June 17, 2016

5 Tips for Planning Excellent Common Core Lessons

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Regardless of which standards you are teaching, there are certain lesson design elements that fit the spirit of the Common Core. Using the following five tips to frame your instruction can help your students meet the challenges of the standards. Thinking and planning in the following ways requires changing habits of thoughts that are pretty routine for most of us.

1. Connect instruction across instructional contexts.  For many of us, one type of literacy instruction dominates our instructional time. For example, guided reading may take up an hour of each day’s 90 minute literacy block, or whole-group instruction may fill most of your literacy time. For whatever standard(s) you are addressing in a lesson, capitalizing on the gradual release of responsibility as it connects across read aloud, shared reading, small-group instruction, and independent reading will make your instruction more efficient. Because our ultimate goal is for students to achieve a level of proficiency that allows them to problem-solve and read without our support, once we identify a teaching direction we can then provide children multiple opportunities to practice the agentive thinking that allows them to habituate their learning.  Linking a standard across several instructional contexts allows for multiple opportunities to practice and increases the likelihood of transference.

2. Make room for collaboration. Every lesson should have some element of student collaboration or conversation. This may range from “turn-and-talk” opportunities with partners to shared reading in groups of 2-4 (implemented after teaching students specific, agentive ways of coaching each other) to simply discussing the big ideas in a text and and finding textual support to back up their opinions. Teaching students how to solve problems together not only increases their instructional time, but also makes the learning experience much more engaging. Few things increase student engagement and agency like working with friends. Engaging in conversations about text addresses multiple standards across the Common Core for Speaking & Listening and those for Reading. Furthermore, teaching students to engage in conversation, to truly listen and contribute connected ideas, teaches them a lifelong skill that will support them whether they are navigating personal relationships or college/career challenges.

3. Address multiple standards in each lesson. Don’t get locked into the idea that there is a single standard for each lesson. While your instruction across a day or week may focus more closely on one standard than another, teaching the Common Core is different than teaching state standards, as we have for the past eight years or so. A single lesson about problem solving may address Reading Standards 2 and 9, and Speaking & Listening Standards 1 and 3. For a more comprehensive exploration of the difference in aligning instruction to the CCSS vs. aligning to state standards, see our post entitled “The Third Generation Standards Alignment.”

4. Develop student leadership. Even the lesson focus or direction can serve as a tool for helping students become more independent. Many of our current practices rob students of the opportunity to learn how disequilibrium feels, turning reading into a passive activity. By prompting students to read the headings or captions, by priming any challenging vocabulary, by explaining the way a text is organized, we take problem-solving opportunities from students.  We are not saying that we should never scaffold students in the aforementioned ways; we are simply saying that we should give students an opportunity figure some things out. This can be messy, and we have to be slower to rescue or confirm. Rather than saying, “Try this” we can say, “What will you try next?” Rather than saying, “You figured it out” we can say “Is that right? How do you know?”  Thinking in these ways can empower students.

5. Select great texts. Even though text selection is at the end of today’s list, it may be the single most important element for effective Common Core instruction. The key to supporting student independence as described above is selecting texts students find irresistible. Many of the challenges that we hear about from teachers, i.e. students managing themselves, student stamina, student persistence in complex text, etc., can be addressed by simply selecting better texts. Pick a better text and students will instantly comprehend better because they pay closer attention. They will instantly focus on the task with less teacher redirection. They will instantly engage in more of the strategies we want them to use, such as predicting, questioning, inferring, and clarifying. If you want to make the biggest impact on your students’ progress towards Common Core goals, get serious about finding great children’s books.


  1. Beth Muffler says:

    As a science teacher, I believe tips 2 and 4 would have the most immediate impact on my students.

  2. I am working on #4 daily. It is great to see students “think out loud” and explain how they figured out answers in reading or math. My students sometimes surprise me with alternate answers that I wasn’t even thinking they could come up with! When the entire class is stumped, I model “thinking out loud” to figure it out and often refer to strategies to help with figuring out answers. Students usually join in and we solve problems together!

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