District 97’s Approach to Early Literacy

District 97 values our partnership with families and the community, and we appreciate those who have shown interest in our approach to literacy instruction. We acknowledge that many families have listened to the Sold a Story podcast that was released in October 2022, which examines the ongoing debate between balanced literacy and structured literacy approaches for effective reading instruction. We are pleased to outline our plans to make educator-informed decisions about early literacy to enhance student learning experiences across the district.

The work of District 97’s Core Instruction Department is grounded in Board Policy 7:12 (Ensuring Racial and Educational Equity). This policy charges our district to provide all students with what they need to thrive, achieve at the highest possible level, and graduate prepared for college, career, and community success. As we embark upon the Portrait of an Oak Park 8th Grade Graduate and the competencies that are important for student success, it is essential that all students are afforded equitable access to high-quality literacy curriculum and instruction.

Research shows that children who are strong readers have much greater academic success in school. Remaining current on research and findings in literacy instruction is vital to serving our students. Systematic and direct instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics is critical as students learn how to read and master print concepts. A wealth of research exists detailing the importance of ensuring that students have demonstrated competency in the skills foundational to reading in elementary school, with an emphasis on students learning to decode words and read texts fluently and accurately by third grade.

Where are we now?

While other school districts may be making immediate shifts to a more structured literacy approach, in District 97 we believe it is important to partner with all stakeholders to make an informed decision grounded in research and based on our beliefs about effective literacy instruction. District 97 is committed to ensuring that every student in pre-kindergarten through second grade is in love with literacy and able to read, write, speak and listen at grade level by third grade. We will continue to take steps to move forward with incorporating the research about teaching our youngest learners how to read by upholding the following beliefs:

District 97…

  • Values the expertise of practitioners closest to student experience so we engage them in the national debate around literacy instruction
  • Expects all students to demonstrate competency in the foundational skills of reading and recognize that instruction and collective teacher efficacy are primary and resources are secondary
  • Recognizes that strong adult practices in core instruction which support students in our focal cohort will result in positive outcomes for all students
  • Provides on-going professional learning opportunities to expand teachers’ knowledge of evidence-based instructional practices for supporting emergent readers
  • Utilizes the school improvement logic model process to engage teacher leaders and early literacy teachers in identifying resources and professional learning opportunities for future curricular review decisions

Where have we been?

During the 2016-2017 school year, District 97 adopted and began the district-wide roll-out of Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Reading and Writing over the course of three years for students in grades kindergarten through five. At the time, there was a great need for the immediate adoption of a common written curriculum and instructional materials across all eight schools. 

Units of Study implements a workshop model of teaching reading and writing, which uses a “gradual release of responsibility” model of teaching, offering direct instruction through a mini-lesson, demonstration of the skill, guided practice, and independent practice—all with constant feedback and support from the teacher, as well as peers. Units of Study provides a framework for interdisciplinary connections across all content, but overtime we discovered gaps in students’ foundational skills in phonological and phonemic awareness and phonics.

Over the past few years, District 97 has worked to provide elementary teachers with supplementary resources to support Tier 1 instruction with an emphasis on enhancing students’ foundational skills. The table below outlines the Tier 1 core and supplemental resources currently utilized and the alignment to the components of effective literacy instruction.

District 97 has also engaged in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to create a flexible learning environment in which information is presented in multiple ways, students engage in learning in a variety of ways, and students are provided a variety of options when demonstrating their learning.

Literacy component District 97 Resources & Instructional Practices Time Allotted

Phonological & Phonemic Awareness

Heggerty Phonemic Awareness 10 minutes daily
Phonics Phonics Units of Study & Words Their Way 20-30 minutes daily

Reading Units of Study
1:1 Conferencing
Small Group Instruction

45 minutes daily

Words Their Way
Interactive Read Aloud

20-35 minutes daily

Reading Units of Study
Interactive Read Aloud
1:1 Conferencing
Small Group Instruction

45 minutes daily

Where are we going?

The Core Instruction Department will continue to support teachers with evidence-based practices, materials, and professional learning. The timeline below demonstrates how this priority will be actualized through SY 2024-2025. Click here or below to view District 97's Approach to Early Literacy Timeline >>

Early Literacy Timeline

Parents and guardians have a direct influence on their child's literacy development and are responsible for creating a literacy-rich environment at home. As we continue to engage all stakeholders in promoting and supporting literacy in District 97, we are looking forward to  providing opportunities for families to play an active role in the curricular review process and development of the Portrait of an Oak Park 8th Grade Graduate.

We have provided a summary of our district-wide plans to enhance the foundational skills of our emergent readers. If families have specific concerns about their child’s learning, the teacher is your first point of contact. Teachers can then engage with the support staff in our schools as well as with their building principal to seek smart solutions together. 

Thank you for your continued partnership and support as we continue to fulfill our district vision to create a positive learning environment for all District 97 students that is equitable, inclusive and focused on the whole child.

- District 97 Core Instruction Team