How Not to Overcomplicate Your Text Based Units
Using mentor texts to teach writing and the ‘top of the rope’ concepts of reading can be a highly effective method of instruction. Mentor texts provide context and modelling for vocabulary, syntax, parts of speech, text structure and language features. The challenge with using mentor texts is that it’s really easy to overcomplicate our units. Even if we create targeted units that walk our students step by step through the skills and knowledge we want to teach, it’s not always easy to align the content with achievement standards that we will, eventually, have to report on. Today’s post provides practical suggestions for getting your students to where you want them to be through a text-based unit. You can also download a full breakdown of version 9 of the Australian Curriculum as viewed through the lens of creating and teaching text-based units for every grade.
You aren’t going to teach everything through a text-based unit
Throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, into your units is only going to confuse you and your students. Children need time to consolidate concepts, practise, consider and build deep understandings of the concepts we are teaching. The more concepts you try to fit into a unit, the shallower the learning is going to be. Try and strike a balance between breadth and depth of concepts in your units.
It is also important to acknowledge that there will be times when some things are taught explicitly in stand-alone programs/approaches. This includes phonics, basic decoding, introducing concepts within parts of speech, syntax, and morphology. These areas of skill and knowledge are taught in their own lessons and are then applied and refined through the work in a text-based unit in ways that respond to the levels of learning of the students.
Plan your assessment before you plan the unit
Backward design is an extremely effective way of planning a direct path for student learning. We firstly have to know what we want students to know and do as a result of participating in the unit. Once we know this, we can plan the path students will take to get to that point, keeping their learning needs in mind. Knowing the curriculum expectations is critical if we are going to provide targeted instruction and be able to write our reports with confidence. It doesn’t mean that we will never step outside of what the curriculum is asking, but that we have those expectations at the core of what we will teach. Once we have a clear idea of what we are teaching, we can plan an assessment that is suitable for the students in our care.
Text-Based units are a multi-age teacher’s best friend
For most of my teaching career, I have taught multi-age classes. Teaching with rich texts makes so much sense to me and was one of the simpler things that I did. The reason that it’s easier to teach language concepts and writing multi-age than it is to teach phonics and decoding is that we are hardwired to learn language. Biologically primary skills are learned from each other in contextualised situations. So, sitting a younger and an older student next to each other for these lessons makes life easier for everyone involved. The other reason that it’s easier to text from a text-based unit is that the curriculum is quite repetitive. The content descriptor that involved ‘using comprehension strategies’ applies to every grade. Content descriptors that deal with the interplay between text and images are common to most grades. This overlap means that we can meet the curriculum needs of different ages much more easily in a single lesson when working with a rich text than we can when teaching phonics and decoding. Be cautious, however, that you don’t try to pack too much into a unit. Keep things simple.
It is important that you know the curriculum intimately
In order to undertake all of this targeted teaching, teachers need to know exactly what the curriculum is asking of them. Sure, parts of speech are common to all grades, but exactly what level of understanding and skill is the curriculum asking students to have? How are students expected to demonstrate that understanding? If you want to get your students to the point of achieving As and Bs in their reports, you need to provide them with experiences that allow them to demonstrate their learning at the highest level. Missing the point in your planning will stand in the way of that happening.
To help you be extra targeted in your teaching, I have broken down Version 9 of the curriculum through the lens of teaching using a text-based unit. You can download this resource below.