Just Try-It Tuesday: Unpacking Standards


TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

Just Try-It Tuesday: Unpacking Standards; a step-by-step guide

Below I have outlined 6 steps content area teams might use to unpack standards for the purpose of guiding their instruction and assessment throughout the year. I cannot take credit for this process; I have combined ideas from various classes, presentations, and books related to standards and assessment.

The majority of this process derives from the work of Larry Ainsworth  – Power Standards: Identifying the Standards That Matter Most and Unwrapping Standards : a Simple Guide to make Standards Manageable. 

Before getting on with the process I want to begin with one important clarification regarding standards.  I understand that many view that using standards removes a  autonomy and inhibits their creativity.  I respectfully disagree. The goal of this process is about being extremely deliberate about what we want students to learn NOT how we will get them to learn it.

The how” is always up to the teacher and should never be dictated as a top-down expectation.  Teachers should always have the freedom to take risks and create innovative and creative lessons.  Using unpacked standards does not dictate how a teacher chooses to help students learn – but helps teachers pinpoint exactly what knowledge and skills students should be walking away with. This is not about getting every body on the same page the same day teaching the exact same lessons in lock-step – but about ensuring ALL kids become proficient in what teachers decide is essential in their content.

In other words, the results of determining and unwrapping essential standards is a detailed plan to fulfill a promise to students it’s like us saying:

We promise you will learn the most important things in this subject. We have come up with a plan to monitor your progress, and give you extra support if you need. If you already know these things than we won’t waste your time; we will challenge you to extend your learning even more.

Image result for OKLAHOMA NEW ELA STANDARDS images

I will be using one of the new ELA standards. I chose this because it is a versatile standard; it may not be included in all content areas, but this standard is one of those that impacts every subject area. The point of this post  is not the standard itself though; it is the process of unpacking

This process can be applied to any standard in any subject.  Furthermore, someone else could unpack this same standard and get something  different, and most likely better, than I did. There is no ONE way to unpack each standard.  The shared understanding about the standard is what makes this process really powerful for team.

This standard involves teaching students how to use context clues to figure out what words mean. Here is the language of the standard:

11.4.r.3:  Students will use context clues to determine or clarify the meaning of words or distinguish among multiple meaning words.

Step 1: Identify Verbs (Bold) and Nouns (underlined). Also identify any prepositional phrases that add context (Italics).

11.4.r.3:  Students will use context clues to determine or clarify the meaning of words or distinguish among multiple meaning words.

Step 2: Determine each separate verb/noun combination and write in the form of a learning target.

  • I can use context clues to determine meaning of words.
  • I can use context clues to clarify meaning of words.
  • I can distinguish among multiple meaning words.

At this point, it might make sense to combine any targets that really do go together:

  • I can use context clues to determine or meaning of words.
  • I can distinguish among multiple meaning words.

Step 3a: Determine the appropriate depth of knowledge of learning target.

Finding the DOK helps determine what you and your team will use as the criteria for success for each target. Many people rely on verbs to help determine DOK levels.  Although verbs can give some indication, they do not tell the whole story.  On her blog, Alice Keeler discusses how to actually determine DOK.  Several taxonomies exist; I will be using Webb’s DOK for this example.


  • I can use context clues to determine or meaning of words. DOK2
  • I can distinguish among multiple meaning words. DOK 2

At this point, it may also be helpful to discuss with your team the best way to assess students on each learning target and create a few sample items or tasks. Here are some things to keep into consideration:

  • Which assessment type will give us the most accurate representation of student knowledge (Open Response, Selected response, performance task, or Observation).
  • Consider that sometimes the best method may not be the most practical or time efficient.
  • Design assessments or tasks that not only reveal whether kids or proficient, but also help teachers determine exact misconceptions.


Step 4: Identify any Key vocabulary and basic skills that students need to know/do before mastering targets.

This step is extremely important when planning the sequence of instruction.  Once you have determined your learning targets and the level of thinking required, it is necessary to “think backwards” to determine what prerequisite knowledge and skills students need in order to meet the level of the targets.

Ideally, this should be done while collaborating with team members as the conversation that will happen will help build a shared understanding of how to interpret the standard.

  • I can use context clues to determine or meaning of words. DOK2
  • I can distinguish among multiple meaning words. DOK 2

Basic Vocabulary and Skills

  • I can recall basic vocabulary such as context clues, synonym, antonym, inference, example, and definition DOK 1
  • I can recognize various types of context clues including: synonym, antonym, inference, example, and definition DOK 1

Step 5: Determine the learning progression

After unwrapping standards into smaller targets and determining any prerequisite skills it’s time to plan the progression of instruction from the least rigorous to the most rigorous.  Once thing to keep in mind here – depending on the prior knowledge of your students, you may not need to teach ALL of the  prerequisite skills to EVERY student.

Unit pre-tests: It would be a good practice to begin each unit with a pre-test that assess the basic knowledge and skills students already have.  The results of this pre-test could determine whether or not you need to teach the basic concepts and/or inform the pacing of your instruction. In addition, a well-designed unit pre-test would allow teachers to identify students who will likely struggle, but more importantly the specific targets where they will need extra support.

Learning progression for 11.4.r.3

  1. I can recognize various types of context clues including: synonym, antonym, inference, example, and definition DOK 1
  2. I can use context clues to determine or meaning of words. DOK.
  3. I can distinguish among multiple meaning words. DOK 2

**Notice I left out the target recalling basic vocabulary target – because most, if not all students, should have a basic understanding of these terms  (context clues, synonym, antonym, inference, example, and definition).  Therefore, I would not plan any whole class instruction to address this target.  However, if I find during my instruction from pre-test or CFA data that some students do not have this understanding, I would still address this in a small group or 1 to 1 setting.

Step 6: Use unpacked targets to guide instruction and assessment:

Once the learning progressions are clear to a team, it is time to find to determine where this instruction belongs in the big picture and what strategies and resources to use to help students meet targets.

Some questions your team may consider:

  • When during the year should we teach this?
    • Is mastering this standard necessary before mastering other standards? (Vertical alignment)
    • Will this standard recur throughout the year? If so, when will we demand students OWN it.
    • Does it make sense to teach this standard while students are learning other standards in other subject areas? (Horizontal Alignment)
  • How long should spend on this?
    • How will I provide support of students who need more time?
    • How will I provide opportunities for extension?
  • At what points does it make sense to administer a CFA?
    • Are the targets essential or nice to know?
    • At what point in the learning sequence can I anticipate that some students will have specific misconceptions
  • What resources/strategies will help students learn this the best?
    • Do  I need access to any technology or equipment?
    • Do I require any training to teach use these resources or teach these standards effectively?
    • What has worked well in the past?
    • What research-based strategies are effective in helping students reach this target?


Just Try It: Whether you are learning new standards or reviewing your current standards, taking the time to unpack them and sequence your instruction with this “end-in-mind” process will help you focus your instruction on the targets that you and your team have determined are essential to your content.

Maybe I am just a curriculum nerd, which I have been told, but there is a nice feeling that comes when you begin a school year, or even just a unit, with knowledge of the exact targets you plan to help your students learn, the sequence you will teach them, and the assessments you will use to determine if students are learning them.

This feeling is doubled when you have a team that has the same interpretation and expectations regarding those standards  as you do.  Your team can collaborate to  share resources, share the workload of creating assessments, discuss which specific strategies worked better than others, and even share students when it’s time for extensions and interventions.


Helpful Templates:

Unwrapping and Deconstructing Protocol





Just Try-It Tuesday: Alternatives to “Answer-Hunts” – in Non fiction reading

TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

As a young student, I had no love for non-fiction texts.  I don’t think it had much to do with the text itself, but the tasks that often accompanied reading the text.  It seemed each time I had a reading assignment in science or social studies – the assignment was simply to read the chapter,  define a list of vocab words (in bold), and answer a few basic questions found at the end of the chapter.  Occasionally there was an essay question at the end of each chapter – but that was usually for bonus points.

It didn’t take long to learn the system.  The vocabulary questions were easy.  All I had to do was find the bold words and write the phrase that followed them.  The comprehension questions were not much harder; the answers could be found in the exact order the questions appeared, and most of the time the answers included the same words or phrases that appeared in the questions.

These assignments taught me a lot.  Unfortunately very little of what I learned from these related to the content.  I learned to “work the system” and make 100% on each homework assignment, while putting in minimum effort. I rarely, if ever, read the text start to finish.  I got by with skimming and reading only the sentences or paragraphs the questions sent me to.  The problem was that on the rare occasion I was tasked with a question that required any degree of critical or inferential thinking – I was at a loss.

Thankfully, I eventually had teachers who exposed me to the value of critical reading skills required when reading non-fiction texts – and I began to develop my ability to read-to-learn rather than read-to-find-answers to the questions at the back of the book.

I am not condemning or denouncing assigning level I comprehension questions; they certainly have their place, but I feel we provide a disservice when we don’t challenge kids to go beyond hunting for answers.  We unintentionally reinforce poor reading habits by rewarding “answer-hunt” reading. 

Today’s post is meant to address alternatives to “answer-hunt” reading. TImage result for critical reading imagesoo often students fear or dread non-fiction text because of past experiences and lack of success with it.  We ought to spend time developing skills students can use to combat this fear, so students can approach any text with confidence.

What strategies can we explicitly teach students, so that they are able to read non-fiction texts critically for worthwhile purposes?

Just Try-It Tuesday: Alternatives to Answer-Hunts:

I will briefly describe two general practices that teachers in any discipline can use when asking students to read non-fiction texts.

  1. Using strategic text-dependent questions.
  2. Connecting text structure with determining the main idea.


1. Embed Text-Dependent Questions into Lessons:

In Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book TDQ: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading (2015), the authors identify four general questions we should help kids answer in order to drive critical reading:

  • What does the text say?
    • Includes questions about general understanding and key ideas and details
  • How does the work?
    • Includes questions about vocabulary, structure, and author’s craft
  • What does the text mean?
    • Includes questions about author’s purpose and textual connections
  • What does the text inspire you to do?
    • Includes tasks that include writing, multi-media presentations, debates, investigations, or other tasks where students demonstrate what they have learned as a result of reading the text critically.

Designing questions and tasks that help students answer these questions is only half the battle – as I see it.  We also have to provide students with enough practice and feedback, so they can answer these questions independently.  In other words, it’s not a matter of just developing the questions and tasks then simply assigning them to students and grading the results.  We need to embed various forms of explicit instruction, discussion, and feedback into these lessons to help build these critical reading skills in students.

2. Using Text Structure to Determine Main Idea

In the above example, Frey and Fisher suggest that we help students determine how a text works. One major component of this involves understanding the structure of the text.  We not only should be teaching students to recognize text structures, but help them connect how each text structure might lead them to understanding the main idea of the text. Refer to the examples below:

Text Structure: Compare and Contrast

When students encounter a text that may be comparing the leadership styles of two different presidents, the main idea will include information about both presidents. Just knowing the structure of the text should help students recognize they will need to synthesize information about both people in order to really understanding the text.

Text Structure: Cause and Effect

An article discussing the causes and effects of global warming would likely be written in a cause/effect structure.  Once students are able to recognize this, they should immediately understand that the article will answer two important questions: What causes global warming? What are the effects of global warming?  Once again, understanding how the text works helps students synthesize information to determine the main idea of the article and, eventually, the significance of that main idea.

Other text structures to explicitly teach:

Narrative: Fiction/biographical non-fiction texts that follow a typical plot.

Main idea connection:  Students should keep in mind that narrative texts have a theme and be on the lookout for clues as to what the underlying message of the story is.

Sequence (chronological order):  This structure will indicate steps in a process or the order events took place.

Main idea connection: When encountering sequential text-structure students should know they will have to examine how each part relates to the whole.

Description (Main Idea/Detail): Expository texts where main ideas are followed by details.

Main idea connection:  When students understand this structure, they know the information is presented more directly and their main task is to identify the main ideas and organize identify the details for each topic and sub-topic.

TRY IT OUT Tuesdayb

Just Try-I! 

When asking students to read non-fiction text, avoid “answer-hunt” assignments by planning, ahead of time, a series of text dependent questions carefully designed to help students go beyond surface level understanding.

Help students understand how the text works by explicitly teaching text structures and how understanding those structures will help them determine what is really important in the text.

I am often surprised and pleased about the critical thinking students are capable of once we give opportunities to do more than supply us with answers.