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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 13

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    EL Education

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

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Question: I know learning targets are important, but how can I make them come alive more during lessons?


Before we tackle this question, let’s ground ourselves in a common understanding of what learning targets are and what their purpose is.

What are learning targets?

Learning targets translate standards into student learning goals for lessons. They are written in student-friendly language that is concrete and understandable, beginning with the stem “I can.” Learning targets are posted, discussed, and tracked by students and teachers. 

In our curriculum, we use daily learning targets, which are reviewed with students during each lesson, often in the Opening following an engaging “hook.” Sometimes learning targets are reviewed later in the lesson following a new chunk of cognitive work (e.g., the first part of a lesson may have a learning target related to speaking; later, when students dig into a writing task, there may be a second learning target related to writing). Often, we think of reviewing learning targets as unpacking or dissecting them. This should not take much time, but it is an important opportunity to look carefully with students at the words in the learning target and make sure they know what they actually will be learning (not just what activity they will be “doing”).

Why do we use learning targets?

Learning targets impact student learning in the following ways:

  • Learning targets set a course for learning: Students know where they are headed during the course of the lesson.
  • Learning targets contain embedded vocabulary. Unpacking the targets with students is an opportunity to teach new words, particularly academic vocabulary.
  • When learning targets are used actively during lessons, students gain valuable skills in setting goals, taking ownership of their learning, and reflecting on their progress.
  • Beyond mastery of standards, student ownership of and engagement with their learning is a higher-level goal of the curriculum.

Kindergarten students in Lori Laliberte's class at the Odyssey School in Denver, CO, engage in “unpacking” learning targets that will guide their work writing thank you letters.


How can you make learning targets come alive during lessons?

One of the best ways to make learning targets come alive is to ensure that you yourself really understand what the intended learning is for the lesson. This involves analyzing not only the agenda and materials, but also spending time processing the Teaching Notes. Once you are clear, then you need to ensure that students also really know not just what they will “do,” but what they will learn. 

Try this: Before the lesson, write down, in your own words, what students will learn during the lesson (not what they will do, but what what they will learn). What is their cognitive work? 

The lessons in the curriculum will cue you to teach the vocabulary of the learning targets and to engage students in thinking about what the learning target means, but it’s up to you to really make sure they know what it means for them and how it will guide the lesson. If they seem puzzled or like they are just going through the motions, take a minute to have them turn and talk or ask them to restate the learning target in their own words. It’s critical that they take ownership of meeting the learning targets and deeply understanding them in the first step.

Try this: Make sure students can state what their intended learning is, in their own words. You can do this in a number of ways: they can write it on white boards and hold it up for you to see; they can turn and talk with a partner; they can engage in a Back-to-Back and Face-to-Face protocol. There’s no one right way and you can be creative finding new ways to do this. What’s important is that you look and listen for them to identify what they will learn during the lesson, not what they will do.

Also critical is that you come back to the learning target(s) throughout the lesson. Look for opportunities to reference them and to check for understanding frequently. Help students see the learning target as a steady guide and grounding checkpoint on their progress, not just a routine or a bunch of words on the white board.

Try this: The curriculum offers suggestions for when and how to check for understanding, but this is an opportunity for you to be creative and respond to your students’ needs. If they need to reflect more deeply than a quick-check allows, for example, give them some time to write about their progress. If they are antsy, give them a chance to get out of their seats. What’s most important is that checking for understanding is a true opportunity for students to assess their progress toward the target, not a rote routine. 

Using learning targets with students helps them become leaders of their own learning. When they know where their learning is headed, they can take more ownership of making progress. Keep that goal always in mind and the learning targets throughout the curriculum will take on new meaning for you and your students.  

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: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.