10 Things to Know About CKLA

You have probably heard your child’s teacher, or even your child, mention CKLA. But you may not have a clue what it is. Director of Curriculum Alissa Abercrombie is here to give you 10 things you need to know about Core Knowledge Language Arts and how it’s transforming classrooms at CMDS.

CMDS Curriculum Director Alissa Abercrombie

  1. What is it? CKLA is a language arts curriculum that CMDS implemented in SK through 3rd grade last year. We expanded it to include JK and 4th grade this year. The curriculum is a product of the Core Knowledge Foundation, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based nonprofit founded by University of Virginia professor emeritus, author, influential education reformer and Memphis native E. D. Hirsch Jr.
  1. What sets it apart? “The main objective of CKLA is to get students to think critically about text, both reading and listening,” Abercrombie says. “And also be able to respond to text through writing. We are teaching them specific ways to express analytical thinking, and reading to learn.”
  1. In JK, CKLA aims to put four-year-olds on the path to literacy through engaging read-alouds, favorite rhymes and songs and centers that boost language development through play. For students in SK through 3rd grade, CKLA is broken into two strands: Skills and Listening and Learning.
  1. The Skills strand focuses on mastering sounds and letters for decoding (blending sounds to read words) and encoding (the process of taking spoken word and converting to print). “This is where our students are getting phonics, reading comprehension, grammar, vocabulary, handwriting and writing mechanics,” Abercrombie says. “As grade levels increase, so do the challenges. For example, SK may focus more on sounds while 3rd grade is focused on reading to learn, as opposed to learning to read.”
  1. Science and social studies are brought into the curriculum through the Listening and Learning strand. “This is when the teachers complete the read-alouds that have rich text that students couldn’t read alone – but can comprehend – providing the background knowledge they need as it spirals across the curriculum,” Abercrombie says. She offered a few examples: In SK, students learn about The Five Senses domain while 1st grade learn about the human body focusing on the skeletal system. In 2nd, they progress to nutrition and how your body uses food for energy. Third grade learns about all systems of the human body with a deep dive into the muscular system, and then 4th graders learn about the circulatory system and the human heart. “So basically the domains build upon each other every year,” she says. Another example: SK has a Colonial Towns and Townspeople domain, 1st has Frontier Explorers, 2nd has Westward Expansion, 3rd has Colonial America and 4th has The American Revolution. The domains usually span about 3 weeks. Most grades will move through three per quarter. The first domain is stories, so right now SK is reading Nursery Rhymes and Fables, 1st is learning about Fables and Stories, 2nd is focusing on Fairy Tales and Tall Tales, 3rd is reading Classic Tales, including the Wind in the Willows, and 4th grade is learning to write their own Personal Narratives.
  1. For 4th graders, CKLA is a combined strand solely taught during the language arts block. “At this point, they’ve mastered the basics,” Abercrombie says. “So they are working on advanced grammar, morphology, spelling and vocabulary and rigorous writing. They’re taking all those skills, and now they’re applying all of them to the reading and the writing.”
  1. CKLA didn’t land on campus by chance. Abercrombie and others spent more than two years researching language arts programs and curricula from across the country. But a visit to a North Carolina school in fall 2013 solidified CKLA as the choice for CMDS. A small group of school administrators and faculty visited first, then CMDS took every teacher in SK through 3rd back that spring to see CKLA in action. Later that summer, Amplify (the CKLA publisher) sent instructors to Memphis to train every CMDS teacher and assistant on the program.
One year down, and how’s it going?
  1. So far, the results are impressive, to say the least. A few insights from CMDS teachers:

Fourth grade teacher Ruth Thompson says her students’ writing capabilities are much stronger than years before. “They have been implicitly taught how to write a paragraph and what that looks like: Main details, supporting details, conclusion,” Thompson said.

Carol Deaver, 2nd grade teacher and CMDS’ most tenured faculty member, says CKLA is her favorite curriculum she’s encountered in her near-40 year teaching career. “I enjoy teaching it as much as the students enjoy learning it,” Deaver says. “The students are interested and engaged and are learning things previously not taught at their grade level. When you come to the end of a lesson and they beg you to go on, you know something is working well.”

In 1st grade, Leslie Morgan says, “The students this year are much more confident in their ability to decode words and their reading fluency is much higher.”

  1. Daily small group instruction is a key component of CKLA. “Especially in our younger classrooms, meeting daily with the teacher in a small group allows the students to get more individualized instruction,” Abercrombie says. “They can focus on skills they need to remediate while also enriching students that are ready for more challenging work.”
Back to the Basics
  1. CKLA features a sort of back-to-the-basics approach, exposing young students to classic knowledge. A big part of Hirsch’s philosophy is that there is a certain shared body of knowledge that every child should know and be able to talk about, write about and read about. “The way they’ve created the domains allows them to build that prior knowledge and grasp those concepts,” Abercrombie says. “With CKLA, you have kindergarteners studying monarchies and democracies, 1st graders learning about the three major world religions and 2nd graders choosing a side from the War of 1812 and debating that position. It’s incredible to watch this work.”

For parents that want to learn more, there’s reams of information about Core Knowledge and CKLA specifically on its website, www.coreknowledge.org.


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