Putting it all together: Real examples of how to integrate supplemental content into your core work

If you’re a regular reader of Teach. Learn. Grow., you may remember that in September, I examined why teachers turn to online supplemental content and shared some resources for vetting the increasing variety of available options. My October post focused on how to maximize student understanding and retention by connecting supplemental work to core content, activating students’ metacognitive thinking, and leveraging the power of pairing and peer teaching.

Knowing that the devil is usually in the details, I thought it would be useful to provide some concrete examples of how to apply these ideas in math and reading. To help with this task, I’m joined by my colleague Toni Gibbs, who provides an ELA perspective.

An example of using online supplemental content in English language arts

“Maximum impact: 3 ways to make the most of supplemental content” explains the importance of three concepts:

  1. Connecting to the core curriculum
  2. Providing students with ways to practice metacognition about their online learning
  3. Having students work together to increase the impact of their supplemental learning

The real challenge is how to apply those concepts in the classroom. So, let’s imagine you’re the teacher in a class of fifth-grade students who are reading Trapped by the Ice! by Michael McCurdy. That can help us see how those three concepts can help students gain information and confidence with core curriculum, whether they are building their abilities, practicing newly introduced concepts, or enriching their knowledge.

Connections to core curriculum 

Let’s say that as the teacher of this class, some of the ideas you want students to examine in Trapped by the Ice!are the text organization and literary devices, such as personification and imagery. You would also like students to have the opportunity to build knowledge about subject matter from the story or something from the story that they themselves are curious about, such as the South Pole or Earnest Shackleton.

Just telling students that the supplemental sources are related isn’t enough.

Online supplemental sources allow you to select content you want students to use. By choosing appropriate subject matter and telling students that it is related to the core content, you can help them broaden or deepen their understanding of the subject matter. Supplemental sources can also be a chance to increase students’ exposure to grade-level texts at a variety of complexities, providing the additional practice or necessary scaffolding to help them build their reading skills with on-grade texts.

But just telling students that the supplemental sources are related isn’t enough. Make those connections explicit by asking students to use graphic organizers individually to compare text elements in supplemental texts they read with the core text; this will help them see that the work they are doing with the supplemental material is related to the core. For example, they could compare the chronological structure of Trapped by the Ice! with a supplemental passage that has the same type of structure. Comparisons allow students to think about and analyze what they know about the core text and apply those skills to other texts to form opinions about what they read independently.


The connections you ask students to make to the core helps them step back and think about what they are learning and how they are learning it. That is, it helps them with metacognition.

Through metacognitive feedback, you are not only asking students to monitor their own learning, but you are also inviting them to help you guide their learning. For example, students keeping journals about questions or confusions they have about their work in the supplemental source—prompted by a few simple questions such as “What did you practice or learn today in the supplemental material?” or “What connections do you see between Trapped by the Ice! and the supplemental reading?” or “Do you have any questions about the work you did in the supplement source today?”—can help you know where students might need additional help or where they are making progress. The students need only write a sentence or two to help you know if they are on track.

That October post I mentioned earlier has examples of many good questions that can help students think about their progress in any subject matter.

Better together 

Pairing students can have significant positive impacts on their learning. In our fictitious classroom, there are many examples of how students could be grouped to work together.

Students interested in learning more about the South Pole or explorers could be assigned different supplemental texts at a variety of complexities. After 10 minutes of reading articles, they can break from reading to share what they learned from the articles for five minutes. Or perhaps two students could read the same supplemental article. They could work together on graphic organizers to compare text elements with the core text.

The activities that bring students together don’t have to be complicated or time consuming; they just need to give students a time to share what they’ve learned and maybe give them an opportunity to learn from each other.

An example of using online supplemental content in mathematics

Now let’s look at how to approach supplemental content in a math class. For this scenario, we’ll imagine you are a fourth-grade teacher who is preparing for an upcoming unit on multiplying fractions by whole numbers.

You begin by sifting through relevant data: formative assessments, students’ performance on previous units about fraction concepts and on multiplication of whole numbers, classroom conversations, MAP® Growth™ data, and more.

Connections to core curriculum 

First you identify students who might benefit from reinforcement of precursor concepts. Using the standards progressions, you determine the critical foundational skills that will support students’ understanding for this unit. Since this content focuses on multiplication as whole number copies or iterations of a fraction, you decide to have these students review basic fraction concepts.

Connecting new learning to previously learned concepts will support memory, recall, understanding, and application of concepts.

Reinforcing kids’ understanding that fraction a/b is a iterations of 1/b will help them understand that c x a/b is citerations of a/b. The content in the new unit can also be connected to what students know about whole number repeated addition and whole number multiplication. Connecting new learning to previously learned concepts will support memory, recall, understanding, and application of concepts.

Before starting the unit, you review your supplemental tools to find one that includes conceptually grounded explanations of the identified precursor content as well as practice opportunities with supportive and actionable feedback. After assigning this content to the appropriate students, you may also ask students, or pairs of students, to prepare brief review lessons about these topics. These lessons can be used to support both the student teachers’ understanding and retention of the concepts as well as activate prior knowledge for other students if shared in a whole-class or small-group setting.

At the start of the new unit, you use the following framing questions to activate students’ prior knowledge and to help all students connect the current work to previously learned concepts:

  • What do I know and understand about fractions?
  • What do I know and understand about multiplication?

Throughout the unit, students record their thoughts in their math journals and choose ideas to share on a physical or digital group thinking wall.

As the class works through the unit, classroom data is used to adjust student’s supplemental assignments. Some students may continue to work on basic fraction and whole number multiplication concepts. Others may use the time to practice multiplying fractions by whole numbers with different models and contexts.

Other students may move more quickly through the content. You can use additional assessment and questioning to determine whether these students are just computing faster or if they have developed deep conceptual understanding more quickly than their peers. Since you know computational speed alone does not indicate the need to accelerate learning, you look for supplemental content that allows these students to apply their understanding in more complex ways—to go deeper with the current content.

Many online supplemental products handle enrichment by placing students into content from a higher grade. Do this thoughtfully and with caution. For the few students for which evidence indicates that they are truly ready to move to higher grade content, look at the progressions to see what concepts build off the current unit of study. In this case, the next step in the progression is multiplying whole numbers by fractions, which begins to develop the concept of scaling. Once again, consider which supplemental programs develop this concept conceptually, because although you know your students may be capable of doing the computation required for above-grade work, skimping on the conceptual foundation could impact the development of later concepts and skills.


Whether your students are reviewing previously learned content, practicing on-grade, or going deeper into a topic or advancing to related above-graded content, you’ll want them to use metacognitive strategies to actively monitor their thinking and engagement with the material.

Either through weekly touch bases or journal reflections, dig into how they are feeling about the level and pacing of the supplemental content. This can help you adjust their learning path appropriately.

Asking what the hardest or muddiest part of their learning was can uncover areas of confusion for individual students, and it may reveal patterns of understanding within the whole class. Supplemental content can also be a great place for students to explore how they prefer to learn. Asking students how they reacted to the way the content was presented gets them thinking about their learning styles, and you can follow up this question by asking them how they would present the material to others. That question helps students organize their thinking about a topic, consider the key components of the topic, reference the most relevant models, and more, all of which support deeper understanding and retention.

Better together

As usual, you assign students computer buddies for supplemental time. These heterogeneous pairs sit next to each other, and although they work on their own assignments, they meet afterward to discuss what they learned and how it relates to the current work of the class. Students are provided with the questions below to spark these conversations and to help connect previously learned content to multiplying fractions by whole numbers.

  • How are 4 and 1/4 similar? How are they different?
  • How is 4 + 4 + 4 similar to ¼ + ¼ + ¼? How is it different?
  • Are there any other ways you could write each expression?
  • How could you represent each expression with a model?

Questions like these, which support integrated, connected learning, also help empower those students who require review of precursor content. Instead of feeling behind their peers, they may be the ones who help other students have an aha moment where they see and understand the connection between concepts.

Always connect

Supplemental content is just that: content that helps you support, provide practice for, or enrich core student learning. Regardless of the subject matter, showing students how the material is connected to their core content, having them monitor themselves as they work through their supplemental learning, and encouraging them to work through that learning with others can help students use that supplemental content more effectively.

Toni Gibbs, senior ELA content specialist at NWEA, coauthored this post.


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