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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 46

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    Katie Shenk

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

Come back the second Tuesday of each month for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: What’s the “Rule of Three” and how does it support students as writers? 

Three weeks ago, 1500 teachers and leaders within the EL Education community gathered together in Atlanta for our annual National Conference.  It was a learning- and inspiration-filled conference, and we hope that if you couldn’t make it this year, you’ll join us next time. 

During one of the conference’s master class sessions, we had the privilege of learning alongside national experts Diana Leddy and Joey Hawkins of the Vermont Writing Collaborative.  Joey and Diana shared with us some key learning related to the Writing for Understanding approach, the foundation upon which writing within the EL Education K-5 Language Arts Curriculum is built.  We’re excited to share some insights with you that we hope will support your implementation of module lessons or curriculum design efforts.

Writing for Understanding: The Basics

We designed the curriculum with the principles of Writing for Understanding at its core.  This approach is based on the premise that students need to deeply understand the topic they are writing about in order to use writing structures and tools effectively.  The pillars of Writing for Understanding are:

  • Understanding: Work with rich text and plan activities and instruction to ensure that all students have the knowledge and deep understanding of content that they will need to write
  • Backward Design: Design an instructional sequence in which students analyze a model and write a practice piece before they engage in independent writing (that’s the Rule of Three—more to come on that)
  • Direct Instruction:  Ensure students receive explicit instruction in how to write each part of the writing before they write independently

These pillars are all integral to student success in writing. Today we are going to look closely at one that is often least familiar to teachers: Backward Design (and the Rule of Three).

A Closer Look at Backward Design:  The Rule of Three

As we unpack Backward Design, consider how you’ve seen it play out in the EL Education curriculum (or if you’re creating your own curriculum, how you might apply this to your own design work).  The Rule of Three (as seen in the visual below) is a framework that sets students up for success by offering high levels of support at the beginning of a writing experience and then gradually releasing students to successfully write independently.  

The Rule of Three in Action

In Unit 2 of Grade 3, Module 4, students build on their knowledge of the three water issues they studied  in Unit 1—access to water, demands on water, and water pollution—to develop an opinion on the importance of conserving water. In the first half of the unit, students read new texts and compare the point of view of the authors to their own point of view about water. In the second half of the unit, they research actions to help solve the water issues and consider the importance of solving these issues.  Ultimately, students will craft their own opinion pieces for the End of Unit 2 Assessment.  

Here’s the instructional sequence that sets them up for success (notice the Rule of Three in action).

  • Model: Students first analyze a model of an opinion essay. 
  • Practice piece: Then, with teacher guidance, students write a practice opinion essay using the Painted Essay structure about the importance of conserving water through the lens of water pollution, drawing from their research throughout the module so far.  
  • Independent piece: For the End of Unit 2 Assessment, students plan and write a new opinion essay about the importance of conserving water through the lens of demand for water. 

Does the Rule of Three look similar in primary grades, too?

Indeed it does!  Depending on the writing task,  primary students may need a bit more support, but the resources used and general instructional sequence remain the same.  Here’s an example from Grade 1, Module 3, Unit 3.  In this unit, students conduct research about how their expert bird uses its body to survive and then show their learning through the creation of a bird riddle card. 

  • Model: Students analyze a series of models and generate criteria for their riddle cards early in the unit (this serves as a “hook” into the writing task and gives students a reason to research.)  
  • Practice piece: Students engage in a shared writing experience to generate a class riddle about a cardinal, the bird the teacher used as the research model.  This was key because students need to have content knowledge to be able to craft the practice piece. 
  • Independent piece: Students craft their own independent pieces based on their expert bird research. 

Here’s an example of a bird riddle card crafted by a 1st grade writer at St. George School in Tenants Harbor, ME

"For many years, I didn't teach writing, I just assigned it. I wondered why- since students were writing, receiving feedback and revising- their pieces weren't better. I eventually came to realize that my students weren't learning because I wasn't teaching. The Rule of Three guides me to be intentional about teaching writing and ensures that my students get the kind of supported practice we all need when learning a complex new skill." Diana Leddy

Putting it all Together
So what do I do with the model and practice pieces to ensure students are ready to write independently?  If you’re using our curriculum, this sequence is already baked into the instructional design, so you can use your new insights to get the most out of the lessons. If you’re engaging in this design work yourself, tune into these key instructional moves as you design your scaffolding plan:

  1. Models are examples that help students understand the structure and language needed to write effectively about a topic. Models are thoughtfully constructed so that your students can see how an effective piece is put together.  See our Question 38 post for more information about how models support students’ work. 
  • First, review the whole model, so that students have an idea of what the finished piece will sound like.   
  • Then, help students learn about one part at a time, using the model as an example of the kind of content and language they’ll need for their own pieces.

 2. Practice pieces give students a chance to experiment with the structure and language needed to write effectively about a topic. Practice Pieces are often created collaboratively-with instruction, support and lots of oral processing. Students can write the practice pieces whole-class or through pair work (or a combination of the two) 

  • Reread and analyze a section of the model.
  • Talk: Orally rehearse what you will write
  • Write a coherent section of the piece
  • Revise and edit as you go.

To get a more detailed look at how this instruction plays out in real time, check out the Unit at a Glance chart and corresponding lessons for the Grade 3 water example and the Unit at a Glance chart and corresponding lessons for the Grade 1 bird example. 

Have amazing examples of student writing to share with us?  We’d love to see them! Please share via email at