Theoretical School Improvement Team Meeting: Recommendation of Literacy Curriculum

Recommendation of Literacy Curriculum for 2nd Grade: Best for All Sounds-First Curriculum

October 17, 2021



Last spring, Principal Smith formed a committee to search for evidence-based, early literacy curricula that align with the theory and rationale undergirding our literacy program and our vision and mission statements. Literacy is the key to all learning, and therefore we seek to provide rigorous, effective literacy education as a foundation to our students’ future academic and life achievements. Today, the committee is presenting to you for your consideration the Tennessee Best for All Sounds-First Curriculum. This is the first of three, and the other two will be presented to you at future staff meetings.

Vision Statement

Our vision is to empower students to acquire, practice, and transfer knowledge and skills in personally meaningful ways that will support them as life-long learners, ready them to participate in and contribute to the global world, and prepare them to become respectful and tolerant human beings that value diversity and inclusion.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to provide a reflective and responsive learning environment with a welcoming atmosphere that creates a sense of belonging for all students and their families, to maintain an inclusive environment that acknowledges and respects cultural and ethnic diversity, and to offer diversified experiences so that our students can discover their potential, achieve readiness for college and careers, and succeed in a safe and caring environment.


Alignment with Visible Learning Principles

At the start of the academic year, each teacher received a copy of Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher et al., 2016) and Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom (Fisher et al., 2017) and were asked to read both in their professional learning communities to prepare for this presentation and the choice that we will make to guide the learning of our future students. The concepts in these books are the basis for literacy instruction in our district, yet many administrators and teachers voiced concern that current curricular practices are not well-aligned with those principles. Thus, the committee has sought out better, more aligned curriculum. In our meeting today, we will see if the first of their three chosen curricula is not just adequate, but is excellent in its adherence to the standards we have set for providing our students with foundational literacy instruction. We will examine if this curriculum lines up with the theory and rationale that we support as demarcated in the Fisher, Frey, and Hattie books.

As discussed at our last staff meeting, effect size is an important tool to help educators understand their impact on student learning. Throughout this presentation, you will be reminded of the effect size for various activities and strategies using the d=0.40 format. We aim for activities or strategies with an effect size greater than 0.40. John Hattie has calculated many effect sizes already (see Appendix A), and you learned at the end of Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher et al., 2016) how to calculate the effect size in your own classroom. As we proceed with our study of the Sounds-First curriculum, please keep effect size in mind.

Key Indicators of Alignment

As we review this curriculum, look for the following key indicators of alignment:

  1. Student thinking is uncovered and made visible.
  2. The focus is not on the completion of tasks but on the development of understanding; within and across units, learning moves from surface to deep to transfer.
  3. The lessons build on and extend student’s knowledge.
  4. Clear learning intentions (d=68) and success criteria (d=0.88) accompany each lesson. The learning intentions are unpacked state standards that are taught in chunks and worded so that students can understand them. Examples are provided of successful mastery so that students understand what evidence is needed to demonstrate their learning.
  5. The lessons provide classroom experiences that develop surface, deep, and transfer learning. Both surface and deep learning have an acquisition phase and a consolidation phase, while transfer learning can be described as near and far, with low-road hugging and high-road bridging.
  6. The lessons provide appropriate activities for each level of learning such as word sorts, spelling practice (d=58), wide reading, concept mapping (d=0.64), close reading, annotating (d=0.63), discussion (d= 0.82) and questioning (d=0.48), summarizing (d=0.75), formative assessment (d=0.48), feedback (d=0.75), collaborative learning (versus whole class instruction, d=0.41; versus individual work, d=0.59), peer tutoring (d=0.53), metacognitive strategies (d=0.55), and reciprocal teaching (d=0.74). Visible learning principles include teaching students to transform conceptual knowledge through Socratic Seminar and Extended Writing as appropriate for grade level.
  7. The lessons allow for teacher discretion about pacing. Remember that is important for surface learning to be mastered first.
  8. The lessons allow for the teacher to change the instruction when evidence suggests learning is not happening.
  9. Impact is constantly monitored through determining effect size, which requires regular use of preassessments and post assessments.
  10. As needed, the curriculum guides teachers to use the Response to Intervention method (d= 1.29) that allows for screening, progress monitoring, and providing appropriate intensive interventions.
  11. The curriculum does not emphasize what we know does not work, such as ability grouping and homework.

Description of Curriculum

The State of Tennessee’s department of education offers a complete early literacy foundational skills curriculum on its website that is based upon research and is available for free to anyone. The Best for All Sounds-First Curriculum can be found online at 

Components of the Curriculum

This curriculum’s components are complete, offering a teacher’s guide, activity book, student workbook with take-home materials such as short readings and spelling lists, decodable readers, fluency packet, consonants code flip book, vowels code flip book, code charts, spelling cards, and assessments. On the curriculum website, building leaders and teachers can download implementation guides, and assessment and remediation guides, as well as link to videos that demonstrate many of the curriculum’s components. The curriculum includes digital learning opportunities, but those are not being presented to you today.

Each teacher’s guide uses “a systematic and explicit approach [d=0.57] to instruction so that all students can gain the foundational skills needed to become proficient readers” (“Foundational Skills”, 2020). The guides include a complete course outline that provides concepts and focus foundational skills for each unit, various introductory information, and an explanation of the Targeted Support Stop section found at the end of each unit, which provides additional exercises for students who need extra practice. It also provides a schedule for each day of each week followed by a unit overview. Teachers are instructed to carefully review all of the information in a unit prior to teaching it.

Other elements important to a robust and balanced literacy curriculum include writing and fluency. Writing instruction in this curriculum focuses of the process of word and sentence composition but does not provide instruction on genre writing (“Second Grade Unit 1 Teacher Guide”, 2020, p. 15). Optional extension opportunities for writing are available throughout the units but are not the focus. Yet early writing is supported by theory and research and should be implemented in the classroom daily. Emergent literacy theory “supports the development of writing in a social context where children can learn about the meaning and process of writing by observing and interacting with teachers and other children” (Hall, 2019). With the Sounds-First curriculum’s minimal focus on teaching writing, teachers should incorporate authentic opportunities every day for students to write for different purposes using a process writing approach, such as Writer’s Workshop.

As for fluency, Sounds-First provides light comprehension checks throughout the units to ensure students are reading fluently enough to comprehend. In grade two, the curriculum includes a fluency packet that consists of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and Reader’s Theater selections so students can practice reading with fluency and expression (prosody). Selections are sent home with a parent letter, and repeated reading (d=0.67) is encouraged. Still, the necessary focus is on developing foundational literacy skills so that later, fluency can develop. Before fluency happens, students must master decoding and have automaticity and prosody.

Ease of Access

The availability of the materials is adequate as long as teachers have access to an internet-connected computer, a printer and copier, paper, index cards, and other materials appropriate for classroom activities and instruction.

Literacy Skills and Standards Addressed

In the entire curriculum, all the Tennessee state standards for the foundational literacy strand are addressed. Since the focus is on foundational literacy, the teaching and learning of skills centers on three key concepts: phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary. Fluency and comprehension are acknowledged and included throughout the Sounds-First curriculum but are not the driving force.  On page 244 of the Second Grade Unit 1 Teacher Guide, it reiterates that the Sounds-First Curriculum focuses on laying a solid foundation for reading, and as such does not teaching Reading for Literature, Reading for Information, Speaking and Listening, or Writing standards.

Second Grade Curriculum

For a closer look into the curriculum, the second-grade materials were analyzed.

Clarity Of Teacher’s Guide. An important step when deciding whether or not to adopt a new curriculum is the teacher’s guide.  One should investigate how it progresses, if it is easy to follow, if the is pacing reasonable, and its alignment with the student workbook. The committee has done this work for us and reports the findings here.

The teacher’s guide is very detailed and provides instructions that are intended to be followed step-by-step and in order. This is because the curriculum is very purposeful in its progression, and so to reap the greatest benefits, it should be followed with integrity. In other words, the guide is meant to be followed explicitly, in sequence, using the prompts and instructions provided for each activity in each lesson. Each unit begins with a welcome letter, which sets the tone for the teacher. Skill areas are addressed, lists of materials are provided, and unit length (timing) and contents are detailed. In Unit 1, an outline of concepts and focus foundational skills for all six units is provided. In the following units, this is omitted; however, in all units, a weekly and daily overview is provided in table form.

In unit 1, two links are provided for video resources. The first is to a 7-module mini course on understanding foundational skills from Achieve the Core. The second is provided by PBS Learning Media and provides professional development for educators on the Tennessee State Standards through resources such as self-paced lessons and videos that highlight exemplary teaching practices.

Once familiarized with the curriculum, teachers and students will know what to expect day-to-day as the structure of teaching the lessons follows the same pattern throughout. Students will warm up with Sounds-First Activities, which get them up and moving while listening to the sounds of the day. As each skill is mastered, a familiar Whip-Around Assessment is given. The program includes oral reading of decodable stories and worksheets with partners, in small groups (d=0.47), or as whole group reading.

Given that teachers are expected to follow the prompts and scripts and stay on schedule, the committee is concerned that pacing could be problematic, especially when skills are not being mastered according to the timeline in the curriculum. We all recognize that surface knowledge must be mastered before deep learning can happen, and this is why teacher judgement must be allowed when considering pacing.

Clarity of Student Resources. Another important step when deciding whether or not to adopt a new curriculum are the student resources. One must consider if the tasks are appropriate for the grade level, if the directions are clear, if the materials are sequentially aligned to the teacher’s guide, and if the materials are engaging, elicit thinking, and provide clear opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know.

The committee found that the workbook, decodable readers, and other student resources were similar in look and feel to other curriculum used previously in our school. It also found that just like in the teacher’s guide, the students’ lessons build one upon another and are designed to be followed in sequence from beginning to end over the course of the school year. Parent letters are included anytime there is a take-home assignment so that parents know how to help their child use the materials. Overall, nothing stood out to the committee as unique or exceptional in the student resources. Therefore, how the teacher implements these resources will determine the impact on student learning.

Structure of Units. Unit 1 begins with 5 lessons for back-to-school week that will help students become familiar again with the daily routines and exercises in the curriculum. It also introduces the flip books, individual code charts, and spelling cards to the students. Finally, students practice routines and exercises learned in previous years with this curriculum such as chaining, dictation, oral reading, and story comprehension worksheets. After the first week, units follow a predictable pattern so that students are ready to move from skill to skill without having to learn new routines.

Each lesson in the teacher’s guide begins with a list of the objectives that are aligned to the Tennessee state standards, followed by an at-a-glance table that denotes the exercise, materials needed, and time to be spent on each. Teachers will also find a section to guide their preparations prior to teaching the lesson. Step-by-step instructions are given, and according to the guide, should be explicitly followed by the teacher in the order presented to provide maximum benefits from the research-back methods used in this curriculum because, as it says on page five of the first unit, “The language of this supplement is specific and intentional” (“Foundational Skills”, 2020).

The daily structure generally follows this pattern: warm-up (Sounds-First activities), spelling, chaining, practice, Tricky Words (high-frequency words), reading time, and providing take-home materials if applicable. Some lessons include assessment in the form of Whip-Around assessments (fast, small-group, and designed for students to demonstrate speed and accuracy on the focus skill) or cumulative assessments. Optional grammar mini-lessons and practice activities, often in the form of worksheets, pop up in some lessons. The Sounds-First activities, which start off the literacy block, are designed to engage the students through games, movements, and motions while waking up their listening skills. Take-home materials are also provided for each lesson and often include spelling words. Students are asked to practice them for 5-10 minutes per night to prepare for the in-school spelling test.

Assessment: Alignment & Progression. The assessments provided include placement assessments; four cumulative, comprehensive assessments to be given every four to six weeks; unit assessments, and skills assessments given as each skill is mastered, including pretests and post-tests. In second grade, the first cumulative assessment can be given at the start of the year as a baseline. Teachers interested in measuring effective size will need to frequently administer pre-and post-tests.

By utilizing the placement assessments, teachers can understand knowledge gaps shared by groups of students and provide remedial instruction from the Assessment and Remediation Guide.

Formative assessment resources are provided at the end of the teacher’s guides, such as an anecdotal reading record. Teachers may need to work together in grade-alike groups to create their own formative assessments to supplement this curriculum. When teachers use strategies that emphasize feedback, such as providing formative evaluation, the effect size is 0.48.

Theory & Rationale

The rationale behind an explicit approach (d=0.57) to teaching foundational literacy skills as found in the Sounds-First curriculum is opposite to the popular whole-language approach (d=0.06). The Sounds-First curriculum points out the immense complexity of learning to read and write in English by demonstrating what must be learned, beginning with 26 letters that are both upper and lower case, the 44 sounds those letters stand for, the oddities of our spelling system, tracking, blending, segmenting, conventions, high-frequency words (called “Tricky Words” in this curriculum), and so on. In a whole-language approach that believes learning to read is natural, students are asked “to tackle all of this complexity at once” with the hopes that they will figure it out (“Foundational Skills”, 2020, p. 246), which may be an oversimplification but does make a good point. To continue, it states that the whole-language approach may leave children behind and is not a good strategy for children with disadvantages.

Instead, the Sounds-First curriculum strategy is to teach “the English spelling code explicitly, beginning with the easiest, least ambiguous, and most frequently used parts of the code and then adding complexity gradually” (“Foundational Skills”, 2020, p. 247). The main thrust of Sounds-First’s theoretical position is that while spoken language is natural for human beings, learning to read and write is not and must be progressively taught.

Turning to the curriculum’s available video resources (links are available on its website), we have multiple demonstrations of alignment with explicit teaching. For example, videos about phonological awareness show a teacher supporting kindergarteners in the correct articulation of /s/ by discussing tongue placement, a warm-up activity focused on blending and segmenting CVC words, a teacher using hand movements to help students segment multisyllabic words, and students tapping out sounds in a word to connect what is oral and auditory. Videos on phonics demonstrate students practicing whole-group chaining activities, the introduction of Tricky Words, and a whole-class lesson on the encoding of a sentence with controlled spelling patterns.

Further, unit-by-unit, the systematic progression of skills demonstrates alignment with the theories that support the Sounds-First curriculum. For example, the Scope and Sequence charts available for all grades outline the progression beginning with oral language development and phonological awareness in the Pre-K materials and ending with manipulating phonemes and spoonerisms in second grade. Each part includes the three stages of experiencing, knowing, and mastering. Finally, after careful study by the committee, no gaps in information were apparent. This is because when a program is built upon state standards and follows the progression of foundational literacy skills development, nothing is skipped or left out.

Analysis Of Information Compared with Visible Learning Concepts

It does not matter so much how a literacy program is designed and organized; more importantly is that “the emphasis should be on sustained periods of instruction, including time each day when students read independently, talk about their learning with others, and write about their reading” (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 10). In addition, teachers should hold high expectations for their students (d=0.43) “both in terms of the complexity of the content as well as [students’] ability to deepen their knowledge through investigation” (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 8).

The Sounds-First curriculum provides sustained periods of instruction, beginning with the warm-up activities and continuing through to reading time. Throughout the second-grade curriculum, students read with partners or as a whole group. The first time that small-group reading occurs is Unit 2, Lesson 4, and groups are divided by those who need remediation and those who are more independent. Independent reading does not show up in the second-grade curriculum until Unit 4, where students are asked to read at home for 20 minutes each night and report it on a reading log. Also, during Lessons 23 – 25, when student performance task assessments are given, students are directed to read independently for 15 minutes. However, sustained silent reading in the classroom is not a feature of the Sounds-First curriculum. Throughout the second grade curriculum, independent activities in the classroom consist of completing worksheets.

Furthermore, opportunities for students to write about their reading is not part of the curriculum. Extended writing does not happen regularly either because the function of writing in Sounds-First is as an additional extension opportunity only. In fact, the curriculum states that teachers should “instruct students on process writing in response to literature during [their] knowledge-building block” (“Second Grade Unit 1 Teacher Guide”, 2020. p. 9), which falls outside the scope and sequence of this focused curriculum.

Student discussion (d= 0.82) is built into the curriculum in the form of comprehension discussion questions related to particular stories, talking about specific concepts and their related tasks, or other talk designed to clarify. It is also encouraged in small groups. However, it does not live up to principles of visible learning. No Socratic seminars happen here.

Remembering our purpose to align our core beliefs to a new curriculum, the committee analyzed if the Sounds-First curriculum provided opportunities for learning at the surface and deep levels, followed by transfer of learning. If surface learning equates to an experiencing phase, which is multisensory and active, and if deep learning equates to a knowing phase, which has practice activities without multisensory cues, and if student transfer equates to a mastering phase, in which students have automaticity with skills learned so can relate them to other situations, then this curriculum could be aligned to the principles of learning in Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher et al., 2016). These three phases are listed in the curriculum as steps students will go through as they learn each skill, but are they truly examples of surface, deep, and transfer learning?

Let us look closer. One of many videos that supplement the book Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher et al., 2016) talks about surface, deep, and transfer learning in the kindergarten classroom. The teacher, Hilda Martinez, explains that first she checks for surface learning to be sure students are prepared for deeper learning. The topic is Rosa Parks, so she reviews the story with students while listening for responses about the who, the what, and the why. These basic ideas are considered surface learning. As students continue to learn about Rosa Parks, they think deeper about the topic, discussing how her activities might have affected their lives today in the context of civil rights. Transfer learning occurred when the teacher asked her students what they could say to someone who was treating a friend badly. One student replied, “Stop that, you’re being mean.”

This video example, when compared to the Sounds-First videos, drives home the realization that the Sounds-First curriculum is not designed around learning that moves from surface, to deeper, to transfer when it comes to knowledge beyond foundational literacy skills. In one video for the Sounds-First program, first grade teacher Danielle Fortner works with students as they use cards to practice and demonstrate their understanding of spoken words, syllables, and phonemes. Next, she shifts to having students read a fable one at a time with the others following along. During this part of the lesson, she scatters in the definition of a fable, points out punctuation, and checks for understanding throughout the story with questions about what happened, who was involved, and why things happened. She asked the students how the characters felt. At the end, she gave students a brief think time to figure out the lesson of the story and then asked them to write it down with examples from the story. This became independent work for all but a few students whom she pulled to a back table for small-group instruction. It is difficult to see how this lesson is anything but surface-level learning. Also, she never related the story to the sounds and syllables skills practiced by students just before they read, which might have provided a deeper learning opportunity. If this video meant to exemplify the teaching of the Sounds-First curriculum, then it is clear that visible teaching and learning are not processes being utilized at all.

One assumption the State of Tennessee’s Department of Education must have made when choosing to provide this curriculum to schools is that the transfer learning will happen beyond the scope of the Sounds-First curriculum. One could say that this curriculum provides for the deepening of foundational skills as it progresses from phonological awareness and alphabetics to phonics, then fluency, and finally vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension, but that that transfer happens after second grade when students’ decoding skills are so automatic such that they no longer need to expend brain energy on it and can instead use those skills to read with understanding.

Phases of Reading Development

The phases of reading development are appropriately considered by the Sounds-First curriculum because its foundational approach to literacy begins with emergent readers and helps them develop into early readers through the progression of more and more sophisticated teaching and learning strategies over time. However, this particular curriculum’s focus is on providing the necessary foundations for students to become readers. It does not go beyond second grade, and it is usually in second grade when some students are becoming transitional readers. Therefore, the committee did not consider supports or strategies within the curriculum for transitional and self-extending readers during its review.

To provide a brief overview of the phases of reading, we look to page 14 of Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom (Fisher et al., 2017), where we read definitions of each, as follows:

  • Emergent readers are learning that print carries a message and how books work, and they are beginning to recognize letters and words.
  • Early readers are reading simple texts and have a larger bank of words they can read and write.
  • Transitional readers are reading a variety of texts and understand that each has its own unique text structure.
  • Self-extending readers read a wide range of texts and apply critical literacy skills to analyze the authenticity and value of the information.

Learning Intentions: The Need and the Approach

            Learning Intentions (d=0.68) are absolutely crucial to successful learning. Fisher et al. (2017) point out that highly effective teachers communicate clear learning intentions such that students understand the learning intentions, and the teacher does this because she is aware of her impact and values when students are equally aware of their learning (p. 9). Specifically, teachers are to intentionally invite students into the learning by providing the learning intentions in an engaging way that can be easily understood. Without this, students are unclear about what they should know. When this happens, it inhibits their ability to making meaningful connections to the learning. Having students verbalize their ideas and ask questions (d=0.55) is a crucial step in clarifying learning intentions, so leaving out opportunities for students to discuss them diminishes the likelihood that the learning will stick.

            The Sounds-First curriculum does provide step-by-step implementation directions, but within those, it fails to ask the teacher to post or discuss learning intentions, let alone recommends what tone a teacher should use. Almost all the lessons begin with a Sounds-First warm-up activity focused on the day’s skill, but this is not an explicit discussion with students about why they are learning that skill.

As far as tone, no curriculum dictates teacher behavior, but more to the point, the Sounds-First curriculum falls short by not even including learning intentions. The committee suggests that teachers could begin each lesson segment with learning intentions, but since discussions should ensue, the pacing will be affected. When discussing the learning intentions, Fisher et al. (2017) recommend that teachers can making them inviting and engaging when they are upbeat and positive; sensitive to the needs of their students, aware of their stages of learning, and knowledgeable of their background knowledge and culture; and promote a growth mindset (p. 37).

Direct Instruction and Relevancy

The Sounds-First curriculum states in its letter to teachers in all grades that is uses a “systematic and explicit approach to instruction,” and this is achieved through basic components of direct instruction (d=0.60) in daily lessons. In an age of blended- and personalized-learning, direct instruction has been looked down on despite the fact that it “has a solid track record for promoting acquisition, consolidation, and transfer of learning through intentional lesson design that uses an explicit approach [d=0.57]” (Fisher et al., 2017). However, when examining the elements of direct instruction, we learn that they should include “clear statements about the learning intentions [d=0.68] and success criteria, teacher modeling and think-alouds, guided instruction through scaffolding [d=0.82], checks for understanding, closure, and independent learning” (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 73). As shown above, the Sounds-First curriculum does not guide teachers to use learning intentions, and neither does it do so for success criteria. It does include teacher modeling, think-alouds, guided instruction with scaffolding, and checks for understanding, but closure does not review learning intentions and success criteria, and independent learning consists mostly of worksheets and homework (d=0.29).

We have established that direct instruction is effective in the classroom when it includes the necessary components. Since the Sounds-First curriculum does not include all the components, it falls upon the teachers to help students understand relevancy during direct instruction. To help frame it, teachers can ask themselves during lesson preparation, “Who cares?” In other words, why should students care about what they are learning? We know from our Visible Learning books that relevance facilitates intrinsic motivation, which leads to persistent learning in the face of challenges—a quality we want our students to embrace. Therefore, teachers must step outside the curriculum and set up time at the start of each lesson to help students “see how the learning intentions apply in their lives” (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 55) so that they settle into the learning with an open mind.

Phonics & Direct Instruction

Direct instruction during phonics instruction [d=0.70] “is thought to establish and strengthen the brain structures that will form the phonological loop that links the apparatus responsible for processing the sounds of language with the long-term memory needed to sustain meaningful reading” (Swanson, 1999a, as cited by Fisher et al., 2016, p. 46). What this means is that an effective curriculum for early literacy promotes surface learning of constrained reading skills, and it uses direct instruction (d=0.59) as one means of teaching these skills. Through these processes, building blocks for reading are formed in students. During direct instruction of phonics, teachers should model and think aloud, scaffold their guided instruction (d=0.82), and provide regular feedback that students can use. The Sounds-First curriculum promotes direct and explicit instruction and asks teachers to model. Effective modeling is important because it “includes an explanation of why teachers are doing what they are doing, so that students understand how the teacher was thinking, not just what the teacher was thinking” (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 56).

To go deeper, notice that the objectives in each lesson of the Sounds-First curriculum are matched to the Tennessee State Standards, which aligns its foundational literacy standards to the five pillars of early literacy (phonemic awareness, alphabetics, phonics, fluency, and vocabulary). To demonstrate, here are some of the objectives, standards, and related pillars of reading from Unit 2, Lessons 1 and 4 (second grade) that will guide the teacher during her direct instruction:

  • Read words with the following inflectional endings and suffixes: -ed, -ing (2. FL.PWR.3d) (phonics and word recognition)
  • Spell and write one-syllable words using the letter-sound correspondences (2.FL.WC.4a) (phonemic awareness and word composition)
  • Read the following Tricky Words: I, you, your, street, my, by, have, all, who, no, go, so, are, were, some, they, their (2.FL.PWR.3f) (phonics and word recognition)
  • Read decodable text that incorporates the letter-sound correspondences taught with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension (2. FL.F.5) (fluency)
  • Use knowledge of the meaning of individual words to predict the meaning of compound words (2.FL.VA.7a.iv) (vocabulary acquisition)

By second grade, most students have mastered alphabetics, which are the symbols of the English language, and have a thorough grasp of the sounds of the language (phonemic awareness). Explicit phonics instruction provides the strongest support for this age group as they begin to move beyond the early literacy stage toward transitional literacy, building their fluency skills, vocabulary acquisition, and comprehension ability. Fluency, the ability to decode running text with automaticity, is the last of the four constrained skills, while vocabulary and reading comprehension, or unconstrained skills, continue to increase throughout one’s lifetime.

In terms of teaching phonics and direct instruction, a well-known podcast series by Susan Lambert called Science of Reading (Lambert, 2021) focuses on a different approach with guest speakers during season three (episode four), Plain Talk: Making the Shift to the Science of Reading in Your District. Natalie Wexler talks about shifts in literacy instruction that teachers should consider. She points out that the science of reading is more than just the five pillars of early literacy promoted in the National Reading Panel report—the basis of many schools’ foundational literacy programs, including the Sounds-First curriculum. Wexler states that a key factor in reading comprehension is knowledge, and a teacher’s job is to help students build that knowledge because without a knowledge base, foundational literacy skills are weak. Typically, she says, curriculums that embraces the five pillars leave this out, particularly by marginalizing social studies, the sciences, and the arts, when in fact, immersing kids in varied content boosts their vocabulary and thus their comprehension. Further, if classroom discussion has such a strong effect size (d=0.82), just exactly how do you get a conversation going with young children about foundational skills? Discussions about content, life, experiences, stories, and situations can be rich and offer opportunities to build literacy skills. A poignant example given by Wexler goes as follows: You could teach children how to make predictions using anchor charts and examples, or you could read the first few pages of a story, then ask students to make a prediction about what will happen next. Meaningful, life experience is the best teacher and not direct instruction of foundational literacy skills, she says.

The Science of Reading Podcast provides much food for thought, and perhaps the committee’s other two selections will take such an approach. Nevertheless, the above example is directly opposite to the position taken in the Sounds-First curriculum, which emphasizes that without decoding or word recognition, comprehension is not possible. It builds students’ word recognition and oral language development through explicit and systematic instruction focused on the pillars of early literacy and certainly does not immerse students in content and knowledge building in the early grades.  Instead, it squarely places foundational skills in the forefront of learning. We might concur with this because research shows that decoding is a set of constrained skills that can be taught to children during their pre-kindergarten through second grade years (“Foundational Skills”, 2020, p. 243), and therefore it makes sense to focus directly on the constrained skills in the early years of learning. On the other hand, comprehension is an unconstrained skill and thus improves continually over the course of a lifetime. That is to say that language comprehension ability occurs as students are introduced to more and more learning through life experiences and through each subject studied in the course of their academic career by creating more background knowledge, adding vocabulary to their repertoire, and increasing their cultural literacy. In other words, that type of learning builds forever. Complete English Language Arts instruction should always include a knowledge-building curriculum, but this program is strictly focused on foundational skills and thus does not align with the TN standards for Reading for Literature, Reading for Informational Text, Speaking and Listening, or Writing.

Leveraging Prior Knowledge

A benefit of being a teacher is the opportunities to understand humanity through exposure to students’ diverse experiences, ways of knowing, dialects and other languages, attitudes, skills, and knowledge, all of which can benefit everyone as we seek to uphold our school’s mission statement. When we allow and recognize such diversity and respect the prior knowledge of our students, we can leverage it in the classroom by building upon it and extending it (Fisher et al., 2016, p. 41). Using anticipation guides and cloze activities, for example, we can inform our instruction by discovering what our students already know.

The Sounds-First curriculum provides very few opportunities for discovering prior knowledge. It does offer baseline assessments, skills assessments conducted at the end of each skills lesson, and progress monitoring, and these can be used to measure progress or calculate effect size. It seems clear that in a program focused strictly on foundational literacy skills, knowing more about students on a personal level is not valued. It would be more important to measure progress in skills development. Prior knowledge would better serve a curriculum that took a whole-language approach, focused on process writing, or sought to develop content knowledge across the subjects. As mentioned above, teachers need to work together in grade-alike groups to create their own formative assessments to supplement this curriculum. Similarly, if teachers wish to leverage prior knowledge during phonics instruction, it is up to them to discover how.



Independent Learning

Independent learning is a crucial principle of visible learning because it invites students to “direct some of their own learning” (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 5). What we look for in the Sounds-First curriculum are opportunities for fluency building, application, spiral review, and extension—all components of independent learning that foster surface and deep learning and transfer, according to Fisher et al. (2017). In fluency building, that might look like playing games using flashcards of sight words or independently reading. In application, that might look like opportunities for learners to transfer skills learned initially to similar situations. In spiral review, that might look like opportunities for students to revisit previously mastered content to reinforce that learning. In extension, that might look like opportunities for students “to use what they have learned in a new way” through writing, presenting information to peers, participating in Socratic seminars, and engaging in investigations (Fisher et al., 2017, p. 70).

Independent work is completely undervalued in the Sounds-First curriculum. When a word search is performed on the Teacher’s Guides for Units 1-3 (second grade) using the keyword independent, a total of 63 instances occur, including the word independently. Table 1 illustrates the context of those instances. As you will see, opportunities for independent learning do not happen much in the Sounds-First curriculum, unless one considers completing worksheets to be independent learning.

Table 1

Contexts of the Word Independent or Independently

Worksheets for student to complete independently while others are being assessed.
Independent activities routine may be incorporated such as looking at trade books, working at a listening station, or writing in journals or other things that need little to no teacher assistance (during assessments).
Determining through assessment which students have outstanding preparation for Grade 2 and are almost certainly ready to read trade books independently.
Small group reading or work can be divided into two groups: students needing support and more independent students who can partner read and answer story questions on a worksheet together.
Independent writing
Informal assessment can be assessed through independent completion of workbook pages.
In later units, students may be able to read directions independently.
In assessment, checking a student’s ability to read a story independently.
Students will eventually have the tools to independently decode any word.
Answer questions on a worksheet or complete sentences as an independent activity.
If students are ready, they may complete the crossword puzzle independently.


Collaborative Learning

In the Visible Learning books, the terms collaborative and cooperative are often used interchangeably. They do have some differences, which are not relevant enough to our purpose today to explain. Suffice it to say that anytime students are working together in small groups, properly designed collaborative learning allows them to “consolidate their understanding in the presence of peers through productive group work” (Fisher et al., 2016, p. 67). In fact, working together instead of working alone has an effect size of 0.59. Collaborative learning includes discussion (d=0.82) and can lend itself to the surface consolidation phase and can help students deepen their knowledge.

Similar to the opportunities for independent learning, the Sounds-First curriculum is not designed for much collaborative learning. Small group work with the teacher occurs (d=0.49), but usually the groups are divided into two: those that need more supports and who therefore work with the teacher, and those who can work more independently. As shown above, much of the collaborative work for the more independent students is focused on the completion of worksheets. Perhaps in that situation, if the students are discussing the concepts and skills on the worksheets together, they may be consolidating their learning.


Dialogic Instruction

The discussion of collaborative learning leads into the next topic for consideration, which is dialogic instruction. As a reminder of our purpose, we are examining the Sounds-First curriculum to see how well it aligns with the principles of making teaching and learning visible, and to examine if it promotes deep and transfer learning. Teacher-led dialogic instruction and student-led dialogic instruction are effective approaches for promoting deep and transfer learning, but only when students interact with their peers and teacher to reach a better understanding (Fisher et al., 2016). Student-led dialogic works well when norms are established at the start of the year and are restated to learners prior to peer discussions (effect size for discussion, d=0.82). However, the talk is structured and consultative in nature, which means that it is an academic discourse in which information is exchanged among students and background information is provided by the teacher (Fisher et al., 2017).

Key to teacher-led dialogic instruction is that students are guided through discussion and questions as they engaged in literacy tasks. Student-led dialogic learning can be useful when a teacher is giving support to small groups, as mentioned in the section above on collaborative learning, as long as students understand the norms and the expectations of listening to others as they think out loud. Both of these situations are seen in the Sounds-First curriculum but in the context of foundational literacy skills, which does not provide meaty opportunities for students to use evidence to support their thinking, or to ask questions of their peers that require them to support their thinking. Remember that a key indicator of visible teaching and learning is when the focus is not on the completion of tasks but on the development of understanding. The committee found that most of the collaborative groups were focused on completing tasks such as worksheets.

Vocabulary Instruction

According to Fisher et al. (2016), the five dimensions to knowing a word are as follows:

  • generalization – through definitional knowledge
  • application – through correct usage
  • breadth – through recall of words
  • precision – through understanding examples and nonexamples
  • availability – through use of vocabulary in discussion

Vocabulary instruction (d=0.62) is important because it supports reading comprehension. Students in foundational literacy curriculums such as Sounds-First learn new words as they read lesson stories. Teachers are asked to review challenging words with students prior to reading the stories, but other than that, students do not get many dimensions of vocabulary instruction. Even the student workbooks contain no vocabulary exercises.

In the section of the second-grade teacher’s guide for Unit 1 called How These Ideas Inform This Curriculum, we read repeatedly that it takes a long time to build up sufficient vocabulary to makes sense of what is read, and we also read that the building of background knowledge must begin at a young age. Further, we read on page 13 of the guide that teachers should quickly and simply define an unfamiliar or new word before moving on, which is then described as a powerful practice that is built into the sounds first activities, which is debatable. This is the generalization dimension of vocabulary instruction. The application dimension happens throughout all six units during focused instruction on correct usage of common and proper nouns, antonyms and synonyms, verbs, plural nouns, verb tenses, and adjectives. No obvious examples stood out of any of the other dimensions of vocabulary instruction when the committee reviewed this curriculum.

Reading Comprehension in Context

Reading comprehension in context is not a strong feature of the Sounds-First curriculum when viewed through the lens of summarizing, annotating, and notetaking because these are not features found in PreK-2 foundational literacy programs.

However, consolidation of literacy learning happens when teachers use a few specialized techniques such as “rehearsal and memorization [d=0.73] through spaced practice [d=0.60]” and “repeated reading [d=0.67]” (Fisher et al., 2016, pp. 61- 62). Memorization of sight words, for example, “contributes to a beginning reader’s emergent fluency in reading and writing simple sentences” (Fisher et al., 2016, p. 62) and leads to automaticity, which in turn allows students to begin focusing on comprehending what they read. Flash cards are a good tool and are used in the Sounds-First curriculum. Further, Fisher et al. (2016) point out that fluency in reading “moves from surface to deep as readers move from decoding to attention to meaning” (p. 62), which is another example of consolidation. However, some students struggle with this and could benefit from the repeated reading intervention (d=0.75), which is described on page 63 of Visible Learning for Literacy (Fisher et al, 2016). This type of activity occurs during one-to-one coaching between teacher and student, which is worked into many of the lessons in the Sounds-First curriculum.



Receiving Feedback


The last topic in our curriculum review is about teachers giving feedback to students. Fisher et al. (2016) state on page 65 that feedback (d=0.75) must be timely, specific, understandable to learner, and actionable.  Opportunities for feedback that reinforce the skills being taught are built into the Sounds-First program continually. For example, during the sounds first activities at the beginning of every lesson, which are filled with movement and sounds, students are receiving instant feedback as they follow and correct their movements and sounds to match those of the teacher. During Tricky Word instruction, students hear and see the teacher say and write each word, then repeat after her. They are also asked to use the word in a sentence, deepening their understanding while being given immediate feedback about their sentence. Flip books allow students to check their learning. During partner reading, the teacher circulates, listens, and provides feedback.

Pros and Cons of Curriculum

When considering this curriculum for implementation in our school, many strengths and weaknesses stand out. The committee narrowed it down to two of each, stated briefly, to help guide the staff in deciding about this curriculum. However, all teachers should refer to this document in light of these pros and cons as they make their decision. A recommendation is made by the committee in the next section, but formal adoption of this curriculum depends upon a majority vote from all stakeholders after all three curricula have been presented and reviewed.


  1. The Sounds-First curriculum provides explicit phonics instruction, which carries a strong effect size of 0.70.
  2. The program is user friendly for both teachers and students, allowing for a comfortable progression through the units using a variety of supporting materials and activities.


  1. Clear learning intentions (d=68) and success criteria (d=0.88) do not accompany each lesson. (Listing state standards in the objectives is not an example of learning intentions.)

2.     The lessons do not provide adequate classroom experiences for deep and transfer learning.


The committee’s recommendation for this curriculum is to adopt it if the following conditions can be agreed upon:

  1. Teachers work together to create learning intentions and success criteria for each skill being taught.
  2. Teachers work together to design activities that would extend the learning to deeper and transfer levels.
  3. Teachers build independent reading and process writing into their weekly schedules.
  4. Teachers complete the above three only after they have studied the curriculum in whole with other teachers in their grade.
  5. Administrators drop any expectations for pacing and allow teachers to take enough time to ensure that surface learning occurs for every student before moving on.

The rationale for the committee’s decision is that all students would benefit from mastery of foundational literacy skills before they enter third grade, and the greatest strength of this curriculum is its ability to deliver that.





Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy. Corwin.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2017). Teaching literacy in the visible learning classroom. Corwin Literacy.

Foundational Skills. (2020). Retrieved 5 October 2021, from

Hall, A. (2019). Every Child is a Writer: Understanding the Importance of Writing in Early Childhood. Retrieved 25 September 2021, from

Lambert, S. (2021). Plain Talk: Making the Shift to the Science of Reading in Your District. Science of Reading [Podcast]. Retrieved 4 October 2021, from

Second Grade Unit 1 Teacher Guide. (2020). Retrieved 2 October 2021, from


Appendix A: Effect Sizes

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