Crafting Standards-Based K–5 English Language Arts Lessons from Texts at Hand

Jul 27, 2020

Covid-19 has disrupted K–12 curriculum. Whether you are a teacher adapting lessons to online instruction or a homeschooling parent, you may be struggling to provide your K–5 students with the appropriate texts to teach grade-level Common Core State Standards skills in English language arts (ELA). Here’s good news: just about any available text, from an informational article to a favorite picture book, can be used to teach and practice most of the skills. The trick is matching the text to the skill.

The Common Core State Standards for ELA—the national standards that define the knowledge and skills students should gain throughout their K–12 education in order to graduate high school prepared to succeed in entry-level careers, introductory academic college courses, and workforce training programs—can be found in their entirety here. Let’s take Grade 3 as an example. Within the domain of Reading: Informational Texts in Grade 3 (the “RI.3” standards), students must do the following:

  • (RI.3.1) Ask and answer questions to show understanding of a text, using the text as the basis for answers.
  • (RI.3.2) Determine the main idea of a text and show how key details support the idea.
  • (RI.3.3) Describe the relationship between a series of events (historical, scientific) or steps in a process, using language that relates to time, sequence, and cause and effect.
  • (RI.3.4) Determine the meaning of academic words (those useful across a wide range of content areas, like develop) and domain-specific words (used in particular subjects, like slope in math or adjective in English) in a text relevant to a Grade 3 topic or subject area.

An informational article from the children’s section of a newspaper, such as the Washington Post’s “Kidspost”; a children’s magazine, such as Highlights or Spider; or a nonfiction picture book, such as a biography or book about dinosaurs, could be used to teach all these skills. Here’s a sample lesson plan that could be used for a variety of informational texts.

[RI.3.4] To start, preview the text (or ask the at-home parent to do so), and, using sticky notes, identify a few academic and domain-specific words. Examples include the following:

  • academic words (you can find lists of these words at org): argue, cause, contrast, describe, develop, endanger, example, experience, gather, occur, purpose, recognize, similar, solve
  • domain-specific words pertaining specifically to the topic:
    • science: words such as camouflage, data, earthquake, life cycle, and liquid
    • social studies: words such as community, continent, government, and holiday

Have the student read the text. As they encounter each word, have them write it and, using a dictionary and context clues, write a brief definition. Remind them that context is the words and sentences surrounding a word, which can be used to select the correct definition.

[RI.3.2] Next, have the student write a one-paragraph summary. Remind them that a summary often starts with the main idea of the text—what all the information is about—and includes a few of the most important details.

[RI.3.1] Remind the student that the summary shows what they understood about the text. Explain that they can ask and answer questions about the text to show their understanding. Model a question based on one of the details the student has identified, such as, “What is one way dinosaurs are like birds? Dinosaurs hatched from eggs, and so do birds.” Have students write a question and answer about the main idea they identified and the other key details in the summary.

[RI.3.3] Addressing RI.3.3 will depend on the type of text used to teach RI.3.1 and RI.3.2. For a historical, biographical, or scientific text, have them identify three or four main events (history) or ideas (science). Then ask them to write a short paragraph showing how the events or ideas are related. Language to use: words about time and sequence (“In 1902,” “first, next, then, last”) and/or words about cause and effect (“because this happened, that happened”).

You can also change things up and have the student read a recipe or a craft article or explain rules for a board or card game to address RI.3.3. Have them write the steps in order in a short paragraph. Language to use: “first, next, then, last.”

Here’s how to match texts to the other domains within English language arts:

  • Reading: Literature: short stories, fiction picture books, chapter books, novels
  • Reading: Foundational Skills and Language: Teaching grade-specific skills (such as how to distinguish vowels from consonants or how to form irregular pronouns) requires professional resources at the student’s skill level. Opportunities for practice, however, can be found using the same texts appropriate for the Writing and the Speaking & Listening domains. Students will encounter opportunities to apply phonics, word recognition, and word study skills in many stories and articles; poetry is especially useful for reinforcing fluency skills.
  • Writing: persuasive texts (think of articles and books about saving the environment, for instance); informational articles and books, including encyclopedia entries; stories and picture books as model texts for writing narratives
  • Speaking & Listening: The same texts used to teach Reading: Informational Text skills can be used to teach speaking and listening skills such as having discussions, asking questions, and explaining ideas.

With a little imagination, practically any text can be used to teach or practice each part of the standards. Better yet, texts the student chooses personally based on interests provide motivation and a purpose for reading: fun.


Cindy Kane is a Curriculum Supervisor for Six Red Marbles in English language arts, where she has overseen projects ranging from phonics programs to leveled text readers to literature study guides. Writing as Cindy Trumbore, she is also the author of several children’s books.

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