5 Key Terms Parents Should Know

Phonological. Common Core. Differentiated Instruction. Decoding. Alignment. What are they talking about?

As a teacher, I am constantly coming across complex words or new terms that refer to relatively simply concepts. I wonder, “why are we using this incomprehensible jargon that no one uses but us?” “Why aren’t we making it easier to communicate with parents and other partners in a child’s education?”  This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest gaps in the education system: we are using language that might be unfamiliar to the primary partners in a child’s education, the parents! I’ve put together a short list of complex language or convoluted terms that represent simple but essential concepts in your young learner’s education. While there are so many to choose from (unfortunately) I tried to pick those that I think are truly high leverage terms, particularly for early literacy.

Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with some of these concepts/ practices . I am only defining them and describing how they relate to the educational space.


1.Phonological Awareness and Phonemes: These terms are used frequently in the NYS elementary English Language Arts common core standards. They can be seen in the reading, speaking and listening standards and really refer to key aspects of foundational literacy. Phonological awareness and phonemes simply refer to a child’s awareness of letter identification and letter sounds. As a child grows, this “letter awareness” should too and should encompass  increasingly complex sounds and spellings and an understanding of how letters work when you put them together.

2.Common Core: I wrote a more in-depth post about the Common Core (see What is Common Core?). Common Core include both national and state-specific skill standards  that a child should master in each subject area by the end of a particular grade level. The standard encompasses the same skills from year to year, but as you would imagine, they grow increasingly complex and require more from the students in order for them to achieve mastery. The common core is being overhauled, but there will still be a set of skills and standards mandated by the state for each grade level. 

3.Alignment: And we’re not talking about a car! You might not hear this as often but you should! NYS asks that instructional activities and lessons be “aligned” to the common core. This means that teachers are expected to create lessons that target the specific skills and standards NYS puts forward as the indicators of mastery for that year. Think of the common core standards as the foundation of a lesson. Based on this standard, the teacher can then select a subset skill from the standard as the target skill and build instructional activities around that. Whether you agree with the common core philosophy or not, you want to make sure that your child is learning the skills that NYS deems appropriate for that grade level.

4.Decoding: This is a commonly used word in early literacy standards because it is a skill adults use subconsciously everyday when we read but which young learners are only beginning to develop. Decoding simply refers to translating a printed word into sound (reading!) This encompasses sounding out a word, knowing letter sounds and the rules of phonics as well as familiarity with basic sight words.

5.Scaffolded Instruction: This is a teaching technique that refers to the process of a teacher providing a student with support initially and then removing it so that the child can gain independent mastery of the target skill. The teacher can provide scaffolding thorugh modelling or other forms of additional support. I chose this term because I think it  is a process that parents can adopt as a literacy strategy in the home. For example, when teaching a young learner how to write his/her name, you might create an activity where he can trace his/her name. The dotted letters are the scaffolding that can then be removed to see if the young learner has gained an independent mastery of the target skill.

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