About the Experts


Kareem Weaver

is a Co-Founder and Executive Director of FULCRUM, which partners with stakeholders to improve reading results for students. He is the Oakland NAACP's 2nd Vice President and Chair of its Education Committee; his advocacy is featured in the upcoming film The Right to Read. Mr. Weaver previously served as New Leaders’ Executive Director of the Western Region and was an award-winning teacher and administrator. He has undergraduate degrees from Morehouse College and a Masters in Clinical-Community Psychology from the University of South Carolina. Mr. Weaver believes in the potential of all students, the brotherhood of man, and the importance of service above self. His educational heroine, for literacy instruction, is the late Marva Collins.


David Liben

has taught in public and private elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as community college and teacher preparation courses. He founded two innovative model schools in New York City and developed the Family Academy curriculum, which he has presented to educators at workshops nationwide. David received a Masters in Educational Administration from Columbia University

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When teachers are clear in their intentions during small-group instruction, all children can achieve. With this first in a three-book series addressing small-group instruction, Nancy Akhavan shares the precise instructional scaffolds striving readers need.

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Climbing The Ladder of Reading & Writing: Meeting the Needs of ALL Learners Professional Development Book

Co-edited by literacy experts Nancy Young, Ed.D., and Jan Hasbrouck, Ph.D., this concise yet powerful guide effectively addresses the differentiated needs of students, offering educators an indispensable and user-friendly reference. Contributing authors share proven supports for students’ varying needs as they acquire literacy skills—improving outcomes for all students, including those with dyslexia and other exceptional needs and considerations.

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Meaningful Phonics and Word Study: Lesson Fix Ups for Impactful Teaching Professional Development Book

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Episode Transcript

Announcer: This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson: In this episode: The urgent issue of usability. I'm Kevin Carlson and this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Kareem Weaver: Teachers need to know that the materials they're being given are usable within the parameters of the structure within the school system. And right now, in most districts, it is just not the case.

David Liben: You're not going to get a lot of highfalutin’ theory when you ask these questions of me and Kareem.

Kevin Carlson: Today's episode has two guests, Kareem Weaver and Dr. David Liben. Kareem is a co-founder and executive director of an organization called FULCRUM, for Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate. Its mission is to accelerate a movement of leaders who embrace and apply evidence-based literacy practices to improve student reading outcomes. FULCRUM believes literacy is the fundamental civil right of our time. Weaver is also the Oakland NAACP’s second vice president and chair of its education committee.

David is an educator, school leader, and literacy curriculum expert who, with Meredith Liben, founded Reading Done Right. It provides practical, effective literacy support and learning opportunities to schools, districts, and publishers, along with strategic planning and evaluating the quality of literacy programs.

Recently, author and educator Patty McGee spoke with Kareem and David about usability of instructional materials. What do teachers need to successfully implement a curriculum? Who should be represented on selection committees? What keeps a curriculum working well and serving students throughout the year? These are big questions. Kareem and David have some answers. Here's Patty with Kareem Weaver and David Liben.

Patty McGee: Kareem and David, thanks for joining me today. We're going to focus on talking about usability. I just wanted to first start off by asking you to define usability and why it's just so important in terms of equity and achievement and education. Kareem, would you go first?

Kareem Weaver: I think usability is the opposite of virtue signaling. Virtue signaling talks about our intentions and what we mean to do.

Patty McGee: Ah.

Kareem Weaver: Usability operationalizes that. What are you actually doing? Is it possible to do this thing and do it well within the time allotted? This is one of those things that, to me, is the most common sensical, out of many of the topics that we hit in education—can we use it efficiently, effectively, to reach as many kids as possible within the time allotted? That's usability. And, is it something that a range of teachers can use given their experience levels, their backgrounds, both linguistic and just professionally? Is it applicable to all, or does it take a specialized degree or certification to be able to understand the process of instruction? When I think of usability, that's what I think of—can you use it, and who can use it, and how long does it take to use it, and who's it going to help? And if the answer to all those questions is wide, is that everyone can use it, it'll help a lot of kids a lot. Now we're talking about usability within the context of whatever the structural issues are. For example, teachers’ contracts, etc. David, what about you? What do you how would you say it?

David Liben: I'll break it into—first of all, I totally agree with everything you said. “Plus, plus, plus,” as they say somewhere. I'll break it into Planning and Before the Teacher Implements the Curriculum, During, and After. And “Before” I'll break into two parts: Planning that goes like days before or weeks before, etc., and then planning each day.

Planning in the longer term is, how hard is it to get a teacher—and what Kareem said is very important, teachers come in with ranges of abilities and experience—how hard is it for them to get their head around what drives this program? That's number one. Number two, how hard is this for them to start thinking about planning it, if they're looking at a week or even just a couple of days in advance? How many things do they have to read? How many things do they have to do? How much is going to be new to them? And if it's new to them, what did the program do to explain it without asking the teacher to work “X” amount of hours that they're probably not paid for? And then that's implementation on a daily basis. Can a teacher who has two or three kids, goes home, commutes, comes back—can they open up the book and start teaching this program, or do they have to look for work for a half hour? And I've seen programs that, literally, if you don't spend 45 minutes before you start teaching, you're sunk. And I don't care how much that program incorporates the Science of Reading. In the real world, it's not going to work.

So how much can you just walk in and start teaching, knowing what you're doing, and you're following the program and you're there and you're with it? Because teachers, especially in the early grades, don't like to “Uh-oh, I didn't do this,” or “Uh-oh, I didn't do that.” Or, “What are we doing now?”

And then there's afterwards. How hard is it to get a sense that you succeeded? And do you have to do an assessment every week? Do you have to do an assessment every day? If so, how easy is it to do that assessment? So it's planning long-term, planning short-term, implementing, and assessing. Those are key elements of usability. And I guess another thing that doesn't get much attention, since teachers work together, because it's helpful—how much does the curriculum lend itself to a teacher who has a little more experience explaining it to a teacher with less experience, in a limited way that makes sense, that doesn't take up too much time? In other words—not only how usable is it, but how teachable is it to other people? So that's a range of it, and it doesn't get—as far as I know, Kareem and I are the only ones nationally beating this drum. And it doesn't get the attention it deserves. And one reason is that it's not connected to the Science of Reading. There's no science. There's no experiments that said, “Here are the elements A, B, C, and D that you need to be usable, and we've established this through a series of research”—which we have done for everything else in reading, really, on some level, but not for usability.

Kareem Weaver: Can I just say one quick thing to respond to that?

Patty McGee: Of course. Please.

Kareem Weaver: So, you know, David, when I hear you say that—you're right. I haven't spoken. Now, teachers on the ground, this resonates with them. And they're like, “Yes, thank you.” I've heard a lot of them say, “Thank you so much for talking about that.” But I can tell you, school boards, curriculum adoption committees, superintendents and chief academic officers, this too often is an afterthought. This isn't on the rubric. This isn't on a checklist. And even though this is the thing that if you don't get this right, your implementation is going to be paddling upstream, or up a hill, or whatever metaphor you want to use, it's not going to go well. But for whatever reason, this has been pushed to the side and very rarely talked about up front.

You know, I urge any labor association—I understand, yes, you want to fight for salaries. Yes, you want to fight for—and, can folks do the job? Are the materials they've been given usable? And I just I would urge anyone, if you don't hear anything else from this podcast, you want to advocate for that on the front end and not chase it after folks have adopted something that just isn't a good fit for the structure in your system.

David Liben: You know it's an interesting—again, I couldn't agree more. It's an interesting question. Why hasn't this gotten the attention?

Kareem Weaver: I don't know, I don't know.

David Liben: One reason is that there's no science per se, right? That you can't look up an experiment and see. The other reason—you know, you and I, Kareem, have something else in common: We both ran schools. And we both know how important usability is and how important that teachers can do what they're asked to do. I think a lot of the people that are talking about educational reform, many of them didn't spend enough time in schools, and virtually none of them spent time running schools. And when you run a school, you get a great sense of what teachers can do, what teachers can't do, and when teachers get frustrated. Because when teachers get frustrated, it usually ends up at Kareem's desk or David's desk. And sometimes they go to the other teachers, but you want them to come to the principal when they're doing that. So I think those are the two reasons this doesn't get any attention. It's not “in the science,” and a lot of the people that are talking about educational reform don't have enough hands-on experience in schools.

Kareem Weaver: Yeah, I'd agree with that.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Making research usable for teachers. Stay with us.

Male Announcer: Teaching all students to read is a social justice issue. In her book, At the Reading Table with Striving Readers, author, educator, and literacy expert Nancy Akhavan describes how to achieve equitable reading among students by teaching in small groups, with texts that reflect the lives of all children.

Nancy Akhavan: My name is Nancy Akhavan and I'm a teacher, a speaker, and a consultant with many years’ experience in education. I wrote At the Reading Table with Striving Readers to make a difference for students who may have been overlooked in the past, or where the one-size-fits-all instruction just hasn't worked.

Male Announcer: Find out more about this and other titles at PD Essentials dot com. Go teach brilliantly.

Patty McGee: How do we then bridge the research? How do we make the research usable for teachers? What are some things that we can do?

Kareem Weaver: I have thoughts about it. David, I don't know if you want to go first or not, but I’m more than happy to jump in.

David Liben: You can go first because you're so much younger than I.

Kareem Weaver: All right, man, all right. So look, there are market forces at work here, all right? Publishers, they want to sell products, they want to sell things. But there is a demand side to this. If folks demand, “Hey, you know, our contract calls for, let's say, 40 minutes, let's say 200 minutes of preparation time a week. And our teachers have to be able to use this thing and be well prepared within that time frame. And if your stuff isn't able to do that, we're just not buying from you.” Until districts are willing to do that, unless they're conscious enough and thinking about their teachers and their principals on the front end, and demand that, it's not going to change. I've talked with publishers, I've talked with many publishers who are shocked that this topic even comes up, because nobody's talked to them about it before.

I had one, I don't know what her role might have been, a vice president or something, she turned to another person and said, “Usability. Really? Huh.” It just blew her mind that this was even a conversation. You get what you demand. If you just say, “We're not going to buy it, if it's not usable within the time of our contract it's just not a good fit for our district.” There has to be a willingness to dig into the research, to dig into the case studies, to make sure these folks declare how much time things take to do and prepare for, and see if it lines up with your system. And if you're not willing to do some diligence, to do some vetting, then you're going to be had. There are no forces at work that are going to push publishers to make things usable besides “who's going to buy what?” And right now they just don't have to, because very few districts—and I'm talking to the superintendents, the chief academic officers, the committees, the school boards—very few people say, “This is a priority for us, and we need to know this before we cut a check.” If you're not willing to do that, then then this is all just another form of, just talk.

You have to be willing to walk away, unless people are producing things that align with your system's needs and structures.

David Liben: The only thing I would add to that is—and it's not really adding to it, it's just fleshing it out a little—lots of times when, not as much as it should be, but teachers will pilot a program for a year before they make a decision. I don't know the percentage, it's certainly not all the districts, but there are some districts that do this—they tend to give it to the best teachers, because they want their input. Teachers, like lawyers and doctors and everybody else, span a degree of motivation and ability. And so if you're giving something to look at for usability to the top-notch best teachers in your district, that's a mistake. You don't have to label it, “These are the weak people we're getting,” you don't have to advertise that. You’ve just got to very carefully have it implemented by teachers with a range of motivation and ability. And that I'm certain is never done.

David Liben: The same thing with, if the district has a committee to look at the curriculum, that committee will—they often have teachers on it, although I've seen some that didn't even have teachers. But that also should not be only your top-notch, highly motivated, most efficient, most capable teachers. The teacher input should reflect the range of the teachers in your program. So that's the only thing I would add to that, and that's probably hardly ever done.

Kareem Weaver: Let’s elevate this a little bit more, let's put some feet on this. So I have connected with district leadership before on this very topic and said, “Let's look at your committee.” Without fail, most of the people who raised their hand for that committee are folks who have the bandwidth to do it. They're experienced. They know their routines. And they, for the most part, have a handle on instruction. Well, okay, that means they can pick almost anything and it's going to work for them. But you have some other folks in the buildings who are hanging on for dear life. They're in high-stress environments. They're working with children with a whole host of, a range of needs, whether it's linguistic needs, with socio-economic needs, whether it's attention, whatever it is. So there is less bandwidth for them. Well, you want to know if it works for them. You’ve got to get them on the committee. So all this talk about equity and diversity and inclusion—well, where is the diversity of experiences on the committee?

David Liben: Yeah, yeah.

Kareem Weaver: Because I guarantee you, they're going to take one look at that program that folks are trying and say, “That's not going to work for us. It's too confusing, it takes too long, there's no way”—they'll dismiss it out of hand. But they're not the ones who are going to raise their hand and say, “Let me on the committee,” because they're holding on for dear life. That means there has to be some intentionality when you build out these committees. “We want ‘X’ number of folks who serve students from different linguistic backgrounds, we want ‘X’ percentage of folks who serve low-income kids.” Whatever the demographics of your district are, you want teachers who can represent those who serve them on a proportional basis. Because if you don't do that, if you're not intentional, you're just going to replicate what everybody else has been doing. It's an instinct that we have to fight, because in one sense, well, I'm being egalitarian, I'm making it available to everyone. But you had to think about who's going to respond to the call to serve on these committees in the first place.

David Liben: You're not going to get a lot of highfalutin’ theory when you ask these questions of me and Kareem. I'll flesh that out with a real-life example. I won't mention the district, although it's well known nationally. They just came out of a really, really super-difficult situation, politically, pedagogically, and every way possible. They happen to have top-notch leadership, but it was politically problematic in every way. And they put together a group that included teachers. But they did not do what Kareem was talking about and what I was talking about. And this district would have all kinds of obstacles in every way possible—less-experienced teachers, higher class size, greater turnover. They picked by far the most complex curriculum to learn and implement. And the only teachers on that review were top-notch, highly motivated teachers. That's a real-life example of exactly what Kareem said.

Kareem Weaver: I can think of another example where, to their credit, the district—this particular district backed off from their initial choice. They listened, they engaged. We brought out David and his wonderful wife Meredith, to virtually to speak to them and said, “Hey, can you answer questions? Can you talk about usability and a host of other factors?” They listened, they took notes, we had the Zoom call, and all the rest. And they still chose one of the hardest curriculums to implement. So you have to have people in charge who, it's not just a checklist item, who they really do get it. And that means the president of the school board, that when they vote for these things, when they vote to approve these adoptions, they have to ask the questions, “Does the usability of this line up with our teacher's contract? How much time does it take to be ready for full implementation?” Because understand, the kids who have learning differences, the kids who have linguistic differences, the kids who have a range of experiences that are anything outside of one standard deviation to the right or left, you're going to need full implementation to get those kids. So I need to know if we can do all of this thing and how long it's going to take me to do it. To most people listening to you, they would probably say, “You mean that's not considered? We thought that was common sense.” And all I can tell you is, we wouldn't be sitting here in front of you if it was all that common. Because teachers need to know that the materials they're being given are usable within the parameters of the structure within the school system. And right now, in most districts, it is just not the case.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: More on usability from Patty's conversation with Kareem Weaver and David Liben. Stay with us.

Female Announcer: Reading literally opens the door of possibility. In his book, Meaningful Phonics and Word Study: Lesson Fix Ups for Impactful Teaching, early reading specialist Wiley Blevins delivers an essential guide to explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Meaningful Phonics and Word Study is informed by the latest research on the Science of Reading and explores the seven foundations of effective phonics instruction.

Wiley Blevins: When these seven components are taught systematically, phonics instruction is more effective, which means the instruction helps students more efficiently progress and move into beginning reading and writing.

Female Announcer: Find out more about this and other titles at PD Essentials dot com. Go teach brilliantly.

Patty McGee: So let's dig deeper with this a little bit more. So you're giving examples which I think are really helpful, of places where they have strong leadership in place. They have from board president to school leadership and then having committees that include teachers that have a diverse set of backgrounds, in terms of instruction and experience, and now they're looking at products. So we are going to look at the time that it takes to plan using this. What else are we on the lookout for, the first round of vetting this before we even get to the pilot, in terms of usability?

David Liben: I'll start with foundational skills. K to 2 beginning reading. You have to have groups. Some kids just move faster than others, regardless of their background or experience or anything. The easier that you make the grouping procedure—because grouping is hard. Teachers working with one group at the table, but there's two or sometimes three other groups—what exactly are those groups that aren't with the teacher doing? Are they doing something that's very specific and very concrete and not only is it based on the research, but is it concrete? Is it doable or the kids’ going to constantly need help? And that's one thing to look for in terms of usability. And then, is the time frame set up right, both for usability and for efficient pedagogy? Is more time allotted to the kids who need more time, and relatively less time allotted for the kids who need less time?

But the biggest usability part in grouping is the tasks that are given to the kids who are not with the teacher. They should, of course, be based on research and that's really clear to do. You can just use Linnea Ehri’s orthographic mapping, and if you analyze everything under the rubric of orthographic mapping, you can tell, is this activity based on science? But because it's based on science doesn't mean it's easy to do. Does it mean the kids can do it, and does it mean that it's something that engages them also? They have to be engaged, it has to be doable. If it gets too abstract, it's very difficult for the teacher to deal with in foundational skills. The second thing with usability, this is also an example of where research doesn't give us an answer. And Wiley Blevins is the only other person I know who talks about this: Some kids need more repetition than others. We don't have an answer in research how much repetition. If the program doesn't build in easily implemented practice and repetition that provides feedback as part of the process that's concrete, easily doable, can keep the kid engaged to do it on their own, whether they're doing it in three or four other kids or doing it by themselves, that repetition needs to be built into the program. Those are both elements with usability and foundational skills.

Kareem Weaver: I would say one of the key features of usability—there are a few, in addition to what David said. My preference, because it's easier to use, is to have something that's all-in-one, that's self-contained. I know there are some programs where you have the foundational skills block or component that's not there, and so then you get another program and you graft it in and now the structure is a little bit more cumbersome. Now you're going to two professional developments, now you're going to to two data meetings, now you're—teachers tend to do the thing that's in front of them and they get good at that, so the fewer manuals the better. The support should be embedded and synthesized, distilled into the main thing. That's the first thing.

I would also say the content knowledge should build so that they have greater access to complex text as they move along. And we all talk about the importance of text complexity—I know the ACT folks did that study years ago showing that it's a key indicator on college readiness, but it just doesn't happen overnight. You build your content knowledge, and there should be some sort of intentionality. I know there's some that literally spiral everything up. You can have that conversation internally as an organization, but kids shouldn't just be learning about volcanoes for the first time in 10th grade. If that's what you're going to study, they ought to know something about the crust of the earth and magma and lava and all the different forces of nature that go into that stuff, so that when they get there, they can access greater complexity of text.

I would say, if you look at what the American Federation of Teachers said about the elements of an effective reading program, assessment is one of them. But we're not talking about assessments at the end. That's an autopsy. We need checkups. And that should be part of it. So along the way we're fine. So no more “wait to fail” model. So look at the intervals where assessments are given—is it once every other month or is it once every few weeks? How far afield do kids go before you can rein them back in, identify they've gone awry, and then kind of rein them back in and get them on the right path again? So there's a bunch more. But those are some key things I look at in terms of usability.

David Liben: Yeah, the other thing I would add is, which I don't think we addressed—we addressed it indirectly, certainly—with usability is, it's connected to what Kareem said, in which you have a separate program, which is just, I think, really not a good idea. But how many places do you have to go to get your materials? Do you have to go to the computer, download something, print it out, collate it, and then give it out? That has to be held to an absolute minimum. And then, what are the kids looking at and what is the teacher looking at? To the greatest extent possible, what the teacher sees in front of her, whether it's on the whiteboard or not, should look like as much as possible what the kids see in front of them. Those are two key elements of usability and foundational skills and in comprehension.

Kareem Weaver: David, what you talked about, where do you get the materials and how many resources do you need—when the kit comes into the teachers’ room, when they bring in the new kit, the teacher is going to look at that kit and they're going to count the books, the different manuals. And if it's more than two or three manuals, in that teacher’s mind, they're thinking, “Whoever made this is full of crap.” Just give me the manual! Maybe there's a second book and maybe an emergency third book—maybe, that I go to every blue moon. But that core teacher’s manual is what they need to be able to access to get the majority of what they need. The guidance and the instruction and the routines should be there. That's part of usability too. I've seen curriculum that have eight to ten books. I'm talking about teacher’s manuals.

And what kills me, and I referenced this earlier, is that we all know the kid who needs books 8, 9, and 10 is the kid that's probably on some website somewhere, some mission statement about equity. Well, I’ve got news for you—if their needs are buried in book 8, 9, or 10, there is no equity. Their needs need to be in Tier 1, embedded and synthesized into the main thing, so that when that teacher goes about preparing for their lessons, that that kid's needs are included. That means that you take those kids who are the furthest from opportunity and you put their needs in the center, and you build it from there. That way, you're getting all kids by design.

David Liben: One of the things—again, I couldn't agree with that more. One of the things that I've done with schools that have already adopted a curriculum, especially some of the most complex ones, is I suggested, if you could do this, take one of your storage closets and organize all of your materials that teachers need to get. So then when the teacher comes in and they're on Unit 3, Week 1, all the materials are in a box that says—and if there's three teachers, there's three boxes—that says Unit 3, Week 1, the teacher goes to that closet and gets it. And if at all possible—and actually a number of schools have done this—if parents can volunteer to keep that closet going, to download, print out the materials and take that work away from teachers, the schools that I've given that to, they thought I was the freaking Messiah. It made things so much easier. But a school's got to—it's kind of like what Kareem said. The people on top who are running the school have to acknowledge that usability is a problem. Otherwise they're not going to do that.

Kareem Weaver: That's a great idea, David. That's a great idea. And even so much, I mean, you see teachers leveraging parent aides just to make copies of whatever the lesson is, etc.—that's the level of need. You know, “I'm so busy, if you would just do this, it would just take a little bit of pressure off. But it goes a long way.” So to be able to clear your mind and say, “Okay, now I'm on Unit 4, somebody go down to the closet and get Unit 4's material. That way I'm not mixing it up with this, it didn't get lost in the closet somewhere or wherever else.” I think that is a great idea, but it first comes in acknowledging that every little bit of clearance and clarity helps, because people are tapped. You know, just someone making copies can make a big difference. I can't even imagine having things set aside unit by unit. Now, best case scenario is that's not necessary because it's all so streamlined in the first place. But if you're going to have something that's so cumbersome or complex, you have to have it organized in a way that people can get to it quickly. And that's a great idea.

Patty McGee: Beautiful. Thank you. Thank you both for really shedding light on what seems like would be a very obvious conversation of usability in terms of materials and selecting those materials. Your passion and your information are really hitting home.

Kevin Carlson: Thank you, Kareem Weaver and David Lebon. Thank you, Patty McGee. And thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. Our next episode will also feature Kareem and David in a conversation about professional learning that works.

I want to let you know about a new book from Benchmark Education’s PD Essentials line: Climbing the Ladder of Reading & Writing: Meeting the Needs of All Students, co-edited by literacy experts Nancy Young and Jan Hasbrouck, who have both been guests on the show this season. The book is based on the popular infographic, “The Ladder of Reading & Writing,” and it presents effective ways to address students’ needs as they master essential literacy skills. Here's Jan Hasbrouck:

Dr. Jan Hasbrouck: We wrote Climbing the Ladder of Reading & Writing to support the work of a wide audience, including educators, parents, and community members to have current, evidence-based practical information to support all learners.

Kevin Carlson: The book includes a foreword by Maryanne Wolf, along with chapters by subject-area experts Kymyona Burk, Nathan H. Clemens, Margie Gillis, Sharon Vaughn, and many others. Here's Nancy Young:

Dr. Nancy Young: Every student deserves effective literacy instruction and support, differentiated for the wide range of ease in skill mastery.

Kevin Carlson: Climbing the Ladder of Reading & Writing is available now. Get your copy at PD Essentials dot com.

Throughout this season, we talk with leading literacy experts to explore current understandings and nuances of teaching and learning literacy. Our aim is to present a 360-degree view of literacy that positions us to address the needs of all students in today's classrooms. Thanks for listening. For Benchmark Education, I'm Kevin Carlson