A Simple Lesson Structure for Engaging Literate Minds

Structures can help ensure productive and thoughtful instruction

Last week our school surveyed almost 100 families about remote instruction. Additionally, I met with every team and department in my school to debrief on the year. What did I learn from their perspectives about our new normal?

Many helpful insights, and they communicated three needs as we prepare for the possibility of continued teaching and learning from a distance.

  1. Access. This includes a strong Internet connection and reliable device, as well as access to adequate learning environments and proper supports.

  2. Structures. This includes clarity of expectations and schedules, as well as structures applied to how instruction begins, unfolds, and resolves.

  3. Engagement. This includes an emotional/social commitment to learning, as well as higher intellectual engagement with the content or skill.

In this article, I want to focus on structures as they apply to online spaces. Specifically, what routine or protocol do we employ within literacy instruction that could help translate to a successful learning experience mediated by technology?

While reading the many descriptions of classrooms in Engaging Literate Minds, I wrote out the pattern I noticed the teachers seemed to follow during instruction. Below is a cleaner and more appealing visual of this teaching-learning process.

This is a similar process I used when teaching graduate courses in curriculum leadership. All five elements involve learners participating in authentic activities; you could see each one occurring in the real world.

Next are two examples, one primary and one secondary, to show how this structure could be utilized in classrooms, online or in-person.

Primary Level

This lesson can be an introduction to a poetry unit for elementary students. It could be a reading-writing genre study and begins with a biography about a poet (William Carlos Williams) and his well known poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”. All activities are possible within video conference applications such as Zoom.

Issue/Topic/Idea: Appreciating Poetry

Big Question (+ Learning Intention): Why do we need poetry? (Poetry allows people to express ideas, feelings and themselves.)

Text(s): Read aloud 16 Words: William Carlos Williams & “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Lisa Rogers & Chuck Groenink (picture book)

Discussion Goals:

  1. To listen with genuine interest to other’s ideas

  2. To clarify what someone else is saying

Literacy-in-Action (write, speak, reflect, self-assess): After facilitating discussion around the book, including the point that language can exist for itself and to simply allow someone to express their observations or ideas, the teacher models how to write their own 16 word poem about something they notice a lot and care about. Then gradually release the students to write their own poetry via shared demonstration. Whenever the lesson ends, either in a couple or many days, reflect on the varied ways everyone expressed themselves - talking, responding, writing - during this experience.

Secondary Level

This lesson can also be an introduction to a unit for older students on opinion writing. Another reading-writing genre study which begins with two articles expressing positions on both sides of vegetarianism. Each subsequent lesson introduces new topics via persuasive writing that represents diverse positions, eventually utilizing students’ own writing as models. All activities are possible in video conference applications such as Zoom.

Issue/Topic/Idea: Persuasive Writing

Big Question (+ Learning Intention): How do I persuade someone? (Forming an opinion and persuading someone else to think as you do are two different things.)


Discussion Goals:

  1. To identify the elements of effective persuasive writing

  2. To raise awareness of our own biases and inability to take in new information

Literacy-in-Action (write, speak, reflect, self-assess): After facilitating discussion around the articles, including the language the writers used to express their positions and supporting ideas, the teacher models how to write a draft of their own opinion article on a topic they care about. Then gradually release students to write their own persuasive essays. Whenever the lesson ends, either in a couple days or many days, allow students to share their work with a peer, discussing strengths and asking questions. Encourage students to submit their essays as op-eds for a newspaper.

Download: Lesson Template for Literacy Engagement

The Most Important Part of This Process

You might have noticed there was no specific learning target or lesson objective in the beginning of each plan. Skills and content were embedded within a more general learning intention, but they were not the exclusive focus.

The one part I cannot articulate well might be the most important part of this learning process: discussion. It’s that opportunity, if guided effectively, for people to voice their thinking about the text(s) and the ideas without worrying about making a mistake. Discussion gives everyone the chance to teach and learn from each other. It allows the teacher to position responsibility for instruction more on the group and each student.

In other words: to increase student engagement, we must reduce our instruction. (See Peter Johnston’s blog post for more on this precept.)

What are your thoughts on this structure? Do you feel it would be applicable as is, or how might you change it to meet your needs? Share your feedback in the comments. And if you enjoyed this article, encourage colleagues to subscribe.

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