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Aurora Institute

Chewing on Learning Progressions: Some Food For Thought

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Kaili Phillips

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field

Kaili Phillips

One of the big pushes in our district (and many others throughout Maine) is customized learning: students working at their own pace to progress forward from the point at which they are currently achieving. 

One of the primary tools used to facilitate this type of learning is a “learning continuum” or “learning progression” (hereafter referred to as the continuum or continua). The continuum seems sequential, as it contains rows and explanations for forward progress in each of the given areas of focus, seeming to offer a step-by-step, methodical guide that a child can follow to a successful education. In fact, in many cases learning continuum do not have to be sequential at all. The design of continua suggests linearity so that students can follow the steps and essentially be “done” learning when they get to the end of the line. This obviously makes no sense whatsoever. The challenge to educators is to rethink how and when they use continua in their lessons.

Here are some possibilities and suggestions regarding how to effectively use the Learning Progression model in middle school. As I teach English-Language Arts, my examples are… well, English-Language Artsy… but I am confident that you may find a thought or two that translates well to your content area.

1. Lean heavily on the continua when dealing with previously studied skills.
When students have a grasp of what their goal is, they are more able to evaluate their work and push further ahead at a more rapid pace. For example, my seventh graders have been writing narratives for about as long as they have been able to write. They know different elements of what makes up a good, albeit sometimes basic, story. Therefore, they are more able to see the continua clearly and think about the different ways they could improve their work. In this case, familiarity breeds self-confidence; when they aren’t wrestling with the concepts, they are able to take the continua in and be able to grasp it more effectively.

2. On the other hand, when faced with a less familiar type of writing or task, it is very important to take things slow and steady.
When students are less familiar with the task, they will be incredibly overwhelmed with all of the jargon that goes along with the continua, and it may not be all that helpful to stress the use of the continua right away. For example, my students have been working on a unit on Literary Argument for a number of weeks. This unit hinges upon them reading something, coming up with a claim or a thought about their reading, finding a structure that works in which they will elaborate on their claim, and then (finally!) actually writing the piece. The continuum does not help the student come up with a strong claim or a structure, two skills that were brand-new to my students. There was no point in stressing (and stressing them out with) the continuum until they were well versed in thinking of something to write and thinking through how they might write it. Only then does it make sense to stress different parts of the continuum (lead, transitions, ending, organization, elaboration, or description). To use the continuum effectively, it must only be used when it is helpful to the target of the lesson and if the student is ready to receive the information it contains.

3. Know that as students input an increasing number of skills and strategies into their brains, other unrelated skills and strategies will temporarily falter.
For example, while writing an argument/opinion piece and focusing on the elaboration of ideas, the lead (which may have been the primary focus in the last piece) may falter because the lead and elaboration are not directly related. When students have a good grasp on the targeted elaboration strategies and has sufficient time to practice them, you then remind them of the lead strategies learned previously.

4. Review, refresh, and reteach as needed.
Students cannot effectively learn too much too quickly. Going back to the sweeping metaphor:  If we fill their thoughts and minds without giving them opportunity to make the learning more permanent, they will lose material in order to make room for the new. Teachers not only must introduce new skills and strategies slowly to be sure to have time for sufficient practice, but then also loop back or spiral back to practice or reteach these skills again and again. 

5. Use the language used in the continuum… all of the time.
Use the same language in your class lessons, in your conferences with students, on your anchor charts, and around your room. The more students become familiar with the terms and phrases, the more comfortable they will be trying to “unpack” the expectations in their efforts to goal set, problem-solve, or challenge themselves. 

6. Have students set goals — at the right time. In customized learning, teachers must not only keep the target in mind but meet students at the level at which they’re currently achieving. A pre-assessment is one good indicator of students’ general current level of performance, which a teacher can use to inform the direction of the whole class instruction as well as in which areas to focus or push certain students. Because I am careful to not overwhelm (see point 2), I do not have students score themselves in the pre-assessment based on the continuum. This self-scoring happens after a week or two of mini-lessons focusing on different strategies and skills; they are then more able to take in more of the continuum and set goals for themselves based on the areas in which they would like to improve. These individual goals would then help me inform my whole-class lessons and areas in which to push certain students as the pre-assessment did in the previous weeks. Creating these goals allows for each student to really engage with the continuum, have a purpose for their writing practice, and be able to actively reflect in a meaningful way on their work at the end of the unit. 

7. Celebrate successes.
Students should feel good about progressing even a little bit in one or two areas, and they should be able to see their progress. Using the continuum and being familiar with the language and expectation it uses helps the students see in which areas they are advancing their respective skills.  Goal setting and then reflecting on those goals is paramount. The pre-assessment also comes in very handy here, as kids can see very clearly the advances they have made throughout the unit. You may ask them to compare and contrast their pre-assessment to their post in the reflection process.

As always, the decision to use the continuum in a given moment, lesson, or section of the unit always comes down to your knowledge: you know your students, you know when they can handle the information, and you know when it would be useful to them and to you. The continuum absolutely does not replace the teacher but is a wonderful, albeit somewhat complicated tool, to enhance students’ learning and independence. 


Kaili Phillips is a 7th/8th grade Language Arts teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine where she works to meet the needs of 80 students in a standards-based system. A former high school teacher, Kaili made the move to middle school to be able to teach students rather than the curriculum. This is her first year at MAMS and seventh in education.