Early Literacy: Shall We Take the Stairs…or the Interstate?

Early Literacy: Shall We Take the Stairs…or the Interstate? - TLG-IMG-03262019

On the U.S. interstate highways, maximum grade is 6 percent. Not so steep, really, but still enough of a climb that the trusty old car I drove in college broke a sweat. But imagine if this were the standard approach to elevation gain used in residential architecture, if our houses had a ramp of not more than 6 percent grade running around the outer perimeter. You would do a couple laps to get back upstairs for your reading glasses; you’d do a couple laps down again to make sure you locked the front door before bed.

In reality, we clearly love our stairs. For most of us, they’re a perfect fit for quick trips to the next floor.

They’re just all wrong for a road trip out West in the rusty old car.

In early literacy, the 6 percent grade and the stairs each have their counterparts. There are domains characterized by long, steady, and continuous growth, and there are domains that are full of quick flights of stairs, steep and short, not all of them lined up in the same part of the house.

Let’s talk about the stairs skills: these are known in research circles as constrained skills (Paris, 2005).  They are like staircases because you climb this set, and then it is over. You can grow for awhile working on letter knowledge… But once you know all 26 of them cold, you run out of steps.

There are other sets of stairs, though. You might go climb on the letter-sounds staircase, perhaps, or the phoneme blending staircase. Another staircase might be about sounding out simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words. On some of these, you might be on the floor at the bottom of the staircase for a long time, not even moving up yet. For some stairs, you will hang out awhile at the top, no longer able to gain any more elevation on that staircase because you have reached what we might call mastery. Growth can be about moving up the staircase you are on, but it can also be about being done with more and more staircases altogether.

But what about the unconstrained skills?

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As Paris (2005) points out, these skills are the kind that don’t show you a steep, short period of growth. They have lower slopes, often—more like the grade of a highway—but they keep on growing for a long time. Vocabulary and oral language skills are unconstrained: there isn’t a fixed endpoint, no way to say “mastered” and check that box once and for all. They keep growing beyond middle school, luckily, when many of us spoke in grunts from the couch a lot. Our vocabulary and language comprehension could even be growing as adults, depending on what percentage of our verbal exchanges are with our cats.

Unconstrained skills often have a lower rate of increase, which hurts them on some fronts, particularly in predictive types of research. That can present a bit of a PR problem: language comprehension skills can end up under-celebrated in the primary grades, despite their ultimate centrality to reading complex texts with understanding.

We don’t always talk about achievement and growth the same way across these two types of skills. Constrained skills can be a little easier to describe in terms of criterion-based steps or stages. People seem pretty likely to pick up what we’re putting down when we say, “Knows all her letter names and letter sounds and is now growing on CVC word decoding.” But for vocabulary or language comprehension, it’s less easy to get across just what students know now and just what comes next. Instead, these unconstrained skills fit nicely to other ways of describing growth: “Right now, he’s here on this continuous line. Here’s where he used to be, and here’s a good goal for where he’ll be in eight months.”

If we want to continue to design tools that promote learning for all kids, then we need to be able to gauge and talk about all types of growth. That is our challenge in measuring and reporting kids’ proficiencies in both early literacy and early math. We can’t design using only stairs, and we can’t design everything like the open highway. In future blogs, we’ll look more closely at the messy reality of both constrained and unconstrained skills, and what those mean for test design, data, and alignment to standards.

In the meantime, think about an area of focus in your early literacy instruction. Are the skills there constrained, unconstrained, or perhaps somewhere in between? Tell us what you see on Twitter @NWEA. How does content matter, for the shape of growth?

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