What is Vertical Coherence and Why Does it Matter for Equity?

By: Liisa Potts & Jamilah Hicks. 

What is vertical coherence, and why does it matter? Think of everything a student needs to learn across grade bands (e.g. K-5, 6-8) as a kind of baton pass—every grade needs to work together and every piece of content needs to be carefully chosen and placed to ensure stability and cohesion as students approach graduation. In other words, it’s the intentional selection of curricula over the span of K-12, each of which is logically-structured, builds on previous learning, and facilitates student mastery of standards in every grade.

Vertical coherence is a challenge in the best of times when teachers work physically side by side in buildings—talking during breaks, sharing plans, and co-creating lessons in person. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many teachers to work differently, often without the support of high-quality, coherent materials. Data from EdReports, the independent curriculum review organization, found that only 26 percent of English language arts teachers reported using a standards-aligned program once a week in 2020. This means that thousands of teachers continue to scramble for content on unvetted websites such as TeachersPayTeachers and Pinterest because they lack coherent materials that could guide what students need to learn all year long.

Why Does Vertical Coherence Matter?

Language arts standards are integrated by design: reading complex and rigorous literary and informational texts, integrating knowledge and ideas, building foundational reading and language skills, demonstrating increasingly sophisticated writing, and developing critical speaking and listening skills as children learn and grow. The standards outline an intentional progression and spiraling of key competencies across grades and should be applied in tandem with appropriate texts that increase in rigor not just across a school year but also across grades. So to align to the standards, ELA materials in all grade bands must reflect that same level of integration, rigor, and progression.

The absence of vertical coherence can have serious implications for student outcomes and equity. If curriculum isn’t coherent across grade bands, teachers may end up re-teaching content or students may be unprepared to engage with new work.

But the challenge is teachers simply don’t have the time to create and analyze scope and sequence documents across grade bands to ensure the content in the instructional path is aligned to what’s required in grade-level standards. Ideally, teachers would have this information early so they could be proactive in the planning required to support all learners.

Sometimes district curriculum teams provide this data as a resource or professional learning opportunity. More often, teachers are left on their own and may not perceive the lack of coherence in materials until after seeing the level of need and readiness in students.

Simply put, teaching redundant content (or failing to teach content entirely) leads to gaps and imbalances: students spend precious instructional time circling back to content they already know and not on the grade-level content they need. But when materials are vertically coherent, teachers have the option to thoughtfully scaffold content and make informed choices ahead of time about what content to review or when to introduce new learning.

If left unchecked, the lack of vertical coherence in curriculum compounds inequities for students; their chances of backfilling a skill become less and less as they get older. For example, middle and high school teachers depend on K-5 curricula to build foundational reading skills so that all students enter grade six as skilled and fluent readers. Students who don’t get access to that instruction risk falling through the cracks, or being misdiagnosed and requiring intervention.

The presence or absence of vertical coherence is felt across other curricular areas, as well—because effective language arts instruction sets students up to read and comprehend complex text in all subjects. When curriculum is coherently structured from kindergarten up, students reach high school with the ability to comprehend, critique, explain concepts, and form arguments across all content areas—not just language arts. But without that coherence, teachers in grades 6–12 for literally all content areas face the daunting task of helping struggling students who haven’t been given the tools to navigate texts in their subjects.

4 Questions to Ask to Ensure You’re Selecting Materials with Vertical Coherence in Mind

Checking for coherence means comparing standards correlation and scope and sequence documents, and analyzing both student and teacher materials side by side. Some questions for adoption committees and curriculum decision-makers to consider include:

  1. Does text complexity ascend across grades—or is there a sudden shift in rigor across grade bands?
  2. Do informational texts account for at least 50 percent of elementary texts and 70 percent in 6–12, or is there an overweighting toward literary texts?
  3. Do you see intentional sequencing of academic vocabulary, unit topics, culminating tasks, and research projects across grades—or are they repeating year after year with little progression?
  4. Is writing instruction, practice, and application well-spaced with frequent, cyclical touchpoints that allow students to grow essential skills? Or do you see a skill being introduced at the start of one grade then not making another appearance until the end of the next one?

These questions apply both to the task of checking for coherence across successive grades within a curriculum, and to the task of assessing coherence between curricula for different grade bands.

The process of choosing curriculum is time-intensive and complex, and language arts materials are weightier than most. That’s why it’s important to have conversations about materials selection and to winnow down your options to focus on those that are the best fit for the needs of your students and the strengths of your teachers. And just as the selection of aligned, research-grounded ELA materials saves teachers time and ensures quality and equity, optimizing for vertical coherence enables teachers to deliver on the promise of the standards, setting up students and fellow teachers alike for success throughout their school experience.

Choosing high-quality instructional materials for your school or district is critical—both to address equity and to prepare all students for college and career-readiness. You’ll want to invest time and resources to narrow your options, and to engage key stakeholders in the comparison process.

For more, see:

Liisa Potts, Director of ELA Review at EdReports

Jamilah Hicks is a ELA Content Specialist at EdReports 

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