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Topic and Text Selection in the EL Education Grades 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum

This resource contains the rationale for how we selected our Second Edition 6-8 topics and texts.

We have been inspired by the national interest in our Grades 6–8 Language Arts Curriculum since we created it with a team of teachers in 2012. The first edition of EL Education’s curriculum was originally commissioned by New York State, which required a total of six modules per grade, aligned to the state’s Social Studies and Science Standards. Though the curriculum was initially designed with New York teachers as the primary audience, we were pleasantly surprised when schools around the country began using it. The second edition broadens the curriculum’s relevance to schools nationally and incorporates feedback from teachers across the country. We know that early adolescents need what they learn to have emotional resonance. Their well-developed limbic systems and sensitivity to dopamine mean that early adolescents are deeply compelled by content that stimulates their emotions. To increase the chances that middle school students nationally will find an emotionally resonant point of entry, with the help of teachers and students, we selected meaningful and relevant topics and texts that they will want to read, think, talk, and write about. We intentionally selected topics and texts that give students authentic opportunities to understand how character is a part of—not separate from—their academic work. Rather than telling students to “have a good character,” we instead give them chances to read about people (real or fictional) who embody certain habits and serve as compelling models for students’ own aspirations. We also chose current topics and texts that encourage students to contribute to a better world, putting their learning to use as active citizens working for social justice; environmental stewardship; and healthy, equitable communities. This document outlines the process for selecting topics and texts for the second edition of our Grades 6–8 Language Arts Curriculum.

Topic Selection

The topic gives cohesiveness to the unit of study. It is the “what” students are learning about, often connected to specific content knowledge. Although students may be able to meet standards without an engaging topic, a compelling, relevant topic helps them develop their reading and writing skills more deeply as they engage with increasingly complex text. The best topics teach standards through real-world issues, original research, primary source documents, and the opportunity to engage with the community, and they lend themselves to the creation of authentic tasks and products.

Guided by the Field

We sought recommendations from teachers and students at our EL Education network schools about science–and social studies–focused expedition topics, texts, and tasks that students in this grade band found particularly engaging and worthy. The EL Education Curriculum Design Team reviewed the list of suggestions and identified topics that:

  • include and represent diverse cultures and people,
  • resonate emotionally with middle school learners,
  • are nationally relevant, and
  • align with targeted NGSS (science) and C3 (social studies) content standards for this grade band.

Narrowing Down

To narrow down the number of topics to four per grade level, we first assigned a grade level to each topic, usually based on the grade level provided by the teacher or school who made the topic recommendation. We also considered the maturity of the content students would be exposed to when we assigned topics to grade levels. To ensure a balance of science and social studies content (two science-focused modules and two social studies– focused modules per grade level), we aligned each topic to either a science or a social studies focus. For some topics, it would be a missed opportunity to focus only on science or social studies, so some topics are aligned to both. We then looked across the modules allocated for each grade level and considered the diversity of the cultures and people represented. We wanted to ensure as many teachers, students, and families as possible were able to see themselves in the topics selected.

Text Selection

The text is the main vehicle through which the topic is taught. Carefully selected texts within the text complexity band for a given grade level give students access to the topic/content standards through close and careful reading. Attention to text selection ensures that students can practice specific ELA standards and learn content deeply. Text must be chosen judiciously to ensure that it is “worthy” in terms of the world knowledge it will help students build and the opportunities it presents for students to master specific standards (based on the text’s content, language, or structure). Less is more.

Guided by the Field

Once we had a draft list of topics for each grade level, with one or two reserve topics, we then moved on to text selection for each topic. Specific texts were often suggested with topic recommendations, so we investigated those first. We also reached out to our research librarian, and publishers focused on diversity and quality literature for young people, with our draft topics. They provided us with a list of texts for each topic featuring diverse characters and authors. The Curriculum Design Team reviewed the recommended texts and identified those most appropriate for each topic and for the grade level. We then presented the topics and texts to the grade-level design teams. Each design team explored the suggested texts and through those texts identified meaningful guiding questions to refine the lens taken on each topic.

Narrowing Down

Grade-level design teams then selected texts that:

  • Address the instructional shifts of the standards: building knowledge through content-rich informational texts, reading for and writing with evidence, regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary;
  • are provocative and offer multiple perspectives—avoiding partisan politics—to be compelling and appropriate for the student age;
  • include and represent diverse characters and authors, and their cultures, ensuring gender balance;
  • engage students in inquiry about the module–guiding questions;
  • are sufficiently complex for the grade level both quantitatively (Lexile®) and qualitatively (Text Complexity: Qualitative Measures Rubric) and, when organized across the year, demonstrate a quantitative and/or qualitative staircase of complexity;
  • are aligned with the ELA and content standards bundle assigned to that module topic;
  • have received positive reviews in nationally recognized resources, for example School Library Journal; and
  • can be paired with additional complex texts to build knowledge and engagement of a topic.

Topic and Text Review

Once draft topics and texts were identified at each grade level, the list was sent to teachers (both in the EL network and from literacy partners) and EL staff for feedback. Where significant concerns surfaced, topics and texts were replaced with reserve options.

How this resource is useful

  • Rationale for how we selected our Second Edition 6-8 topics and texts.

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