Tuesday / June 25

A Conceptual Boost to Literacy Instruction

Here’s an important question: Isn’t mastering the skills articulated in the standards enough?When you look at standards for English, it becomes evident that literacy is a discipline organized primarily by the processes, strategies and skills students are expected to be able to Do. In a Concept-Based Literacy classroom, teaching skills is not the end goal in and of itself, rather the skills are taught to exemplify a bigger idea or Understanding about important literacy processes. Too often we concentrate on students learning skills or strategies but stop short of making sure our students understand and can transfer their learning. Conceptual understanding is simply assumed based on the successful demonstration of a skill. Although we have the best intentions, sometimes conceptual understanding is inadvertently shortchanged.

Take a peek at this example from a 4th Grade classroom:

The students in this fourth-grade classroom are fired up! While learning about the concept of conservation in science, the students discovered that many people in their school waste a lot of food. During a food waste audit, which was one of the learning experiences in the fourth-grade science unit, the students discovered uneaten sandwiches, apples without a bite taken, unopened sticks of string cheeses, and mounds of food from the hot lunch served that day. The fourth graders were shocked at just how much edible food is thrown away, even though the school recently conducted a food drive to help combat hunger in their community. They were feeling inspired to bring about change so they asked the teacher what they can do to let others in the school know how much food is being wasted. The teacher quickly recognized how he could use the students’ science learning as a perfect vehicle for integrating some of the English language arts presentation skills and the technology skills that are also part of the fourth-grade curricula.

In his next lesson, the teacher asks students to collaboratively create a PowerPoint presentation so they can share what they learned about food waste. They will present their findings to classrooms across the school. This activity will integrate science, literacy and technology as students present to an authentic audience. Perfect!

Let’s pause here for a moment. Although the students are highly engaged and motivated about creating their presentations, there is a problem. How might we boost this example of 2-Dimensional Learning to 3-Dimensioanl Learning?

2-Dimensional Learning Expectations (facts & skills) Content in the students’ PowerPoint presentation will demonstrate students Know . . .

  • The meaning of conservation
  • Relevant facts about a topic from research

Key Skills students will be able to Do . . .

  • Report on the topic in an organized manner
  • Pose and respond to specific questions to clarify or follow up on information, and make comments that contribute to the discussion and link to the remarks of others
  • Build a digital presentation with a focus on skill development, such as
  • Inserting images into a presentation
  • Using bulleted lists to organize ideas
  • Selecting color scheme
  • Using appropriate font size and style

. . . but what will students Understand?


The learning expectations reflect two-dimensional literacy learning because they are all at the factual and skill levels. Yes, the teacher skillfully guided the students to realize important science concepts, but, in terms of literacy skill instruction, what transferable, conceptual understanding will students uncover about the process of creating effective presentations? It is easy to insert literacy skill expectations into content lessons without realizing students’ learning may fall short of conceptual understanding and transfer.

Moving Beyond Literacy Skills to Conceptual Understanding and Transfer

How can this fourth-grade teacher move students’ learning to a conceptual level? He first needs to identify a clear learning target of conceptual understanding (generalization) by asking, “What do I want my students to Understand about designing presentations as a result of this learning experience? What is it that students need to Understand in order to apply the skills they are learning to new and more novel situations?” If the teacher selects the generalization, Authors choose a presentation style and visuals that effectively convey key points to a target audience, as his focus for instruction, can you begin to see how he could redesign the learning experience to deliberately guide students to this conceptual understanding?

Using an inductive process, students could explore the impact of a range of presentation styles and visuals to help them uncover the relationship between an author’s choices and the target audience. Students could then explain, what they understand about how authors create effective presentations supported with evidence from their investigation. This boosts student thinking beyond a focus on the mastery of skills to articulating an essential, transferable understanding about a literacy process that extends beyond the task at hand.

Take Your Current Literacy Practices One Step Further

We know that practicing skills that are locked into a specific assignment does not necessarily lead to learning transfer — especially when the new context is unfamiliar and more complex. In a Concept-Based literacy classroom, we teach literacy skills so that we intentionally develop a third dimension — students’ conceptual schemata. In other words, students learn and practice skills in contexts that support inquiry and exemplify the relationships among the specific skills and related concepts. When we take our thinking about how to teach complex skills one step further, we are better able to make conscious choices about literacy practices that will deliberately guide students’ thinking toward the important understandings about how language works.

If you want to give your current literacy instruction a conceptual boost, consider the following tips as additional layers to add to familiar instructional techniques and classroom practices.

  1. Ask yourself, “As a result of my instruction, what is the important conceptual understanding (generalization) that I want my students to understand and be able to transfer independently to new situations?” Deliberately writing the target generalization gives the lesson the essential, conceptual third dimension, which makes a difference in learning retention and transfer. This promotes conceptual thinking.
  2. Use concepts to create an interplay between the factual (specific examples) and conceptual (transferable ideas) levels. This ignites synergistic thinking.
  3. Provide multiple examples and text options to allow students to uncover conceptual patterns, and to promote student choice. This cultivates critical thinking.
  4. Create opportunities for students to reflect on the process they engaged in during the learning experience. Can students explain why they do what they do as readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and viewers? This promotes reflective thinking.

Although the tips appear to be simple shifts, don’t underestimate their power. When used together they can add a whole new dimension to your literacy classroom.

Interested in learning more? In Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer, co-authored with Dr. Lois A. Lanning, we showcase 16 Classroom Snapshots that paint a picture of how to engage synergistic thinking, support the process of inductive inquiry, and help students move from the practice of a concrete skill to a deeper, transferable conceptual understanding in a literacy classroom.

Written by

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. In addition to facilitating professional learning and collaborating with teachers regionally and internationally, she works full-time as the English Language Arts Consultant Teacher for the Burlington-Edison School District in Washington State. Connect with Tiffanee on Twitter @BrownTiffanee or visit her website at

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