor of improved outcomes on the Arizona Grade 5 state test for all students.

Editor’s Note: The cited studies do not reflect peer-reviewed research specifically on CKLA.

 Q: How would you respond to teachers who say the curriculum moves too quickly and doesn’t allow for individualization or “reteaching” and is especially difficult for students with special needs?

Voles: CKLA includes flexible instructional time in each unit for reteaching, reinforcing, and enriching previous learning, enabling teachers to plan and scaffold to the level of rigor called for by grade-level expectations. The CKLA Assessment and Remediation Guide also provides extensive, aligned resources for addressing learning needs in the foundational reading strand, given the wide range of decoding abilities often present in a class. The guide provides teachers with additional progress monitoring assessments to determine whether students have gaps in their knowledge of phonics, as well as additional mini-lessons and activities for remediation.

In Tulsa Public Schools, the literacy block includes time for reading intervention, which may be leveraged as needed to address unfinished learning. In addition to the supports embedded in CKLA, schools also have leveled libraries and reading intervention software available to support students.

Q: Respond to teachers’ concerns about having too many workbooks for young children, allowing little time for hands-on, experiential learning.

Teachers and students describe CKLA as highly engaging because of its unique focus on content knowledge. To build background knowledge, the program uses interactive read-alouds with vibrant imagery to support comprehension and invite rich class discussion.

For foundational skills, the program uses a multisensory approach to phonics backed by the latest research in early reading. CKLA’s hands-on phonics materials incorporate movement activities and songs in addition to games where students manipulate letters to reinforce their phonics knowledge.

CKLA uses workbooks (called Activity Books within the program) primarily in the skills strand, for the purpose of allowing students the repeated practice needed to master reading and writing. Research demonstrates that effective instruction in foundational skills requires explicit instruction followed by connected and repeated practice, along with practice in decodable text. That research undergirds the design of our skills strand, and many teachers value the opportunities Activity Pages offer them for conducting formative assessment on lesson objectives. That said, teachers always have discretion to determine which activities should be assigned.

Q: Some teachers feel that the curriculum is too “scripted” and takes away professional autonomy. How would you respond to that?

Voles: The curriculum does provide detailed daily lessons, but it is not a script. The level of detail ensures that all teachers have the information they need to understand the context of the unit or domain, the intentionality behind the sequence of learning activities, and the multiple entry points for student learning. The curriculum enables teachers to focus their time preparing strong instruction, rather than curating materials on their own, and teachers can always make adjustments to what is taught based on their own professional judgement.

Q: Some teachers are concerned that students only read parts of the literature or descriptions about literature rather than reading and experiencing literature. Teachers also expressed concern that the concepts are presented out of context and in unconnected ways, leaving children with fractured content and little context. What whole works of literature are included in the CKLA curriculum?

Voles: CKLA is a tightly integrated program that builds intentionally over time. Skills and knowledge introduced in one lesson and unit build on skills and knowledge in subsequent lessons and units. In this way, domain-specific vocabulary and context can grow over time along with the content students are learning.

For example, The Fighting for a Cause domain, which comes at the end of Grade 2, enables students to reconcile the gap between the most troubled times in United States history and the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This domain builds on Presidents and American Symbols from Kindergarten, A New Nation from Grade 1, and The US Civil War from earlier in Grade 2—and shows that determined people can bring America closer to making its principles a reality for all people.

Students in every grade encounter complete works of literature. Each grade introduces students to rich, complete literary texts, from nursery rhymes, fables, tall tales, and fairy tales in the younger grades to fiction, poetry, myths, and drama in the upper grades. Furthermore, for students to be ready for college and career, they must differentiate between literary and informational text, exhibiting a deep knowledge of each genre. To support this skill, CKLA has students reading approximately 50% literature and 50% informational text by the end of elementary school.

In addition, CKLA’s trade book collection enables students to engage with full-length books that support each domain in K-2. Many of these texts have been purchased by school libraries to supplement student learning. Based on feedback, CKLA recently published an enhancement called Novel Guides, which provides teachers resources for teaching specific novels in Grades 3-5. The literacy team is working to make these guides and texts available in Tulsa.

 Q: Tell me about the connection between E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation and CKLA.

Voles: The Core Knowledge Foundation (CKF) received many requests from educators across the country for a comprehensive curriculum. The team at CKF partnered with Amplify to develop the complete 1st Edition of Core Knowledge Language Arts. The program received high marks from rigorous state reviews, including Louisiana. Since then, Amplify has worked closely with districts and teachers across the country to make improvements to the program based on what works in the classroom. Amplify also works alongside districts to create custom professional development and implementation support materials that help meet district goals and support the unique local context.

Q: Respond to teachers’ concerns that the design of the curriculum is not cognitively or developmentally appropriate for young children and does not match what we know about brain development and how young children learn. 

Voles: CKLA instruction supports the Oklahoma Academic Standards for English Language Arts, which outline the skills students need to learn at each grade. The CKLA program intentionally builds skills in a developmentally appropriate way, starting in the earliest grades, where children begin with skills such as pencil grip and replicating shapes. A significant amount of the kindergarten year is focused specifically on sounds (phonological awareness) as a precursor to letter-sound correspondence (phonics) based on current brain research about how students learn to read. Lessons are sequenced in a developmentally appropriate way so that students acquire the reading and writing skills they need throughout the year to perform more challenging academic tasks by the end of the year. In addition, the curriculum resources and Tulsa Public Schools instructional support staff provide extensive professional development resources to help teachers support students with unfinished learning.

Categories: Education: Elementary