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How to Teach the English-language Arts Standards

Every English-language arts teacher shares the same problem—too much to teach and not enough time to teach it. Whether you are teaching on a traditional six-period schedule with 55 minute classes or on a modified block schedule with 90 minute classes, the challenge is the same. By the way, I teach three 85 minute ELA classes, five days per week (I know you’re drooling right now), and there still is not enough time. Elementary teachers face the same dilemma.

So, where are the magic beans that will allow us to teach all of the have-tos (think ELA standards) and still have a bit of time to teach the want-tos? Following are a few suggestions to help the clever ELA teacher have her cake and eat it, too.

First, I must get my caveats out of the way. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all standards-based instruction. Yes, I am committed to differentiated instruction. Secondly, I do believe that our primary job is to teach students, not standards, per se. These being said, most of us would agree that having standards makes some sense and helps us follow an instructional scope and sequence that benefits students. Standards also gives us something to talk about during department meetings.

A few ideas…

1. Teach standards, not content. Adjust instructional content and methodology to the standards. Don’t paste on standards to a short story, for example. We sometimes spend a lot of time teaching very little, if we don’t get this right.

2. Prioritize. Not every standard is equally important. No ELA teacher would seriously argue that teaching “author’s purpose” is as important as “drawing inferences.” Most state departments of educations have developed power standards that get the most bang for the buck.

3. Spend more time on the new standards and less on the old ones. All standards-based instructional scopes and sequences have both grade-level and review standards. Some even include accelerated standards. Now, don’t ditch the review standards as did a former colleague of mine. We have to teach according to the diagnostic needs of our students, and this often necessitates review.

4. Kill two birds with one stone. Many ELA standards are complimentary and can be combined to increase instructional efficiency. For example, context clue standards (say using antonyms to define) can be included with inference standards. For example, students can identify and compose antonym clues within sentences that require inference or state implication.

5. Break down the standards into scaffolded skills. Many of these skills will actually be prerequisites to being able to master the overall standard. For example, a reading or speaking standard on pronunciation or articulation would possibly necessitate instruction in syllable rules.

6. Don’t teach what they already know. Pre-assessment for each standard can eliminate some components and also refine instruction. “If they know it, they will show it. If they don’t, they won’t.” Adjust instruction according to the data. I suggest saving direct, whole-class instruction for truly un-mastered standards. Targeted small group instruction is more effective for those who have yet to master standards than their peers already have. By the way, doing a quick review or pulling aside a group to pre-teach before giving the pre-assessment will likely decrease the number of students that will require instruction and practice.

7. Don’t over-teach. We often waste instructional time by “beating the dead horse.” Don’t use three examples, when one will do. Avoid unnecessary repetition, especially for the sake of those students not paying attention or requiring remediation. Using quick formative assessments, either oral (show me thumbs up or down, color cards) or written (tickets out the door) can inform the teacher if more instruction is really needed and for whom. Having a “hurried, yet comfortable pace” will enable the teacher to teach more and bore students less.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of ELA/Reading resources for the overworked teacher committed to differentiated instruction, according to diagnostic and formative data. For free diagnostic assessments, flashcards, and instructional materials, as well as his highly-recommended curricula, check out www.penningtonpublishing.com. Refer back often to the Pennington Publishing Blog for insightful articles and educational tips. 

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