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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 11

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    EL Education

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: Are the protocols in the curriculum really that important? Can I skip them when I don’t have time (or energy)?

Protocols are an important feature of our curriculum because they are one of the best ways we know to engage students in discussion, inquiry, critical thinking, and sophisticated communication.

A protocol consists of agreed-upon, detailed guidelines for reading, recording, discussing, or reporting that ensure equal participation and accountability in learning. Importantly, protocols allow students to talk to each other, not just to you. As a result, they build independence and responsibility. Protocols in the curriculum range from very quick protocols like Back-to-Back and Face-to-Face to longer lesson-length protocols like Science Talks.

Speaking and listening protocols are especially useful for scaffolding the learning experience for students with learning challenges and those are who are learning English. These students, who may struggle with reading grade-level texts, will likely be able to contribute to conversations and discussions when using an appropriate discussion protocol. The repeated academic and procedural language of protocols also facilitates language acquisition.

This video shows primary students using a Science Talk protocol as way to collectively theorize, build on each others' ideas, work out thoughts, build literacy, and think, wonder, and talk about how things work.

Committing to Teaching the Protocols

Since the first edition of our curriculum came out in 2012, we have heard from some teachers that they often skip the protocols. They do this usually for one of three reasons:

  • They don’t think their students can handle the activity level of the protocol (or they’re not sure they can handle the classroom management aspect of the protocol). This is a real concern, and there’s no doubt that classroom management is one of the hardest things about teaching, especially in an active, collaborative classroom. (We’ll address classroom management in future posts so keep an eye out. In the meantime, if you’re interested in a helpful resource, check out our book Management in the Active Classroom.)
  • They don’t feel they have time to do the protocol and choose instead a more traditional method for “delivering” the content. Just because you deliver the content doesn’t mean students have learned it. They need time to think and do to make the learning stick. Protocols give students a chance to synthesize and communicate knowledge and to practice important skills. Protocols don’t always take more time; once you and your students learn the protocols, they should run quite efficiently.
  • They don’t place as much value on Speaking and Listening Standards (usually because they aren’t assessed on high-stakes tests) and skip the protocols, thinking that they are only about speaking and listening. Protocols are about much more than speaking and listening. They serve as an important scaffold for reading and writing. Discourse is a way for students to make meaning and rehearse their ideas.

We urge you not to skip the protocols! They are too important. The most important thing about the protocols in the curriculum is that they deepen learning experiences for students. They give students a chance to play with ideas and to engage in oral rehearsal before writing. They help students synthesize their understanding and learn to have academic conversations with each other. They take the focus off you and let students take charge of their own learning.

Key to the success of any protocol is practice. It will take time, especially for students who have never been a part of a classroom protocol, to get used to their structure and “rules” for participation. Spending a little more time on the front end modeling the procedures and expectations of protocols will go a long way toward their efficient use throughout the year. Also important for you to take into consideration, is that protocols involve many transitions—from independent work to partner work, from partner work to group work, from one part of the room to another. Looking ahead throughout a series of lessons and planning for these transitions will help the protocols run smoothly. But once you’ve got it and the students have got it, protocols will be a powerful tool for learning in your classroom.

This video shows primary students using the Back-to-Back and Face-to-Face protocol as a simple and fun way for all students to get a chance to move, think, talk, and learn from others. This video is narrated by students, and can be shown to students to help them learn this simple routine for productive conversations.

Learning the Routine

When a protocol appears for the first time in the curriculum, it is described fully; thereafter, shortened version appears. If you skip a protocol the first time it appears, you may wonder how you will ever find it again. Each protocol is described fully in the Classroom Protocols section of our website,, and in our book Management in the Active Classroom. You can access them there at any time. These are also good resources if you decide you want to explore new or different protocols that you might want to use with your students. For more information about the why, what, and how of protocols, click here

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: