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Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer

By Lois A. Lanning and Tiffanee Brown, Corwin Press, 2019

Have you ever left a professional development workshop, or reviewed a new literacy resource, excited about the ideas, only to return to the classroom and say, “Now how do I do this?”


Both authors of this new book, Lois A. Lanning and Tiffanee Brown, have had this frustrating experience. Hence, our commitment to moving Concept-Based Curriculum, and, more specifically, the 2013 book, Designing Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts (Lanning), from curriculum units to classroom instruction. Teachers who are enthusiastic about Concept-Based Curriculum have requested resources to help support their lesson planning. Too often a well-designed, conceptual curriculum does not translate to conceptual teaching. Old habits die hard, and the transition takes some time, patience, thinking, and understanding.


This book adds another title to Corwin’s Concept-Based series. It is a book that appeals to one’s intellect and expertise, rather than one’s ability to follow a script in a teaching manual. It is a practical guide for Grades 4−10 literacy teachers in the design of lessons that systematically support the transfer of students’ conceptual understandings. It is a book that shares model lessons; it is also a teaching tool so that readers can transfer what they learn to their day-to- day practice.

The tenets of Erickson’s original work with Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) remain solid. Over the past twenty-two years, however, aspects of early thinking were tweaked, then expanded with Lanning’s contributions, and continue to be refined based on emerging cognitive research and on the feedback of hundreds of teachers around the globe who have joined all of us in the Concept-Based journey.


Why this book? While many literacy resources mention that deep learning and transfer are the end goals of instruction, many of the literacy resources on the market do not actually show teachers how to design lessons to systematically support the transfer of students’ conceptual understandings. What separates Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) from other approaches is that teachers use clear, important, transferable conceptual understandings (generalizations) as specific targets of instruction and guide students to construct these understandings on their own. Generalizations give relevance to skills and support the retention and ownership of learning.


Chapter by Chapter Summary:


Chapter 1 begins by making a case for a strong Concept-Based Curriculum as the foundation for maximizing student learning in a literacy classroom. Some of the key points from the 2013 book, Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts (Lanning), are referenced as a place to learn more about the complete curriculum unit design process. This chapter serves as a brief reminder/review of the components of a Concept-Based English Curriculum Unit, and includes a model literacy unit. Finally, Chapter 1 sets up the remainder of the book, which focuses on literacy teaching and learning in a Concept-Based classroom.


Chapter 2 guides teachers through the actual step-by step process of writing Concept-Based Literacy lesson plans. There is a flowchart with questions to guide your thinking and help you stay on the path to writing a quality, Concept-Based literacy lesson. A scenario between two colleagues puts the flowchart in action followed by a completed lesson plan.


Chapter 3 has many layers. First, there is a discussion of how inquiry fits naturally with Concept-Based Instruction, and how inquiry and explicit skill instruction work together in a literacy classroom. Next, there are four model literacy lesson plans, ranging from Grades 4−10. Why four? There are four strands that represent well-balanced, comprehensive literacy teaching and learning (Lanning, 2013), and each model lesson shows how to target a generalization from one strand while integrating the others. The Concept-Based Curriculum units, included in the Resources section at the back of the book, show the source of each lesson plan.


This chapter also inserts “cut-out” boxes, with pertinent questions sprinkled throughout each model lesson, to guide your thinking and provoke collegial conversations. Some “cut-out” boxes describe the impact the instructional changes will have on students. These descriptions will help you know what to look for as students move their literacy learning beyond skills to conceptual understandings.


Finally, end-of-lesson reflections, followed by tables showing a progression of generalizations across grade bands, wrap up this chapter. The goal of showing generalization progressions is to illustrate the importance of keeping “the whole” or bigger picture in mind when planning students’ learning experiences. The gradual and systematic inclusion of more microconcepts in upcoming generalizations ensures students are developing conceptual depth and expertise in a subject over the course of their schooling.


What does your current literacy instruction look like? Chapter 4 includes many familiar literacy practices that serve as valuable tools for Concept-Based lesson planning. There is no need or expectation to throw out all your current instruction to teach to conceptual understanding! Many known, high-impact approaches become more powerful when used as means to help students reach learning targets that stretch beyond knowledge and skills to conceptual understandings. This chapter includes many Snapshots of Concept-Based Literacy classrooms showcasing learning experiences designed to deliberately cultivate students’ conceptual minds and support the transfer of understanding. Thee different Snapshots illustrate how we engage synergistic thinking, support the process of inquiry, and help students move from a concrete skill or example to a deeper conceptual understanding about the reading, writing, speaking, and listening processes. We hope these Snapshots paint vivid pictures of Concept-Based Literacy classrooms and are worth well over a thousand words!


Teachers across all our audiences, worldwide, tend to ask many of the same questions we asked when first learning about Concept-Based. Chapter 5 addresses some of these important questions as well as those we anticipate readers might be asking. These are questions such as, “How does Concept-Based fit the needs of diverse learners?” “Isn’t mastering the skills in standards enough?” and others. Expanding our conversations about how literacy instruction can be redesigned to become more conceptual and engaging produces student learning that is more deeply understood and enduring. Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction continues to evolve and to become increasingly significant as a building block in teaching and learning so that all students experience the joy and empowerment associated with lifelong literacy.



What people are saying about Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer:


How fortunate we are as educators to have this brilliant collaboration between Lois Lanning and Tiffanee Brown on Concept-Based Literacy Lesson development! To read their deep thinking and practical applications to Concept-Based Lesson Design, is to realize the critical nature of each student's conceptual understanding and ability to transfer. This book, as well as Dr. Lanning's earlier book (2013) on Designing Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts, are cutting-edge. Literacy is not a decontextualized drill of skills or learning just about "a book." You will highlight, ponder, and tab as you read about the design of Concept-Based Literacy Lessons. You will feel the excitement of this intellectual and engaging approach to teaching and learning. You will create your own exciting lesson plans and will know this is the holistic literacy approach you have been searching for. All students deserve the best literacy instruction--and this IS the BEST.

-H. Lynn Erickson, Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (Corwin, 2017)

The growing consensus among educators of the need for deeper learning and more meaningful lesson design has sparked much in the way of instructional theory and comparatively little in the way of practical instructional support. Lanning and Brown shift the focus to how--this book offers teachers a timely and straightforward approach to the design of dynamic learning experiences that support learning transfer, investigation, and meaning creation.

-Joanne McEachen and Matt Kane, Measuring Human Return (Corwin, 2018)

It is well understood that both achievement and income gaps largely disappear between racial groups when factoring in literacy level. We know that our schools must be producing careful thinkers, close readers, and concise writers in order to address the equity issues in our country. But, we have not found a way to translate this understanding into the daily learning experiences of our children...until now. Concept-based Literacy Lessons finally provides teachers with the fundamental learning design and array of strategies that are necessary to help each and every child develop critical literacy skills and understandings. Moving beyond proficiency on standardized literacy assessments, students educated based on the elements of this book will learn to how to leverage their voices, written and oral, in support of their own big ideas. They will understand the true power of being truly literate!

-K. C. Knudson, Assistant Superintendent, Anacortes School District

Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer Grades 4-10 provides us first hand experiences in developing and teaching effective Concept-Based units and lessons. Lois and Tiffanee have created this brilliant pathway that incorporates model lessons and scaffolds to effectively support educators in getting to the practicality of "what does this looks like on a daily basis?," while allowing for teachers' creativity, passions and expertise to be honored. This book is like the "user's guide" to Concept-Based, and will lead you step by step to create rich, deep learning experiences that engage our students' hearts and minds.

-Mischelle Darragh, Principal, Sedro-Woolley School District

How do we create ‘thinking’ classrooms and put theory into action? Templates to build lessons, rubrics to guide our thinking, and examples upon examples are used to help us transform rather than replace what we say and do in our classrooms. This is the ‘how to’ book that will be the treasured resource for 21st century educators.

-Connie Walser, Special Education Teacher, Burlington WA

This is an excellent book for teachers of all levels of experience. Each time I felt a bit of confusion about how I would incorporate this into my teaching there was an example or story that helped me. These moments are strategically placed to help teachers understand that they can do this type of work, it just requires a shift in thinking. I would like to use this to help teachers create lessons to foster understanding and transfer.

-Barbara Smith, Reading Teacher 3-6, Cutchogue East Elementary School, Cutchogue, NY  


Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer delivers what it promises. The easy- to- read chapters lead the teacher from the excitement of understanding Concept-Based Curriculum back to the classroom with concrete examples and tools to design concept-based lessons. It’s the all-too-often skipped step in creating meaningful change.

- Kathleen Swift, High School English Teacher, Newtown High School, Sandy Hook, CT 

This is a fantastic resource for teachers eager to learn how to incorporate concept-based learning in their literacy classrooms. By providing a clear unit framework, a wealth of concrete examples of lessons, engaging activities, and coaching tips to apply to your own planning, this book enables you to add a new dimension to your instruction while still maintaining ownership of your own teaching.

-Caity Lehman, Grade 5-7 English Subject Coordinator, Colegio Anglo Colombiano, Bogotá, Colombia


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