first grader's writing

Give a first-grader the chance to pick a theme for his birthday party and what will he choose? Super-heroes? Monster trucks? Star Wars? Or, as recently happened in the eastern corner of the state of Tennessee, a Colonial Times birthday party, featuring soap-making and eating cake by candlelight.

What inspired that theme? The curriculum chosen by the student’s school district, Sullivan County. The district is now in its third year of using Core Knowledge Language Arts® (CKLA) to strengthen early literacy instruction.

Sullivan County’s Supervisor of Elementary Education, Dr. Robin McClellan, is excited about the promising early results. Sullivan County is a mostly rural Appalachian district, with more than 60 percent of its elementary school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, Dr. McClellan notes, many students who were initially identified as academically at risk—in the lower tiers correlated to the benchmarks of the aimswebPlus progress monitoring tool—advanced to Tier 1 and are no longer at risk. (See Dr. McClellan’s Twitter post about the representative results at one school.)

twitter post Sullivan Cty progressSullivan County’s efforts reflect a general statewide focus on strengthening early literacy instruction, and are specifically tied to LIFT (Leading Innovation for Tennessee), a network of twelve Tennessee district superintendents focused on “new classroom strategies, practices, and curriculum to improve reading in the early grades.” LIFT receives support from SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education), an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan educational research and advocacy group based in Nashville.

According to Courtney Bell, SCORE’s Director of Educator Engagement, after SCORE worked with the LIFT districts to identify targets for improvement, they decided to focus on strengthening early literacy by “providing more universal access to high-quality curricular resources for teachers” and “making sure that school leaders understand what strong literacy instruction looks like, so they can prioritize the time, the resources, and the support that teachers need to implement with fidelity.”

SCORE has helped schools in the LIFT network identify high-quality, standards-aligned resources—a task made more pressing and challenging when, in 2016, the state adopted new and more rigorous academic standards. Tennessee is a textbook adoption state, but the last adoption took place in 2010. So, Mrs. Bell notes, “many districts are using materials not aligned to the state’s new college- and career-ready standards.”

To help LIFT districts fill the gap until the next ELA adoption in 2020, SCORE engaged TNTP as a “technical assistance provider.” (Founded in 1997 as The New Teacher Project, TNTP now works as a partner for change in more than 200 public school systems nationwide.) In instructional reviews of classrooms across the LIFT districts, TNTP found that in most K-2 classrooms, text complexity was too low and students spent very little time thoughtfully interacting with the text. TNTP then undertook a national search for high-quality early literacy curricular materials, especially ELA programs with strong read-aloud components. In 2016, TNTP identified only a few qualified programs, including CKLA; since then, the list has grown to include Expeditionary Learning, Wit and Wisdom, and other options.

“The big thing we’ve learned,” says Mrs. Bell, “is how critically important systematically building knowledge is for kids, particularly kids who may come from an impoverished background or not come from a well-resourced home. Having high-quality instructional materials that systematically build knowledge over time really is an equity issue. It allows the playing field to be leveled for all kids so they are able to succeed. Kids really rise to the occasion—it’s just been so miraculous to see.” (For one example, see the student work samples from Sullivan County first-grade teacher Lize Kinsler, which compares one student’s first day writing sample to her writing at the end of the school year.)

On the first day of class, this first-grader wrote fragments about “drinking jitter juice.” At the end of the school year, she wrote complete and excited sentences: “So we have learned about the Maya, and the Inca, and the Aztec. We also learned about the human body, and fables, and eating healthy, and astronomy, and geologist, and palientolegist [sic], and fairy tales, and the thirteen colonies.”


A recent statewide survey of Tennessee educators revealed that K-2 teachers spend an average of 4.5 hours per week in sourcing ELA materials—“that’s four and a half hours,” notes Mrs. Bell, “that they’re not planning how to differentiate instruction or not really digging in so they can have a strong understanding of the content.” Mrs. Bell argues that “we have to stop expecting teachers to be curriculum curators. If you just give teachers the materials they need, and allow them to do what they do best, which is to teach and to lead learning, then that really has a dramatic impact on student learning.” In short, Mrs. Bell summarizes, “Knowledge matters, and teachers need high-quality materials.” Sullivan County’s Dr. McClellan agrees: “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t write the score. Now that our teachers have strong curriculum in their hands, they are able to focus on the students’ learning.”

In most LIFT districts, schools began by piloting the recommended curricular options and then choosing their preferred program for expanded implementation. Sullivan County was drawn to CKLA for reasons both pedagogical and practical. First, as Dr. McClellan explains, CKLA filled two big gaps in the county’s existing ELA curriculum: “lack of explicit skills instruction, and lack of knowledge building.” Second, the Core Knowledge Foundation makes CKLA available as Open Educational Resources, which helps when, as Dr. McClellan recalls, “we didn’t have the resources to purchase new literacy curriculum.”

Mrs. Bell, who has worked closely with Dr. McClellan, praises Sullivan County for “the way that they’ve empowered their teachers to lead the learning.” Initially, three Sullivan County schools piloted CKLA. TNTP helped train the teachers in these three pilot schools. In the second year of the initiative, these pioneering teachers, dubbed “Game Changers,” took on the responsibility for training the “Difference Makers,” the teachers in the remaining eight elementary schools in the district.

Both SCORE and TNTP have worked to ensure that the early literacy initiative is “deeply embedded” so that it continues even when district leadership changes. “We want to make sure the work is sustainable,” says Mrs. Bell: “We’ve had a couple of districts undergo leadership changes at the district level and so far the work has continued seamlessly because there is such strong buy-in from the school leaders and other district-level staff and the teachers as well.”

SCORE insists that district leaders roll up their sleeves and actively participate in understanding the nuts and bolts of effective early literacy instruction. Four times per year, SCORE convenes LIFT superintendents to meet in one of the participating districts, where they visit classrooms and then use an instructional rubric to guide discussion of the strengths and shortcomings of the teaching they observed. The goal, says, Mrs. Bell, is to “make sure everyone has a vision for high-quality literacy instruction.”

Sullivan Cty principals
Instructional leaders at work: A group of Sullivan County principals discuss the CKLA lesson they have just observed.

Similarly, in Sullivan County, once a month all eleven elementary school principals gather at one of the school sites. They break into teams to observe teachers and students engaged in a specific CKLA domain. Guided by the same rubric that the superintendents use, the principals then gather as a group for discussions that lead to practical feedback to the teachers, for example: “We saw these strengths, let’s celebrate these things, and why don’t you visit Mrs. B’s classroom to see how her questions lead to enduring understanding.”

In early 2018, after visiting one of these gatherings at a Sullivan County school, Core Knowledge Foundation President Linda Bevilacqua noted the shared commitment to involving instructional leaders in understanding the curriculum and providing feedback to teachers. “In building the competency of instructional leaders,” says Ms. Bevilacqua, the Sullivan County schools, with SCORE and TNTP, are “building lasting infrastructure—even when trainers leave, there will be lasting understanding of the program, with teachers trained as mentors and coaches.” As Dr. McClellan affirms, “We’re just all in it together.”

12 comments on “Building an Early Literacy Infrastructure in Sullivan County, Tennessee”

  1. 1
    Mike Seiler on June 21, 2018

    Very impressive program and process.

  2. 2
    Heidi Cole on July 3, 2018

    Congratulations Sullivan County! You have identified the recipe for student success – high-level CKLA implementation, equipping educators with training and sustained support, and an administrative team committed to learning the curriculum and knowing what it looks like in the classrooms. I commend you for your hard work, dedication, and for trusting CKLA to positively impact the lives of your children!

  3. 3
    Kate on July 19, 2018

    Kudos to the county for making the instructional shifts needed to deliver high-quality curriculum to the students. I was surprised to hear that textbook adoptions are happening once every decade. In the age of instant access to information, a 21st-century learner needs a text that is rich and complex, but also relevant to his or her life to engage and interest them. And while it is true that a conductor does not “write the music,” they can tailor the piece according to the strengths and weaknesses of the musicians. I hope that educators can differentiate and build a curriculum based on the needs of the students.

  4. 4
    Toynette Wilson on July 22, 2018

    I like the program and your sentiments that teachers should be given what they need to excel in the classroom. “Knowledge matters, and teachers need high-quality materials.” The effectiveness of the teacher depends on what is used and how skills are applied. The program not only seeks to improve the literacy level in students but it also allows for building bridges where the less fortunate can access and benefit with ease and subjects can be integrated. I feel building on students literacy skills will help them to improve in numeracy, reasoning, imaginative, level of writing and comprehension, and critical thinking skills which will help them to communicate freely.

  5. 5
    Trisha Boyd on September 23, 2018

    As a teacher, I believe it is important teachers are given enough resources to be able to see academic success in their classroom, schools, and district. Literacy is the foundation of how children can not only read but write, reason in math and be able to comprehend. It is essential that schools are equipped with a strong literacy curriculum.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Jones on November 18, 2018

    I felt a connection to what is going on in the literacy classrooms discussed in the article. I teach ELA in a school with a 98% poverty rate where students are struggling in the areas of literacy, both reading, and writing. We have implemented the literacy collaborative framework for teaching literacy, which allows for a lot of student choice. We do not stand in the front of the room and “teach.” We create mini-lessons for the whole group and work with small groups, at their level, to differentiate instruction. The majority of class time, students are reading material that they choose and writing about topics that interest them. While I am there for direction and support, students are practicing skills I have taught them with their own material. This saves me time and helps the students stay engaged and interested in learning.

  7. 7
    Manuelita Flores on March 24, 2019

    Wow. Congratulations. As a fourth grade teacher that is required to prepare students to take the STAAR Writing Test in Texas, I applaud you for the hard work and dedication. Literacy is the foundation that students need in order to be academically successful in all content areas.

  8. 8
    Josh West on May 22, 2019

    As a Pre-K/Elementary principal, I found this very informative. The campus I am currently employed at has many kids that come from poverty-stricken homes. I am really interested in your SCORE concept, in conjunction with leveling out the playing field for our children. I would also like to have some insight into the “nuts and bolts” of the program. How does this program ensure stability through changes in administration? Often in my districts, and surrounding districts, many of the ideas are tied to administrators, and when they leave the district, it is tough for them to pick up and start over. Also is there a financial cost associated with starting these programs at your schools? Thanks so much for the insight and a great article.

  9. 9
    Erin Heatherly on July 19, 2019

    I am very excited to see what is happening for this county. It is alarming sometimes when you look at the problems schools face when trying to update their curriculum and how much red tape goes along with that. As an ELA teacher, it is exciting to see such an improvement in these students’ reading abilities. As everyone knows, the first years are crucial for implementing a strong love for reading. I also teach in a high-poverty area where all students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch. These kiddos remind me of my own students and it is incredibly encouraging to see. If teachers are given proper resources and knowledge to give their best, it can clearly make a difference. These students deserve all the opportunities others have and I am happy to see such hard working educators making a difference.

  10. 10
    Jennifer Palo on September 18, 2019

    I am as thrilled as many others who want to see the success of this program. If this is doable in schools with a high rate of free and reduced meals (FARM) students, a high population of non-English speakers, academically at-risk, and students with exceptionalities, then this program will possibly work for my own school, too. I am keen to monitor how this program evolves. I want to see what the data looks like in the next five years.

    I experienced what the Tennessee statewide survey reported about how much time teachers spend sourcing reading materials to differentiate and modify reading instruction; it’s even more than four and a half hours a week. Mrs. Bell argued that school systems should “stop expecting teachers to be curriculum curators. If you just give teachers the materials they need, and allow them to do what they do best, which is to teach and to lead learning, then that really has a dramatic impact on student learning” (Core Knowledge Foundation, 2018. para. 9) is very true. I will not argue how much time teachers spend on testing, grading, correcting papers, meetings, etc. because this is not why I responded to this blog. I responded because I am so inspired at how the collaborative efforts from top administration down to the teaching force are so empowering. Everyone is on the same page as to how the program proceeds. Expectations are leveled off in all sectors of the school system. Teachers are empowered to make it happen in the classrooms. Even when leadership changes, the leading, mentoring, coaching, and teaching continues. Such an ideal school force where everyone is on board with one goal to build an early literacy infrastructure and to consequently bridge the possibility of the achievement gap in reading literacy skills (Core Knowledge Foundation, 2018). Kudos, Sullivan County!

    Core Knowledge Foundation (2019, June 13). Building an Early Literacy Infrastructure in Sullivan County, Tennessee. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

  11. 11
    Juhee Song on September 20, 2019

    I am very impressed by what Sullivan County has achieved in an effort to strengthen early literacy instruction. The samples of the first grader’s writing at the beginning and end of the first grade manifest high-quality instruction with quality instructional materials. The implementation of CKLA (Core Knowledge Language Arts) in a rural area of Tennessee with many FARMS (eligible for free and/or reduced-price meals) is crucial. But what is more essential is to level the playing field. The county adopted strong read-alouds, text complexity, and teacher support/accountability which ensures strong instruction happens in the classroom.

    I was particularly excited to read about making sure school leaders understand the importance of what strong literacy instruction looks like and the support system. I think it is a wonderful idea to visit a teacher or expert in a certain area if one is struggling to implement with fidelity. Teachers are leaders of what they do best, and I think we should collaborate more often to support one another in this manner. I also like “instructional rubrics” in an effort to make sure things are happening in the classroom with fidelity. All in all, it is a collaborative effort among the district, administrators, and teachers.

    Core Knowledge Foundation (2019, June 13). Building an Early Literacy Infrastructure in Sullivan County, Tennessee. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

  12. 12
    BROOKE N HUTCHINS on January 19, 2020

    Fantastic job, Sullivan County, in your efforts to recognize the importance and implementation of effective early literacy instruction. In particular, I appreciate the sentiments made by Mrs. Bell who discusses the importance of a leveled playing field for the economically disadvantaged students. Specifically, your reflection on providing students with a systematic approach to learning, building on experiences to engage and develop these students, and reflecting on the instructional approaches to ensure they are just and equitable. Cultivating equity in our classroom truly requires us to address the “achievement gap,” as well as understanding the underlying issues in a child’s life to cultivate equity. Such things as limited resources or students who present in our classroom from impoverished homes (Gorski & Pothini, 2018).

    Gorski, P.C., & Pothini, S.G. (2018). Case studies on diversity and social justice education (2nd ed. ). New York, NY: Routledge. Chapter 2, ” Analyzing Cases Using the Equity Literacy Framework” (pp. 9-19)

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