July 16, 2019

By Ian Jura-Baum

Schools are responsible for providing effective education to all students. To do this, teachers must consider individual students’ learning needs while also providing daily whole-class instruction.

To effectively balance the needs of all students, schools often implement increasingly more intensive instructional support based on students’ needs. Such systems are commonly known as Response to Intervention (RTI) or a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). A cornerstone of these systems is the adoption and use of core instructional practices as the starting point of all students’ instruction.

This blog will review the key features of core instruction for reading, the importance of conducting universal screening, and methods for strengthening core reading instruction when needed.

What is core instruction?

Core instruction includes the materials and methods in place for teaching ALL students daily lessons in the general education classroom.

The term “core” was used to describe daily classroom lessons in the requirements of the US Department of Education’s Reading First grant program, which was made available to states from 2002–2008. These grants required awardees to select and use a specific “core” reading instruction program for all students in the participating schools.

Such core programs were required to be scientifically based and used as the first level or “tier” of instruction for all students. In the resulting years, the importance of having “core” reading instruction as the starting point for all students’ reading instruction has been reaffirmed through ongoing research that has been conducted to evaluate efforts of improving reading outcomes.

boys looking at books in library

Why is core instruction important?

Utilizing scientifically-based core reading instruction is important because this instruction provides the initial foundation for all students’ reading outcomes.

When used as part of RTI and MTSS efforts, core instruction is also sometimes known as Tier 1. The key features of Tier 1 instruction are that it:

  • Is universal and provided for all students.
  • Incorporates research about effective reading instructional practices (i.e., it is evidence-based).
  • Is implemented accurately by teachers who have been provided with the needed preparation and training to use the materials and methods according to research-based practices.

Tier 1 core instruction is an essential component of RTI and MTSS because it provides the foundation for all students. Many—ideally, most—students will reach their learning goals as a result of Tier 1 core instruction alone. The most effective tiered supports are possible when 80% or more of students meet the learning goals as a result of core instruction.

That said, there are likely to be some students who do not meet the goal when using only core instruction. In order to know the effects of core instruction, universal screening of all students’ reading skills is necessary.

6 components of effective core instruction

The highest quality of core instruction includes the following:

  1. A standards-based curriculum that adheres to state/district standards.
  2. Systematic and explicit instruction, in which skills are taught from simple to more complex through direct, clear, and concise instructional language.
  3. Differentiated instruction that takes into account each student’s level of school readiness and background knowledge and engages each student in active learning that is geared to meet their needs. The process of differentiating instruction also includes teachers analyzing the content of their lessons, their methods of delivery of instruction, the process used for students to demonstrate their understanding, and their choice of the most appropriate environment for learning.
  4. Flexible grouping that includes a combination of individual, whole-group, and small-group instruction and allows teachers to create groups that ebb and flow to meet the ever-changing needs of all students.
  5. Active student engagement that ensures all students are involved throughout instruction. Teachers must provide many opportunities for student response, ample time to practice new skills, and immediate and efficient corrective feedback.
  6. Classroom behavior strategies that explicitly and proactively instruct students in the expected routines and behaviors. This includes the continual use of reinforcement and praise (ideally with a 4:1 positive to negative feedback ratio), efficient transition times, and predictable and consistent teacher responses to behaviors.

Universal screening data

Solid Tier 1 instruction must meet the current needs of 100% of the students. The best way for educators to measure the fidelity of their instruction is by examining universal screening assessment data.

Universal screening involves having all students complete standardized reading assessments so that teachers can review progress toward grade-level learning goals. When all students complete the same assessment, their results can be evaluated to learn both group and individual outcomes.

In other words, universal screening data can show the effectiveness of core instruction, as well as which students need additional help to meet the learning goals.

When the screening scores indicate that 80% or more of students are meeting the learning goals (e.g., benchmarks or standards), the core instruction is generally understood to be highly effective. When fewer than 80% of students are meeting the goal, school teams can take steps to improve core reading instruction.

These steps include implementing teaching practices that will strengthen core instruction, such as reviewing integrity and examining and updating daily teaching schedules to ensure that there is enough time allocated for daily reading lessons.

Improve reading outcomes

Discover tools and resources from Renaissance to enhance Tier 1 reading instruction.

2 key ways of strengthening core instruction

There are two primary ways that core reading instruction can be enhanced so that it is as effective as possible:

  1. Review integrity.
  2. Integrate targeted practices for small groups.

Let’s explore each of these options in detail.

#1: Review integrity

First, teaching integrity should be reviewed to confirm that all of the steps included in the evidence-based procedures are being used in daily classroom lessons. Teaching integrity is an important aspect of core instruction because the accuracy of planned lessons will affect student learning outcomes.

The best way to evaluate teaching integrity is by observing randomly selected reading lessons. These observations should be done using an observation checklist that includes each of the steps in the planned lesson.

Many of the most frequently used core reading instruction programs include observation checklists. Such observations provide information about how the planned lessons are being used.

If the observations reveal that the adopted core instruction is not being implemented with fidelity, then steps to improve accuracy are recommended. However, if the observations show that the core instruction has been implemented accurately, but students’ scores are still much lower than expected, altering and intensifying the core reading instruction is often the best plan.

How to conduct classroom observations

The purpose of lesson observation is to improve instructional practices for reading, not to make individual teachers feel inadequate. Conducting observations requires planning, as well as trust among teachers that the feedback they receive on their teaching practices will be both professional and informative.

Two ways that observations can be arranged include daily “walk-throughs” of classrooms and instructional tours:

  1. Walk-throughs involve having key staff members, such as an instructional coach or team leader, literally walk through each classroom during reading instruction on a daily or weekly basis. During these visits of 10–15 minutes each, the observer can take note of lesson elements and how the instruction matches the core reading instructional best practices.
  2. Instructional tours are a more formal method for conducting observations of reading instruction. These observations are planned in advance, and the teacher being observed might prepare a specific lesson that a few colleagues observe.

The benefits of both walk-throughs and instructional tours will only be realized if the observers share helpful feedback with the teacher. This should be done in a private, planned session where the teacher can also ask the observer(s) questions and plan specific steps to modify their instructional methods and content.

#2: Targeted small-group lessons

The second approach to strengthening core instruction is through the use of targeted small-group lessons as part of daily reading instruction time.

The recommended time block for daily reading instruction in grades K–5 is 90 minutes. Some researchers suggest more time for kindergarten and first grade, but having at least 90 minutes per day is important. Within those 90 minutes, several carefully selected whole-class, small-group, and individual activities should be integrated.

For example, a teacher might present a 20-minute whole-class lesson about a new skill. Following whole-class instruction, the students might spend time practicing and applying the skill either individually or in teams, while the teacher works with selected small groups of students to re-teach and practice the new skill alongside prior learning.

For those students whose screening and other data indicate slower reading progress, these small-group lessons can be a very important time for them to re-experience the lesson and practice the skills with the benefit of immediate teacher feedback.

The small-group time also gives teachers a way to carefully observe how each student is progressing toward reading goals.

students reading on tablets in classroom

How is core instruction used in the classroom?

There are many strategies that educators can use to scaffold core instruction within the classroom to aid student learning. Some of the most popular strategies include:

  • Giving students tools like graphic organizers to help them organize and clarify their learning.
  • Providing tools such as worked examples of math problems to model each step required to solve the problem.
  • Creating sentence frames that allow students to trigger their prior knowledge base or activate their brains by filling in the blanks.
  • Creating rubrics and checklists for students to help ensure they understand the expectations and know how to thoroughly complete the assignment.
  • Using questioning techniques that engage and challenge students and allow them to show their thinking.
  • Teaching concepts through multiple modalities (kinesthetic, spatial, visual, auditory, and/or musical), depending on students’ preferred learning styles.
  • Accessing the students’ prior knowledge base at the start of each lesson to activate their learning.
  • Providing discussion protocols (fishbowl, think-pair-share, turn and talk, etc.) as ways for students to safely and comfortably discuss their learning. These protocols also allow students to understand the type of contribution that is expected of them before they begin.

When to change core instruction

It’s important to note that not all core materials and practices will work for all students. In situations where the current core methods have been implemented with integrity, yet fewer than 80% of students are reaching the learning goals, it might be worth considering different core reading instruction.

In addition, all core instruction should be reviewed on a regular cycle of curriculum adoption and updated as necessary with revised materials and student learning needs.

Curriculum adoption decisions can be less stressful when they include:

  • A formal process that includes a district-wide committee.
  • Rubrics for reviewing materials.
  • Formal presentations by the curriculum publisher to address questions.
  • Detailed plans for professional development to use the new materials.

A common frustration that teachers share is that too little professional development around the implementation of the adopted materials is provided. Given that the majority of schools experience some amount of teacher turnover every year, having a plan for annual professional development for all adopted core materials and practices is an effective way to make certain that all teachers have initial and refresher training to use the core with integrity.

Summary of key points around core instruction

Providing universal “Tier 1” core reading instruction for all students is an essential part of tiered student support.

Core reading instructional materials and methods should be evidence-based and accompanied by regular professional development for all teachers to ensure that the core is implemented with integrity. To know if core reading instruction is effective, universal screening should be conducted using a valid and reliable screener, such as FastBridge or Star Assessments from Renaissance.

Core reading instruction can be strengthened through observations and feedback about lessons, as well as through targeted daily small-group lessons.

Over time, all core reading instruction needs to be reviewed and updated using a systematic process. When core reading instruction is planned, implemented with fidelity, and evaluated carefully, it will result in better reading outcomes for all students.

Learn more

Connect with an expert today to learn more about Renaissance solutions for supporting effective Tier 1 reading instruction.

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