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Effective Language Arts Lessons for Diverse Student Populations

by Dr. Kate Kinsella, Dr. Colleen Shea Stump, and Dr. Kevin Feldman

The Four Phases of Instruction
Developing Effective, "Front-Loaded" Lessons to Ensure Universal Access
Instructional Considerations for Universal Access


Teachers craft lessons to include activities and experiences that they consider critical for student participation and learning. At a minimum, lessons generally involve at least these four stages:

  • Preteach
  • Teach
  • Assess
  • Extend

As teachers craft lessons to reflect these stages, they place emphasis on those stages they consider most critical for their students.

When working with highly diverse groups of students (e.g., students who are English learners, students with special education needs, and students who are less proficient readers), emphasis on the Preteach and Teach stages is critical for a number of reasons:

Students will most likely need opportunities to build upon and expand their prior knowledge and experiences if they are to understand the concepts presented in the passage.

  • Students will most likely require explicit instruction focused on key vocabulary words included in the text.
  • Students will most likely need modeling of strategies that will assist them in gaining meaning from the text.
  • Students will most likely require additional scaffolding and modeling to be able to access and comprehend the text.

Placing a major emphasis on preteaching and teaching, or "front-loading" your instruction, helps you structure learning for the students to ensure their greater success. In fact, you may want to plan to spend 65% of your instructional time "front-loading" your instruction, spending that time on vocabulary development, building background knowledge, and explicitly teaching students strategies for actively engaging with the text. Consider it an investment in preparing students for encountering and handling the text. By front-loading, you are preparing students for what is to come as well as teaching them generalizable strategies that they can transfer to other academic settings.

Jean Ciborowski, in describing techniques for using textbooks with students who cannot read them, talks about what proficient and less proficient readers do when they approach text:

Less proficient readers

  • do not establish a purpose for reading text.
  • are not active, strategic readers.
  • do not apply comprehension breakdown strategies.

Strong readers

  • adopt a strategic stance (e.g., they establish a purpose for reading).
  • actively monitor their comprehension.
  • read to find out more.1

By attending to the behaviors and strategies of proficient readers and incorporating them into instruction to nurture and teach these approaches to reading, the teacher focuses on the Preteach and Teach phases of instruction and assists students in becoming active, engaged, strategic readers.

The remaining two phases—Assess and Extend—are important for these students as well, but in general preparing students for learning through emphasis on the Preteach and Teach segments of lessons will reap significant gains for these students.

1 Ciborowski, Jean. Textbooks and the Students Who Can't Read Them: A Guide to Teaching Content. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1992.


Each phase of a lesson—Preteach, Teach, Assess, and Extend—is essential to the overall lesson and student engagement and learning. The phases may overlap or occur in a different order, but generally, they are present in all effective lessons. Each of these phases is briefly described in the box in terms of how each is incorporated into a Language Arts lesson.

The final column lists suggestions of what to include consistently in each lesson phase.

Phase Description Critical Elements
Preteach The teacher introduces the topic and prepares students for the text.
  • Building on prior knowledge by providing or eliciting background information on the topic.
  • Preparing the students for the topic by outlining, mapping, and summarizing the "big ideas" of the text.
  • Providing explicit vocabulary instruction that focuses on critical words for understanding text meaning.
  • Motivating students to engage with the text.
  • Setting a purpose for reading the text.
Teach The teacher models approaches for actively engaging with text to gain meaning.
  • Selecting and modeling of reading strategies that take into consideration student learning needs.
  • Scaffolding student learning.
  • Monitoring student understanding and engagement.
  • Providing multiple opportunities for teacher-student and student-student interactions.
  • Ensuring student accountability.
  • Building in and teaching classroom routines to support positive behavior.
Assess The teacher formally checks for student understanding.
  • Frequently checking-in with students to ensure understanding.
  • Including systematic means for monitoring student understanding and performance.
Extend The teacher provides activities that challenge students to apply passage information in a new way or to a new situation.
  • Helping students make links between their prior knowledge and knowledge gained from text.
  • Having students take information learned and apply it to their lives, or to a new situation.


Below are questions you may want to consider when preparing lessons for the inclusive classroom. These questions will prompt you to consider how you will ensure universal access in the lesson. Again, pay special attention to the questions under the Preteach and Teach segments. These represent critical understandings for students if they are to comprehend the ideas and text they are presented with during the lessons.

Phase Critical Elements
  • What topic information do the students already know? What information or experiences do I need to provide for them to be able to understand the "big ideas" of the text they are going to read?
  • What information do I need to present to students in either graphic or outline form to help them grasp the main ideas of the passage and prepare them for what they will be reading?
  • What are the most important, high-utility words that all students must know and understand from the passage? How will I teach them those words? Also, what will I do during the reading of the passage to link this instruction to the text?
  • What can I do to get students interested in reading the text?
  • What will I do to help students establish a purpose for reading the text?
  • Given the passage, what types of strategies will the students need to support their comprehension (e.g., skimming, identifying main ideas and supporting details, predicting, rereading)?
  • What kind of scaffolding will students need to understand the text? Do I need to stop and paraphrase at key points in the text? Do I need to call students' attention to key concepts as they are presented?
  • What type of student-to-student activities have I included in this lesson component (e.g., large group activities, small group and paired learning activities)?
  • What type of teacher-to-student activities have I included in this lesson component beyond my asking and answering questions (e.g., one-on-one clarification, asking for individual votes or responses to questions)?
  • What mechanisms have I included to ensure student accountability (e.g., requiring students to take notes, to write and compare predictions with text, to respond to questions asked of the group through voting and response cards)?
  • Have I prepared questions that will allow me to tap into student understanding?
  • What types of activities, beyond teacher questions, will I use to check for student understanding (e.g., think-pair-share activities, response cards and voting, writing of summaries or questions about confusion points, numbered-heads together)?
  • How will I systematically check for student understanding? How will I incorporate these suggestions throughout the lesson?
  • How will I provide opportunities for students to assess each other's learning?
  • How can I ensure that students are made accountable for their own learning? What techniques do I need to teach for them to become self-evaluators and self-monitors?
  • What activity have I included that challenges students to form links between their prior knowledge and knowledge gained from text?
  • What activity have I planned that requires students to take information learned and apply it to their own lives, or to a new situation?


Students who are less proficient readers, English language learners, and students with identified disabilities will most likely require additional adaptations and modifications during instruction if they are to actively participate and achieve in Language Arts lessons presented in the general education classroom.

General Considerations

The following is a basic list of instructional considerations that can be applied across all four phases of instruction.

  • Clarify behavioral expectations for the lesson. Students need to understand the parameters within which they are working.
  • Provide time for students to collect their thoughts before having to speak. You may want to ask a student a question and then pause and count to 10 before you assist the student in responding. You may also want to ask the student a question, state that you want him/her to think about it, and indicate that you will be back for the response in a minute. Go on to another student, and then return to the student for his/her response. Another possibility is to tell students the questions that you will be asking during tomorrow's class in order to give them time, overnight, to prepare their responses. These suggestions can be very helpful for a student experiencing a language disability or for a student who uses an alternative, augmentative communication device.
  • Write all assignments on the board so that assignments are given both verbally and visually.
  • Use visuals throughout the lesson. Outlining key ideas, writing key phrases and vocabulary on the overhead projector or board, or putting notes on the overhead projector or board are critical supports for many students. You may want to provide some students with a copy of your overheads or notes ahead of time so that they can follow along. For other students, make a partial or blank copy of the graphic or outline you will be using and require students to write in key information as it is discussed. It is very helpful if you model this completion/filling-in procedure for students. It also helps them to overcome problems with spelling or capturing complex ideas using a few words.
  • Assist in time management. When requiring students to complete projects, or long-term assignments, provide a calendar that breaks down requirements by due dates. Go over the checklist with the students and monitor their use of the checklist and task completion as the assignment proceeds. Many students will experience significant difficulties in self-managing the time needed to complete complex and long-term assignments.
  • Schedule opportunities for preteaching and reteaching key concepts, vocabulary words, and skills. Students will most likely need more than one opportunity to gain understanding and fluency. Preteaching and reteaching could be done in small groups while other students are working on an independent activity; you could also collaborate with a paraprofessional or the special education support staff to provide this support.
  • Consider alternative means for demonstrating understanding. Think beyond the common modes of reading and writing. Students could present information orally, create a poster or visual representation of work, tape-record their ideas, or act out their understanding. These activities take into consideration "multiple intelligences" and can provide access for all learners in the classroom.
  • Have students begin all work in class. Prior to class dismissal, check to ensure that each student has a good start and understands what is expected.
  • Consider setting up a homework hotline using voicemail or e-mail. Homework assignments could be posted and easily accessed by parents and students outside of school hours.
  • Build fluency by including classroom strategies such as the following:
    1. Paired reading for less than 5 minutes a day
    2. Listening to individual students read, working with 1 or 2 students a day for 2 minutes or so each
    3. Providing books and passages on tape, and having students read along with the tape
    4. Incorporating repeated readings that involve students reading the same passage a number of times
    5. Choral reading
  • Build vocabulary by teaching the meaning of prefixes and suffixes. Also, focus on synonyms and antonyms of words and have students define the words in their own words.
  • Explicitly teach note-taking skills. Model note-taking as you present information to the classroom. Collect and review the students' notes and provide suggestions for improvement.
  • Use recorded readings. Some students can benefit from the use of books on tape. One caution: Be sure that students are actively engaged and following along as they listen to the tape. It may be helpful to incorporate a number of the tools previously suggested (e.g., maps, outlines, study guides) for reading activities involving books on tape.
  • Balance student-focused and directed with teacher-focused and directed activities. Students who are less proficient readers, English language learners, and students with disabilities will often require explicit instruction and modeling. Student-focused activities may assist students in gaining numerous skills, but they need to be balanced with teacher-directed lessons that provide explicit instruction provided by the teacher. Clearly stating expectations, modeling what students are to do, providing examples of finished products, and explicitly teaching vocabulary words, reading comprehension strategies, and strategies for approaching text in a strategic, active way are necessary for these students' success. Other students can benefit from this explicitness of instruction as well. Being explicit does not mean "watering down" or "dumbing down" the curriculum; it means making it explicit so that all students can access it.

Considerations for Each Lesson Stage

In addition to these general considerations and suggestions, each lesson stage presents unique challenges for teachers.

Here are some suggestions for ensuring universal access throughout your lessons.

Phase 1: Preteach

  • In small groups or pairs, have students discuss what they already know about the topic presented in the passage. Circulate among the groups/pairs and record key ideas from each. Present these ideas to the larger group.
  • Pose questions that are true or false based on passage content. Have students indicate, either in writing or by voting, their evaluation of the item (e.g., holding their thumb up for true, down for false) to gain a quick sense of understanding.
  • Before beginning a new unit, have students write, verbalize, or draw what they know about the topic and present this information to peers.
  • Ask students to describe how they felt and what they did when they found themselves in a situation similar to that of the main character of the passage.
  • Read selected segments of the passage and ask students what they believe the passage will be about.
  • Show a video or present pictures linked with the topic of the passage. Ask students to react and to predict what they think the passage will be about.
  • Generate a list of questions that pertain to the content of the passage. Have students predict, based on these questions, what they believe the passage will be about. Encourage them to ask questions about ideas they are unfamiliar with.
  • Preview the text. Look at and discuss headings, graphics, illustrations, and other elements of the text that provide clues to the content.
  • Review the questions to be answered prior to reading the passage. Have students identify the "big ideas" of the passage and what they should be looking for when reading. Have them translate the questions into purposes for reading the text.
  • Develop and present an outline or graphic that highlights the key facts, concepts, and vocabulary students will need to understand the passage. Discuss, in detail, the different elements presented in the outline or graphic. Emphasize the "big ideas" and how they relate to one another. Explicitly ask students to look for their ideas when reading.
  • Select essential, high-utility words found in the passage and explicitly teach the meaning of these words.
  • State a purpose for reading the passage. Tell students what they will learn or why they will be reading the passage (e.g., "We are going to read to find out…").

Phase 2: Teach

  • Provide clear expectations. State what you expect the students to do, and model how they are to do it. Review rules.
  • Direct and explicit instruction is at the heart of effective teaching:
    "I do it" (model/clarify)
    "We do it" (structure guided practice/feedback)
    "You do it" (structure independent practice activities)
  • Describe, model, and have students practice classroom routines (e.g., distributing and collecting materials; moving into and out of small and paired learning arrangements).
  • Break up the period by alternating between teacher-dominated and student-dominated activities.
  • Try not to engage in oral, paired, or silent reading for more than ten minutes at a time. Bring the group back together as a whole to discuss what was read, or have students stop to complete an activity related to what has been read (e.g., fill out a graphic organizer, answer questions presented in a study guide) to break up and chunk your instruction.
  • Provide students time to dialogue with one another and with the teacher throughout the reading of text (e.g., shared pairs, cooperating groups, large groups question/answer and clarification activities).
  • Provide multiple practice opportunities when requiring students to attempt new skills or to work with new concepts and vocabulary. For example, when asking students to identify main ideas and supporting details, provide multiple passages for which students complete this activity. Model the approach, have the students attempt the approach, check in with their performance at a mid-point and when finished, and then have the students attempt it with peers or independently.
  • Adapt and modify instruction to meet specific learning needs.
  • Make tasks authentic to increase motivation and understanding. Make explicit connections between the content and students' lives.
  • Have students predict as they read a passage. Have them compare their predictions to the path the author has chosen.
  • Have students summarize and clarify as they read.
  • Incorporate think-alouds into your instruction. Think-alouds make explicit and audible the thinking processes involved in completing a task so students can hear and experience them.
  • Have the students map or outline the text as it is being read. You can provide complete, partial, or blank maps or outlines, based on students' needs. Students may complete them independently, in small groups, or pairs, or the classes, under the teacher's direction, may complete them as a group, with the teacher modeling the recording of the information using the overhead projector or chalkboard.
  • Provide a study guide to go along with the passage being read. The study guide can include guiding questions, vocabulary activities, and mapping/outlining activities to support student understanding. They may be completed in formats similar to those suggested when using maps and outlines.

Phase 3: Assess

  • Make assessment an integral and ongoing part of your teaching.
  • Incorporate multiple assessment formats (e.g., multiple-choice and true/false quizzes, essay questions, projects, presentations).
  • Have students be responsible for part of the assessment of their learning. Students can reflect on and write about what they have learned; students can compare pre- and post-projects and identify what they have learned and how their work has changed; or students can complete checklists and surveys that ask them to evaluate their work and understanding.
  • Incorporate authentic assessment activities as appropriate (e.g., when the goal is for the student to be able to write a letter, have the student write a letter to a real person rather than having them provide correct punctuation for a teacher-developed letter written to someone the student does not know).

Phase 4: Extend

Students who are less proficient readers, English language learners, and students with disabilities are also highly capable students who can actively engage in extended activities, if these activities are structured by necessary supports.

Many of the suggestions provided under "Teach" apply here as well. With explicit presentation of expectations and instructions, paired with examples of previous student projects, these students can be successful. There are, however, some considerations when planning Extend activities for these student groups:

  • Ensure that these activities require students to apply core understandings. The activities should challenge students to take the information learned from the text and use it in new and novel ways, or to apply it to a new situation.
  • Ensure that these activities are connected with the students' lives.
  • Ensure that these activities are not "busy work" but represent real learning and goal achievement.


"Front-loading" instruction by providing extensive instruction during the Preteach and Teach phases of lessons provides a foundation for student participation and achievement. It also provides students with opportunities to practice skills, to build schema before encountering text, and to interact with vocabulary prior to reading. In addition to "front-loading" instruction, identify the unique learning needs of your student group and incorporate instructional techniques that will support their active participation and achievement to ensure universal access for all learners, including those who are less proficient readers, English language learners, or who have special education needs. Also, employ systematic means for monitoring and evaluating student understanding and use this information to guide your instruction and incorporation of adaptations and modifications into future lessons.