The University of Iowa

High-Priority Milestones and EL Considerations: A Deeper Look at the Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative

Teacher helping student with activity

Students should be demonstrating certain reading skills as they progress through the early grades. The Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative lays out those milestones and the instructional methods to use in the classroom to reach them.


Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: September 11, 2018

Many factors are involved in efforts to improve students’ reading proficiency and foster greater achievement. One important factor is the instruction provided. Improving the quality of instruction can be considered a prerequisite for improving students’ reading abilities. To that end, the Iowa Reading Research Center and the Iowa Department of Education are jointly taking action to improve literacy teaching with the Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative (Blueprint).

The Blueprint is a multipronged initiative that includes professional development for educators and the establishment of early literacy milestones. All aspects of the Blueprint are curriculum-neutral, meaning they can be implemented regardless of the particular instructional materials a school has adopted. The sections that follow offer an overview of the Blueprint and its features.

Literacy Professional Development for Teachers

By providing professional development for educators, the Blueprint aims to equip teachers with the knowledge, evidence-based literacy practices, and support they need to provide improved literacy instruction. We have developed six professional development modules covering key reading skills and instructional approaches:

  1. Overview of Effective Literacy Strategy Instruction
  2. Effective Phonics Instruction: Grapheme-Phoneme Mapping
  3. Effective Instruction in Building Words with Morphemes
  4. Effective Vocabulary Instruction: Frayer Model
  5. Effective Comprehension Instruction: Text Structure
  6. Implementing Small-Group Instruction in the Literacy Block

Each module contains activities for teachers to practice the instructional steps, videos of Iowa teachers and students engaged in the practices, and embedded suggestions for supporting students who are struggling with reading. The modules will be delivered to teachers by instructional coaches and other literacy leaders, all of whom will have been thoroughly prepared by the Iowa Reading Research Center through a training-of-trainers (TOT) approach. The best-qualified applicants were selected to attend a TOT event to become Certified Blueprint Trainers who then can deliver the professional development directly to teachers in their home districts or Area Education Agencies. This approach capitalizes on the capable experts already working with schools and extends their work to empower teachers in delivering high-quality instruction with the greatest likelihood of benefiting students.

Milestones Provide Guidance for Literacy Instructional Planning

One intended use of the High Priority Milestones for K-3 Reading Development document is as a starting point for educators to evaluate their curricula and literacy program. Are the scope and sequence designed to help students develop the skills and abilities that research has identified as critical contributors to becoming a proficient reader? The milestones explain what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade and within the following components of reading:

  • Oral language
  • Phonological awareness
  • Alphabetics
  • Print conventions
  • Phonics and word recognition
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Preceding the detailed progression of skills, the Milestones document provides a definition of the reading component, focusing on what generally defines students’ abilities within that component. For example, for the component comprehension, one of the bullet points is “Students can think critically about a text and discuss it with peers and adults.”

Next, there is an overview list of each of the skills involved in that component. Those skills are then described in greater detail by grade level. Returning to the comprehension component example, students completing kindergarten should be able to “stop periodically to check understanding” to demonstrate grade-appropriate mastery of the component skill “monitor comprehension while reading.” By the end of first grade, students should know to “reread when the text does not make sense” to demonstrate mastery of the same component skill. After second grade, students should be equipped to “create mental and graphic images of the events and concepts.” Finally, upon finishing third grade, students should be able to “establish purpose for reading assigned and self-selected texts.”

The Milestones allow educators and families to look through a specific grade to see what skills need to be mastered, and across grades to see how a skill progresses in complexity as students age. Where applicable, the Milestones identify the most relevant Iowa Core standards for each skill described.

In addition to the various literacy components and their skills, the Milestones document also includes recommendations that support literacy learning across kindergarten through Grade 3. A sample recommendation for supporting motivation and engagement is to ensure that “students access a variety of high-interest texts to build motivation to read for enjoyment and to learn new information.” A recommendation for assessment and environment is to structure student learning so that it “is continually supported and measured to inform new and challenging reading goals for ongoing reading progress.”

The Milestones are not intended to be a fully-developed curriculum or literacy instructional plan. Rather, they provide descriptions only of the specific achievements that are particularly critical for keeping students on track to becoming proficient readers. Using this free resource, districts can evaluate, modify, and monitor their literacy instructional plans.

Blueprint Built with English Learners Fully Integrated

The entire Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative was designed with the intention that the practices be appropriate for all students, including English learners (ELs). In fact, parts of the Blueprint may be most useful for students who have scored well enough on the annual English Language Proficiency Assessment to be transitioned out of EL classes. However, those students may not have reached grade-level expectations in all areas of literacy development, such as decoding and building their English vocabulary.

In order to make the best use of the strategies, there is information pertaining specifically to ELs integrated within every aspect of the Blueprint. In the High Priority Milestones for K-3 Reading Development document, there are footnotes related to the literacy components and specific skills within those components that provide additional considerations for the reading development of ELs and bilingual students. For example, within the literacy component of oral language, a footnote advises that “ELs may not be able to use all forms of social communication in English, but they should be aware of the pragmatic importance of social communication and be able to recognize ’when/how‘ questions when asked (even if they are unable to respond).” These added comments provide educators greater context for understanding the possible limitations of or differences in how ELs might demonstrate their abilities, as compared to native English-speaking students with typical reading development.

Additionally, the Milestones document contains a section listing various points of support for ELs that apply across kindergarten through Grade 3. For example, there are bulleted points about the benefits of immersion/dual immersion programs, students’ use of both their native language and English as they develop their bilingual skills, and more.

The Blueprint literacy professional development modules also contain information, tips, strategies, and context specific to ELs. Module presentations contain content specific to ELs, such as the idea in the Overview of Effective Literacy Strategy Instruction module that systematic and explicit instruction is very important for ELs because they are still building their knowledge base and may not grasp things taught implicitly. The modules also contain supplemental materials that provide additional information, usually expanding on a topic that was touched on in the overall presentation. For example, the text structure module contains a supplemental document that highlights challenges faced by ELs when using passages during text structure lessons as well as instructional solutions for those challenges.

The Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative – Here for Your Use

As the rollout of the different aspects of the Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative continues, it is important to keep some things in mind:

  1. The training-of-trainers approach is going to allow the Blueprint professional development for teachers to reach as many classrooms and, by extension, students as possible. However, it will take some time to build the cohort of Certified Blueprint Trainers who will deliver the professional development to teachers across the state. As more literacy experts become certified, they will begin scheduling professional development sessions locally at school districts and Area Education Agencies.
  2. The High Priority Milestones for K-3 Reading Development document is available now for any educator or family member to use. As you start teaching and looking ahead in your curriculum this school year, peruse the document and see if the Milestones relevant to your grade are going to be addressed instructionally. Monitor if students are progressing toward where they should be by the end of this school year. Families also can browse the Milestones to see if at-home reading and writing activities for their children are addressing skills that should be mastered for their grade. Activities from our resources and our web-based resources for families and educators can then be chosen to supplement ongoing activities. Furthermore, follow the Iowa Reading Research Center on Twitter and Facebook for more literacy resources.
  3. There is ongoing development and refinement of the Blueprint resources. The Iowa Reading Research Center is collecting fidelity of implementation data on the professional development sessions and classroom implementation of the literacy practices to determine what is working and what might need to be revised about the supports provided to trainers or teachers. In addition, new modules will be created to address other skills identified in the Milestones document or to provide teachers with more information on how to teach students with particular reading difficulties such as dyslexia. These revisions to old modules or additional modules might be delivered in various formats, including online. The content and the means of distributing that content will be determined based on the feedback received, so it is important for those involved in Blueprint to communicate and share data with the IRRC.

By taking advantage of all that Blueprint has to offer, you are helping to construct an improved literacy learning environment for students in your classroom, your home, and all across the state.