My Transition from Skills-Based Instruction

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Posted in: Aha! Blog > Wit & Wisdom Blog > High-Quality Curriculum > My Transition from Skills-Based Instruction

This month, we encouraged educators across the country to reflect on their transition to using the Wit & Wisdom® curriculum. Tanniece Chinn, a Grade 2 teacher at Gwynns Falls Elementary School and professional development facilitator for Great Minds®, describes how she shifted from isolated skills-based instruction to using Wit & Wisdom.

Imagine it is the beginning of the year and you receive

  • a scope and sequence of Grade 2 skills,
  • texts for reading, and
  • a curriculum for word study.

Coherent materials and resources to teach writing, grammar, vocabulary, and speaking and listening are missing. Now it is your job to search through the pages of workbooks and to scour the internet for additional resources to ensure you cover every Grade 2 standard.

Sound familiar? This scenario describes the majority of my 16-year teaching career, during which I often found myself thinking, “There must be a better way.” After discussing with my colleagues the 2018 findings from TNTP, which cited grade-appropriate assignments, deep student engagement, high expectations, and strong instruction as key levers to ensure academic success for students, I continued to reflect on my practice. While my students were great at reciting and repeating what I said, were they engaged enough to apply what they learned in a different setting? Were they retaining new information? Many of my students would learn a skill for the moment but have no lasting knowledge to build on throughout their lives. It became clear that I needed to move away from skills-based instruction.

When I found out we were adopting a new knowledge-building curriculum at my school, I was both excited and enraged. I was happy that we had a real curriculum, with a guide to follow and materials all in one place, but I was enraged because it was so different and challenging. I was at ease teaching the same grade in the same way for so many years.

During the first module, I thought, “We have students reading below grade level; they can’t do this.” We were learning about A Season of Change, but I was not embracing the change at all. I thought the text-dependent questions were too hard, the text was too complex, and the writing asked too much of my students, who were already at an academic disadvantage.

Looking back, I realize this type of thinking locks our students into being disengaged learners who have potential but are never given the opportunity to perform.

After weeks of frustration and failed lessons, my partner teacher encouraged me with this advice: “Let the students take charge of their learning. Relax, follow the guide, ask the questions, and see where it takes you.” This truth, and some major reflection on my part, helped shift my classroom from a warehouse of manufactured responses to an oasis of authentic ideas solicited by open-ended questions! Now I watch once-reluctant students come alive in classroom discussions. I see joy on the faces of students who used to hate writing as they dictate ideas related to what we read and discuss in class.

After four years of working with Wit & Wisdom, I see its benefit for reluctant readers and speakers as well as writers who used to get lost in skills-based instruction. A student of mine who received special education supports would cry almost every time he had to write. When sitting with him to complete a Focusing Question Task about how changes in fall weather impact people and nature, I could see that he was drawing while everyone else at his table had begun to write. I asked about his drawing, and he explained intricate details about the birds flying south because the fall was too cold and how the squirrels had to go out and pick up their food. While initially I had been discouraged to see him drawing instead of writing, I instead smiled, knowing this was the first time he definitely knew what he wanted to write and that his reluctance was due to wanting to spell words correctly.

More recently, during our hybrid learning experience last year, we were working on the End-of-Module Task for Grade 2 Module 4: Good Eating. Students wrote about which plate is a healthier choice: steak and spinach or eggs and blueberries. I had a student who felt that both plates were a healthy choice. This student used the evidence organizer to support the health benefits of each plate while still choosing one and sharing his opinion based on which foods he liked. It’s not every day that 8-year-olds have such a wealth of knowledge about vitamins and nutrients that they want to write beyond the requirement!

In summary, moving from skills-based instruction was not an easy shift, but it was worth it. My focused planning now requires Wit & Wisdom Teacher Editions, texts, and Planning Protocols. I no longer need mountains of books to search for disparate grammar and writing worksheets. Students are now engaged in coherently learning skills while building knowledge that will last a lifetime.


TNTP. The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It, TNTP, 2018,

Topics: High-Quality Curriculum