Where do the strands fit in an ELA program?

One of my preoccupations for the last few years has been ELA. It was one of my majors in university and I have taught it for years. However, I can say with authority that I never really thought much about it except to plan activities, to read my favourite books to students, and to encourage them to write. In other words, I did many things right but I had no idea why they might be right and, even more importantly, why they weren’t enough. I did not consider how or why I might move beyond “giving kids stuff to do” and into learning through language, learning to use language and most especially, learning about language. When the curriculum was renewed yet again a few years ago, and I found myself in the role of professional developer, my preoccupation began. I have traveled far and wide in my exploration of language learning but today I want to think aloud about the “strandification” of ELA (okay, I may have invented a word).

I remember last time the ELA curriculum was renewed, there was a big emphasis on the forgotten strands: representing, viewing, listening and speaking. It is not that it didn’t exist in past curricula, but certainly for me, this was the first time I really considered the importance of something in addition to reading and writing. So, like a good teacher, I diligently restructured my “activities” to include all six strands and I re-jigged my grade book to enable me to collect data on the six aspects of ELA. Back in those days, we still just reported one mark for ELA, but I made sure that the mark was derived from activities that represented all six areas of communication. I ran into trouble pretty quickly though, when my grade book was organized by strand. For example, I would have the students read a story filled with images and when I was entering an assessment, I was unsure of whether to fit it into reading or whether it was more viewing. Should I break it in half and spread it out between the two strands? Should I record the same mark twice? Or, because there was more text, should I just pick reading? The same thing would happen when students were creating something like a Paper Bag Book Project (those were the days of fun activities, remember). Was it writing, because they definitely had to write something? Or was it representing because they had drawn images? And how should I even “mark” the objects they had placed in the bag to represent aspects of the story? Never mind that I had asked them to present their bags to the class, which was clearly speaking…well, the dilemma was clear. Composing and creating, comprehending and responding do not fit neatly into categories.

With this newest curriculum renewal and the switch to outcomes and indicators, the strands are still represented by their own outcomes, but two goal areas are Compose and Create; Comprehend and Respond. I see now that this was no accident and it got me thinking about those strands again. As our Division was designing our own grade book and reporting tool, we began to really question this whole thing. Which categories would we collect data on? How would we report? I remembered back to those years of awkward assessing and I was intent on doing things in a way that honoured language learning. Our team began to really dig into the essence of communication and this is when the fun began! We began to talk about the connection between strands. We looked at the developmental continuum of language attainment. We identified the importance of viewing and listening as precursors to reading. We looked at how representing thinking is a pre-writing strategy. We began to consider the importance of strength-based language learning. We asked how important it was that children use their strength in speaking, for example, to become better writers. We began to see how communication is interconnected and multi-modal. Identifying these connections began to make it impossible to think about ELA learning in terms of strands. Certainly, all strands are vital to overall language learning, but to separate them in order to assess and report something by strand began to seem forced and unauthentic.

So, we began to ask what all strands had in common. What do people do when they are speaking that is similar to when they are writing? What is essential about reading and listening and viewing? How do people become better at communicating in both the expressive and receptive areas? How do when know when they are getting better? Fortunately, these answers could be found in the renewed curriculum documents. After digging into the curriculum, other literature and engaging in learning experiences in classrooms, we realized that it wasn’t about which strand students were working with but about how the strands worked together to enhance communication. In essence, it was about seven key things: When Composing and Creating, it was about the strength and clarity of the Message they were communicating, how they Organized their thoughts, and the Language Choices (visual, auditory and written) they were making. When Comprehending and Responding, what mattered most were their understanding of the Ideas and Information in the text, their understanding of the Text Structures and Features and their ability to Respond to the text in meaningful and engaging ways. Lastly, it was about their ability to Assess and Reflect on their use of the learning strategies that allow them to become better communicators.

This was a revelation and, in the end, was the springboard for our decision regarding assessing and reporting in ELA. Instead of worrying about which strand each learning experience fit into, we could encourage students to embrace all things available to them (visual cues, sounds, graphic organizers) to become better expressive and receptive communicators. In our rubrics, we could focus on improving in the seven key areas, regardless of strand. We could use one strand as a “before” learning strategy for our work in another strand. We could invite students to make the connections that are so essential to language learning and so embedded in the world around them. “Strandification” forces us to separate communication into pieces that are unnatural in language learning. Yes, we should work within all six strands all the time. Yes, there are unique aspects to each strand. But no, we should not separate them in order to report on each separately. Our report card has a spot for Compose and Create and another for Comprehend and Respond. Our rubrics focus on the seven key elements. Now that we have that sorted out, we can focus on the business of improving learning!

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