Defining Core Instruction

by Morgan Davis

Core instruction:  This is not something you can Google.  Sure, type the words into the search field and you will be met instantly with Richard Elmore’s definition of instructional core: the interaction among teacher, student, and content where “if you can’t see it in the core then it isn’t there” (2008).Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 9.11.44 PM

But when someone asks you to define what is core–most central or most important–about reading instruction, I am sure you go far beyond this definition.  For my team and me, we looked to the whiteboard where the outline of our professional learning in reading workshop lingered.  There it was, our instructional minutes boiled down to the skeletal structures of workshop:  whole-group mini-lesson, worktime, and share.  And there it was, the question looming:  What is core?  

I used to define core instruction as an opportunity to engage with and an exposure to grade-level texts:

Shared reading?

Texts are grade-level or above, so it must be core.

Read aloud?

Again, grade-level or above.  It’s core.  

Guided reading?  


Many of our students read texts that are below grade-level, so this must be where we step out of core.  With core defined as exposure to grade-level texts, the classroom teacher’s obligation is met at the end of the mini-lesson for any student whose reading puts them outside a grade-level boundary. Yes, this is how I used to define core. Forgive me.   

Flash forward a few years and I began to see core as access to grade-level content.  Every child deserves opportunities to engage with grade-level texts, but the kind of thinking and processes that are required of grade-level content can often be accessed through differentiated texts and tasks.

Now I see core as the broad side of the RtI pyramid: universal instruction, the kind of Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 9.12.02 PMinstruction that every child is entitled to.  “Core program, also commonly referred to as Tier 1, base, primary, or universal program, refers to a school’s initial instructional practices–in other words, the teaching and school experiences that all kids receive every day” (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009).  

In other words, core instruction is the promise we make to students about reading instruction.  

Now let us return to the whiteboard with its outline of workshop.  Where is the promise here?  To answer, we pick up a green marker.  Without hesitation, we put a solid green line around the mini-lesson and–after some discussion–share time. These times are sacred.  It is during these structures that students create a vision for where their learning is headed and where their successes become visible.  

Next, a solid green line around independent reading.  “The experimental evidence is clearer today perhaps than a decade ago that the actual volume of reading activity is an important component in the development of a myriad of reading proficiencies” (Allington, 2013).  We agree: Our readers–even and especially those who struggle–need ample time to practice.

With that potential debate hurdled in a hurry, we work to tackle the remaining worktime structures. Though in a perfect world it wouldn’t be, it is harder to find the promise here.  The constraints of time invite answers from “everything” to “nothing.”  We draw a dotted line around worktime and keep talking.  “A Tier 1 curriculum must be prioritized so that students have ample opportunity to master power standards.  The core program also must include a component that specializes instruction and learning based on individuals’ and small groups’ disparate needs” (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009).  Core instruction comes through the structures that put skilled teachers and apprenticed readers together: conferring and small-group instruction.  It also comes through opportunities for students to practice and apply their learning in ways that are accessible: collaborative and independent reading.  Yes, this is our promise.  

We also know that it is during this time we often “double-dose” or make Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports accessible to students.  Just not in place of the promise of core instruction.  

We stand back and look at the board.  A second green line around the mini-lesson and independent reading time highlight how our conversation began: Whole-group instruction and independent reading are sacred.  Share time is protected. Work time is permeable, so long as the sacred spheres within it are preserved.  

In the end, we provide core instruction and intervention without taking a bite out of the promise.

It is core instruction.  

It is a work in progress.


Allington, R. (April 2013).  What really matters when working with struggling readers. The Reading Teacher, 66 (7).

Allington, R. A. & Gabriel, R. E. (March 2012).  Every child, every day.  Educational leadership: Reading: the core skill, 69(6), pp. 10-15.

Buffum, A., M. Mattos, & C. Weber (2009). Pyramid response to intervention.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Elmore, R. (2008) Improving the instructional core. Boston, MA: Harvard University, School of Education.

About the Author: Morgan Davis is a K-6 Instructional Coach at Lumberg Elementary in Jefferson County School District.  Morgan also serves on the conference committee for CCIRA.  You can follow Morgan as she explores teaching and learning, slices of life, and her own writing processes at “It’s About Making Space”.

*If you are interested in posting about the topics that were blushed by in this post – such as defining intervention or intervention vs. remediation – or other topics that meet the criteria outlined here, please contact

Read Aloud Book Review

Written by Marcie Haloin

The Alphabet Thief  by Bill Richardson, illustrated by Roxanna Bikadoroff, Greenwood Books, March 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 9.19.38 PMCanadian humorist Bill Richardson has written his first children’s book of clever alphabetical rhymes based upon the wordplay of how a word can be changed by dropping one letter.  In the story an Alphabet Thief steals one letter from each page leaving the pen and ink illustrations to explain the transformation.

I used a document camera when reading this with the 5th graders and had to pause frequently so they could enjoy the humor of the illustrations.  Be forewarned that when the snowman loses the s and becomes real he uses his hat to cover his privates.  No matter how fast I read the fifth graders saw.  A Canadian blogger suggested that classroom teacher who had time would have fun doing a sophisticated game of illustrating words that have lost certain letters (e.g. transforming crops into cops or brothers into bothers). Most of the text allows this book to also be an early or guided reader with lots of fun for one-on-one and small group work.

References: Helen K, posted March 3, 2017

Marcie Haloin is retired from her life as a school librarian and university professor and now works in a public library, in the children’s section, of course. Marcie reads at least a book a day and serves as the chair of the Colorado Children’s Book Award for CCIRA.

Author: CCIRAblog

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