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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 47

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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: How can I sharpen my implementation of student-engaged assessment practices within the curriculum? 

A New Companion

We’re excited for the release of our newest EL Education publication: The Leaders of Their Own Learning Companion.  This companion guide to Leaders of Their Own Learning is designed to help teachers tackle some common challenges related to student-engaged assessment.  As you know, high-leverage student-engaged assessment practices are already baked into the design of our curriculum,  but you might find yourself facing challenges or simply wanting to freshen up your routines.  

In this week’s post, we share some common challenges and helpful tools and strategies related to three key student-engaged assessment practices:  learning targets, checks for understanding, and models, critique and descriptive feedback. For each practice, we offer two common challenges and helpful guidance and tools for each, which you can access via links to excerpts from the Leaders of the Own Learning Companion throughout the post.

Learning Targets

Challenge: I teach young children.  Learning targets are really abstract for them.  How can I help my students understand and own them?


For primary students who can’t yet read, unpacking learning targets in a more traditional way  doesn’t always work. Our youngest students need a more innovative and engaging hook to help them truly understand where they are headed with their learning.   Try translating your learning target into a Mad-Lib style puzzle with strategically place blanks in place of words. 

Challenge:I have a high percentage of English language learners in my class. I’m never sure how much the learning targets help them stay focused on their learning because of language barriers.


English Language Learners (ELLs) deserve the same rich, compelling and challenging curriculum that other students receive.  They have the same cognitive needs as any student, which makes it critical that you not change learning targets by making the vocabulary or concepts simpler. Instead, offer supports that give ELLs equitable access to understanding rich and rigorous learning targets. 

For the full text of the learning target challenges and strategies, including useful examples from classrooms, download this excerpt from the companion guide. 

Checks for Understanding

ChallengeI haven’t developed enough of a positive culture in my classroom and, as a result, my students are afraid to accurately assess their understanding in front of other students.  

Checking for understanding will inevitably lead to some students initially faltering.  How you and your students respond to missteps has a singular influence on the climate of trust in the classroom.  Students need to know that it’s ok for them to make mistakes. They also need to know that, ultimately, they are accountable for learning from those mistakes and setting  things right. Using growth-oriented language will support your students to see mistakes as an opportunity to learn.  Here are some phrases you can try:

  • Mistakes grow your brain
  • It’s really important to make mistakes
  • It’s great to challenge yourself
  • I love to learn from mistakes.

To read the full text, including additional strategies to overcome this challenge, download this resource

Challenge: I always run out of time for the debrief at the end of my lessons.  I struggle to prioritize it even though I know it’s important. 

As any teacher can attest, lessons don’t always go  as planned, and time can be one of the most elusive elements of classroom instruction.  There’s never enough.  Since it happens last in a lesson, the debrief is often the first thing to go when time is tight.  However, a good debrief or synthesis helps students name their take-away from the lesson so that they can bring it back in the following lesson and learn more--this is called “transfer” and it’s the key to learning how to learn.  The debrief is an important 5-10 minutes!  
   If the debrief routinely falls off the map, it might be time to establish some new routines in your classroom: 

  • Invite a student to be a timekeeper and give the student permission to “stop the train” at least five minutes before the period ends so you can debrief. 
  • Teach students to circle up or move to a designated part of the room quickly.  When this becomes a routine, you will have more time for the debrief and you and your students will get into the habit. 

Eager for more tools and strategies to support this challenge, read more here.

Models, Critique and Descriptive Feedback

Challenge:  My students do their work for the most part, but they don’t take much ownership of it. 


Of all the feedback we’ve received from teachers since the publication of Leaders of Their Own Learning, among the most frequent is that it’s hard to facilitate effective critique lessons that motivate all students to do high-quality work. A good critique lesson is perhaps the hardest thing to master.  For example, when students critique a model, it’s fine to slightly reword student comments to make them more clear and useful. Also, if students have missed something important in the work you wish they would address, bring it up yourself as a question and prompt them to name it.  Here are a few sample sentence stems for various purposes during a critique: 


To restate a student’s comment using more precise language or vocabulary

Sample Sentence Stems

  • Destiny, what I hear you saying is that. . . 
  • Karina, there is a scientific word for exactly what you are describing.  It is. . . 


To engage a particular student to make a student feel proud

Sample Sentence Stems

  • We saw this same good idea from Jalen last week. . .
  • Brianne, your eye is so sharp!  Can you say more about. . . 

Check out this excerpt for additional sentence frame suggestions and an additional strategy related to using criteria lists to engage students more deeply in the critique. 

Challenge: I give verbal and written feedback to students all the time, and they don’t seem to learn from it.  They continue to have the same weaknesses in their work. 


Students have been getting feedback from their teachers ever since they started school. After a while, the teacher’s voice in their heads may sound dull and uninspiring.  By contrast, when experts from the community or professionals who make their living from the skills and themes that students are trying to learn come into your classroom, magic happens. Experts can teach your students how professionals think about your topic.  They can demonstrate and coach students in the skills and vocabulary of the discipline.  And students take expert feedback very seriously, especially if implementing it with care and determination will enable them to create something that looks and has the impact of professional work.  

Read a case study about the power of experts 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: