Structuring an ELA curriculum is similar to wardrobe shopping. We all have our personal preferences, our go-to pieces, and our timeless shirts, skirts, or pants. Yet, shopping with friends is always more fun. With others, we can get fresh insights, swap wardrobe secrets, and highlight one another’s strengths. Who doesn’t like taking a peak into another person’s closet? Teaching is much the same. One common topic for discussion among secondary English teachers is ELA class structure. There are so many standards to address, but often, there is not much time to do them justice.
In this post, I’m sharing my tips. This approach is what worked for me while I taught middle and high school. Last year, I took a position as an instructional coach, and doing so has allowed me to work alongside many English teachers on a daily basis, which I love! Often, we reflect on ELA class structure. In the same way, I hope you walk away from this post feeling very much like you just had a great teaching conversation with a friend over a hot cup of coffee.
CHOOSE YOUR POWER STANDARDS
You may call them something different, but the first step in balancing ELA curriculum is figuring out essential standards — the ones that drive the most power.
Which standards are the most important for students to master in order to succeed in the next grade level? For example, Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence (W.9-10.1).
Which ones focus on ideas that cross disciplines? Maybe… “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (RI.9-10.1).
What standards will be most important throughout a student’s lifetime? Perhaps, “Use context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.”
While it can be tempting to say that every standard carries equal weight, it’s hard to do justice to all standards equally. Identifying power standards can help us decide which units or lessons deserve more of our instructional time. Reflecting on the standards that are core to your curriculum will help you to structure your overall units.
Tip: Have these conversations with grade-level teachers and departments, if possible!
DETERMINE THE DAILY
After choosing essential standards, it’s time to determine which topics or skills you want to cover daily in your classroom. Personally, I have always found myself coming back to three items on a daily…or an almost every day basis.
Vocabulary is something that has to be engrained in your program in order for students to truly learn the words instead of memorizing them. Creating a classroom culture in which words are appreciated helps to build a literacy foundation. You can read more about prioritizing vocabulary instruction and activity ideas here.
Grammar needs to be scaffolded. For that reason, I learned to sequence my grammar instruction strategically throughout the year. Plus, grammar ties in really well with both reading and writing, so it’s natural to incorporate into any class period.
Years ago, I committed to daily independent reading in the form of full-choice classroom book clubs. Every day, students would read at the beginning of the class period. It’s the perfect bell ringer to get students settled and focused as well as to allow time for conferring one-on-one.
So, this arrangement is not set in stone, but a typical Monday looked something like this:
- 10 minutes independent reading: Confer with students and/or model reading.
- 20-25 minutes grammar: Introduce the grammar concept for the week via direct instruction.
- 10-15 minutes vocabulary: Introduce five new words.
Throughout the remainder of the week, I would incorporate grammar and vocabulary as often as possible. Usually, vocab activities would only last about five minutes following independent reading, and grammar exercises would follow suit. Some days, I would build grammar and vocabulary into learning stations, which provides some much needed flexibility.
On Tuesday through Friday, the remainder of class was dedicated either to writing or reading, depending on the unit.
ALTERNATE UNIT TYPES
I’ve always found that in 45 minutes, it’s hard to fit in both a reading and a writing unit. So, I learned to alternate them. For example, when I taught freshmen…
Following, we would dive into reading literature and reading informational texts skills. In doing so, we read short stories and nonfiction pieces. While studying reading strategies like summarizing and analysis, students would also be writing objective summaries and crafting scaffolded literary analysis responses. However, they weren’t writing formal essays until the end of the unit, which is when they would write a two to three page literary analysis paper.
During third nine weeks, students would dig deep into research writing. During this time, their reading mostly consisted of nonfiction because we were doing research! Yet, they still were reading their choice text every day at the beginning of class.
When we read The Odyssey, students chose a mythical beast of their choice and added an additional obstacle onto Odysseus’s journey home in the form of a narrative: a children’s book.
These are just a handful of examples of how you might pair reading and writing units. I have taught various grades from 7th through 12th, and while the texts and specific writing genres vary at each level, having a comfortable rhythm is helpful. It gives everyone time to breathe, adds variety, and allows for multiple formal writing opportunities throughout the school year with informal practice sprinkled in regularly.
This ELA class structure worked best for me. I loved that I could use it with workshop format, a flipped classroom model, and more traditional styles as well.
So, now you’ve seen inside my wardrobe! More than likely, you want to wear some of my outfits and can do without some others. I’d love to hear about which styles we have in common. What fresh insights would you suggest? Join in the conversation in the comments below.