How teaching multiple standards can improve learning and get you through your curriculum

When I first started teaching, I both looked forward to and dreaded the week break we got for Presidents’ Day. The break itself was fine, but afterward I knew I was heading into what I thought of as the spring rush. This period, between late February and the end of the year, became a race of “What do I have to get through before state testing?” and then, “How can I possibly get through the rest of the content in the last six weeks of school?” I can only imagine how heightened this rush is after the COVID-19 pandemic, given the well-documented learning loss. Thankfully, by taking on the approach of teaching to multiple standards, there are ways to lessen or even avoid the spring rush.

In this latest post in our series on our research-backed Transformative Ten teaching strategies, I will examine how Strategy 7, Teach from multiple standards at once, can not only help you get through your curriculum but also help you make learning stick.

About our research on teaching multiple standards

In his observations at Schiller Park Schools in Illinois, former NWEA researcher Chase Nordengren noticed that teachers used their supplemental-for-all learning block as a way of taking content that is typically taught at the end of the year and interspersing it throughout the year. By using a back-to-front approach, they took topics like data and graphing, which typically fall in the final units of the curriculum and introduced them during intervention blocks earlier in the year. Students then practiced these skills in centers and intervention blocks even while the whole class focus was on other standards.

This approach provided two key benefits. First, by its nature, it allowed students the opportunity for spaced retrieval practice. Research has found that for concepts to be embedded into long-term memory, learners must have the opportunity to practice repeatedly retrieving the information, ideally over a period of time. Secondly, by introducing these concepts earlier in the year, teachers found that students already had a basic knowledge of the content, allowing instruction to go deeper faster.

Of course, this can all work in the opposite direction as well. Students will benefit from spaced practice of content taught earlier in the year, so intervention blocks and centers can be used to both preview upcoming standards and revisit and practice previously taught content.

Leverage the structure of your standards

While it may sound overwhelming or even impractical to try teaching multiple standards at once, most college-and-career ready standards are designed to support such layering. Modern standards are typically designed to have both across-grade and within-grade coherence. In other words, the standards both build upon one another, grade after grade, and support one another within each grade.

As I discussed in a previous post, many college-and-career math standards identify major or focus standards that represent the most critical work of a given grade. The remaining standards often reinforce the major or focus standards. For example, in the Common Core, there are only two data standards in third grade, neither of which are considered major work. One standard introduces scaled bar and picture graphs and the other is about generating data by measuring lengths to the nearest half and fourth of an inch.

Because these standards are not the major work of the grade, curricula often place them late in the year. For example, in Engage NY’s third-grade curriculum, the data standards are covered in the second to last unit. However, each of these standards supports major work in other domains. For example, if you take the time to introduce scaled graphs earlier in the year, the content naturally supports the major work of gaining fluency with multiplication facts. As students read bar and picture graphs with scales of two, four, five, or 10, they gain practice multiplying to find the total number each bar or set of pictures represents. Not only does this give students different contexts within which to practice multiplication, it also builds connections between concepts.

I have discussed the importance of developing a connected view of content before. Having an interconnected schema, or web of concepts, helps students remember and apply content more easily. This is especially important in math, a subject many of us learned as a set of procedures with little or no connection or cohesion.

While it may sound overwhelming or even impractical to teach multiple standards at once, most college-and-career ready standards are designed to support such layering.

The other third-grade data standard involves measuring halves and fourths. Introducing the measurement component of this data standard during your unit on fractions allows for additional practice and reinforcement of the critical, and sometimes challenging, concept of fractions as numbers on a number line. The purposeful interconnection of standards also highlights why it is actually important to try to cover all the standards for your grade. Progressions documents, like those for the Common Core, can help you understand and leverage the coherence within the math standards to teach multiple standards.

By their nature, the ELA standards are highly interconnected and offer many opportunities for teaching multiple standards across the discipline’s domains. For example, selecting rich, high-quality, on-grade literacy texts allows for exploration of multiple comprehension standards as students examine theme, character development, language and style, tone, and structure. Indeed, solely teaching these components as isolated skills waters them down and negates the ultimate goal of helping students engage deeply with text to uncover meaning and purpose. To illustrate the interconnectedness of the standards, imagine trying to determine the theme of a story without also thinking about how the characters help develop the theme!

Literacy educator and researcher Timothy Shanahan, states that “units—and even individual lessons—will need to address multiple standards. The structure of the comprehension standards is less a detailed list of disparate items than an organized set of cognitive moves one might make in trying to understand a text.” Researchers Nell Duke and P. David Pearson also talk about the importance of working with multiple comprehension strategies at a time. In their paper “Effective practices for developing reading comprehension,” they step through five components of comprehension instruction, from explicit teaching and modeling of a strategy to collaborative and guided practice and, eventually, gradual release to independent use. However, they caution that “it is important that neither the teacher nor the students lose sight of the need to coordinate or orchestrate comprehension strategies. Strategies are not to be used singly—good readers do not read a book and only make predictions. Rather, good readers use multiple strategies constantly. Although the above model foregrounds a particular strategy at a particular time, other strategies should also be referenced, modeled, and encouraged throughout the process.”

Read around the room

Other subject areas, such as science and social studies, provide avenues for teaching multiple reading and writing standards. Shanahan cites a group of studies examining reading instruction within middle and high school social studies classes. The research found that when reading content area texts, applying the knowledge gained there to prior knowledge or to problem-solving activities increased content knowledge, content reading comprehension, and standardized reading comprehension.

Combining content-area reading and writing is also a powerful tool for learning. A meta-analysis of 100+ studies showed increased comprehension and learning of content when students wrote about texts they were reading. For younger students, writing summaries or retellings of a reading proved to be most effective, whereas deeper analyses or critiques were shown to be most effective with older students. Having students write summaries or analyses of science or social studies content that they have read can improve retention of the key ideas, give you another place to address reading and writing standards, and support the increased emphasis on nonfiction texts in college-and-career ready standards.

As you review your science and social studies curricula for the year, actively look for places to integrate your reading and writing standards. Check out Read Write Think’s strategy guide series on reading in the content areas and Reading Rockets’ content area literacy hub either to help you get started or to deepen your practice in this area.

Use project power

Project-based learning (PBL) is another approach for teaching multiple standards at once, often across several content areas. PBLWorks describes project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” To be clear, engaging in project-based learning is not the same as doing a project. PBLWorks makes the distinction between a “dessert” project, one served up as a wrap-up of content taught during a unit, and true project-based learning, in which the project is the vehicle for teaching the content.

Implementing PBL with fidelity is not a light undertaking; it requires professional development to get started and up-front planning to ensure that a given project will provide appropriate opportunities to support the desired learning. Studies indicate that PBL is worth the up-front investment. A recent review of research found several studies showing that project-based learning aligns to ESSA Evidence Levels 1 and 2. One study involved a cohort of 48 second-grade teachers. Half of the teachers were given training, ongoing coaching, and resources in PBL and were asked to teach four project-based units related to social studies. The other group of teachers taught their regular social studies curriculum. The results showed that, when compared to the control group, the group engaged in PBL had a 63% gain in social studies knowledge, equivalent to about six months of greater learning, and a 23% gain in informational reading skill, equivalent to about two months of greater learning.

If you are interested in exploring PBL, there are plenty of high-quality resources online including PBLWorks’ guide to getting started, a compilation of PBL articles on Edutopia, Professor John Spencer’s PBL hub, and Magnify Learning’s PBL resource center.

Small steps can have a big impact

If you are still unsure about teaching multiple standards at once, try starting small. Look for places where your standards naturally dovetail and support one another. Or look for standards that have some relatively discrete concepts that can be introduced quickly and practiced before you dive into the full breadth and depth of the standard later in the year.


Reading differentiation made easy

MAP Reading Fluency now includes Coach, a virtual tutor designed to help students strengthen reading skills in as little as 30 minutes a week.

Learn more

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article