Saturday, June 2, 2012

Units for Teaching Reading

After we say our final goodbyes to students next week, my team is coming right back to school to work on some curriculum writing. We have to make some updates for the Common Core and examine our common assessments.

Seeing our curriculum map evolve has been an interesting experience. We started the process in the 2008-2009 school year, which feels like an educational lifetime ago. Of the 5 of us who worked on the original order of units, only 2 of us are still in fourth grade.

It's great to work with our new colleagues to examine what we've done through new eyes. Why did we choose this order and not that one? Is there a better way to arrange things? Sometimes we have a good answer to these questions. For example, story elements are a great topic for early in the year. As students read independently in the rest of the school year, they can find natural review and reinforcement of these concepts. But sometimes even the 2 of us who worked on the original order can't remember why we chose to arrange something in a particular way.

As I've tinkered with things here and there, I have learned that there is no one right way to order units. It's like a butterfly effect of curriculum. I might think that one topic fits better in October, after we have studied x, y, and z. But then it displaces something else, and makes many small changes over the course of the rest of the year. I am generally a random and chaotic person myself, so I don't mind these small changes. But I've learned to work with people who do mind these changes, and (hopefully!) I've become more sensitive to their desires for an orderly arrangement of topics.

 Here are some questions that we have started to ask ourselves as we plan for the order of topics:

Is this a good match for the developmental level of our students?
Over the course of the year, fourth graders become capable of higher levels of abstract thought. Theme is a great example of this. We teach theme briefly as part of the story elements unit at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, we look at theme in more depth, as part of a "Going Deeper into Fiction" unit. Some students who did not understand theme clearly in September just fly with the concept in April. As you think about your content, try to consider what would be a stretch for students, and what you'd like to front-load at the beginning of the year.
Are there connections that we can make to other content areas?
In science class, we learn about the skill of "classifying" as part of our introduction to inquiry unit. It just makes sense to classify texts at this time, looking at the differences between narrative, expository, poetic, and persuasive text. This helps them to see how this idea of classifying cuts across content areas and is a huge skill for all areas.
Will this be a building block for other topics?
The skill of making inferences has been one that we have played around with a lot. Where do we put it? On the one hand, we want to teach it early in the year, so that we can refer back to it frequently. On the other hand, we want to have plenty of time to practice inferring, and spending three weeks on making inferences early in the year displaces other topics. We've compromised by putting an introduction/review of inferencing as part of our introductory unit, and then adding a longer examination of inferencing later in the year.
What do students need to know for testing?
Our state testing is in March. We know that there are some topics that we must cover before the test. As my husband says, it's like trying to fit 10 pounds of sugar into a 5 pound bag. So many things to teach, and so little time!

Our big units have evolved under these general headings. This is not to say that they are exceptionally brilliant, or that I wouldn't redo them all given the chance. (That's the random and chaotic side of me speaking.) But they are something that we have all agreed upon, and that we have all collected resources and texts to teach.

-Becoming an independent reader (routines for the year, review of reading strategies, introduction to kinds of text)
-Story elements
-Nonfiction introduction (We study Antarctica in depth, making connections across texts and exploring paraphrasing, main idea/details, and synthesizing)
-Text structure
-Nonfiction inferences
-Deeper Into Fiction/Literature Circles

A note about themes
I know that it is becoming fashionable again to teach thematically. If I had an unlimited budget, it's what I might choose. On a tight budget, though, it's exceedingly difficult to amass enough texts to maintain an entire school year of themes. I am quite choosy about texts, and sometimes I cringe when I see collections of texts that might all reflect a certain theme or topic, but aren't good matches for readers or the standards that are being taught. Because our curriculum map is for 2 different schools, the only theme we could really put together at this time is the Antarctica unit.


  1. I love all your ideas!! Thank you for sharing all your hard work!!