Reading & Literacy

Popular ‘Wonders’ Curriculum Shows Gaps in Alignment to Reading Research

By Sarah Schwartz — June 10, 2021 6 min read
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A new review of one of the top 10 most popular reading programs claims that the curriculum has gaps in its alignment to reading research, and doesn’t offer enough supports for teachers.

The analysis comes from Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit educational consulting group that started tapping teams of researchers to evaluate popular reading programs last year.

The organization made waves with its first review, published in January 2020, of the Units of Study for Teaching Reading in grades K-5—perhaps the most well-known workshop-style reading program. The researchers said it was “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

This latest review is more mixed. The curriculum in question is Wonders, a basal reading program published by McGraw Hill. It’s one of the top 10 most popular reading programs, according to a recent Education Week Research Center survey: 15 percent of early reading teachers surveyed used Wonders in their classrooms.

Because Student Achievement Partners conducted its review before they could access the 2020 version of Wonders, the group evaluated the 2017 California edition. Reviewers found many positives: foundational skills components, lots of English-language learner support, complex texts, and some evidence of knowledge building.

But the reviewers also said the program was “overwhelming” and bulky, “a significant issue that dilutes its many strengths.” There’s more content than teachers could reasonably get through, they wrote, allowing for teacher choice in designing units—but the reviewers cautioned that this design puts a lot of onus on teachers.

“Teachers could easily shortchange research-based elements,” the report reads. “The ‘make-your-own-adventure-because-one-cannot-possibly-teach-all-that-is-offered’ design of Wonders left reviewers skeptical that crucial aspects of reading acquisition would get the time and attention required to enable all students to become secure in their reading ability.”

In an email, Tyler Reed, the senior director of communications for McGraw Hill, wrote that Wonders—and other basals—"include many resources by design.” The programs are meant to be comprehensive and address all state standards.

“While we recognize the SAP concerns over the amount of material in California Wonders ©2017, it is also true that the wealth of additional activities, texts, and choices provide an effective way to meet a wider range of students’ instructional needs,” Reed wrote. He also noted that the company works with district leaders on implementation and training plans.

Review seeks to evaluate alignment to research

These findings don’t entirely line up with the Wonders evaluation from the well-known curriculum reviewer EdReports, a nonprofit that enlists teams of teacher reviewers to examine math, English/language arts, and science materials for alignment to the Common Core State Standards. (Most states still use these standards, or similar state variations.)

According to EdReports, the Wonders 2020 edition meets expectations across all domains—the highest rating that the organization gives. The 2017 edition met expectations for text quality, but only partially met expectations for building knowledge.

But the authors of the Student Achievement Partners report claim that their review and EdReports’ review don’t necessarily contradict each other—they’re just measuring different things.

EdReports measures alignment to standards—what the SAP review calls the “what” of curriculum. But SAP says it’s evaluating the “how” of curriculum: whether the methods outlined in these materials are evidence-based. “Standards are an outcome. They’re not what you do to hit the target,” said SAP reviewer David Paige, a professor of literacy and the director of the Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic at Northern Illinois University-DeKalb.

Student Achievement Partners’ review looked at Wonders in five areas, each evaluated by a different reading researcher:

  1. Foundational reading skills
  2. Text complexity
  3. Knowledge building
  4. Support for English-language learners
  5. Historically and culturally responsive instruction and representation

The group also consulted five educators who had worked with the curriculum in the Long Beach Unified school district for their opinion on ease of use and reflections on the five above categories.

The program’s positives, according to SAP: It has a coherent scope and sequence for letter-feature instruction, includes direct and explicit instruction, and focuses on reading prosody—reading out loud with appropriate expression. Text selections are varied and complex, and there is a full range of English-learner supports throughout the program. There’s also racial and ethnic diversity among the characters in the passages that children read.

Still, the reviewers identified what they felt were shortcomings, including pacing that was too slow or too fast in some foundational skills instruction, not enough time spent on each text, and little guidance on which ELL supports and supplements to use in different situations.

The section on equity and cultural responsiveness found that representations of characters of color were “often myopic, shallow, and stereotypical,” and that the program included few selections from authors of color.

In his email to Education Week, Reed of McGraw Hill said that changes have been made in some of these areas in the 2020 edition of Wonders, giving students in grades 2-5 more time with individual text sets, increasing some practice opportunities for foundational skills, updating ELL supports, and developing supplemental culturally responsive lessons.

The review also looked at how well the curriculum built student knowledge about social studies and science topics through literacy lessons. It does partially, said Sonia Cabell, an assistant professor of reading education at Florida State University, who reviewed knowledge building for the SAP report. Social studies and science content is covered every week, but the curriculum itself is not organized around these topics, nor designed to systematically build students’ knowledge—rather, the curriculum is organized around themes.

What should teachers and schools take away from this analysis?

It’s not as simple as a recommendation for—or a warning against—using Wonders, the researchers said.

Schools need to decide what they want their ELA program to do, Cabell said. Wonders may not systematically build knowledge in social studies and science. But, she said, “I think that is a judgment call on whether you want a curriculum that does that.”

If a school has strong elementary social studies and science programs, teachers and instructional leaders could look at Wonders, figure out where lessons could reinforce these programs, and then think about where they might want to bring in supplemental resources. But if a content-rich ELA curriculum is a priority, then maybe a school might want to compare Wonders against some of the programs that are specifically designed to meet this goal.

“I don’t think any one English/language arts curriculum is the key to building knowledge,” Cabell said.

When it comes to teacher support, the review argues that Wonders doesn’t provide enough direction. On the one hand, “I’m not sure if it’s fair to expect any reading program to be able to do all that,” said Paige. A curriculum is “kind of like a set of tools in the hands of a carpenter,” and relies on teacher knowledge, too.

On the other hand, Paige said, it can take a lot of time and effort to figure out how to use those tools effectively.

One of the teachers interviewed for the review said that it took her two years to become comfortable with the program.

And survey results from the Education Week Research Center have found that, in general, only about 1 in 10 teachers feel that their preservice training “completely prepared” them to teach reading.

A school or district using Wonders should be providing a lot of support, especially around pacing, Paige said.


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