• Curriculum Connections blog header

  • How can you help upper elementary students with spelling?

    Posted by Raquel Ellis on 12/4/2023 2:00:00 PM

    Reading and spelling are connected. Reading requires recognizing the sounds of a word that is seen in print. Spelling requires you to hear a word, break up its sounds and produce letters to represent those sounds.


    The best readers look at every letter in a word to figure out its pronunciation. The best spellers do something similar: they think about every sound they hear in a word and attach a spelling to each sound they hear. As an adult, it’s important to model the process of spelling to our students. Let’s use an example from our 4th grade Geology unit. How would you help a child spell the noun that means “a large mass of ice that moves slowly over land?”


    First, I say the word to myself: “glacier.”


    I would then divide the word into syllables orally. A syllable organizes a sequence of speech sounds and is always organized around a vowel sound. The word “glacier” has two syllables.


    1st syllable

    2nd syllable





    /g/ /l/ /ae/

    /sh/ /er/

    The vowel sound in the 1st syllable is /ae/ (also known as the “long a” sound). The vowel sound in the 2nd syllable is the r-controlled /er/ sound. Once I have identified the syllables, I would think about each sound I am hearing within the syllable and attach that to a spelling. In working with kids, it is completely fine to tell them the correct spelling, but always linking it back to the sounds that are heard within the word.  


    For example, you might discuss that although the first syllable contains expected spellings, the second syllable uses a much lesson common spelling for the /sh/ sound: ‘ci.’ This is due to the Latin origin of the word (which is one way to explain why the word is not spelled “glasher”). This would be an appropriate time to note how the language of origin is often a question during spelling bees, as it gives a clue to the spelling of a word.


    The above example shows how students can apply their knowledge of the sounds of English to spell words, rather than memorizing. Remind children that when they do not have an adult to guide them to the correct spelling, they should default to their sound-spelling knowledge.


    To see another example of how to practice spelling with kids (and understand what those // marks are called), watch this short video:


    For more information on what this process looks like with K-2 students, see our post from August 2023.


    Comments (-1)
  • Applying knowledge to improve reading

    Posted by Raquel Ellis on 10/26/2023 4:00:00 PM

    The reading curriculum in Kyrene is likely much different than you will experience in other schools. We know that building background knowledge and vocabulary is incredibly important for lifelong reading comprehension. You can watch University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explain this in more detail in this powerful video called Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading.

    We also know how important it is for students to apply the knowledge they are building to other texts, writing, and real-world experiences. Last fall, 2nd grade students at Milenio, Mirada and Niños participated in an interactive live performance starring a professional actor as an extension of their Ancient Greece/Greek Myths unit. 

    2nd graders in Debbie Ward’s classroom at Kyrene de la Esperanza just wrote their own “All About Ancient Greece” books (her 1st graders also created their own hanging gardens of Babylon).

    A child holding a piece of paperDescription automatically generated

    One element of our Kyrene Strategic Plan is ensuring our youngest students are reading. Here in Kyrene, we know that both recognizing the words on the page is as important as comprehending what those words communicate. We encourage families to check out Kyrene's ELA units of study to explore related books and digital media to deepen understanding of these rich topics, as well as foster the critical thinking skills that we know are essential for success in life.

    Comments (-1)
  • How can you help K-2 learners with spelling?

    Posted by Raquel Ellis on 8/21/2023 5:00:00 PM

    We know how vital it is for parents to be as involved as possible in the education of their child. One of the traditional ways in which family members have supported their child is through studying spelling lists. Many individuals are familiar with the common practice of giving students a list on Monday and a test on Friday with some practice in between. This practice has not worked historically because memorizing for a test is different from applying knowledge of spelling to reading or writing. When students solely memorize the spelling of words, rather than applying the phonics rules that they know, they are less likely to remember these words in the long-term (Moats & Tolman, 2019). Rather, we want students to remember the phonics rules that they learn every day in school so they can apply that knowledge in their writing to spell correctly.

    In our K-2 curriculum, spelling is not taught as an isolated list of words each week, but as a continually reinforced skill.  There are spelling tests beginning in 1st grade, but the words cover only the spellings that have been reviewed and taught in class, meaning that your child will only work with and be tested on familiar spelling from knowledge they have acquired. There are times when they get a word that does not follow phonics rules, which our curriculum refers to as “Tricky Words.” Tricky Words cannot be reliably sounded out and spelled, so this means that these spellings must be memorized. Tricky Words are the exception the rule; most words in the English language can be sounded out, so students should always be encouraged to isolate the sounds they hear in words first in order to spell.

    Our curriculum teaches reading and spelling in tandem, since they are inverse processes. English spelling involves making pictures of sounds; reading involves translating those pictures back into sounds and blending the sounds to make words. As such, writing and reading work together to reinforce specific spelling/letter patterns. For example, a unit at the end of Kinder teaches the spelling “i_e” for the sound /ie/. The writing work in that unit will ask children to write words using this spelling, to write words from dictation, to answer story questions using words that would involve this spelling pattern, and to read stories that contain words that use this spelling pattern. Instruction in morphology and spelling is consistent throughout all grades in the program.

    Below are activities that you can use at home to help your child with spelling. Don't be afraid to ask the classroom teacher for activity pages that you can use to practice spelling at home. The full list of 1st grade spelling words and 2nd grade spelling words for the year are available here.

    Home activities to support spelling

    • Say a sentence with the spelling word, but leave the spelling word out. Your child should guess which of the week’s spelling words should complete the sentence and then write the word down.
    • Create spelling word flash cards. After reading the word on a flash card, your child can turn over the card and write the word on another piece of paper.
    • Practice spelling the works in a different order each night; do not call out in the same order listed
    • Have a spelling bee at home, asking your child to both spell the words to you orally and write them. 
    • Ask your child to write each word in a short sentence, or write a story with the words.
    • If possible, act out or draw a picture of the words; have your child guess the word and then write it down.
    Comments (-1)
  • Spotlight on 2nd grade English Language Arts (ELA)

    Posted by Raquel Ellis on 3/22/2023 3:30:00 PM

    Developing strong reading comprehension involves two major components: 1) learning to recognize words in print, and 2) understanding the meaning of those words/ideas.  This learning to read formula is referred to by educators as the simple view of reading.

    Kyrene 2nd graders spend half of their English language arts block focused on building word recognition skills. If you have a student in this grade level, you can expect that they will learn more advanced spellings for the sounds in English. For example, the /j/ sound found at the beginning of the word “jump” has five spellings: ‘j’, ‘g’, ‘ge’, ‘dge’, and ‘dg’. Students have their own code charts where they track the spellings they are learning for each of the sounds. The code charts also indicate how common the spelling is. A longer “power bar” indicates how frequent that particular spelling of the sound is:

    Vowel sound spellings are a bit more difficult to master as there are so many different ways to spell certain vowel phonemes. The /ee/ sound like in the word “bean” can be spelled 8 different ways. This is how it appears to 2nd grade students in a code chart:

    You are probably noticing that learning the spellings of English is not at all simple like the simple view of reading suggests. This is why Kyrene has taken a very explicit and systematic approach to our literacy curriculum.


    The other half of the ELA block focuses on building knowledge of a topic to support language comprehension. Teachers read engaging text with complex vocabulary and ideas to support their understanding of real-world concepts. Teachers facilitate discussion on topics like fairy tales, early Asian civilizations and insects. Students work collaboratively to represent knowledge in graphic organizers. Take a look at this example from the Cycles in Nature unit. Not only do students discuss the seasons, they understand how the earth’s rotation affects our experience of weather as well as the life cycles of plants and animals.


    We encourage families to check out our complete unit list and explore books and videos related to the topic of study. This will help strengthen vocabulary development and ability to comprehend all texts.

    Comments (-1)
  • Spotlight on 1st grade English Language Arts (ELA)

    Posted by Raquel Ellis on 1/24/2023

    Remote learning allowed caregivers to get a closer look at the instruction children are experiencing. Some adults might have noticed that 1st grade has changed a lot since they were in it! Read to find out how 6-7 year olds in Kyrene learn to deconstruct the English sound-spelling code and develop a broad base of background knowledge to support comprehension.

    Spotlight on 1st grade English Language Arts (ELA)

    You may be unaware that knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet does not necessarily cause children to be good readers. Our language is so much more complicated than what the 26 letters indicate, as the letter names do not correspond to all of the sounds we make with our mouths. In English, we have 44 sounds that make up our language. Those 44 sounds are represented through various individual letters and letter combinations. Think of the sound /k/ that you hear at the beginning of the word “king”; sometimes /k/ can be spelled with just a ‘c’ or ‘k’ and other times it can be represented by multiple letters coming together such as ‘cc’, ‘ck’ or ‘ch’.


    1st grade teachers like Olivia Ortega at Kyrene de las Lomas lead class discussions about the different spellings for each sound and represent learning on spelling trees. Ortega explains, “Discussions around phonics start with students first hearing new sounds and identifying if words I say have the sound or not. Then we use our code charts to introduce how to spell the sound.” Although this might sound simple enough, the conversation soon progresses to something much more complex: “We [then] discuss if the new sound is a vowel or consonant sound and students mirror with their partner to see the shape of their mouth when they say the sounds.” Students are then encouraged to find the new spelling in the books they are reading and around the school.


    Throughout K-2, Kyrene students learn the spellings that represent the 44 sounds starting with the simplest and most common. By 1st grade, students can understand that some spellings are more common than others. Did you know that the sound /f/ can be spelled with an ‘f’, ‘ff’, ‘ph’ or ‘gh’? The single ‘f’ is used 82% of the time to represent /f/, so it is what is seen in print most. This type of conversation is an everyday occurrence for the 1st grade team at Kyrene del Cielo. This group of teachers are a well-oiled machine when it comes to how they deliver high quality ELA instruction. “The depth of understanding our first graders have in regards to decoding is remarkable,” the teachers exclaimed, “they can tell us why we must double a consonant when adding a suffix to a root word by identifying a CVC ending that contains a short vowel.”


    Their students are aware of the sound-spelling rules of English because of how well-planned and collaborative their teachers are. How do they produce such strong results? For one, all students are working in safe and encouraging classroom environments. Second, this team has purposefully focused on literacy. They explained it like this: “Our first priority is to develop strong readers and writers. In doing so, we utilize a number of strategies including interactive PowerPoints, small-group instructional lessons, whole group games, and peer teaching. Our direct instruction is very systematic and familiar to the students.” There is a routine in these classrooms that teaches sound-spelling relationships in a clear and coherent way, creating a powerful learning experience for students.


    Although understanding the sound-spelling English code is important to recognize written words, children also need background knowledge of the world to make sense of what they read. Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia has written extensively about this (we highly recommend his helpful 2015 book, Raising Kids Who Read). Knowing about real-life topics builds a foundation in ideas and vocabulary that is integral to reading comprehension in both the short and long term. Since K-2 students are still learning to sound out words, we develop students’ background knowledge through reading aloud to them. Students discuss what was heard in the reading and apply that knowledge in a meaningful way.


    Kyrene 1st graders in Tia Johnson’s class at Estrella will learn about many topics this year, including Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, early American civilizations, astronomy, and habitats. A favorite unit of study with her past students has been The History of the Earth, in which children learn about geology – layers of the earth, rocks and fossils! Although that might sound like challenging material for six and seven year olds, Ms. Johnson assures that 1st graders are more than capable of accessing the information: “the material is not over their heads…in fact, I have had a few teachers in the upper grades comment that they were happy to see that our first graders are exposed to these domains at an early age because when they reach the upper grades, those teachers can see how much information was retained.”


    We are proud of the quality of curriculum and instruction happening in Kyrene’s youngest grade levels. We are excited to feature more grade levels and classrooms in the coming months.

    Comments (-1)
  • What is The 'Science of Reading'?

    Posted by Raquel Ellis on 12/5/2022 12:00:00 PM

    How children are taught to read has garnered a lot of attention over the last several years in the form of podcasts and state legislation. This has led parents and educators to become more familiar with the term, the science of reading. Although these memorable words sound like a new idea, the science of reading has been around for decades. The science of reading is simply a well-established body of scientifically-based research from multiple fields (e.g. Education, Cognitive Psychology, Neuroscience, to name a few) that informs how skilled reading and writing develop. This research also includes how educators can intervene when students are experiencing reading difficulties, as well as prevent them from occurring in the first place.


    Scarborough’s Reading Rope, the infographic displayed below, helps us understand how humans learn to read. There is a misconception out there that the science of reading is just concerned with decoding words (i.e. phonics). Although word recognition of printed text is essential to reading, equally important is language comprehension. This includes background knowledge and vocabulary that is necessary to understand what is being read.

    Scarborough's Reading Rope

    Kyrene curriculum in grades K-2 supports daily systematic phonics instruction to support the word recognition side of Scarborough’s Rope. Reading decodable texts, those controlled short books that reinforce the sound-spelling patterns taught in class is incredibly important. The comprehension side of the rope, however, is a bit more complicated. Language comprehension cannot develop with decodable texts alone. Our youngest students are capable of comprehending words and concepts from more advanced texts than they can decode themselves. This is why you hear of our primary students learning about plant life cycles, the Aztecs and westward expansion.


    The problem with the phrase “learning to read to read to learn”


    The discussions about reading instruction are often oversimplified. I have been a part of too many conversations where I hear that the focus in grades K-2 is “learning to read” as opposed to “reading to learn” once students enter 3rd. Although catchy, this sends a bit of a mixed message of student abilities in our earliest grades. We know from the science of reading that vocabulary develops orally and mostly indirectly through conversation. This means that K-2 students should be read aloud to daily with texts that are more complex than their decoding ability. The bottom line, students will be learning a lot of history and science from those texts, even before their decoding is strong. This process allows them to engage in higher level thinking and develops a robust language foundation that will support reading comprehension.


    Keep reading to see how you can support reading comprehension at home.



    Liben, D., & Liben, M. (2013). "Both and” Literacy Instruction K-5: A Proposed Paradigm Shift for the Common Core State Standards ELA Classroom.

    The Reading League. (2022). Science of Reading: Defining Guide.

    Comments (-1)
  • 5 Ways to Improve Reading Comprehension at Home

    Posted by Curriculum & Assessment Team on 12/5/2022 11:00:00 AM

    Students smiling at desk


    After learning about our English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, you may be interested in how you can support the reading comprehension of your student. Here are five easy strategies.


    1. Talk to students about what they are learning about in school.

    All Kyrene students are reading, discussing, and writing about a specific topic in their ELA classrooms. Here is a list of the ELA units of study for grades K-8. Ask students what they have learned about the topic; you will find yourself amazed about how much they know. This will foster vocabulary development, which is closely tied to reading comprehension.


    1. Find connected text/media to the topics taught in class and discuss the ideas learned.

    Use the Kyrene ELA units of study list to visit the library to find books related to the topics students are learning. Watching videos allows students to understand new information from a different medium. Discovery Education, BrainPop, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and PBS are great places to start. Even YouTube has many informative, student-friendly videos that are rich in content knowledge. Once you have found print and digital material to learn from, talk to the student about what was learned. Chances are that adults will learn something new as well!


    1. Do research about a topic the student is interested in.

    Additional reading and research does not have to be limited to what students are learning in school. Talk to the student about what interests them. Have the student brainstorm questions that they want to learn more about. Visit the library or search the internet and help them find answers to those questions. Have conversations about the information they are finding.


    1. Listen to audiobooks that are slightly more difficult than what a student could read themselves. 

    We have known for a while now that a child’s listening comprehension outpaces their reading comprehension until they are about 13 years old (Sticht & James, 1984). This means that children can listen to more difficult texts than what they would be able to read independently. We need to take advantage of this strength by allowing students to listen to harder texts; this will support them in their vocabulary development, as well as their reading fluency, another factor that influences strong reading comprehension.


    1. Find a book the student is interested in and read it with them. 

    It is important to encourage our children to read outside of school, so start with the topics and stories that interest them. To support their thinking and vocabulary, read the book with them. This will make the reading more enjoyable for the child as well as support the critical thinking necessary for strong comprehension of all texts.


    Comments (-1)
  • How Kyrene is Doing Reading Right

    Posted by Teaching & Learning Team on 10/18/2022 1:00:00 PM

    Young boy reading book in rocking chair

    Many reading experts across the country agree that a lot of schools are not teaching reading in a way that is supported by research in the science of reading. Read this post by Kyrene’s Elementary English Language Arts (ELA) & Social Studies Coordinator, Dr. Raquel Ellis, about how we have a research-based reading approach.


    The literacy research community is currently having important conversations via social media about how reading is taught in classrooms. These discussions include people like Timothy Shanahan, Susan L. Hall, and Emily Hanford (all are great people to follow on Twitter, by the way). These exchanges can get a bit uncomfortable for educators like myself, especially since they often discuss how ineffective the teaching of English Language Arts is nationally. Curriculum leaders in other states have even gone as far to call reading curriculum and instruction a national “crisis” (Myracle, Kingsley, & McClellan, 2019).


    Every time I read what the experts are saying is happening in schools, I get really excited that this is not the case here in Kyrene (although I do get sad that not all students in our country have access to a place with strong curriculum). Since we have adopted new ELA curriculum in Spring 2017, our district has been working hard to ensure that we are following what is known about quality literacy instruction. Below are two areas that we have prioritized in our curriculum and professional development.


    Building background knowledge in history, the arts and science to support comprehension.

    It is not common knowledge, but what students already know about the topic they are reading about is the strongest predictor for their ability to understand that book, article, or passage. Therefore, starting in Kindergarten, Kyrene students read texts that teach them about the world. Our students read and write about people and places both in the U.S. and across the globe, allowing them to explore history, geography, and economics in tandem with developing language arts skills. They discuss the contributions of different civilizations and how they have affected our lives today. Science units like plant life cycles, astronomy, animal classifications, geology, and chemical matter provide the foundational knowledge necessary to engage in hands-on projects and/or research. Students also read fiction, including multiple versions of the same fairy tale, contemporary stories, and poems. We intentionally spend several weeks with a topic so students gain the knowledge and vocabulary to be successful in understanding future texts they read. Read more about the importance of background knowledge here.


    Systematic phonics instruction is happening daily in primary grades.

    The findings of the National Reading Panel made it clear that explicit phonics instruction needs to be delivered to our K-2 students in a clear and coherent way. As education journalist Emily Hanford has noted, most schools across the country struggle with this. Kyrene has made significant shifts in how we teach phonics over the past five years. In addition to the instructional block where we build students’ background knowledge, Kyrene K-2 students have 60 minutes of foundational skills instruction that develops students’ awareness of the sounds of the English language and the spellings for those sounds. Learning is cemented by reading and responding in writing to text that reinforces sound-spelling relationships. Spelling tests measure the sound-spelling relationships that were taught, rather than memorizing random lists of words. K-2 teachers follow a curricular sequence so learning builds upon what previous teachers have taught. They also follow consistent routines so students have continuity across their primary grades experience, making learning easier.

    Kyrene has so much to celebrate about how we have approached our science of reading-based curriculum and instruction. We look forward to sharing stories about the great things our teachers and students are discussing in the coming months.

    Comments (-1)
Last Modified on Monday at 2:35 PM