Literacy Development: How We Are Using Domains to Build Student Knowledge and Access to High Level Texts

East Moriches first gradeA child’s early years in school are critical to building their literacy skills so that they are prepared for greater success as they grow.  As many studies have suggested, gaps in students' reading skills after the third grade become exacerbated and can even impact students' chances of graduating from high school.

Starting in 2012, East Moriches began trying out a new approach to literacy using the Core Knowledge resources on EngageNY and by the 2013-2014 school year, we not only became more comfortable with the materials as teachers but saw significant differences in how our students were learning.

The kindergarten through second grade curriculum is organized through domains, or units of study, which intentionally engage students in developing vocabulary acquisition, background knowledge, and listening and reading stamina. Why is this so important? Because students need to continuously build upon what they know and have learned to successfully read and understand high-level text, which is critical to their literacy development.

In the past we regularly assessed our students’ reading levels and made adjustments, which often resulted in more reading. But we have added strategies to our tool box that can effectively strengthen literacy. For example, we are working more intentionally on students’ vocabulary acquisition which can happen much faster when focusing on one topic area.  Also, students are taught through a coherent sequence of content (such as within science or social studies), which is building their knowledge. 

In the lesson “Control Center: The Brain” while reading The Body’s Superhighway with first graders I paused and asked my students what they know about smell receptors. In past years, I would have heard "you smell with your nose." But not this time.  A number of students raised their hands and one eagerly jumped up and explained, “when you sniff something, the smell goes through your nostrils and high up your nose until they reach smell receptors. The smell receptors tell your brain about what you just smelled.”

How did they know this? First graders in East Moriches gain prior knowledge through the domains to help them acquire new vocabulary and better understand unfamiliar concepts. In The Five Senses domain in kindergarten, students learn vocabulary words such as smell receptors, pupils and nostrils (as opposed to smell, eyes and nose). These higher level vocabulary words help those students in first grade when they are learning about the nervous system and how the brain connects to the senses. 

The organization of the texts and topics across grade levels helps students acquire the knowledge and vocabulary that they need to access higher level text. These more complex ideas also keep students more engaged and increase participation.  Frankly, they think it’s pretty cool to use big words!

The prior knowledge and schema the children build during The Human Body domain in first grade is beneficial and necessary for The Human Body: Building Blocks and Nutrition domain in second grade.  Second graders begin their unit by identifying parts of the body.  In first grade they learn about the five major body systems.  This previous experience ensures that students are ready for the new material.  

Connections are made throughout the curriculum in the same grade level as well. Each lesson builds upon the previous ones.  For example, in The Pyramid Pantry (a lesson that comes towards the completion of the Human Body domain) students are able to identify Dr. Welbody’s Five Keys to Health prior to learning about the food pyramid and healthy choices.  This lesson also gives students a taste of what is to come in the Early World Civilizations domain later in the year by discussing the meaning of pyramid.

When students have background knowledge and understanding in the early childhood years, they are able to grasp new vocabulary and concepts with more ease. These connections also keep students more engaged and increase participation. Furthermore, by increasing the rigor during instruction, students are able to maintain a deeper connection to the lesson because they have developed a better understanding of the content through prior learning experiences and lessons.  

Lauren Diamond is a first grade teacher at East Moriches Elementary School and Emily Peterson is the Librarian and Professional Development Coordinator in East Moriches School District.

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