We often hear it said that we live in the “information age,” with unprecedented levels of access to all kinds of information in many different formats. An important task of schools in the 21st century is to prepare children—all children, regardless of their background—to live, work, participate in society and pursue personal fulfillment in the midst of this busy world of ever-present information. The Alaska Birth to Graduation State Literacy Blueprint was designed to ensure that all children learn how to read and write at a high level; to access, synthesize and evaluate information; and to communicate effectively. Additionally, the blueprint will also ensure that all students can meet the rigorous curriculum requirements of the Alaska Performance Scholarship.
This blueprint focuses on the development of children’s literacy from birth to graduation. During the development of the blueprint, the state literacy team working on it often noted that literacy is only one of many things that are important for the growth of a healthy child. The focus on literacy in no way minimizes children’s other needs, such as for stable caring relationships, for safe physical environments, for adequate nutrition, and for appropriate medical care. This is one crucial piece of a larger picture.
Creating a blueprint that addresses both the early years, from birth to school entry, as well as the years in K-12 schools, presented an array of challenges to the state literacy team. It is one thing to create a blueprint to guide the work of public school teachers and administrators, but something else to also address the goals and needs of the many people who care f1or Alaska’s infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The team has attempted to do both. It provides guidance to policymakers, district, school and community leaders, as well as educators and families about what is needed in five broad areas: instruction and intervention, a comprehensive assessment system, family and community connections, leadership, and professional development.
Instruction and Intervention
In recent years, the base of research on effective literacy instruction has grown substantially. This blueprint moves away from philosophical debate to focus on approaches that have been shown in research studies to support children’s literacy development. This includes specific content—oral language and vocabulary development, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. It also includes effective pedagogy – that is, ensuring that children receive explicit and systematic instruction in reading and writing skills. For students who struggle with the development of these skills, it also means the provision of interventions that directly address their specific needs. Instruction is designed to be engaging and to respect the students’ cultures and interests. For older children moving into adolescence, effective literacy instruction means moving beyond “how to read” to helping students learn the different ways that reading and writing looks in their different subject areas—from lab reports in biology to expository essays in history.
Comprehensive Assessment System
Assessments of literacy are crucial, not in order to “give students a grade,” but instead to provide accurate, timely information to teachers, schools, districts, and programs about what children have learned and where they still need support to develop their literacy. A comprehensive assessment system screens children to efficiently find out who might be struggling, diagnoses the source of those struggles, monitors the progress of children as they develop reading and writing skills, and evaluates the effectiveness of literacy programs. It is important for educators, parents, and community members to have a clear sense of the purpose of different assessments and to have access to the information they need to properly support children’s literacy. This blueprint lays out the type of assessments that are needed and provides guidelines for their administration, as well as for the thoughtful use of assessment results.
The implementation of a high-quality literacy initiative requires high-quality leadership at multiple levels. At the state level, the State Board of Education & Early Development approves the teacher preparation and certification programs that produce the professionals who will educate Alaska’s children. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development works collaboratively with statewide agencies and consortia to ensure the effective implementation of the Alaska Birth to Graduation State Blueprint and literacy initiatives in schools and districts. At the state, district, and school level leaders do four important functions: they define and focus on the priorities that shape the organizational culture, they ensure that adequate resources are available, they ensure that the different parts of the system are coherent and aligned with one another, and they build the capacity of individuals in their organization to do their jobs effectively.
Family and Commuity Engagement
Schools do not educate children in a vacuum; on the contrary, children are always learning from their home and community environments as well. The best academic outcomes arise when children’s families and educators interact and communicate regularly about children’s literacy development. Therefore, the blueprint includes components of outreach to families, the creation of literate environments, the support of primary language and home culture, and connections to community, university, and business partners.
To continue to grow in their professional roles, educators need access to high-quality, on-going professional development that is directly relevant to the work they do with children. Professional development should occur at all levels of the educational system. Families are a child’s first teacher, and opportunities for learning about early literacy development should include families, childcare providers, and community members as well as professional educators. The delivery of professional development should promote collaborative work and create professional conversations about children’s literacy. The content of professional development needs to be research-based and focused on the literacy needs of children, as well as on the effective use of assessment data to understand those needs.