Monday / April 22

 How Does Your Instruction Line Up? 

Imagine being a child moving through a K-12 educational system. In kindergarten, the teacher reads a silly, fun story aloud as the class listens intently. With prompting and support, the teacher asks students to identify the characters in the story. The students cheerfully tell the teacher all about the characters. In 8th grade, students are crafting a paragraph about a character in the class novel using text-based evidence to support their thinking. Too often, we see well intentioned teachers asking older students to complete a similar task year after year without ever prompting students to think deeper about the concept of character. How can this be?

Without a curriculum master plan, teachers teach “stuff” and students learn, but it may not be the right “stuff” or have relevance to what lies ahead. Ensuring that curriculum is vertically aligned allows students the opportunity to discover the intricacies of a discipline one well-planned year at a time. In English language arts, concepts such as character remain constant across the grades, but a student’s understanding of the intricacies of the concept must increase with age and maturity. The Common Core State Standards spiral, which allows for skills and concepts to be unpacked to a greater depth each year.

In Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction, concepts are defined as a mental construct that is:

  • Timeless
  • Universal, and
  • Abstract (to different degrees)

(From:  H.L. Erickson. Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction, 3rd edition ©2008)

In English language arts, concepts pull thinking beyond the example at hand. Because concepts are timeless, they were relevant to the discipline years ago, remain relevant today, and will be relevant in the future. Because concepts are universal, examples of the concepts may be found across situations and cultures.

Let’s think again about the concept of character. In kindergarten, this is a big idea and an important concept in understanding text. By the secondary grade levels, students demonstrate a greater depth of understanding about this (macro) concept as they talk about “static characters,” “protagonists.” “antagonists,” “dynamic characters,” “round characters,” and the like. In order to increase depth of understanding through the grade levels, the macro concepts need to be drilled down to the more specific, micro concepts. The more micro (specific) the concept is, the more expertise it takes to understand it. In other words, the progression of curriculum units will build depth of understanding as concepts become more exact.

Think about this: What separates a novice from an expert in a discipline? It’s the understanding of the micro concepts and the precise knowledge of all that makes that discipline unique.

Taking the time to break down macro concepts into micro concepts provides clarity for the teacher. Let’s look at what this might look like across the 4th-10th grade span. In the diagram below, notice how the macro concept of character remains constant. For each grade level, micro concepts are drawn out to add specificity appropriate to the grade level. We move from micro concepts such as character traits in fourth grade, to dynamic vs. static character in  seventh grade, to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations by tenth grade.  As students move through the grades, they are given the opportunity to uncover an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the concept of character.

In Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction, the relationship among micro concepts are expressed in a statement of conceptual understanding called a generalization. Teachers then design lessons to help students construct the important transferable understanding stated in the generalization. As the student moves through the grades, notice how the generalizations increase in specificity through the use of the micro concepts. With each passing year, students develop a little more expertise in the discipline.

4th Grade 7th Grade 10th Grade





characterization, character traits




dynamic vs. static character, perspective



complex character, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, internal vs. external conflicts,  character relationships



Readers discover character traits through a character’s thoughts, actions, dialogue, and relationships.


Authors use elements of a story to imply changes in a dynamic character. Authors create complex characters with varied and conflicting motivations, internal and external conflicts, and relationships with other characters to advance the plot and develop the theme of a story.

Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).



Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).



Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Each subject area has a bank of disciplinary concepts. Let’s look at English language arts again. Concepts are crafted into generalizations, which become instructional targets. Teachers use them to guide students to understandings of what it really takes to be a capable reader, writer, thinker, viewer, and speaker.

Here are a few concepts to get you thinking:

Macro concept: Author’s Craft

Micro concepts: Voice, Connections, Word Choice

What should students understand about the concept of Author’s Craft in 2nd grade vs. 6th grade, vs. 10th grade? Do you see how important it is for teachers to have a clear road map (curriculum) that articulates the expected understandings at each grade and increases in specificity and complexity each year? A K-12 curriculum is an essential communication and alignment tool.  It ensures everyone is aware of what students are expected to Know (factual knowledge), Understand (generalizations) and Do (skills) across the year and grade levels.

Try It! Select a macro concept and think about it in terms of your grade level, the grade level below yours, and the grade level above. What micro concepts are important to understand at each grade level? How can you ensure that students are given the opportunity to gain a more intricate understanding of the macro concept as they move through the grade levels?

  Grade Below ____ My Grade ______ Grade Above ______


Micro Concepts      

Then, ask yourself: As students move through the system, are they being given the opportunity to develop disciplinary expertise?

Through intentionally designed progressions, teachers can be sure that each year the students will gain a deeper, more precise understanding of the concepts important to the discipline. While many literacy resources mention deep learning and transfer of learning as end goals of instruction, teachers are typically not given clear, easy to follow guidance in how to bring this to life in their own classrooms. In our upcoming book, The Concept-Based Guide to Planning ELA Lessons: Moving Literacy Beyond Skills to Understanding (in press), we show teachers how to design lessons to systematically support the transfer of students’ conceptual understandings. What separates Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction from so many other “approaches”  is that teachers use clear, important, transferable understandings (generalizations) as specific targets of instruction that go beyond the facts and skills to be learned.  The generalizations increase in complexity grade to grade through the intentional inclusion of micro concepts, as shown above. A well thought out, vertically aligned, Concept-Based Curriculum provides teachers with a clear master plan designed to guide students to continuous development of disciplinary expertise.

Written by

Lois A. Lanning, Ph.D., is an independent education consultant. She works with districts at the international, national and state levels in the areas of literacy and Concept-Based Curriculum design. One of the resources for this blog was her book, Designing a Concept-based Curriculum for English Language Arts, Corwin Press (2013).

Tiffanee Brown, MS SpEd, is a National Board Certified English language arts teacher and a certified Dr. H Lynn Erickson and Dr. Lois A. Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Presenter and Trainer. She is currently serving as the English Language Arts Consultant Teacher for the Burlington-Edison School District. Visit her website at

Latest comments

  • Amazing, I had so much of clarity reading this.

  • Great stuff! Really like the connection you make with micro-concepts [and processes] and expert teaching/teachers. Keep up the great work!

    • Tom,
      We’re glad that you enjoyed the article! When used intentionally, micro-concepts can be such a powerful way to ensure precision and clarity in our instruction. Thank you for sharing!

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