Strategies to Create Your Best ELA Curriculum

Tessa Polizzi
June 10, 2019

Today’s ELA teachers are tasked with creating a curriculum that not only meets Common Core and state standards but also engages students in class and prepares them for higher education and careers. They’re told that a curriculum should improve students’ foundational skills, teach close reading of complex texts, and include a volume of reading sufficient for vocabulary and knowledge building. All too often, though, teachers have little training or support in designing a high-quality curriculum, and many ask their students questions that don’t require close reading or citing examples from the text as evidence. Research shows that more than half of teachers spend five or more hours searching the internet, often outside of school hours, to plan lessons for their curriculum. Mandates, such as state standards, high-stakes tests, and prescribed curricula, may lead teachers to feel that they are not serving students in a satisfactory and effective way (Costigan, 2017).

A well-structured curriculum, however, can satisfy all these learning goals: engagement, skill building, knowledge building, deeper learning, and preparation for the kinds of rigorous work expected in higher education, careers, and life. Here are clear guidelines on how to build the best ELA curriculum for your students.

1. Create a unit that relates to students’ lives and explores complicated topics in a safe space.

A good place to start is to explore a topic that is central to your students’ identities. A unit on immigrants who are finding their place in their new home, for example, can speak to not only immigrants in your classroom, but also to students whose family members are immigrants. Essential questions can create even more bridges into the content: by asking broad questions about the relationships between protagonists in these stories, students can connect the literature to their own family dynamics and friendships.

In addition, don’t be afraid to take risks with your topics. Exploring darker or more complex themes can resonate with your students in a deeply personal way. Students are drawn to the dark topics explored in contemporary young adult literature such as The Hate U Give, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Walk Two Moons, and The Fault in Our Stars. Connecting with a character’s struggles can help students learn about themselves, other people, and the larger world, and discussing a character’s survival after a traumatic experience can help them discover and articulate how to best move forward in their own lives. Complex themes like conflict, love, and grief are the stuff that literature, and life, are made of. By treating these topics with sensitivity, you can create a safe space for students to better understand their own reactions, reflect on their own difficult experiences, and learn how to talk about sensitive topics with compassion and respect.

2. Assemble a collection of related texts featuring a variety of genres, authors, and perspectives.

Curricular units provide a great opportunity to teach students how to connect diverse texts and perspectives. Not only is this a big push from the Common Core, but it’s also good practice to develop the sort of analytical, comparative thinking they will need to evaluate sources and understand diverse perspectives in a hyperconnected world. A thoughtful curricular unit on teen bullying, for example, can feature excerpts from The Outsiders and Black Boy, a short story by Stephen Crane, poems by Maya Angelou and D.H. Lawrence, a recent article analyzing research on the physiological and emotional effects of cyberbullying, and a video describing firsthand experiences of being bullied. Choosing an engaging, diverse collection of texts from authors of different backgrounds, and featuring a variety of protagonists, will draw students into the stories and resonate with them throughout the course. What’s more, asking students to integrate nonfiction texts in their reading, thinking, and writing about works of fiction encourages them to make sophisticated comparisons of how genres differ and builds background knowledge that leads to deeper understanding of the literary texts.

3. Guide students’ learning with a series of essential questions.

You can engage students from the beginning to the end of a unit with essential questions that are broad and universal, bring structure, and connect a variety of texts. In our unit on slavery, for example, we feature 21 fiction and nonfiction texts that we connect with a series of four guiding questions. We start our unit by asking one topical essential question: What were the relationships between enslavers and the enslaved like? This question—which is open-ended and engaging, invites higher-order thinking, and requires justification and explanation—guides the thinking and discussion for two short stories and a firsthand account by Frederick Douglass.

The unit’s next three sections feature a series of texts guided by more essential questions: Why is it important to read firsthand accounts of slavery? What did escaping slavery look like? What did culture and innovation look like to enslaved people? By answering these questions as they explore a series of texts, students build on their knowledge throughout the unit by reading, thinking, and writing about complex ideas and develop a deepening understanding of the effects of slavery on individuals and the larger world.

Use essential questions to engage your students, bring structure to your ELA curriculum unit, and connect a series of texts.

4. Choose rigorous content and use instruction that prompts students to look more deeply into the text.

Including a combination of complex literary texts, articles, and primary sources in your unit can better prepare students for the demands of higher education, careers, and life. Students will be expected to grapple with rigorous texts on their standardized tests, in their college courses, and in their future workplaces. Exposing them to complex syntax and structure, challenging vocabulary, and unfamiliar content will help them develop the reading and analytical skills they will need to grapple with legal documents, tax forms, and many other complex texts they will encounter as adults. Remember that challenging students with “frustration-level texts” (Morgan, Wilcox, and Eldredge, 2010) has been shown to increase reading gains, especially in poor readers. Texts that have more subtlety and depth inspire deeper thinking, analysis, and conversations—exactly the kind of activities students need to succeed in higher education, careers, and life.

For each unit, it’s important to ask students to dig deeply into their analysis. Helping them learn to carefully read, and reread, a poem or challenging text before answering your questions can lead them to access deeper layers of meaning. You can also ask them to compare and contrast two complex texts, analyze a chart that illustrates the unit’s theme, or describe how a related video illuminates or complicates an issue. To help struggling readers deeply understand complex text and participate more fully in group discussions, you can scaffold by providing definitions of key words and establishing context with brief background information.

5.  Ask text-dependent questions.

The Common Core and state standards for ELA stress the importance of teaching students how to use evidence to support their thinking. In assigning writing assignments and research projects based on complex texts, ask questions that do more than require students to articulate their opinions and draw from their own personal experiences. Instead, ask them to answer a question using evidence from the assigned texts to make their points.

If you’re not sure whether your question is text-dependent, use this rule of thumb: if you can answer without having read the text, it’s not text-dependent. And if students answer the question without citing evidence to support their claims, challenge them to go back into the text to find examples. For example, let’s say that you’re reading “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” If you ask students a generic question about how individuals experience reality differently, you’ll probably get a wide range of tangents and musings. But if you ask them a text-dependent question like, “How does Walter’s view of reality impact his actions and relationships?” you can expect students to refer back to the text and be challenged to find evidence to support their answers. Another approach is to give them a sentence starter, such as “When Walter Mitty ____, it shows ___because _____.” Continually asking them to write evidence-based answers in short-answer questions will pay off when they’re asked to create longer essays and research projects that require the use of evidence to support multiple claims. Asking text-dependent questions throughout your unit can also help your students focus as they read, build knowledge, and deepen their thinking on topics that they hear about or experience every day, such as the natural world, technology, and violence.

At the end of the unit, your students will walk away with new information that is closely connected to their lives and be more skilled in thinking and writing about complex ideas, analyzing rigorous content, making meaningful connections between a variety of texts, using evidence to support their claims, and discussing sensitive topics. Your thoughtfully constructed units will help your students become better consumers of information, make better judgments, and be stronger readers and thinkers as they take on the challenges of the future.


Quick Guide to Topical Essential Questions

Latest Research Recommends Changes to ELA Instruction

5 Ways to Make Rigorous Content Motivating to Students

Works cited:

Costigan, A. (2017). “I’m Not Teaching English, I’m Teaching Something Else!”: How New Teachers Create Curriculum Under Mandates of Educational Reform. Educational Studies. 54 (2): 198-228.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B., and Eldredge, J.L. (2010). Effect of Difficulty Levels on Second-Grade Delayed Readers Using Dyad Reading. Journal of Educational Research. 94 (2):

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