Language Arts and Reading
The USC Balanced Literacy Approach
The reading and language arts program at the elementary level is called the Upper St. Clair Balanced Literacy Approach. It is a comprehensive, research-based curriculum, instruction, and assessment framework aimed at developing the individual literacy skills of each student. The curriculum has been designed according to Upper St. Clair School District’s continuous progress philosophy in which each student is taught according to the individual’s rate and level of achievement.
The framework consists of four instructional modules: reading module, word work module, language arts module, and writing module. Progress through each module is informed by assessment of the individual student.
The Reading Module
Strategy study, guided reading lessons, literacy centers, shared reading, independent reading, and reading aloud to the students are the components of the reading module. The main components of this module include strategy study and guided reading and are further explained below.
In the strategy study portion of this module, students are guided in learning the strategies that good readers use to make sense of text. Students are directed in thinking about reading in ways that enhance learning and understanding. They are taught to make connections between the text and themselves, the world, and other texts. They are shown that good readers ask questions as they read and look for answers in a variety of ways, as all information is not explicitly stated in the text. Students are also taught how to infer information from text, to visualize what they read, to determine important information, and to synthesize the information that they have read into a meaningful whole. These strategies are repeatedly modeled by the teacher and then applied by the students as they read books in small groups at their instructional reading level.
The teacher meets with small groups of students with similar reading skills several times each week during the guided reading portion of the reading module. Students are taught through the use of literature or decodable text at their instructional reading level. An instructional reading level indicates the level at which a student can read accurately, fluently and with understanding when instructional support is provided. The structure and content of the guided reading lessons may vary, depending on the guided reading level and the grade level of the student. In general, guided reading lessons attempt to accomplish the following:
- address students’ accuracy, fluency, and comprehension needs
- give opportunities to apply strategies for decoding words when reading in context with teacher feedback and coaching
- develop vocabulary
- apply comprehension strategies with teacher feedback
- require students to make meaning, "on-line", during the act of reading the text
- interpret the meaning of the text through discussion with verification of answers, ideas, and inferences using support from the text
- provide students with opportunities to read independently
- address levels of meaning found in the text: literal, inferential, and critical
- expose students to a variety of leveled literature and decodable text as students read books at their instructional reading level
The Word Work Module
The word work module provides students with the opportunity to learn the system for reading or "decoding" words. Students are exposed to a systematic and explicit approach for learning the alphabetic system that allows them to read and decode words through their ever-increasing knowledge of common phonics patterns. Students are taught to apply this alphabetic system to reading and decoding words in the context of stories. The premise on which these strategies are based is that working through a word (decoding, sounding it out) is a self-teaching system. That is, the process of decoding words helps those words to eventually be recognized automatically by the student. Poor readers have been shown to over-rely on context for helping them to determine unknown words. Stronger readers first make use of the letters and sounds they encounter and then use syntax and meaning/context as secondary cues in reading unknown words.
Students are also expected to master sight words, words which are not phonetically regular but which occur often in the texts they read. The goal is for the students to eventually be able to recognize many words automatically, both words that are phonetically regular and those that are not, so that mental resources can be freed for act of comprehension.
Language Arts Module
Spelling, handwriting, and mechanics, usage, and grammar skills are the components of the language arts module.
Spelling instruction consists of teaching students how to spell common phonetic patterns in words and the methods for making spelling changes to these words to create other word forms. Students are also directed in learning to spell personal words that may cause them difficulty in their writing. Words are organized into spelling lists that are assessed each week. Students are also introduced to high frequency and frequently misspelled words that are placed on a word wall. Students may refer to this word wall when writing. Once a word has been introduced and placed on the word wall, it must be spelled correctly in all of the students’ writing.
Peterson Directed Handwriting is the program used for handwriting instruction in Upper St. Clair. Kindergarten and first grade students are instructed in printing. Second grade students learn slant printing and are introduced to cursive writing. Cursive writing is continued in third and fourth grade.
Grammar, mechanics and usage skills are taught explicitly in weekly skills lessons. Teachers make use of a morning message and focus lessons to teach these skills. Students also practice and apply these skills in daily sentence editing as well as in their own writing. Mastery of these skills is assessed quarterly.
Skill lessons, process writing and publishing of stories, shared writing, journal and literature responses, and writing in the content areas are all a part of the writing module. Students are asked to write daily in a variety of ways.
Each grade level has a specific focus and set of skills that are introduced and reinforced during writing lessons, which are organized around the following four strands of writing.
- personal writing
- subject writing
- research writing
- poetry writing
Students are asked to write a great deal in response to literature that they have read. The responses of the students may begin as simple sentences that become more elaborate and involved as the story complexity and the students’ writing abilities increase. In writing about what they read, students learn to support personal thoughts or inferences with information from the text. They connect their own ideas with events from the story.
Phases of Reading Development
As students progress through the reading curriculum in the Upper St. Clair elementary schools, they gain mastery of skills and strategies that enable them to read increasingly more difficult texts. Click here to view the chart that explains the typical reading behaviors that students exhibit as they progress and grow as readers.
In brief, the USC Balanced Literacy Approach focuses on explicit and systematic instruction in the use of strategies for decoding and comprehending text. It makes use of sound instructional strategies that are applicable to all types of literature and, through coaching, it encourages students to become independent in making meaning from the text.
Writing Level K
Writing begins in kindergarten when children begin to explore the letters and sounds in The Land of the Letter People program. The Letter People are a collection of inflatable characters that have eccentric qualities, which delight the children and stimulate their learning. For example, Mr. M. has a munching mouth, while Ms. F. boasts fancy feet.
The land that the Letter People inhabit is actually a town - complete with a large street map - where the program’s characters carry out their exciting lives. Literacy, math, social studies, science, health, art and music activities are all part of the exciting happenings, which take place daily in The Land of the Letter People.
The children learn a catchy song to accompany the introduction of each new letter character. After meeting six or seven of the Letter People, the children become acquainted with a Letter Light (vowel). The vowel becomes a connector, which allows the children to begin to make words - mat, man, etc. As they begin to encode, or write down, the sounds they are learning to read, the children’s writing begins to reflect their acquisition of letter-sound relationships and the conventions of print.
Beginning the writing process at such an early age results in a high degree of enthusiasm among teachers, parents and students about the steps in writing and publishing, and a wonderful fluency in the children’s writing.
Writing Levels 1-4
The writing program continues at levels 1-4 with the goal of developing the skills students need to become proficient writers. Based on the work of Dr. Donald Graves, an eminent researcher in the area of children’s literacy, the program introduces children to the steps of the writing process: pre-writing, writing, revising, editing and publishing. It is our intention that students will use these skills as a vehicle for writing across the Curriculum and throughout their lives.
The writing process is designed to support students in achieving new writing goals as they are able to do so developmentally, and to challenge them with increasingly higher goals as they are able to master them. Language and spelling skills are taught both separately and as part of the writing process.
A writing portfolio and a writing progress checklist are maintained throughout each child’s elementary career in order to assess progress across the grades. Some writing is teacher-directed, and some is spontaneous.
Students write from their own imaginations, and in response to the literature they are reading. The process involves both narrative and expository forms of writing as students are asked to write in a wide range of genres at each grade level.
Upper St. Clair uses the Peterson Handwriting system. Children use manuscript block letters used at Kindergarten and first level. At second level they use slant printing at the beginning of the year, which helps prepare them for the introduction of cursive writing when it is introduced during the second semester. Spelling, handwriting, grammar and mechanics comprise the remainder of the language arts curriculum.
Basic spelling words are taken from the most common misspellings, which appear in children’s writing. The weekly spelling list often includes multiple forms of words (run/running). In addition, children are encouraged to learn to spell words from a "Lifetime" word list and/or "Personal" words. A pretest/posttest strategy is used for spelling so that children are able to concentrate on learning words which are not already part of their spelling repertoire.