Designing and creating ELA curriculum can be both challenging and frustrating because there are so many variables to consider. What books will you teach? What essays will your students write? Will you follow certain standards? Does your school’s curriculum have requirements? Will you use a textbook? Novels? Plays? And don’t even get me started with school approved book lists!
The answers to these questions will vary so much depending on your school, students, personal preferences, resources available, etc. Therefore, I want to talk about instructional and organizational decisions that can apply to any course. No matter your answers to the above questions, you can use these strategies and frameworks as cornerstones to build an engaging and effective ELA curriculum for any course.
Backward Design for ELA Curriculum
Backward Design is a content and curriculum planning framework created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design. This framework works backward to plan content beginning with the intended outcomes, or learning goals. Rather than starting with your activities and creating assessments to test the activity content, you’re going to start with your students’ learning outcomes. This backward approach works from the learning goals to create learning opportunities (or activities) to meet the learning goals. Then, the assessments are designed to assess students’ mastery or growth related to the learning goals.
This process is incredibly helpful for ELA teachers because it can help us answer some of those challenging questions from the introduction to this article. Even more so, it helps us focus our instruction on student learning and understanding. When you start with learning goals, you’ll be able to choose content and create activities that will help your students meet those goals. Then, you’ll be able to create formal and informal assessments that will help you determine students’ mastery and growth related to the learning goals. This process can be used with a single unit, multiple units in a series, or our entire curriculum.
Designing learning activities that meet our students’ learning goals doesn’t amount to much if our students’ learning goals aren’t measuring valuable thinking. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom an educational psychologist of The University of Chicago created a cognitive learning domain, which we now refer to as Bloom’s Taxonomy. This taxonomy has been revised over the years, most notably by Anderson and Krathwohl in 2001, to a version that includes learning actions: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. This inverted pyramid is now preferred by some educators to emphasizes higher-order thinking skills.
Moving from lower to higher-order thinking tasks, teachers can create learning objectives that move from lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills. As you write your learning objectives, consider the action related to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Of course, not every learning opportunity needs to be higher-order. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable way to ensure you’re challenging your students’ thinking skills.
Universal Design for Learning
Once you’ve worked backward from your learning goals, you’ll be ready to create your students’ learning opportunities. That’s where the Universal Design for Learning framework comes in. UDL is a framework by CAST that provides educators with guidelines for creating accessible and meaningful learning opportunities.
The UDL Framework calls for multiple means of engagement, representation, and action & expression.
- Engagement: Are you providing different means to engagement learners? For example, some students may feel most engaged by listening to lecture and others will feel more engaged in group discussion. This category can help you vary your learning opportunities.
- Representation: Are you providing multiple ways to access the information? Videos with captions, lecture, guided notetaking, podcasts, and discussions are just a few ways you could provide representation of the content for students’ learning.
- Action & Expression: Are your learning opportunities providing students with multiple means to show what they know? Project-based learning, writing, exams, discussions, learning stations, etc. are examples of different types of action and expression. Providing students with many opportunities is the key.
The key to using this framework successfully is reviewing it often. It’s a great ELA curriculum companion to consult as you’re designing your learning activities.
Choice in ELA Curriculum
One of the best ways to activate the benefits of UDL is to provide your students with choice. Obviously, choice isn’t always possible. Still, if you make choice a cornerstone of your curriculum, you can incorporate in your learning opportunities.
Giving students choice in the way they access content or complete an assessment can help engage them through personal interests and preferences, which is why choice is a central component of UBD. In ELA classes, choice reading either as a whole stand alone unit or incorporated throughout the year is an excellent curriculum foundation. Click here to read all about how I use choice reading in my English classes.
Active Learning Ideas in the ELA Classroom
Active learning means that students are actively engaged in their own learning. In theory, this seems really obvious. Still, in practice, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Our instinct as educators is to be the sage on the stage enlightening our students through our knowledge. However, this instructional style centers the teacher.
If we can shift our teaching to a student-centered approach, students will become active learners. To do this, we have to shift to a guide on the side. This engages students in active learning by charging them with the action in the class. Additionally, you’ll be there to guide them and support them on their way.
Here are some active learning examples:
Real-World Curriculum Connections
Another way to improve student understanding and engagement is to explain real-world connections. In fact, it’s even better if your students explore the real-world connections themselves. Here are some ideas for adding real-world connections in ELA:
- Character interviews: practice interviewing skills while studying a work
- Character resume: complete a mock resume to analyze a character
- Podcast and article pairings: pair real-world themes with literary themes
- Scenario-based learning: participate in a mock trail for a character in a story
Speaking of real-world connections, this is a good time to mention how important it is to explain rationale for activities and assessments. Of course, in this context, it’s a valuable way to connect to the real world. Also, it’s important to explain how the learning opportunity or assessment relates to the learning goals.
Sources and Further Reading
- How to Create an Engaging British Literature Curriculum for High Schoolers
- Bloom’s Taxonomy by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
- The UDL Guidelines
- Understanding by Design
- Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives by The University of Arkansas
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