Prioritized Instruction for the 2021–2022 Academic Year:
A Position Paper from the Great Minds® Humanities Team
At Great Minds, we believe all children deserve the opportunity to learn at the high levels needed to ensure their success in future endeavors. In English language arts, this means mastering the literacy knowledge and skills for effective communication—in writing, reading, speaking, and listening. It also means building content knowledge of the world to enable comprehension, expression, and critical thinking.
Many educators are returning to the classroom with concerns about unfinished instruction due to the COVID pandemic and disrupted school schedules during the past two academic years. Nationwide, educators may also be concerned that students will return with additional social-emotional learning needs and with possibly increasing gaps in achievement.
Fortunately, in English language arts, the task remains clear. Continuing to teach a rigorous English language arts program focusing on grade-level complex texts, knowledge-building, and integrated skills instruction best serves students. Although unfinished instruction is an elevated concern, pausing work with grade-level texts to teach standards in isolation will not accelerate students’ reading comprehension. We urge teachers to teach grade-level complex texts, content, and skills and provide needed supports for students so that they can work toward grade-level benchmarks while still engaging in rigorous study.
Prioritize Essential Instruction—Not Standards
English language arts standards differ significantly from mathematics standards. Beyond the foundational reading standards (see note below), most skills and knowledge do not need to be taught in a specific sequence but instead develop in an integrated way that spirals across grade levels. According to Student Achievement Partners (SAP), a focus on essential practices is more beneficial to English language arts teachers than focusing on selecting prioritized standards for isolated instruction. SAP identifies two fundamental practices that best support all Kindergarten through Grades 12 students in building the knowledge, vocabulary, and skills for college and career readiness:
- Students should spend lots of time actively reading content-rich, complex text. Close reading of complex text is concentrated, demanding work that helps students discover how to learn from reading (and grow their knowledge, vocabulary, and understanding of syntax).
- Students should have a volume of reading to build knowledge and be exposed to academic language in the content areas. That volume of reading needs to be at a range of complexity levels so every student can read with minimal or no teacher support. Much of this volume should be with information-rich text, either full-length books or conceptually connected shorter texts (groups of texts that cohere together to create a picture of a topic) (Student Achievement Partners, 62).
With Wit & Wisdom®, educators meet these two fundamental practices—reading content-rich, complex texts and a volume of reading—thus negating any need to prioritize essential instruction otherwise. In Wit & Wisdom, the starting point is always the essential knowledge students need to build their vocabulary, prepare for future learning, and develop deep literacy skills. Wit & Wisdom places priority on complex texts, and the demands of the text drive the selection of standards students meet as they read, analyze, and respond. When Wit & Wisdom teachers approach texts for instruction, they approach them so that students will understand the “gold” of these texts and analyze the author’s use of language and organization so that students can emulate these choices of style and structure in their writing. This approach is a significant shift from past instructional practices that put standards at the forefront of instructional planning.
Great Minds recognizes that all standards are not created equally. While we advocate teaching all grade-level standards across the school year and have written Wit & Wisdom to support teachers in doing so, teachers address and reinforce some standards daily while teaching and assessing others, appropriately, less regularly. Each module targets focus standards, supporting standards, and continuing standards.
- Focus Standards are explicitly taught and then gradually released. Students practice these standards in multiple lessons in a module. The major assessments formally assess these standards.
- Supporting Standards are not explicitly taught or formally assessed in the module, but students practice them, reinforcing prior learning in new contexts. Focus Standards spiral into instruction throughout the year as Supporting Standards.
- Continuing Standards are broad, overarching expectations that cannot be taught in a single lesson or assessed in a single task: students practice and master these standards cumulatively.
English language arts standards are not written at the same grain size. In the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), for example, the reading standards are written almost as if the first and last standard at each grade form the rails of a ladder, while the other standards are smaller, individual rungs. In this analogy, CCSS Standard 1 is one rail of the ladder. Across all grades, as a fundamental, continuing expectation, students read closely and cite textual evidence. CCSS Reading Standard 10 on the range of reading and level of text complexity is another essential structural element of the ELA classroom—the second rail of the ladder. This last standard at each grade level describes an overarching, daily expectation for students. In Wit & Wisdom, RL.10 and RI.10 are Continuing Standards across all grade levels and modules.
SAP identifies 14 Common Core State Standards that best support both the practices of keeping students in complex, grade-level texts, and ensuring that they engage in a volume of reading that builds knowledge and vocabulary.
Each of these standards (except RF.4 and W.9; see below) is either a Focus Standard (RL.1, RL.4, RI.1, RI.4, RI.9, W.8, SL.1, L.4, L.5) or a Continuing Standard (RL.10, RI.10, L.6) in one of Wit & Wisdom’s modules.
SAP prioritizes RF.4, a Foundational Skills Standard focused on fluency. Fluency homework in Wit & Wisdom Grades 1–8 supports students’ practice and growth with this expectation.
The introduction of Standard W.9 occurs in Grade 4 and continues throughout most Grades 5–8 modules. Evidence collection to ensure close reading is a core practice throughout all Wit & Wisdom modules. To complete almost all Focusing Question Tasks and End-of-Module Tasks, students gather textual evidence. Teachers consistently assess this standard throughout the year in discrete tasks. Ongoing evidence organizers support students in building this important skill in many modules.
This alignment between the SAP priority standards and the Wit & Wisdom Focus Standards ensures that teachers who teach Wit & Wisdom as written will support students effectively during the 2021–2022 school year.
Implementation Recommendations for Prioritized Instruction
A wide body of research and experience from cognitive science, neurobiology, English language arts education, and English language education support the Great Minds Humanities approach. We urge teachers to continue to teach grade-level complex texts, content, and skills, providing needed supports for students to engage in the rigorous work needed to meet grade-level expectations.
Teach to Knowledge and Texts—Not to Standards
At all grade levels, students in English language arts read, write, speak, and listen. By focusing on grade-level complex texts and topics across history/social studies, science, literature, and the arts, students continue to broaden and deepen their vocabulary knowledge. By reading increasingly rigorous texts, students deepen their understandings and skills with comprehension, fluency, language, and structure. Teachers must continue preparing for instruction by focusing on how the texts build students’ knowledge and vocabulary. To maintain appropriately rigorous grade-level instruction around reading standards, teachers should prepare by anticipating read aloud supports, use scaffolds suggested within the curriculum, and monitor students’ performance in daily Checks for Understanding.
Focus on Research-Based Approaches to Building Comprehension
While educators may see fluency as part of students’ foundational reading instruction, fluency work across the grade levels continues to be an important way to build comprehension. Fluency practice remains “low-hanging fruit” within the ELA classroom (Core Advocates, et al., 2017). Wit & Wisdom provides opportunities for students to practice fluency with grade-level texts in both core instruction and fluency homework.
The passages selected for fluency work include the richest material for building knowledge and comprehension of the core texts. Fluency homework is optional in Grades 6–8 as there are no foundational reading standards beyond Grade 5. However, many students remain dysfluent readers well into the middle grades and benefit from incorporating regular fluency practice into ELA instruction (Paige and Magpuri-Lavell, 2014, Rasinski, 2012). Teachers maximize student growth in fluency and comprehension by regularly assigning fluency homework in the middle grades and prioritizing fluency instruction featured in Wit & Wisdom core instruction.
Follow the Wit & Wisdom Modules
To prioritize specific skills, district leaders may misguide educators to reorder modules. For example, they may propose exchanging Module 4 with an earlier module. The unintended consequence of moving Module 4 earlier in the year is that students have not learned the needed prerequisite skills. Reorganizing the module sequence may unintentionally slow instruction down, as educators need to scaffold for unlearned skills. Rather, educators should examine Modules 1–3 through the lens of how the integrated knowledge and skills prepare students for Module 4 work.
For example, in Grade 4, students do not reach priority standard RI.4.9, “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably,” until Module 4—at the end of the year. Rather than move Module 4 earlier in the year, educators should look carefully at other standards that support students’ success with RI.4.9. Previous modules’ instruction prepares students to master the full rigor of this standard.
Allow Students to Struggle Productively
Students learn best when they grapple with challenging content (Fisher, et al., 2012; Fisher & Frey, 2017, Hammond, 2020). At times, teachers may attempt to remediate students’ knowledge by preteaching content or providing students with heavy supports. Instead, teachers must keenly observe what students can produce on their own. Teachers must anticipate where understanding may break down, so that they can provide helpful scaffolds—like sentence stems, vocabulary glossaries, or graphic organizers—that provide just enough support to make the struggle productive but not so much support as to eliminate the rigor. Then, teachers must allow the scaffolds to fall away, so that students can become increasingly independent learners (Hammond, 2020). Teachers may worry about burdening already taxed students in the coming year, but research on learning clearly shows a sweet spot between too little and too much challenge. Without challenge, students become disengaged. With too much challenge, they become discouraged. With the appropriate challenge, students productively struggle to learn deeply.
Regular formative assessment is critical to determining how much support students need with grade-level texts (Student Achievement Partners, pp. 65). Each Wit & Wisdom lesson provides teachers with information about how students’ knowledge and skills are progressing. Regularly reviewing students’ work in the daily Checks for Understanding and using the Analyze guidance at the end of each lesson to determine the next steps helps teachers make thoughtful instructional decisions about the level of supports students need. This guided review of student work also informs tutors and other instructional support personnel to target additional needs in small group instruction.
Additionally, teachers can rely on the embedded scaffolding in Wit & Wisdom. Repeated readings through the Content Stages, language and vocabulary instruction in the Deep Dives, and fluency work all provide just-in-time supports for comprehending complex texts. Recognizing these embedded scaffolds helps teachers maintain pacing because students have additional opportunities to reinforce knowledge and skills.
Slow Pacing If Needed
If unforeseen delays interfere with instructional pacing, districts may choose to prioritize instruction on the first three modules, spending more time during the entire academic year to develop the knowledge and skills in each. Alternatively, if educators face pacing challenges due to continued disruption to the school year, they can reduce the time needed for Wit & Wisdom instruction by using the daily Learn Anywhere Plans in Wit & Wisdom in Sync™. The design of the Learn Anywhere Plans helps teachers maximize time in complex texts while supporting students in online or asynchronous learning environments.
Using a high-quality curriculum, like Wit & Wisdom, is the first step districts must take to address unfinished instruction. The design of Wit & Wisdom is aligned with SAP’s two instructional priorities: ensuring students (1) persist and succeed with grade-level complex texts and (2) build knowledge through reading a wide variety of texts organized around a coherent topic. Adopting a knowledge-building curriculum, like Wit & Wisdom, is critical infrastructure for shifting instructional practices away from isolated skills instruction to placing complex texts at the center of integrated skills instruction. Educators must teach the curriculum as written and support students by implementing intentional scaffolds while maintaining grade-level rigor.
A Note on Foundational Reading
The teaching of foundational skills in the early elementary grades is critical. Wit & Wisdom provides instruction in fluency and not the other foundational skills. For this reason, Great Minds recommends districts also use a foundational skills curriculum, like Wilson Fundations®. Educators should work with their foundational skills curriculum provider to assess any gaps in student knowledge or skills to ensure that teachers provide appropriate instruction so that students sequentially and comprehensively learn the foundations of phonemic awareness, decoding, letter and word recognition, and handwriting. To achieve foundational reading targets for all students, schools may decide to enlist tutors, specialists, after-school program educators, and others to ensure an aligned, district-wide system of support. Geodes®, readable texts that align to Wit & Wisdom topics in Kindergarten through Grades 2, support students’ developing foundational literacy skills and provide opportunities to extend knowledge-building on Wit & Wisdom topics through a volume of reading.
Core Advocates et al. “Building Fluent Readers (2017 April Webinar).” Achieve the Core, Student Achievement Partners, 6 July 2017, http://witeng.link/0805.
Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and Timothy Shanahan. “The Challenge of Challenging Text.” Educational Leadership. March 2012. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-challenge-of-challenging-text.
Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. “The Importance of Struggle.” ASCD. 1 May 2017. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-importance-of-struggle.
Hammond, Zaretta. “A Conversation about Instructional Equity with Zaretta Hammond.” Collaborative Classroom. February 2020. https://www.collaborativeclassroom.org/blog/a-conversation-about-instructional-equity-with-zaretta-hammond/.
Paige, David D., and Theresa Magpuri-Lavell. “Reading Fluency in the Middle and Secondary Grades.” International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education. 30 October 2014. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1053599.pdf.
Rasinski, Timothy V. “Why Reading Fluency Should be Hot.” The Reading Teacher, 65(8), 516–522. May 2012. http://timrasinski.com/presentations/article_why_fluency_shd_be_hot__rt_may_2012.pdf.
Student Achievement Partners: Achieve the Core. Priority Instructional Content in English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics. 12 July 2021, https://achievethecore.org/page/3267/priority-instructional-content-in-english-language-arts-literacy-and-mathematics.
Additional Resources on Priority Content and Unfinished Instruction
Crist, Kate, and Torrey Palmer. “Let’s Not Make Power ELA/Literacy Standards and Talk about Why We Didn’t.” Student Achievement Partners: Achieve the Core, 7 May 2021, https://achievethecore.org/peersandpedagogy/lets-not-make-power-ela-literacy-standards-and-talk-about-why-we-didnt/.
Open Source. CAO Central: The Acceleration Imperative. 2021, https://caocentral.wiki/.
Steiner, David, and Barbara Wilson. “Steiner & Wilson: Case Study—Some Tough Questions and Some Answers, About Fighting COVID Slide While Accelerating Student Learning.” The 74, 7 July 2021, https://www.the74million.org/article/steiner-wilson-case-study-some-tough-questions-and-some-answers-about-fighting-covid-slide-while-accelerating-student-learning/.
Appendix: Prioritized Focus Standards in Wit & Wisdom
Student Achievement Partners (SAP), a trusted partner in educational leadership, identifies fourteen Common Core State Standards to prioritize in the 2020–21 school year. As the year begins, significant gaps in instruction may occur because of school closures and disruptions from the ongoing pandemic. SAP prioritized Wit & Wisdom Focus Standards (RL.1, RL.4, RI.1, RI.4, RI.9, W.8, SL.1, L.4, L.5) are highlighted in the table at the bottom of this appendix.
Most states that have adopted their literacy standards have a similar structure of major standards that align to the same two instructional priorities SAP identified: ensuring students (1) persist and succeed with grade-level complex texts and (2) build knowledge through reading a wide variety of texts organized around a coherent topic. Typically, it is the smaller, more detailed standards and sub-standards that differ at each grade level. Educators can access an ELA Standards Alignment Study for their state by logging into their dashboard at greatminds.org and searching for their state in the Resources tab.
A few additional notes will help reassure partners that by teaching Wit & Wisdom, they are teaching to the priority standards identified by SAP. First, a reminder that three of the SAP-identified standards are Continuing Standards, ongoing, overarching skills taught in all grade levels. In all Wit & Wisdom modules Grades K–8 teachers reinforce these Continuing Standards:
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity
R.10 (RL and RI) Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
Next, SAP identifies SL.1 as a priority for instruction. While educators will see the substandards (a, b, c) called out explicitly as taught in the module chart below, in all modules, Grades K–8, students are engaged in learning and practice that meets this Anchor Standard:
SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
In all grades, all modules, students work daily in pairs and small groups and engage in formal Socratic Seminars for discussion. Wit & Wisdom builds students’ ability to communicate by maximizing the quality, quantity, and variety of their speaking and listening experiences.
Finally, as noted above, while certain standards are called out as Focus Standards in a specific module (as noted in the table that follows), they are Focus Standards because they meet very specific criteria in these modules:
✓ Teachers provide explicit instruction.
✓ Students practice them in a focused way multiple times.
✓ They are formally assessed.
They appear in other modules as part of ongoing instruction, expected skills and knowledge, and Supporting Standards. In particular, standards that build foundational skills students will need to use frequently when reading and responding to complex texts, such as RL.1 and RI.1, were prioritized as Focus Standards in the first two modules of the year and frequently reappear as Supporting Standards in following modules. The table illustrates the need to teach all four modules to teach essential knowledge and skills.
In sum, the table below represents the formal alignment between SAP’s priority standards and the Wit & Wisdom Focus Standards. Alignment runs more deeply and more fully across all grades and modules because of the integrated, spiraling nature of English language arts knowledge and skills across reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.
Click here to download the full position paper.
Great Minds PBC is a public benefit corporation and a subsidiary of Great Minds, a nonprofit organization. In addition to Wit & Wisdom, the company offers Eureka Math®, PhD Science®, and Geodes® books for emerging readers, developed in collaboration with Wilson Language Training. Great Minds in Sync™ adapts the materials for remote or hybrid learning. Learn more at greatminds.org.