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Creating a strong foundation for learning

Imagine building your dream home that looks beautiful but lacks the structural integrity to withstand a storm. Upon inspection, you find that the foundation was not set correctly, and the house is shifting and unstable. When we skip steps in teaching our children and do not build a strong foundation, we end up with student skills that are not structurally sound in their learning. If we don’t have the foundation, it is difficult to build upon.

Strong learning foundations build strong lifelong learners

There exists a disconnect between the way we teach kids, what we expect them to do at different levels, and the stepping stones they need to take to get to the ultimate skills that we want them to have as an adult.

Intentionality around instructional design creates stronger learning pathways

This disconnect in teaching and performance expectations exists for a variety of reasons. One, not all curriculum that is used in schools is created by people who understand instructional design or how people learn. Two, many teachers are not taught instructional design or the learning process in their teaching programs and so can’t critique or make adjustments to what is in front of them (and don’t have time). Three, we tend to think that by assigning students more complex tasks, that this will transfer into them gaining more complex skills.

Additionally, the content standards of what students learn at each grade level have increased in rigor. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but what ends up happening is that when more complex skills are focused on at younger grade levels, foundational skills are sacrificed, and many, many students need practice and repetition with these essential foundational skills. When there is outside pressure on schools to get to certain content areas or hit complex skills (from testing requirements that are tied to funding), foundational skills are sacrificed. However, without strong foundational skills, and for the majority of students, instruction and practice of these skills, those complex skills and tasks become more difficult to access. We are setting students up for failure or struggle by continuing to prescribe to this type of model.

By giving younger students more difficult tasks instead of foundational skill work, we might think that what we are doing for kids is what will help them in the long-term. If we short-circuit the learning process, we are only putting them at a disadvantage for the future - we are actually teaching and reinforcing learning behaviors that hurt them in the long-term.

We need to norm that learning certain skills can be hard,

but that with the right instruction, practice, and support,

we should keep working and trying.

A great example of this is what the Readers Workshop curriculum does to young children. It creates bad habits and reinforces incorrect skills because it skips multiple steps to true mastery for the skill of reading (and by this, I mean the ability to see letters on a page, decode them fluently, and then comprehend their meaning). Readers Workshop teaches and reinforces behaviors like guessing at a word, or looking at the picture on the page to “read” the word - that are the antithesis to the science of how students learn to read.

When we tell kids in first and second grade that they are to “Read like us, look like us while they are reading, and that they should enjoy it”, we are skipping a lot of steps in the process of how fluent readers got to where they are and encouraging students to engage in the surface level behaviors of what adults LOOK like while they read. Instead, that practice creates behaviors that circumnavigate the learning-to-read process. Furthermore, it also norms the idea that learning to read is “easy” and that if children are struggling or having difficulty, there must be something wrong with them. Instead, we need to norm that learning certain skills can be hard, but that with the right instruction, practice, and support, we should keep working and trying.

Kids see adults reading confidently, not needing to sound out words, and so then when they are to read, they mimic what adults LOOK like while reading, but not what the adults’ brains are doing – if an adult is a fluent reader, their brains have hard-wired the skills of sounding out as well as comprehension skills (i.e., knowing or predicting the next word in a sentence). Instead of sounding it out, they use a strategy that gets them to a word, any word (usually not the word on the page) faster - guessing. And then because they can “read” faster and look more like an adult reading (and those behaviors are rewarded), at age 7-8 they develop habits that hurt them for the rest of their learning career and need extensive work to be “untaught”.

Every child will need a different amount of time learning and practicing essential foundational skills.

That is where sensitive data collection and differentiation based on skill level becomes so important. There is nothing wrong with having students engage in more complex tasks - as long as their foundational skills are solid. We cannot skip learning processes and expect that learning will not suffer.


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