Formative Assessments: Testing FOR Learning

Part 4:  Formative Assessments

*This blog post is part of a four part series on lesson planning.

In this series of posts, we’ve learned about targeted or strategic lesson planning:  creating clearly defined lesson objectives and gradual release of responsibility. The final piece to creating a well planned lesson is formative assessment.

Typically, when we mention assessments to teachers, thinking goes directly to summative assessments.  Edglossary defines summative assessment as “a test or project at the end of an instructional period, used to measure student learning, acquisition of skills, and academic achievement.”  Because summative assessments are given at the end of an instructional period, it does not help inform lesson planning. It measures the students’ achievement of the unit objective or academic standards.  This type of formal assessment is graded and can affect students’ academic record. In simple words, formative assessment tells the teacher what the students learned from the unit and whether they met the standards.

For this post, we will focus on the other form of assessment called formative assessment.  Formative assessments are provided multiple times during an instructional period to inform teachers of how the students are learning, and how teachers can adjust their teaching to better support and instruct students.  Formative assessments can be formal or informal, used to gather information, in order to direct teachers and students how to move forward in a unit or chapter.

One analogy that I can think of is driving using the GPS.  When you use the GPS, you create an outcome which is your destination.  The directions the GPS provide are lessons that lead to the outcome. We need those directions to get to our destination.  During your travels, the directions may change due to construction or the GPS found a faster way. These can be compared to formative assessments.  These “rerouting” detours make the driving easier and faster just as formative assessments tell us a better way to get to the outcome.

Now that we know the difference between the two type of assessments, let’s focus on what exactly is formative assessment.  As I mentioned earlier, formative assessments can be formal or informal assessments that are given throughout the unit to inform teachers and students what they’ve learned so far and how to proceed to get to the final lesson objective.  There is no specific number for how many times a teacher can administer a formative assessment.

Formative assessments may take days or a few minutes.  It can be as easy as a quickwrite or an exit ticket. It can be as elaborate as a group presentation or project showing what the students have learned so far.  

I recently came across a wonderful resource by Scholastic on  formative assessments. 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom by Judith Dodge and Blanca E. Duarte.  This book is so good that I was able to convince our principal to purchase one for each of our teachers.  It is good to have this book handy when lesson planning. You can choose what formative assessment fits your lesson.  When planning a formative assessment, we have to consider the amount of time we are able to give students and whether it will be a group or individual assessment.  Most importantly, we need to know what it is we are trying to learn and how will the assessment be used to direct instruction. I remember reading somewhere a definition of a formative assessment:  “Formative assessments are assessments FOR learning, not OF learning.”

*This concludes our series of blogs on lesson planning.  

Quizizz-A Fun and Interactive Way to Informally Assess Students

I wanted to share a fun and interactive website I’ve just started using with my! This website is FREE and my students have loved competing against each other while I’m able to informally check for understanding on specific concepts. From the Quizizz website:

Quizizz allows you to conduct student-paced formative assessments in a fun and engaging way for students of all ages. The salient features include:

  1. Student-paced: Questions appear on each student’s screen, so they can answer questions at their own pace, and review their answers at the end.
  2. BYOD: Can be played by students using any kind of device with a browser, including PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Learn more.
  3. Thousands of public quizzes: Amazing teachers around the world create thousands of great questions on Quizizz every day! This community effort generates great content that everyone can use.
  4. Quiz Editor: The Quizizz editor is the most awesome quiz editor in the world! Well… we think so at least… do let us know if you don’t agree 🙂
    We take the hassle out of creating quizzes by allowing you to pluck questions from any quiz, easily add images from the internet, auto-save your progress and tons of other features. Learn more.
  5. Reports: Our reports give you detailed class-level and student-level insights for every quiz you conduct. You can also download the reports as an Excel spreadsheet. Learn more.
  6. Quiz Customization: Teachers have multiple options to customize their quiz session to toggle the level of competition, speed, and other factors.

In my classroom, we have used the Live Game setting where students can compete against one another right then and there. Above is a screen shot of a game we played today. Students will move up or down depending upon how well they are doing on the quiz. You can also get an overall percentage on how the entire group is doing on the quiz. I allow students to use their first name or they can choose an anonymous nickname for fun. This informal assessment works great in my virtual classroom setting!

Teachers can create their own quizzes or pull from thousands of pre-made quizzes across all grade levels and content areas. We are currently reading The Hobbit and there are a ton of quizzes I can pull from to check for understanding after specific chapters.

Check out the information you can gather once students finish-

Again, just wanted to share this amazing and free website! Happy Quizizz-ing!

Ready, Set, Trust Fall: Building Trust within our Schools

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, trust can be defined as the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. As teachers, we understand the importance in building trust among our students.  In fact, we do this every year by getting to know our student’s likes, dislikes, behaviors, mannerisms, strengths and weaknesses.  We do this by spending hours of class time building a classroom community where students feel safe to take risks and know it’s natural to fail.  We do this by promoting a growth mindset culture, emphasizing to students they haven’t succeeded, yet.  

But how much trust does administration have in us?  Do we feel safe in our workplace, knowing mistakes can and will happen and that it’s ok?  How do we build trust as professionals amongst one another? The answers to these questions are vital to a school’s success.  

According to J. Drew Tonissen (, one of the most important features of a strong school culture is trust. Karen Louis, Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota, and Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, summed up this concept well in their 2011 work for Kappan Magazine:

“…neither organizational learning nor professional community can endure without trust – between teachers and administrators, among teachers, and between teachers and parents.”

Before we begin thinking about how we can build trust in schools, we need to clearly define what this looks in a school setting. College of William and Mary professor Megan   Tschannen-Moran, who wrote Trust Matters (2004),  states, “Trust is an individual’s or group’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the confidence that the latter party is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open.” She goes on to define each of the facets of trust as such:

BenevolenceConfidence that one’s well-being or something one cares about will be protected by the trusted party… the assurance that others will not exploit one’s vulnerability or take advantage even when the opportunity is available.
HonestyThe trusted person’s character, integrity, and authenticity… acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions and not distorting the truth in order to shift blame to another.
OpennessThe extent to which relevant information is shared… openness signals reciprocal trust.
ReliabilityConsistency of behavior and knowing what to expect from others… a sense of confidence that one’s needs will be met in positive ways.
CompetencyThe ability to perform as expected and according to standards appropriate to the task at hand.

Besides building upon the above listed five facets of trust, how can we increase trust among our leadership and colleagues? Here are a few ways that will begin to do just that:

  1. Transparent Leadership: The principal sets the tone of the school culture. The more transparent he/she can be with the decisions that affect both students and teachers, the more staff will trust them as leaders.  Principals who treat teachers as professionals will build trust a lot faster than those who try and micro-manage. Being transparent means being communicative, accessible, consistent and predictable as a leader.
  2. Keep Students First: Remember that everyone on your staff has the same goal in mind: student success.  Keeping students in the forefront of everything you do can help all staff achieve this shared goal.  
  3. Be Reliable: Not only should leadership be reliable and follow through, every person on staff should strive to achieve this goal.  There is nothing that can squelch trust faster than not following through on tasks. Remember, trust is earned with actions meet words (Chris Butler).
  4. Invest in your Colleagues: If you think about it, there are many days we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our own families.  Take time to get to know them, just like you would with your students. Be present in meetings and listen to what they have to say.  A school staff who trusts one another is more likely to collaborate and support each other throughout the year. In turn, students will benefit from the comrodority staff has with one another.

As you can see, trust is a major contributor to a school’s success.  With a high level of trust among staff members, teachers are more open, collaborative and communicative.  The workplace transforms into a safe setting and we look forward to showing up everyday (well, most days anyway). 🙂 How does your school work towards building trust among its staff members?


Tonissen, J. (2015). The Importance of Trust: Why School Culture Matters.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust Matters. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Using Cognates to Support ELLs: A Bridge to English

As educators, one of our main goals in working with ELLs is to support language learning through the content.  There are certainly times when it is appropriate and necessary to explicitly teach grammar, conjugations, etc., but it should not always be a separate, unconnected task.  Language learning should be done using core content to make it useful for ELLs. The use of cognates provides tremendous benefits for English Learners, especially in content area vocabulary.

But what exactly are cognates?  Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling and pronunciation.  For example, the word family in Spanish is “familia.” The two words are very similar in spelling and pronunciation, and they have the same meaning.   Cognates can be found between English and a wide variety of languages. Due to our high number of Spanish speakers here in the Bay Area (and our state and country as well), we will look at the connections between English and Spanish in particular.  

Research has shown that 30-40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish, and that in a study of 86 critical science words, 76% of those words were English/Spanish cognates.  That means that Spanish speakers already have access to a huge amount of scientific vocabulary! As teachers, we need to help them make these connections. Cognates can also be found in large quantities in mathematics and history, meaning that we need to capitalize on this vast amount of vocabulary that likely already exists within our Spanish speaking ELLs.

Cognates can be used as an extremely useful tool in understanding a second language.  The cognitive awareness that is exercised when making these connections between cognates is also highly beneficial, and can be used as early as preschool.  With each additional school year, the difficulty, sophistication and number of cognates presented to students can be increased. There are also different types of cognates that can be studied, including false cognates, those that look similar but do not have the same meaning.  Let’s take a look at some of the types.

Perfect Cognates:

The words in both languages are exactly the same in spelling and meaning, aside from minor differences in pronunciation, and perhaps an added accent.


Almost Perfect Cognates:

The words in both languages have the same meaning, and very similar spelling and pronunciation.


Cognates with Similar Suffixes:

The suffix of the English word has a similar suffix in Spanish, for example, the “ry” ending in English and the “rio” ending in Spanish.  The meanings of both words are the same. These types of cognates provide an excellent opportunity for word study, looking at suffixes, prefixes and root words.


Lessons can explicitly compare a wide range of suffixes, prefixes and root words.

Suffix “ion” in English to “cción” in SpanishAction   / AcciónConservation   / ConservaciónConstitution    / Constitución
Suffix “ic” in English to “ico” in SpanishAcademic    / AcadémicoEconomic    / EconómicoGeometric    / Geométrico
Suffix “ous” in English to “oso” in SpanishCurious    / CuriosoNumerous    / NumerosoReligious    / Religioso

False cognates:

False cognates, also called “false friends,” are two words that have similar spellings and pronunciations, but do NOT have the same meaning at all.  These should be emphasized.

Word in Spanish and the meaning of the word in English Word in English that it can be confused with
La advertencia (warning)Advertisement
La arena (sand)Arena (sports arena, stadium)
La carpeta (folder)Carpet
El colegio (high school)College
El Delito (crime)Delight
El éxito (success)Exit
El suceso (event, incident)Success

A wide range of strategies can be used to teach and utilize cognates in content area classrooms to capitalize on the differences and similarities between the two languages.  A few strategies/ ideas include:

-During a “read aloud”: As the teacher is reading in a clear voice, he/she can ask the students to raise their hand when they hear or see a cognate.  Pause the reading to record and discuss the cognate and its meaning.

-During student reading: When students are reading a text, ask them to find and highlight cognates and write them on a sticky note.  Collect them and add them to a cognate or vocabulary wall. Discuss the similarities and differences.

-Word Sort: Place students in pairs and give them cards containing the English cognate of a word on one card, the Spanish on the other.  Ask them to match and sort.

-Stress and Intonation:  Model and practice how the emphasis, stress and intonation between a word in English and its cognate in Spanish differ.  Have students repeat to practice out loud.

-Spot the Difference:  Ask students to circle the differences in letters, accents, etc. between cognates, emphasising that the meaning is the same.

Encouraging our Students to be Critical Thinkers: The Importance of Student Self Assessment

Photo courtesy of Jade Rivera

In this day and age of 21st century teaching and learning, there are endless ways to assess our students.  From formative to summative to everything in between, we are sometimes up to our ears in student data! With a growing number of assessments available at our fingertips, we need to be selective with the types of assessments we give our students.  Allowing students to self assess after a project or group activity is one great way to gather information about our students. Student self assessment is when you give students opportunities to stop, think and determine if they fully understood a concept after a lesson, project, or cooperative learning experience.  It can be extremely helpful for ELLs, as it gives them time to slow down and process what they are learning.


According to Academ, there are a plethora of key benefits in guiding students to self assess.  Some of these may include:

  • Helps to develop important meta-cognitive skills that contribute to a range of important graduate capabilities. All professionals must be able to evaluate their own performance, so this practice should be embedded in higher education learning as early as possible.
  • Increases self-awareness through reflective practice, making the criteria for self-evaluation explicit, and making performance improvement practices intrinsic to ongoing learning.
  • Contributes to the development of critical reviewing skills, enabling the learner to more objectively evaluate their own performance—and others’, when used in conjunction with peer assessment. With peer assessment they become more practised in giving constructive feedback, and receiving and acting on feedback received.
  • Helps students to take control of their own learning and assessment, and giving them the chance to manage their own learning and development more independently.

The Importance of Student Self-Assessment (2017, April 4). Retrieved from

With that said, there are many ways you can encourage students to self assess.  Rubrics, checklists, teacher-student interviews, discussions, writing conferences or learning logs are just a few of the ways you can incorporate student self assessment into your classroom.  It should be noted that you need to first model for students how to self assess. I like to do a think aloud in front of my students to show them how I would self assess as I look at each assessment criteria.  I would work through a proficient assessment of my own creation, as well as a nearly proficient assessment I created that may not score as high on a rubric. That way, students are authentic when doing this themselves-you want to let students know that self assessment is for them-the goal is not to give yourself a high rating just because you “want a good grade.”  It’s important to reassure them the process will be graded, not the actual self-assessment. Once you model and emphasize this, I have found that this form of assessment can be extremely reliable and students usually do an accurate job of assessing themselves.

Math Self Assessment Rubric

So as we move into the second semester of the 18-19 school year, try and give students opportunities to take some time and assess how well they understand a concept. Check out a sample self assessment rubric we’ve used for a math project in the past. Let us know how it works for you in the comments below!

SAMPLE: Math Self Assessment Rubric

“The Benefits of Student Self-Assessment for Academic Performance | Academ.” Software for the Education Sector | Academ, 6 Mar. 2018,

Gradual Release of Responsibility: An Effective Teacher to Student Hand-off

Part 3:  Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

*This blog post is part 3 of a four part series on lesson planning that will be published in the next few weeks.

As we mentioned before in previous blog posts, a large portion of our student population is made up of English language learners (ELs).  More than one third of our 600 plus students are considered to be ELs. So when lesson planning, it is really imperative that we consider our ELs.  We need to think about their language proficiency levels and academic histories.

No instructional model works better than gradual release of responsibility or GRR when working with ELLs.  GRR was first introduced by Pearson and Gallagher in 1983. Since then it has been coined with many different names.  For example, “I do, We do, You do together, and You do”. No matter what we call it, it still involves 4 steps: 1) Teacher modeling and/or think aloud, 2) guided instruction, 3) collaborative practice, and 4) independent practice.

For the purpose of today’s blog we will examine GRR with an English language development (ELD) lens.

Teacher Modeling and/or Think Aloud

The first step in GRR involves the teacher explicitly teaching a process or content.  My students watch and listen while I explain and model the day’s learning objective. Remember, a learning objective has two components:  language objective and content objective. With ELs in mind, I am conscientious about using academic language when modeling and teaching.

The first step is teaching students the vocabulary.  Here I use pictures, illustrations, and realia to explain each word.  When vocabulary has been taught, then I move on to teaching the concept or content from today’s objective. While doing so, it is imperative that I use the expected academic language for the lesson.  Another EL support that I can use is demonstration or providing an example. For instance, in a cause and effect lesson, I might show (Gestures are a great scaffolding for emerging ELs.) and say, “Esperanza woke up late this morning, therefore, she was late to school.”  I use examples that students can relate to–dropping a cellphone, knocking over a glass of water, etc.  In my think aloud (When the teacher, shares his/her thinking while doing an activity.), I use a specific sentence frame:  “______________, therefore,___________.” I provide my students with a few other keywords such as: then, because of (Make sure to explain the difference between using because of and just because), and due to.  Explain the syntax and provide several examples.  I specifically chose these keywords because they are appropriate for my late emerging and early expanding students.  

After teaching the vocabulary and the sentence structure, I then bring in the specific content.  I will use what I just modeled to demonstrate the objective using the appropriate content. By first starting with concepts that my students’ are familiar with, I lower the affective filter.  Now I can focus on teaching the lesson objective while using the language forms I used previously. In this particular instance we are working on finding examples of cause and effect in a non-fiction text that was previously read multiple times using close reading.  I make sure to do a think aloud so that students learn the inner dialogue that is going through my mind while I practice finding compare and contrast examples in the text. I also make sure to use the sentence frames I provided previously.

Guided Practice

During guided practice, we create an anchor chart together for cause and effect keywords and sentence frames. After that, we go back to the text and I guide them to a specific paragraph that shows a cause and effect relationship.  Together, through discussion, we identify the cause and effect. We use highlighters to mark keywords in the text that illustrates the causal concept. After we identify the cause and effect, I point them back to the anchor chart. Together we select a sentence frame to practice.  I write the sentence on the board (not forgetting my think aloud!), then, we echo read the sentence. It is important for ELs to have as many opportunities as possible for oral language practice.

After we practice our sentence, I ask students to rewrite the sentence using another sentence frame and keyword.  My students take turns sharing their sentences with an elbow partner. I make sure to walk around and listen in on my students practicing.  If I feel that they are ready, we move on to collaborative practice.

Collaborative Practice

Collaboration in itself is a great ELD teaching strategy.  Some experts believe that students learn best when practicing with a peer.

I ask my students to reread a specific paragraph, and as partners or small group, they find an example of the cause and effect relationship.  I use an altered version of the group response to the text graphic organizer and guide them during the collaborative practice.  I altered the graphic organizer to include a sentence frame for my newcomers or early emerging students.  For my late emerging and expanding students, I remind them to use any of the sentence frames we created earlier.  This portion of the lesson is rich in student voices. There is a lot of discussion and oral language practice. Again, while this is happening, I circulate around the room to provide assistance and to make an informal summative assessment of the students’ practice.  After writing their final sentence, the partners or group choose a reporter to read their sentence aloud. If I see that the students have a grasp of the concept, I then provide a formal summative assessment as independent practice.

Independent Practice

For independent practice I ask my students to submit an exit ticket.  Again, I direct them to another paragraph, ask them to read it quietly, and using highlighters for finding keywords, select the cause and the effect in the paragraph.  At this point in the lesson, I expect all of my students to use the different strategies we practiced in completing the assignment. The final product that they turn in as an exit ticket, is a cause and effect sentence, that is clearly written, using one of the sentence frames in our anchor chart.  

As I mentioned earlier, gradual release of responsibility is a great teaching strategy for all students.  It is especially useful in teaching ELs. One final reminder, GRR can be done in one lesson or multiple lessons during multiple days.  Good luck!

*This concludes part 3 of the 4-part series on lesson planning.  Please come back for the final installment on the use of formative assessment to guide instruction.

Language Boosting Routines for a Magical Math Time

We are so proud to announce our recent partnership with EdGems in creating ELL support strategies for their Math curriculum.  To celebrate this new project, we asked Ventura Unified School District Math teacher, Rosslyn Nikula, to be a guest blogger this week.

When I tell people I’m a kindergarten teacher, people often say “Oh that’s cute” or “Wow, you must be crazy!” While my students are very cute, anyone who has taught a five year old from a Title 1 school knows that the students are often in need of extra support with their vocabulary and speaking skills. Low language development coupled with low number sense and a general lack of mathematical background, which is common amongst many 5 year olds, often requires some “creativity” when crafting my lessons. I have found that embedding language routines into my daily math time boosts language development in my ELL students, as well as benefits all of my students.

One way to boost language is to create academic language “signal” words for transitions. Teaching kindergarten is often compared to “herding cats”, so the more transition chants and songs, the better! For example, when I want my students to sit along the edge of our rainbow carpet for a number talk or lesson, I say “perimeter”- they then chant back “Perimeter! Outside edge!”I also taught them to use a hand signal along with it that traces the edge of a rectangle. This visual, along with the definition, allows my students to place themselves easily in the correct position and they are learning academic language. I have used this same trick to teach definitions of shapes (and it’s an easy way to teach them to sit in a circle, which is no small feat in kindergarten!), addition and subtraction, comparing, and so on. I have found this is most effective when a hand signal is taught along with it. Sometimes, depending on their level, my ELL students might pause on a term but if I use the hand signal it jogs their memory. This could easily be adapted to older students, while they already know how to sit in a circle, the typical “class, class” chant for attention could be turned into endless opportunities for building academic language.

Another trick I use to boost language is a game I like to call “He said, She said”. I use this any time I ask my students to “turn and talk” to a neighbor. I find it especially rich during my Number Corner math time. When I say “Turn and Talk” my students chant back “Knees and eyes, head to head, he said, she said! This reminds my students my expectation for the conversation. Students know that they have to have their knees and eyes facing each other, heads together discussing the concept, and they will be responsible for using the words “He said” or “She said” at the beginning of their sentence if called on to answer. This strategy is three-fold. First, it gives my student a sentence frame (they aren’t able to read yet, everything is verbal) to begin their speaking. Second, it requires them to speak to their neighbors and listen to them enough to relay what they said. Third, this opens up discussion with my students about their agreement with the statement. I find this very rich at math time, especially. I ask my students whether they agree with the statement and have them “turn and talk” again with a new student. This allows my student multiple opportunities to engage in conversations with multiple viewpoints. It also allows my students to agree or disagree and explain their thinking. Mathematical discourse is an engaging and enriching tool for all students.

When sprinkling a little more magic into my math time, I concentrate on connecting visuals and kinesthetic movements, to verbal use. As I mentioned, we are working on our number sense (sometimes all year) in kindergarten. Finger fluency is a huge part of our understanding of numbers and the patterns that make up mathematics. In fact, many studies have come out that encourage the use of fingers in math, no matter what age the students are. It has been found that finger use and  finger fluency fires different synapses and uses a different part of the brain. For example, when I have my students use both hands to make the number 7, I have them repeat after me what they see. “Five plus two equals seven” or “five and two make seven”, depending on if we are past the beginning of the year. I then have my students cross their hands over one another’s and say “flip the addends”. They then say “two plus five equals seven”. This requires my students to cross the midline of their brain and use both sides of it. My number corner also has the visuals of each number made from hands, with the word and symbol underneath. As the year progresses, I challenge the students to substitute one finger from one hand and add it to the other, to find different parts of each number. This strategy could be adapted to older students with multiplication and division too.

As each new school year begins, sometimes I even find myself asking if I’m crazy for teaching kindergarten. It’s a labor of love, but when I see my students presenting and asking questions, and engaging in rhetoric, I know it’s worth a bit of my sanity.

Rosslyn Nikula earned her teaching credential and Master’s in Educational Leadership at California Lutheran University. She is on her seventh year of teaching primary elementary school, with the last four years in kindergarten. She was a recipient of a Teacher of the Year award her second year teaching and was recognized by the Ventura County Math Council as an Outstanding Educator of Mathematics last year. With a Leading Edge Digital Educator certification, Mrs. Nikula is a tech mentor for her school site, enjoys teaching GATE classes and an extended Enrichment math class for the 5th grade students, as well. With a fifth grader, third grader and a kindergarten student of her own, she uses her “spare” time to run half marathons and serve on the board of her children’s school PTA.

Targeted Planning: Shooting For A Successful Lesson

Part 2:  Creating clearly defined lesson objectives.

*This blog post is part 2 of a four part series on lesson planning that will be published in the next few weeks.

Last week I introduced our blog series on strategic and intentional lesson planning to better support all students (especially ELLs).  In that post, we talked about the importance of planning ahead and looking at the “big picture” in order to deliver quality instruction that will provide all students with opportunities to successfully navigate the topic and learn the key concept being taught.

In order to strategically lesson plan, you need to know your students and your state’s content standards.  Knowing your students will help with differentiating lessons in order to make it accessible to all types and levels of learners.  Being familiar with the state standards enable you to create lessons that are challenging but appropriate. These lessons will also prepare your students for the future and provide them with the 21st century readiness skills necessary to successfully navigate higher education and–eventually–the workforce.

Now that we are clear as to why strategic and intentional lesson planning is important, we are going to go over the how.  In this post, I will talk about the first crucial part of lesson planning–creating learning objectives that includes both the content and language objectives.

What Makes a Good Learning Objective?

  • A good learning objective should be a combination of both the content and language objectives.  The content objective focuses on the mastery of a concept or topic by using certain academic skills.  The best place to look when creating a content objective is the content area standards for your subject.  Most states have their own version of the state standards for each content area.The language objective, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for students to practice and gain academic language skills.  The language objective focuses on language discourse, form, and vocabulary that a student needs in order to successfully master the content objective. Remember, the language objective should focus on literacy or communication skills that students need to practice and improve upon.


  • A good learning objective can be observed and assessed.  When creating a learning objective, you have to keep the assessment in mind.  How will you know if students accomplished the objective? Making the objective observable helps you modify and/or adjust your instruction.  By making the modifications and adjustments, you are tailoring your instruction to address students’ immediate needs. The formative assessment based on the objective will give you data to drive your instruction.  Data driven instruction is very powerful. It is also the key to a good differentiated lesson plan/instruction that will help you reach all your different learners.


  • A good learning objective must be written in language that students can comprehend.  An objective is only good if both parties–teacher and students–understand it.  Letting students know what they are expected to master gives them some ownership of their own learning.  It also gives, both the teacher and students, a focus for the day’s lesson. It keeps them accountable and on-topic.  It’s like the idea…it is easier to get somewhere when you know where you are going.

How to Write a Good Learning Objective?

Remember a good learning objective should include the content objective and the language objective.

In order to write a learning objective, you need to know the following:

  • The content standard
  • The content or topic to be discussed
  • Language Proficiency level focus
  • ELPAC or WIDA language proficiency descriptors
  • Academic skill to be practiced
  • Context for discourse
  • Language forms to be used

The content standard and topic are used to create content objectives.  This part of the objective focuses on the academic skill necessary in order to comprehend the content.  

For example:

In order to write the language objective you will need to know:  1) What is the academic discourse used; 2) the context in which the discourse will take place (i.e. group discussion, partner share, etc.); and 3) the language forms to be used.  In order to know all these, you must be familiar with your language proficiency level descriptors. This will help you understand what is an appropriate language support and what to expect at each level.  

For example (This is an example of bridging level language objective):

Combine the language objective and the content objective to create a learning objective.

For example:

Students will be able to use sentence frames of complex sentences with conjunctions to explain how a bill becomes law during group discussion.

Once you have a good learning objective, you can start planning the lesson.  Your lesson will be intentional and strategic because your learning objective is very specific; it will be content standard and language proficiency based.

*This concludes part 2 of the 4-part series on lesson planning.  Please come back next week to learn about gradual release instruction.

Part 1 of 4: Strategic and Intentional Lesson Planning

*This blog post is part of a four part series on lesson planning that will be published in the next few weeks.

Strategic or intentional lesson planning is a plan that is clearly developed based on the standards, and the different types and levels of students in your classroom.  It is intentional by having well defined learning objectives. By creating strategic and intentional lesson plans, you are meeting all students’ needs. You are providing them appropriate supports based on their academic language and abilities that will enable them to be successful in the classroom.  You are creating learning scenarios that are appropriate and doable for all your students. In other words, you are meeting each student at a level that they can be successful in.

Like most teachers, I am guilty of “winging it” on some days.  There could be many different reasons for it:

  • my previously planned lesson is bombing;
  • there was a sudden change in the day’s schedule;
  • I’m having a tough day and I know that this lesson needs my 110%;
  • the students are having a tough day and I can already foresee disaster;
  • Or, an awesome teachable moment just presented itself!

Whatever my reason be, I give myself a pass some days to “wing it”.  Doing it from time to time is normal and acceptable.

However, in teaching, we all know that strategic lesson planning is often the key to a successful lesson.  It is especially important to create intentional lesson plans when we teach a very diverse class (Whose class is not these days?).  Teaching English language learners (ELLs) require very specific objectives, process, and assessments. We have to be aware of–not only the standards–but the language proficiency of the students which will dictate our lesson expectations.

Know Your Students

It is important to know who and what level your students are in.  You can look at formative assessments or previous summative assessments.  You can look at their language proficiency levels and their educational status–GATE, SpED, EL or EO (English only).   

Knowing who comprises your class will help you write purposeful lesson objectives (Lesson objectives will be discussed further in part 2 of the series.).  Lesson objectives should include a content objective and a language objective. The content objective focuses on the skill needed to access the core content.  The language objective is the the language form and function needed to complete the objective. It is always important to keep in mind that language objectives should promote academic language growth in all your students.


Know Your Standards

Because I know my students, I am aware that their needs vary.  The one size fits all lesson plan is not going to be as effective as a differentiated one.  In order to create a good differentiated lesson plan for instructing ELs, you’ll need to be familiar with your content area standards, and your state’s English language development (ELD) standards.  In California, ELD standards are based on the ELPAC (English Language Proficiency Assessment of California). The ELPAC is a test that that has two components:  initial assessment–to be administered once when an EL student enters a United States school system; and the summative assessment–a yearly assessment carried out in the spring semester to all ELLs. The assessment results place each student at a certain level in a language proficiency continuum. Other states follow their own–most follow WIDA (formerly known as World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment).

ELPAC and WIDA have different levels of language proficiency.  Each level dictates what EL students are capable of in language skills and what should be expected of each.  ELPAC has three proficiency levels and four performance levels. WlDA, on the other hand, has six proficiency and performance levels.

Knowing your ELPAC or WIDA proficiency levels and your state’s ELD standards will help when creating strategic language objectives.  By creating targeted lessons, you are setting students up for success. You are meeting the students at their instructional level. You are providing them with opportunities to practice at a language level that they are capable of.  Think about it…a level 3 student is able to participate in a much more complex language discourse than a level 1 student. So, next time you plan a lesson, ask yourself the question, “Are my expectations appropriate for all my students to be successful?”

*This concludes part 1 of the 4-part series on lesson planning.  Please come back next week to learn about creating clearly defined lesson objectives.

3 Powerful Differentiation Strategies for Second Language Learners

As we wrap up the first quarter of the 2018-2019 school year, classrooms around the country are now in full swing; routines have been put into place, students have settled into their communities, and Term 1 report cards are going home. As a teacher, you are beginning to get comfortable with how the year is progressing-then you notice a new name on your roster. Yumiko is a new student from Japan-he and his family have just moved to your district and he is getting placed in your classroom.  His English skills are low-you are tasked with not only teaching him English but also making sure he is accessing grade level curriculum. How can you best support him in your classroom? What are some strategies that could help him learn the language AND access grade level content? Here are a few differentiation strategies that can support ELLs in the mainstream classroom.

1. Keep it Visual



Students who are learning a new language have a harder time processing spoken language.  Using images and realia can support a student’s understanding of concepts. As well, input charts can be a powerful tool when teaching second language learners.  Input charts are visual representations of the concepts you are teaching. They can be used in any content area and help students build vocabulary and organize information. Here is a quick step-by-step process on how to incorporate these charts into your classroom.

  1.     Determine the type of input chart that fits the content standard. (Comparative, pictorial, compare/contrast)
  2.    Pencil the information on large chart paper. Use a document camera to trace the visual.  Besides the sketch, include bulleted notes of all important information.
  3.    Decide beforehand how the information should be chunked and color coded. Hint: put a dot of the color next to the section.
  4.    Write/sketch as you talk to students. Stop to provide frequent opportunities for ‘heads together’ processing of the information. Give specific prompts about what has just been sketched/written.
  5.    The next day  add real pictures (from the picture files)  during the review of the chart.

And voila, you now have a pictorial representation of a grade level concept!

2. Use Close Reading

Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text.  In a previous blog post, we outlined the process of close reading: Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom.  We can’t stress enough the power of incorporating this strategy in your classroom. Here is a quick example of how this could look:

1st Reading: The teacher reads the text aloud, modeling good reading and allowing the students to listen for the gist of the text (what the text is mostly about).  At this time, students can note any unfamiliar words or ask any clarifying questions.


2nd Reading: Students work in partners to reread and interact with the text in order to create a collaborative summary.  Students might circle the nouns and noun phrases, underline the verbs, and box the keywords as a strategy to help them break the text down and find the meaning of the text.  (Highlighters are helpful!)


3rd Reading: The students reread the text again in pairs, answering text dependent questions provided by the teacher.  They will work together to create collaborative responses.

3. Structured Student Talk Time

How often do we have students “Turn and Talk,” without explicitly teaching them how to do this?  As a teacher, I am guilty of giving my students talk time, but not structuring it in a way that best supports students.  For ELLs, structuring student talk time can help them build oral language skills as well as help them gain confidence in their speaking abilities. First, set a purpose for the talk. EL Achieve suggests, “Knowing your purpose is essential to selecting the right routine. When we want students to go deeper in their understanding of content, we may use a routine that requires them to discuss a correct answer, rather than one designed for repeated language practice.”  Do you want students to practice:

Fluency: Getting “miles on the tongue”

Flexibility: Putting sentences together in different ways to express the same idea

Depth: Supporting conversations to elaborate and grow ideas

Shine: Collecting summative assessment data

Knowing the goal of student talk will help you choose the appropriate speaking protocol.  Our friends at the Sacramento County Office of Education and EL Achieve put together this great resource outlining student talk protocols.  Explicitly teaching these protocols can aid in developing students oral language skills, as well as allow them to discuss grade level concepts.

Structured Student Talk Protocols

As educators, we are always looking for new ideas on how to differentiate for students in our classrooms.  At Smart ELD, we are constantly implementing and revising strategies that support second language learners.  For more ideas on differentiation, contact us at