Read About Best Practices in Planning for instruction


This session explores best practices in planning for instruction for coaches in grades K–8. You will examine what planning consists of and why it is important, the role of assessment in the planning process, and how to effectively advise and work with teachers as they develop and carry out their instructional plans.

Every day, thousands of teachers, new and seasoned, plan for tomorrow’s instruction. They may plan one day at a time or a week or more in advance, but how do they know what to teach? Do they use current data to make instructional decisions, or do they simply turn to the next page in the teacher’s guide?

Instruction is systematized teaching (English, 1992). In order to teach systematically, teachers must:

  1. identify what should be taught according to state, district, and school standards
  2. use formal assessments, such as standardized tests, and informal assessments, such as work samples, observations, and anecdotal records, to determine areas of strength and weakness for each student
  3. plan long-term and short-term instruction based on these assessments
  4. teach what has been planned, making required decisions about instruction during the lesson
  5. analyze and reflect on how instruction was delivered, comparing the actual lesson with the planned lesson and comparing how well students learned to how well the lesson was taught
  6. apply analysis and reflections to new teaching experiences by using insights to make needed changes in teaching styles and practices

(Adapted from Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools by A.L. Costa and R. J. Garmston)

In other words, instructional planning takes time, thought, and personal reflection. One teacher sums it up by saying, I used to think that if you could read, you could teach. All you had to do was follow the teacher’s guide. How hard is that? Now I know that teaching means thinking about what I’m supposed to teach instead of what I want to teach, what each student needs to become a better learner, how I’m going to help each student, and what I need to do to become a better teacher.

Systematized Instruction

Identifying What Should Be Taught

How can teachers access standards by which to teach? Standards are usually mandated by the State Board of Education and made available on the state education website in pdf or word files that may be downloaded and printed off a computer. The problem with using the actual state standards is the size of the documents, which in some cases include dozens of pages per grade level per subject. Fortunately, most districts use state standards to create their own curriculum planning documents. Though district standards have many formats, they generally cover objectives, materials to use for each objective, and some sort of student outcome – what a student should be able to do upon learning each objective. District planning documents may also include a timeline for teaching certain objectives.

Along with state standards, many districts or schools include standards of their own which may add extra units onto a year of instruction. For example, if the fifth-grade science standards for a state include instruction from physical, earth, and life sciences but do not cover oceanography, the school may decide to include oceanography into the fifth-grade curriculum. This addition is acceptable as long as teaching the oceanography unit does not cause teachers to neglect one or more of the actual state standards.

Implications for Coaches

  • Planning documents may or may not be flexible, so it’s best to check with a principal, vice-principal, or district curriculum personnel if questions arise about instructional timelines.
  • Teachers want and need planning documents before the first day of school. Check to make sure each teacher has the correct standards from which to plan. If not, see that they receive copies as soon as possible.
  • Ask teachers to keep their planning documents in a handy location – such as in their lesson plan books – to use on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
  • After explaining how to use planning documents, periodically check with teachers to see how they are using them and answer any questions they may have.

Using Formal and Informal Assessments to Determine Students’ Strengths and Weaknesses

Once teachers have an overall plan for what they need to teach, they are ready to look at students’ individual needs by utilizing data from two types of assessment – formal and informal.

Formal assessment includes state standardized tests, norm-referenced tests, and criterion-referenced tests. Although these provide important data, they should not be the sole source of information about students’ strengths and weaknesses. Because formal assessments are usually administered only once during the year, they are not always an accurate representation of students’ abilities.

In spite of their limitations, using formal assessment results correctly can provide a starting point for instruction. For example, in most states a score of 49% on a criterion-referenced reading test is considered failing. However, the score itself isn’t nearly as important as analyzing the accompanying class profile sheet that offers information on each question or type of question the students missed. When coaching teachers to use the results of a formal assessment to “categorize” a student, ask:

  1. With what did the student struggle? Did he miss questions that involve only one or two particular strategies, such as making inferences and identifying cause-and-effect relationships, or miss questions in a mixture of skills areas?
  2. With this information, how can you most effectively group students while you complete informal assessment?

Informal assessments include anecdotal records taken during small-group instruction or conferences, checklists, running records, and observation charts. These assessments provide both day-to-day and yearly growth information that teachers can use to plan instruction. To document yearly growth, teachers write down dates that students are observed using particular skills or strategies – often those mandated by standards.

When coaching teachers to use day-to-day assessment information to plan next steps in instruction, have them ask themselves:

  • Do I need to continue working with students on this strategy, or can I move on? What evidence do I have to support my decision?
  • Do students have enough background knowledge about this topic or task to be successful with it, or do I need to provide more scaffolding and modeling?
  • Are students being challenged? How do I know?
  • From what I’ve learned about these students, what should I teach them next?

Day-to-day informal assessments are best completed using some sort of schedule. For example, K–2 teachers may conduct reading conferences – including running records and recording anecdotal information – with each student every one to two weeks. Third through eighth grade teachers may conduct reading conferences with each student every two to three weeks, depending on the class period length and number of students. Small-group observation forms can be completed once or twice a week or as often as needed.

By creating a schedule for informal assessments and adhering to it as closely as possible, teachers can ensure that they are monitoring the yearly growth of every student as well as gathering valuable information to use for day-to-day planning and providing up-to-date input to the students’ other teachers, parents, and the administration.

Implications for Coaches

  • Don’t assume that teachers know the difference between formal and informal assessments. Clearly compare and contrast them before helping a teacher plan for further instruction.
  • Model how to read formal assessment reporting documents, which are often confusing.
  • Remind new teachers that both formal and informal assessment records are confidential.
  • Model how to conference with students, and help teachers plan instruction for other students while conducting conferences.

Planning Long-Term and Short-Term Instruction Based on Formal and Informal Assessments

Long-Term Instruction

Once teachers are familiar with the standards for their grade levels and subjects, have analyzed formal assessment results, and have conducted their own informal assessments, it’s time to decide when each objective will be taught. Model this process by selecting one content area and following these suggested guidelines:

  1. Point out that standards are general, but objectives are more specific, and note how they are organized on the state or district document. For example, a standard might be The student will effectively use reading strategies to comprehend text, and underneath the standard might be several objectives, such as drawing conclusions, predicting outcomes, self-monitoring, and using fix-up strategies.
  2. First, think about which objectives students can learn to do most easily and what they need to know in order to build a foundation for higher-level skills. For example, one set of reading objectives might be ordered in this way:
  • visualizing
  • making connections
  • asking questions
  • making inferences
  • synthesizing
  1. Another way to determine the order of instruction is to conduct a “task analysis” on each standard’s objectives. For example, in order to summarize, students need to know how to identify main idea and supporting details. In order to identify main idea and supporting details, students must know how to determine text importance, and so on. As you work backward, the objective that is identified last is the one to teach first. However, keep in mind that some objectives, such as cause and effect, sequence, and compare and contrast do not have to be taught in any specific order.
  2. Don’t wait to teach difficult objectives right before a standardized test. Instead, include them throughout the school year in a spiral fashion. Remember also that more than one objective may be taught at a time.
  3. Once your timeline is built, use assessment data to determine what needs to be taught in the whole-group setting, in small groups, or in one-on-one tutoring sessions with individuals, and plan enrichment activities for those students who already show mastery in a particular objective.

Implications for Coaches

  • Periodically, work with an entire grade level on long-term instructional planning.
  • Remind teachers that long-term timelines must be flexible. The order and length of time spent on objectives is subject to change depending on the needs of the students.
  • Since each small group in reading and writing may be working on different objectives, have teachers use checklists to keep track of when they teach particular objectives to different groups of students.
  • Many teachers have favorite units that are not a part of the curriculum. Address this issue by asking the following:

Can you connect this unit to the standards? If so, which objectives will you teach?

Will the time it takes to teach this unit keep you from addressing other mandated objectives? If so, is it possible to shorten it?

If the teacher can answer these questions satisfactorily, give him or her the go-ahead and help in any way you can. These opportunities go far toward sustaining teacher enthusiasm and satisfaction.

Short-Term Instruction

Short-term instruction includes units of study, weekly plans, and daily lessons. Units of study are designed to support objectives from any number of content areas. McTighe and Wiggins (1999) have created a plan called Understanding by Design that clearly defines the following three components of an effective unit:

Identify desired results.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the big ideas that students will learn?
  • What essential questions will drive this unit?
  • What key abilities will students acquire?

Determine acceptable evidence.

Ask yourself:

  • How will students informally demonstrate their learning? Will they self-assess? Will I be able to observe them and keep anecdotal records?
  • How will students formally demonstrate their learning? Will they complete performance tasks? Will they take quizzes or tests?

Plan learning experiences and instruction.

Identify the sequence of teaching and learning experiences that will equip students to develop the desired concepts or understandings. This sequence:

  • explains unit goals
  • hooks students and holds their interest through a variety of activities, including hands-on experiences, experiments, and research
  • allows students to explore issues and ideas through group activities that involve proving a point or debating
  • provides opportunities to rethink and revise, which builds fluent thinking and planning
  • permits students to exhibit understanding and self-evaluate work, which promotes self-worth and personal standards

Planning daily lessons requires teachers to use what happens during one lesson to design the next one. This process may be particularly difficult for teachers who are used to operating according to teacher’s guides rather than students’ needs. Provide teachers the following tips:

  1. During the lesson, take brief anecdotal notes on students’ reading or writing behaviors, how they respond to prompts, and their learning attitudes.
  2. After the lesson, analyze the notes. Did students understand the desired outcome? If they didn’t, what is needed to scaffold instruction during the next lesson? Do all students need the same instruction, or would particular students benefit from a small-group mini-lesson?
  3. Plan the next lesson with student behaviors in mind, regardless of the teacher’s guide.

Implications for Coaches

  • Help teachers create a usable short-hand technique for anecdotal notes. Advise them to keep past notes in separate folders for each student or group.
  • Periodically, check in with teachers to determine the status of daily instructional plans. Remind them that the teacher’s guide is a useful tool, but student behaviors and attitudes should drive instruction.

Teaching What Has Been Planned

Now that teachers have identified what to teach, used assessments to drive instruction, and planned long-term and short-term lessons, they’re ready to carry out their plans.

Effective teachers:

  • know that their plans are flexible and may change depending on the needs of the students
  • are metacognitive and know how to monitor and adjust their teaching during the lesson
  • look for conscious and unconscious cues from students to determine how the lesson is progressing, including body language and responses to questions
  • make alterations when needed during the middle of a lesson by drawing on a large repertoire of instructional strategies, such as switching from visual aids to a kinesthetic approach

Implications for Coaches

  • If a teacher is having difficulty self-monitoring, teach a model lesson to show what this looks like. Debrief afterward by having the teacher identify when and how you changed the lesson according to students’ cues or performance.
  • If teachers are frustrated at their inability to make alterations during lessons, explain that this will come easier as they build a repertoire of instructional approaches.
  • Remind teachers that it is acceptable to discontinue a lesson that is obviously not meeting students’ needs. They can salvage the experience by thinking about what happened, planning a different instructional approach, and trying again the next day.
  • Provide trainings on instructional strategies or offer professional development book titles that may help teachers with this subject.

Analyzing and Reflecting on Instruction

In the next step, a teacher analyzes the lesson taught against the lesson planned. If it was planned with students’ strengths and weaknesses in mind, the two should be similar and the students probably learned. If it was planned by following the recommended schedule in the teacher’s guide, the two lessons might be very different and the students may feel lost.

If the lesson went well, teachers should ask themselves What did I do to make this lesson work so that I can duplicate these actions during other lessons? If the lesson did not go well, they should ask themselves What did I do or neglect to do that caused the lesson to turn out this way? How can I change so that future lessons are better? The latter two questions are often difficult for teachers to answer because they must admit that the success of a lesson depends on their teaching, not on students’ abilities.

Implications for Coaches

  • Teachers may think they have done something wrong if a coach wants to help them analyze and reflect on a lesson. Explain that this process is not a criticism, but a way to build teacher efficacy.
  • Teachers who have a “learned helplessness” attitude want to blame the students, their parents, and society when lessons do not work well. Remind them that they have control over the lesson.
  • Offer stories of your own struggles with teaching. This coaching strategy builds relationships because the teacher begins to see you as a friendly helper rather than a watchdog.

Applying Analysis and Reflections to New Teaching Situations

The final step of systematized teaching requires teachers to apply what they have learned about themselves to new teaching situations, promoting personal growth and satisfaction over time. As we expect our students to apply what they learn to new situations, we should expect our teachers to do no less.

Implications for Coaches

  • This step is easy to forget. As teachers learn more about effective instruction, coaches naturally assume they will apply what they have learned.
  • Follow up on this step by observing teachers throughout the year. Ask them how their teaching has changed and what they think about their current instructional practices compared to their previous ways of teaching.