CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

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Research Report

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Thinking about Literacy, Learning Progressions, and Instruction

Where Learning Progressions have been identified, they have been seen as offering a basis for informing teachers' understanding of where their students are in their learning, and the specific problems they may be having, so their teaching can be adapted in ways that will help keep their students moving ahead.  Progressions also can provide understandable reference points that assessments could target, so that their results would be more useful for informing teachers' instructional decisions.
A new CPRE-CCII Report - A Hitchhiker's Guide to Thinking about Literacy, Learning Progressions, and Instruction - argues that the concept of learning progressions is not likely to be as useful or as empirically warranted for describing the growth of children's and students' understanding and competence in literate communication - in reading and writing - as it has been for describing the growing understanding of some more specific concepts and skills such as the idea of number and other aspects of early arithmetic. 

Nevertheless, the report argues that, for teaching and learning literate communication, these same benefits could flow from using well-designed, ordered, curricula, materials, and activities that systematically and repeatedly help students make connections between the conventional ways texts "code" meanings and particular instances of those meanings.  The curriculum itself can define the reference points for defining "progress," and students' performance in its activities and routines can inform teachers how they are doing and suggest what to do to help them.
The report's authors are Fritz Mosher (Consortium for Policy Research in Education) & Margaret Heritage, writing on behalf of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education's (CPRE) Center on Continual Instructional Improvement (CCII).  It is the third in a set of reports assessing the evidence for, and the usefulness of, the concept of learning progressions as a way of describing how students' learning grows and becomes more sophisticated during instruction in school subjects, and how that growth can be assessed in more instructionally relevant ways.  The first two reports reviewed work on progressions in students' learning of mathematics and science.

The authors characterize the report as "an extended analytic reflection based on a review of the literature in the fields relevant to linguistics, literacy, and literacy learning."  Their analysis identifies a fundamental insight from that literature and a very practical problem related to it.

The insight is that both spoken languages and text have evolved general and genre/discourse/activity-specific conventionalized ways of coding or referencing important aspects and levels of the meanings human beings want to communicate to each other.  Individuals must have opportunities to hear or see these conventions being used at the same time as they actually attend to, and recognize or construe, instances of the meanings themselves.  Learning to use the conventions should grow hand in hand with discovering , appreciating, and trying to communicate the meanings they represent. 

The problem is that literary scholars, linguists, and other specialists have developed vocabularies, terms, and theories for identifying the conventions for referencing these kinds and levels of meaning (grammars, syntaxes, registers, etc. extending well beyond just those), but these vocabularies are not generally very familiar and accessible to teachers and other educators, or to their students.  Individuals learn to make these connections, if they ever do, over time, mostly tacitly through repeated association.  Obviously, individuals vary greatly in the opportunities they have for making such associations in or out of school, depending as much on their families and background as on their own abilities and interests. 

The report argues that if we want substantially all students to learn to make and use these connections, their school experiences should be designed to ensure that they have repeated and growingly challenging opportunities to make the connections, with instruction that uses accessible language and feedback to help identify both the meanings and the conventions  That in turn implies the necessity for a long-term effort at "translation," requiring teachers and other practitioners to work together with scholars and developers to design, test, and revise curricula and materials that provide graded opportunities to experience and use the meaning/convention connections and to name those experiences, in ways that are as accessible and explicit as possible.  It also implies that government and private funders of research and development should focus on supporting such work.  Additionally, they will need to support the development of the institutional infrastructures in which such work could be carried out and refined in real school settings.  Education policymakers should understand and act on the need to allow such work to be carried out and bear fruit.

In the last section of the report the authors provide a few examples of promising programs that move in the directions they recommend, and then they draw more pointed implications and advice for policymakers and funders.   

Click here, to download the full report.

Center on Continual Instructional Improvement (CCII)

In March 2006, with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, CPRE launched the Center on Continual Instructional Improvement (CCII), a center engaged in trying to understand how schools and educators could be supported and encouraged to engage in continual cycles involving: identifying problems in instruction, devising and implementing possible solutions, evaluating the results, and trying to do better in the next iteration - and in figuring out how to do this in the real world of practice.  As the Center developed its own efforts along these lines, it also sought out others who had promising approaches, to encourage their work and to help them promote it. 


Fritz Mosher, Margaret Heritage

Publication Date

July 2017