Collaborative Circle Blog

Acceleration of Learning: What Do Our Students Need Now?

While educators have always worried about the “summer slide,” this year we are grappling with a whole new level of concern. Many students have not been in a school building since March, and although educators worked hard last spring to provide consistent and high-quality remote learning experiences, our efforts were not the same as the in-school instruction that students would have received in normal, pre-COVID circumstances.

Our students’ schooling experiences have varied. Some connected with their teachers and students in a video format, with clear and engaging assignments to complete at home. Others received packets of worksheets with no way to connect with peers or their teachers. And these examples do not take into account parental support, internet access, or the economic impact that our children have experienced.

While many educators still face uncertainty about the way in which we will start the 2020–21 school year, we already understand one crucial fact: this year we must address our students’ needs in a very different way and intentionally, strategically accelerate their learning.

Narrowing the Focus of Acceleration: Two Strands

While there are an array of student needs to consider when thinking about accelerating learning, we have narrowed our focus of acceleration to two main strands: community building and foundational skills.

An extensive body of research demonstrates that building a safe and caring learning community and cultivating students’ sense of belonging are essential to academic success. In the current environment, this work of community building is more important than ever, since many students have experienced trauma in the form of hunger, neglect, abuse, fear of COVID, as well as family illness and death. The social and racial movements happening across our country also add to the need for a sense of belonging and connection. Our students have had to deal with so much.

Alongside the strand of community building, we prioritize foundational skills instruction as another focus of acceleration. As educators we know that proficiency in foundational skills allows all the other strands of literacy to occur. The science of reading is clear: students need proficiency in phonological awareness, decoding, encoding, and fluency in order to engage in deep literacy experiences.

While building a sense of community and cultivating a strong understanding of foundational skills are very different, acceleration in both of these strands is necessary if we hope to attain academic success for our students.

Ensuring a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment

When students see themselves as active, valued members of a classroom community, they are more likely to engage fully in learning and take the academic risks necessary to grow. In the wake of COVID, building a safe, supportive learning community will be more important than ever, since many students will return to school with greater academic needs than usual, resulting in more frustration and stress than they would experience in a typical year. Building a strong community will also help teachers support students with the trauma that many have experienced.

Addressing these needs early, directly, and often will be essential to accelerating the community building necessary for students to feel calm and connected. Given that many of us still do not have a clear sense of how we are returning to school—whether in-person, blended or fully remote—we need to take advantage of any face-to-face time we do have to build a community that we can truly rely on, no matter the learning environment. Teachers will need concrete tools and resources to help students reconnect and to establish the safe, supportive learning context in which they can continue to develop.

One strategy for ensuring a safe and supportive environment, both virtual and in-person, is the direct teaching of social skills. All students need support to be flexible and resilient when they encounter challenges, and all students arrive at school with skills they have learned to help them survive. The social skills that students need to thrive in school, however, are sometimes different from the skills they need to cope outside of school.

During these uncertain times, students may be feeling more anxious, scared, or confused than they normally would. In order to successfully focus on learning content, such as reading or writing, students must also have the opportunity to learn and practice social skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Another strategy for accelerating the community building is the use of Class Meetings. Class Meetings consist of teacher-led conversations around a particular topic. Specific ground rules govern the discussion. (For example, one person talks at a time, the students listen to one another, and they allow differences of opinion.) The teacher’s role in these meetings is to create an environment in which students’ experiences, opinions, and concerns are taken seriously. The students’ role is to participate as valued and influential contributors to the classroom community.

Class Meeting topics that could be particularly relevant to starting the year are Keeping Each Other Safe, Developing Empathy, Preparing for Remote Learning, and Returning from Remote Learning. Ensuring that teachers have time to devote and understand their students’ social-emotional needs will be of paramount importance for the upcoming school year.

Ensuring Foundational Skills are Accelerated and Taught to Mastery

The first step in accelerating foundational skills is initial assessment. Acceleration of learning requires that we move from an asset-based framework. Although remote learning for many was fragmented, students learned. They may not have learned all that we intended for them, but they learned nonetheless.

Beginning with assessment ensures that we don’t waste precious time repeating things our students already know nor do we assume that we need “cover” what they “missed.” Ensuring that a quality assessment is used early assures that we can move to the next step in student learning. With foundational skills in particular, assessment that determines where students fall along the phonics continuum is essential. In this aspect of instruction, students progress from simple skills to more sophisticated skills, and accelerated learning requires us to know exactly where they fall.

As we consider the phonics continuum, we must utilize a systematic approach to instruction if we wish to truly accelerate learning. Here are three important factors when planning an accelerated approach to foundational skills instruction:

  • Scope and Sequence – A clear scope and sequence supports instructional decision making regarding exactly where instruction should begin; it also provides an understanding of where the benchmark is for a particular grade level. Following a clear scope and sequence also guarantees that valuable instructional time is not wasted on skills and concepts that are not relevant.
  • Explicit Lesson Structure – An explicit lesson structure is defined as one in which instruction is clear and deliberate, using specific routines in which the teacher models and the student practices in every lesson. An explicit lesson structure – one that allows the student to truly focus on the skill being learned rather than deciphering varying instructional language – is supportive of accelerative learning, as well. When students know what to expect and how content will be taught and practiced, they are better able to devote their cognitive energy to the learning itself.
  • Mastery-Based Assessment – Even with a clear scope and sequence and explicit lessons, we must ensure that our students are making the expected progress. In the absence of intentional progress monitoring, students may begin to fall further and further behind. Mastery assessments at distinct intervals allow educators to make adjustments to the pacing and ensure that students are acquiring the necessary skills.

Regardless of how the school year begins, whether virtually or in-person, the specific needs of our students will be unique this fall. As educators, it is our obligation to meet all of our students where they are socially, emotionally, and academically.

Students desperately need community, connection, and opportunities to make up what they have lost. Accelerating their learning by intentionally focusing on the twin strands of community building and foundational skills will help ensure that all of our students continue to grow and develop, even during a pandemic.