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





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