George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

5 Key Building Blocks of Effective Core Instruction

A simple framework can help administrators outline the essential elements of quality core Tier 1 instruction.

October 6, 2022
Middle school teacher talking to class from front of the classroom
Maskot / Alamy Stock Photo

Through my position as an instructional coach, I often work with school and district leaders who want help to shore up their staff’s ability to deliver effective core instruction, also known as Tier 1 instruction. Core instruction is the critical whole-group lessons teachers produce in primary subject areas that serve as a good backdrop for the differentiation strategies required to support struggling learners and kids with diverse needs.

For example, a school looking to begin or enhance implementing tiered instruction as part of a multitiered system of support (MTSS) framework may need guidance in identifying and carrying out the components of Tier 1 instruction. Tiers are designed to challenge students at their appropriate ability levels. Similarly, schools looking to use a response-to-intervention (RTI) or project-based learning teaching model may need similar guidance on a good starting point for planning and facilitating lessons in tandem with helping teachers determine their students’ learning needs.

But it’s not enough for teachers to only have a sound system for planning and facilitating relevant lessons. They also need to intentionally monitor student engagement and learning. This allows for tweaking and refining practice over time from an informed approach.

To support the schools I partner with in instructional innovation, we created a versatile framework to serve as a good starting point for outlining the essential elements of good core instruction.

5 Must-Haves for Good Core Instruction

1. Relevant evidence-based curriculum. Curriculum refers to an evidence-based, standards and competency-aligned sequence of planned experiences that help learners capture content concepts and applied skills that follow local standards, graduate profiles, career skills, social and emotional learning, and learners’ interests.

Although there’s nothing wrong with carrying out core instruction using purchased curriculum and scripted resources, I don’t recommend following said resources verbatim. There must be personalization of what you are teaching your unique learners. Otherwise, we risk losing student engagement due to lack of relevance.

To assist you and your planning teams in designing core instruction in meaningful and compelling ways for kids, try the empathy mapping process in tandem with a straightforward backward design planning tool. The former can be powerful for determining relevance for students. The latter is a simple way to map and align learning goals with assessments, lessons, and sound instructional practices.

2. The promotion of literacy and numeracy skills across subject areas. Literacy and numeracy skills are undoubtedly foundational for reading, writing, reasoning, and problem-solving across multiple disciplines. Even if you’re not an English language arts or math teacher or utilizing a formal program for tiering and differentiation (e.g., MTSS, RTI), improving your core instruction should integrate literacy and math in ways that complement your core lessons meaningfully.

For example, science, social science, and elective teachers can highlight the reading and writing skills pertinent to the content they teach. As a science, technology, engineering, and math teacher, I’ve found that having my students outline the design process steps while paying attention to grammar, sentence structure, and citations significantly improves their literacy skills over time. Having kids create and rehearse using presentation scripts is also a powerful literacy builder that reinforces their speaking and listening skills.

Non-math teachers can help learners improve their basic knowledge of numbers by embedding numeracy skills into daily lessons. Skills may include building understanding in the following areas:

3. High-yielding strategies to facilitate lessons. When used appropriately, high-yielding strategies have been shown to produce positive results in students’ academic achievement. Having a set of go-to strategies for boosting critical thinking, cooperative learning, and providing feedback (among other items) can strengthen core instruction and Tier 2 and 3 interventions.

Researcher Robert Marzano’s work simplifies selection because he outlines nine strategies to improve student achievement in any grade level or content area. Visible Learning research by John Hattie is also a good source for helping educators understand and adapt research to strategy selection in their particular context.

When trying strategies, use them to gain insight into how they help learners succeed. Learn the appropriate times to use them because every strategy isn’t used daily or in every lesson.

4. Student engagement and academic achievement monitoring. Academic research supports a strong correlation between student engagement and student achievement, which teachers across grade levels and disciplines need to consider as a part of their core instruction.

Monitoring student engagement isn’t difficult, but it must be intentional. Poll Everywhere recommends doing so in the following ways:

  • Asking questions and leading discussions.
  • Observing participation in collaborative work by seeing how students respond in smaller settings.
  • Polling students using engagement surveys. Here are some good questions by SurveyMonkey for getting started. 

Academic achievement should be monitored daily using formative assessments. Good ones for strengthening core instruction may include thumbs-up responses, exit tickets, and quizzes. Biweekly, end-of-unit, and benchmark assessments are metrics your district may have in place for you to use.

5. An understanding of your own impact. Hattie explains the importance of listening to our students to inform us of our impact on their engagement and learning; we can also seek feedback from trusted colleagues. When teachers consider themselves learners, it’s easier to have conversations with students and colleagues about the areas of our core instruction that we can improve.

Excellent practice that requires vulnerability is focusing on what’s not working with our core teaching and particular students. Seeking the right strategies for improving our impact becomes intentional (see #4) instead of jumping on the latest teaching trend(s) (see #3).

Surveying, polling, and student conferences can help improve teaching impact. You might ask questions such as the following:

  • Which classroom activities help you learn most?
  • What changes do you recommend I make to help you learn better?
  • What motivates you to learn most?
  • What can I do better?

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