By Kristina J. Doubet, Jessica A. Hockett, and Catherine M. Brighton

Early-grade teachers broadened their views of students’ skills, knowledge, and culture to improve their teaching and advance student learning.


The diversity among today’s primary grades students is staggering. Mobility, poverty, preschool preparedness, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and countless other factors produce classrooms in which some children read independently while others are still learning letters, numbers, and colors. In such atmospheres, it can be tempting to give students from more privileged backgrounds access to important ideas and high-level thinking and students from less-privileged environments a series of drill-and-practice exercises to “catch them up” to their peers.

But denying struggling students access to high-quality curriculum and instruction in the primary grades is counterproductive because such practice is more likely to widen the readiness gap between majority and minority students than to narrow it (Hauser-Cram, Sirin, & Stipek, 2003; Stipek, 2004). How can K-2 teachers orchestrate their curriculum, instruction, and assessment to develop the talent of all students? How might these practices narrow the learning gap and move all students toward mastery of established standards?

Data from a three-year, federally funded study at the University of Virginia provides three possible answers to these questions:

  • Focus curriculum and instruction on authentic, discipline-based content;
  • Employ questioning techniques that allow for multiple interpretations; and
  • Tailor instruction according to evidence collected from recent formative assessments that tap into both skill and thinking (Brighton et al., 2007).

To flesh out these principles, we will examine several teachers enacting them in culturally diverse, high-poverty primary classrooms. These teachers were willing to make over their traditional approaches to key curricular units to increase the investment and achievement of the diverse students in their classrooms. In the process, they were able to address standards in meaningful and engaging ways.

Principle #1
Focus curriculum and instruction on authentic, discipline-based content.

With young children, approaching standards superficially can be especially tempting. But even 5-year-olds should engage in what Jerome Bruner called an “intellectually honest” form of the subject or discipline. This requires that teachers think differently about the content and skills that make up the typical unit of study — perhaps even by doing additional research. By first examining how real workers might approach the subject matter, teachers are better able to articulate the big ideas and understandings of the lesson (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006). In doing so, they can help more students find personal relevance in what they’re learning.

  • Case-in-point: Ms. Ball’s kindergarten social studies unit

Before: Ms. Ball’s typical approach to teaching her students about Pocahontas and the Jamestown settlement (required curriculum) was to show the Disney version of “Pocahontas” and have a discussion about what students learned from the movie. She felt this approach fell short of the unit’s potential but believed it gave all students access to the content, which was new for many students who had just moved to the country.

After: Ms. Ball reframed her unit around overarching understandings, including that stories about history often combine fact and fiction and that we can distinguish between fact and fiction by using our minds (reasoning) and by consulting outside (nonfiction) sources. Her students studied the historical Pocahontas using various informational texts (read-alouds, audio texts , etc.), important ideas put to song, and a series of student performances. Following their study, students watched the Disney version of “Pocahontas” to determine the movie’s purpose and how accurately it presented historical information. They paused at key scenes to reflect and then completed a “movie review” at the film’s conclusion. Since all students began with exploration and ended with evaluation, students from all backgrounds had access to the ideas and learning experiences. Further, Ms. Ball created opportunities for students to examine stories from their various cultures through the lens of the unit understandings. As a result, she addressed key language arts standards in the context of meaningful ideas rather than as a checklist.

  • Case-in-point: Mrs. Grand’s kindergarten math unit

Before: Measurement was not Mrs. Grand’s favorite topic. She found it dry and disconnected from the rest of her instruction. She generally read Rolf Myller’s children’s story, “How big is a foot?” and then led a discussion of the ruler and its purpose. The unit concluded by measuring various students as they lay on the floor.

After: Mrs. Grand gave careful consideration to why she used measurement in the real world. This guided her development of the principle that measurement helps us communicate and make decisions. Once that guiding principle was in place, she found natural ways for students to use measurement to communicate (e.g., measuring the lengths of various animals and conducting a “meeting of scientists” to reveal their findings) and to make decisions (e.g., deciding which treat to choose by weighing out three grams of several different snacks). Students created mini news reports to inform the public about what they had discovered through measurement. This highly participatory approach invited the active participation of English language learners in the classroom, who tended to simply observe in the traditional approach; hence, all students could address math and speaking/listening standards in engaging academic contexts.

  • Case-in-point: Ms. Holden’s 1st-grade science unit

Before: Ms. Holden’s curriculum required her to teach students how animals adapt to their environments. She spent a class period reading a book about animal habitats, questioning students about the story, and instructing them to draw pictures of their favorite animals in their habitats. Many students drew dogs and cats in their homes; a few drew animals represented in the book.

After: Ms. Holden sought an authentic connection between the curriculum and her students, which showed that animals — including humans — have special features that enable them to survive in their environment. Students first discussed how their own bodies adapted to their environment. Then students researched how an animal of their choice, selected from a menu of options, adapted to its environment. Although students’ readiness for reading text varied greatly, they were able to access varied levels of research materials (print and nonprint) to gather information about their chosen animals, thus addressing several standards regarding informational texts. Students used their findings to create reports (words and pictures) for zookeepers, illustrating how to help these animals survive if they were brought to the zoo, addressing key writing standards in the process.


Although each of these revamped units took more time to implement, teachers made up that time by asking students to wrestle with key ELA standards in the context of required content (Figure 1). Furthermore, each unit built toward imaginative yet authentic performance tasks that were relevant to students. This, in turn, increased student investment and achievement, as every child was able to investigate and create rather than simply remember and regurgitate.

Principle #2
Employ questioning techniques that allow for multiple interpretations.

In diverse classrooms, it is critical for teachers to uncover and use what students know, have experienced, and can accomplish, rather than what students don’t yet know, haven’t yet experienced, or cannot yet produce. This proactively curtails the one-right-answer syndrome and prevents students from being defined primarily by the narrow band of information they may not yet possess. Generally speaking, after the teacher identifies a discipline focus (Principle #1), the nature of the questions posed during instruction change. Figure 2 displays how teachers’ questioning practices shifted after they reframed their units’ purposes.

By moving away from fact-based questions and toward questions that call on varied experiences and require thinking and supposing, these teachers invited more students into classroom discussions, building a rich community of learners in the process.


Principle #3
Tailor instruction according to evidence collected from recent formative assessment that taps into both skill and thinking.

Too often, decisions about groupings, interventions, and tasks are made on the basis of months-old standardized assessment data and/or in reference to narrow classroom-based assessments of discrete facts and skills rather than on students’ readiness to think and reason with ideas. Grouping this way ignores the reality that young children grow and learn quite rapidly when given opportunities and feedback as encouragement to do so. It is vital, therefore, that teachers in diverse primary classrooms conduct informal assessments that gather up-to-the-minute information about student knowledge, skills, and thinking about the big ideas to be explored.

  • Case-in-point: Ms. Ball’s kindergarten social studies unit

Before: Ms. Ball conducted frequent assessments of student reading levels, moving them in and out of groups when and if the results suggested. Assessing student thinking, however, was a new endeavor.

After: Following a discussion with students about the kinds of stories they encounter in their lives and whether those stories were real or made up, Ms. Ball made a T-chart on poster paper divided into “fact” and “fantasy.” She gave students pairs of pictures to adhere to the chart to demonstrate the difference. One student received a picture of a rabbit and a picture of Bugs Bunny; another received a photograph of an iguana and a picture of the dragon from the movie “Shrek.” As each pair was placed on the T-chart, the class discussed the difference between fact and fantasy and how they could tell the difference. The last pair of pictures featured a portrait of the historical Pocahontas and a picture of the Disney version. Ms. Ball checked in with students to see if they could explain the difference. This gave her a better idea of who needed additional conceptual support during the unit. She was surprised to discover that many students who were able to grasp the conceptual difference struggled with academic skills and vice versa. This came into play at the end of the unit as students with a deeper conceptual understanding created movie reviews from the perspective of John Smith or Pocahontas. “Dear Wife,” wrote one student, “This movie was very wrong. I did not marry Pocahontas. I love you. From, Your Husband.”

  • Case-in-point: Mrs. Grand’s kindergarten math unit

Before: Mrs. Grand’s kindergarten team did regular assessments of students’ reading levels. Her groupings of students for instruction reflected these assessments. When students worked in groups for any subject, they worked in their reading groups because Mrs. Grand believed reading was the gateway to all other subjects.

After: A preassessment of students’ familiarity with the concept of “unit of measure” and student readiness to use different measuring tools revealed patterns suggestive of groupings much different from Mrs. Grand’s typical reading groups. Students of various reading levels were grouped together for work on measuring tasks. Those more adept with measurement concepts and tools used rulers to measure animals with lengths to the half-inch. Students who required more support used manipulatives (inch blocks) to support their process of measuring animals rounded to whole-inch lengths; once these students grasped the concept of unit of measure, they moved to experimenting with the rulers for the first time. As a result, all students achieved or exceeded the lesson’s objectives.

  • Case-in-point: Ms. Holden’s 1st-grade science unit

Before: Ms. Holden’s typical approach to teaching this unit was whole group and teacher led. She had never attempted to determine the readiness of individual students to tackle inquiry.

After: Although Ms. Holden still began the unit with a full class conversation about how students’ bodies helped them meet their survival needs, she concluded the discussion with a preassessment designed to determine students’ conceptual readiness for investigating this topic. She asked students to draw and label a picture of how their bodies helped them survive. If they didn’t want to draw, they could meet with her for a one-on-one interview. She was shocked to see the varying levels of conceptual readiness. Some students could capture and apply some of the ideas from the class discussion; others could not. Still others extended those principles to a depth she had not expected. One student created a diagram of the air entering his nose, being processed by the lungs, and distributed to the rest of his body — complete with red and blue blood! She knew instantly that she would need to challenge this student and asked him to select and research an animal (from a menu of choices) that was very unlike humans. He chose a water strider and became very invested in researching the complicated systems this animal employed to survive. Students who needed more conceptual support selected their research topics from animals that function more simplistically or in a similar manner to humans. All students, no matter their level of conceptual readiness, were provided with research materials tailored to their literacy needs. Frequently, students with high-conceptual readiness needed extra literacy support (and vice versa). The librarian teamed up with Ms. Holden to collect, record, and bookmark appropriate resources. As a result, each student was given the proper support and motivation to actively engage in research.

The result

When these three principles were put into practice, teachers realized they could include and advance all of their students toward and beyond the standards, regardless of language, culture, skill level, or socioeconomic status. The teachers in the study each described being surprised by student engagement and readiness:

  • Ms. Ball was surprised by how engaged students from varied cultures were in the historical inquiry process. The representation of information in text, pictures, performances, and especially song made complex ideas accessible to everyone.
  • Mrs. Grand reported surprise at how talented some students were in math, even though they struggled with language (and vice versa).
  • Ms. Holden at first thought the research project would be too difficult for many students. Because students were genuinely motivated by choice and supported in their research, she found that they were able to accomplish much more than she expected.

Notably, some of the students who challenged these teachers’ expectations most were from economically disadvantaged homes and/or cultural backgrounds different from those of their teachers. In addition to their practices, then, the teachers had “made over” their thinking about which students were capable of mastering standards.

Moving toward makeovers

As these cases show, teachers don’t always need to start from scratch in order to make substantial leaps toward creating more inclusive, relevant learning experiences. Some tips to move toward making over existing instructional materials include:

  • Find ways to emphasize the meaning in what is being explored. Ask questions such as “who uses this knowledge and these skills?” and use those to guide the objective of making learning more personally relevant.
  • Seek to explore the essential knowledge and skills through multiple interpretations and discover ways to consider how evidence of the learning might manifest differently in students with background experiences or perspectives that are different from the teacher’s.
  • Use formative assessment evidence to shape the learning experiences so students have opportunities to stretch their skills and thinking.

When teachers move away from focusing on learning deficits and move toward creating learning experiences that truly harness the power of all students’ learning strengths, they may find that many gaps — in learning, community, and expectations — disappear.


Brighton, C.M., Moon, T.R., Jarvis, J.M., & Hockett, J.A. (2007). Primary grades teachers’ conceptions of giftedness and talent: A case-based investigation (Technical report). Storrs, CT: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Hauser-Cram, P., Sirin, S.R., & Stipek, D. (2003). When teachers’ and parents’ values differ: Teachers’ ratings of academic competence in children from low-income families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 813-820.

Stipek, D. (2004). Teaching practices in kindergarten and 1st grade: Different strokes for different folks. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 548-568

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design (2nd expanded ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

KRISTINA J. DOUBET ( is an associate professor of middle, secondary, and mathematics education, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va. JESSICA A. HOCKETT is an education consultant and author who lives in Evanston, Ill. CATHERINE M. BRIGHTON is an associate professor of education and associate dean for academic programs and student affairs, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

© 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. Phi Delta Kappan 97 (5), 64-69.