Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts: Meeting the Common Core with Intellectual Integrity, K-12 (2013)
by Lois A. Lanning
Book Review by Angeline Aow
When I think of successful collaborative partnerships I think of Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers. If you are not familiar with Shondaland, you may know the television series that this writer and producer team have created; Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. What makes collaborations like theirs successful is that each bring unique strengths and skills to their work. Through this they have pioneered significant moments that have changed the face of television and more importantly expanded viewers perspectives on issues such as diversity, representation and equality. In the field of education a similarly successful collaborative partnership exists between Dr. Lois Lanning and Dr. H. Lynn Erickson. In Designing a Concept-based Curriculum for English Language Arts, Lanning shows how she has promoted and advanced Erickson’s work in her area of expertise and ultimately influenced a positive change on how language arts is taught. Each educator’s unique perspectives is evident in a curriculum model that not only focuses on content but also on the language related skills and processes needed for learners to be successful.
Lanning begins by sharing that “My goal in writing this book is to share a powerful curriculum design, developed by H. Lynn Erickson, which has made a difference to thousands of educators around the world, and tailor it specifically to the discipline of English language arts” (Lanning, 2013, p.xi). She then begins where all curriculum matters should and that is with clarifying and coming to agreement on what curriculum actually is. For Lanning, curriculum is a “master plan” (Lanning, 2013, p.5). With a master plan, teachers can better plan, facilitate and assess the individual parts of the whole. In this book, Lanning’s expertise as a curriculum development consultant and language arts specialist is evident in how she elevates the work of Erickson by developing a 10-step approach to planning concept-based language arts units of inquiry.
When I first started my journey as a concept-based curriculum teacher (within the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme framework) I taught transdisciplinary units of inquiry where students inquired into big ideas about the interdependence of city systems, sustainable use of renewable energy, and other fact-based topics. In my classroom students could be found researching into their units by reading information texts, they took notes about interesting facts they found, they turned these facts into information reports and then presented to others. Some students did very well, and others not so well. Students who struggled with conceptual inquiry did so not because they hadn’t understood the big ideas behind the unit, but because they lacked the language skills to express and communicate their understandings. Although I was teaching to concepts, there was a crucial piece missing. My teaching of disciplines, such as the language arts, was not conceptually driven.
Erickson wrote in the Foreword of Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts that “When I first met Lois, I did not think that processes had ‘concepts’. In fact, I even wrote in one of my early books erroneously that ‘concepts are only found in content - not in skills and processes.” One of the most common criticisms and misconceptions of a concept-based curriculum is that it lacks academic rigour. Educators questioned if teaching literacy and numeracy conceptually would yield better results than traditional methods such as skill and drill. For too long educators have thought that they needed to make a choice between teaching the core skills of numeracy and literacy, and teaching students to inquire into big ideas of global significance. Lanning’s book dispels this myth and shows educators how it is possible and preferable to have both.
Divided into three Parts, Lanning’s book walks the reader through how to prepare for curriculum design in Part I, the curricular design process in Part II and then shares units and educator success stories in Part III. Lanning’s design process is specifically for interdisciplinary English Language Arts units. Where Lanning differs the most from Erickson’s model of unit planning is that she suggests specific strands in which to organize subtopics and concepts when creating a unit web. These are understanding text, producing text, responding to text and critiquing text, which aligns closely with the Common Core State Standards.
“The suggested strands were selected because they promote instructional integration and emphasize the desired results of a comprehensive English language arts curriculum versus a means to the end. Rather than separating out the communication processes of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and presenting into discrete strands around the web, the four suggested strands, understanding text, producing text, responding to text, and critiquing text, represent a more integrated, comprehensive, balanced approach to literacy learning” (Lanning, 2013, p.57).
In ten steps Lanning walks teachers through designing a concept-based language unit. From writing generalization, to determining critical content and key skills and designing culminating assessment task/s, the ten steps provide a comprehensive approach to designing units. In addition to this Lanning shares insights into the challenges one encounters at each stage of implementation and by sharing her wisdom she reassures the reader that transformation to a concept-based language arts approach will take time, but is one worth implementing.
If you are an English Language Arts teacher working with the Common Core standards this book has the power to transform the way you approach teaching your discipline. Teachers of modern languages and additional language teachers would also benefit from developing instruction that is focused on understanding rather than recalling information and grammatical structures. With some adaptations, the ideas in this book are also applicable to other process oriented subject areas such as physical education and the creative and practical arts. Lanning has balanced Erickson’s Structure of Knowledge with the Structure of Process and taken concept-based curriculum and instruction to the next level in this groundbreaking book. For this alone, every teacher of any discipline should be familiar with this book. After all, whether we teach mathematics, biology, drama or design technology we are all teachers of language.
Lanning, Lois A. (2013). Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts - Meeting the Common Core with Intellectual Integrity, K-12. Corwin a SAGE Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-4522-41797-5.