When I began Common Core lesson studies with elementary teachers two years ago, they made the same surprising observation in each of the classrooms I taught in that spring: the background knowledge that many readers shared was often very interesting. Some was even compelling. And much of it was completely inaccurate. This didn’t surprise us, but what typically happened next did: when I invited readers to share their background knowledge through talk prior to reading, they often relied on the information that was shared during this discussion rather than the text itself when asked to make meaning as readers. In fact, when presented with text-based questions to answer, some readers–typically those who seemed to have the most background knowledge, ironically—didn’t even think to open the text and make a study of it unless they were prompted.
This inspired the first of several small but very powerful shifts that I’ve been coaching teachers to make in curriculum design and instruction. Those who adopted these shifts are now telling me that readers are not only comprehending with greater accuracy, but that they are better engaged with the process, that their stamina for reading challenging things is increasing, and that–most importantly–they are demonstrating new-found confidence and pride in themselves as well.
These were the first steps that these particular teachers took:
1. Rather than activating background knowledge through talk, they accepted David Coleman’s challenge to use text in order to build it. Teachers located very brief but sufficiently (and in some cases, significantly) complex expository text that spoke to the concept, dilemma, essential question, theme, or anchor text for the unit that they were about to approach. They challenged learners to read this brief piece independently first, for varied purposes. These included:
- Demonstrating their abilities to consume the text and respond to a standards-based prompts independently, for formative assessment purposes.
- Surfacing the strategies that they employ to make meaning from complex text when challenged to do so independently.
- Building background knowledge by reading the text and using differentiated strategies like these (choice provided): identifying words or phrases that are most meaningful or confusing, underlining the most important phrase in the passage, summarizing the passage.
2. Some began to consider the influence of unit and lesson design on background knowledge specifically. This inspired them to approach design with intention. They began centering their units around meaningful themes, essential questions, concepts, dilemmas, or yes–even anchor texts (it might be my experience alone, but I’ve discovered that centering a unit around a core text is not necessarily a bad thing). Then, they began layering and scaffolding varied opportunities for different kinds of reading and writing within their units and extended lessons. This curriculum framework invites readers to consume varied genres and to read and write for varied purposes as they investigate relevant issues and work to produce writing for real audiences. The texts can also scaffold for increasing rigor. These two shifts in how readers and teachers begin have borne unexpected fruit within classrooms and during my lesson studies with teachers.
You can see the greater curriculum framework that we are playing with below. This is a snapshot–a wide view. You won’t see every standard or shift there. It’s also draft, and I know it will change in response to the things we learn from learners in the coming months. It’s responsive to needs that emerge while providing clarity and coherence to those who may long for that right now. I’m eager to know how it compares with other design processes and how it informs your thinking. Click on each image to view it full size.