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Three Effective Teaching Strategies to Support Equitable Learning Outcomes

By November 30, 2022No Comments

By Karen Baptiste and Michele Kimball

Ensuring equitable learning experiences for all students is a high priority for educators everywhere and, based on our research, using strategies outlined in The New Classroom Instruction That Works can help teachers make that goal a reality. Many of the studies supporting the new CITW strategies were conducted in classrooms and schools that served diverse populations and helped close or reduce performance gaps. In this post we’ll highlight some of the specific strategies that can help elevate this goal.

Strategy No. 1: Provide your students with cognitive interest cues.

When done effectively, cognitive interest cues activate the first phase of learning (becoming interested) and can increase student achievement. When teachers use this strategy to engage students by highlighting how it’s relevant to their lives, educators can tap into students’ intrinsic motivation and curiosity to learn. It sounds simple enough, right? Just get your students interested in the lesson. However, doing it effectively involves much more intentionality.

Implementation requires that teachers know about their students’ lives and interests outside of the classroom; know what may or may not be cognitively challenging for their students; and have a willingness to take the time to pre-plan these engagement tools.

Studies have shown that to close achievement gaps, teachers should not shy away from presenting students with complex ideas. The appropriately identified challenge intrigues and engages students more than simplified learning approaches. One study conducted with approximately 4,000 middle schoolers in an urban community found that when teachers did not simplify learning and instead focused on engaging students with high-interest, cognitively engaging texts with known authors, along with frequent writing exercises, those students outperformed their peers in business-as-usual classes when measuring reading comprehension, vocabulary, and language expression.

Some of the best teaching tools for this engagement hook are beginning lessons or units with mysteries, controversies, cognitive conflict, riddles, and suspense. Anecdotally, most of us know that controversy begets curiosity, and research supports it. When deploying riddles to create suspense, use incomplete sentences, unfinished narratives, or unsolved puzzles. For example: We know that mixing baking soda and vinegar creates carbon dioxide. What will happen when we pour this mixture into a jar with a lit candle?

• Takeaway: When planning a lesson, take time to identify what new learning students will encounter that day and write down what prior learning students will use to help them activate that knowledge. Then ask yourself, how does this lesson relate to my students’ lives, and how will my students use what they are learning inside and outside of the classroom?

Strategy No. 2: Help your students set their own learning goals and monitor their progress.

Consider this the “what” and “why” of every lesson plan. By defining learning objectives in a language students will understand, you can increase students’ interest and commitment to learning, and give them a sense of purpose.

This step requires teachers to provide students with success criteria for each lesson—describing for students how they will demonstrate their learning to successfully meet the defined goals. Success criteria give students a picture of success that is more than a grade; it’s a personal goal that they can then monitor progress toward achieving. As students become accustomed to reflecting on what they’ve learned and what they still need to work on, they learn how to take control of their own education and begin to figure out that effort is connected to success—and with practice, they become skillful at identifying their own success criteria and generating ideas for how they can demonstrate their learning. Studies have shown that this ownership, with a clear path of where they’re going and how to get there, increases student engagement and motivation to learn.

In one study, a randomly selected group of mostly nonwhite 7th graders who were low achieving in math were taught in a series of eight 25-minute lessons that they could grow their intelligence and abilities through effort. Class readings, discussions, and activities impressed upon students that brains (like other muscles) grow stronger with frequent use, and they could control this as learners. By the end of the semester, these students exhibited greater growth mindset and reversed their previous declines in grades, achieving significantly higher grades than their peers.

• Takeaway: Identify the learning objectives for an upcoming unit and clearly explain the “why” behind it so students understand how it’s relevant to them. Draft the success criteria and share it at the beginning of the lesson. Each item on this list should start with “I can…” and have action verbs that describe how students will show their learning. For example, “I can rank the relevant facts in order of importance to identify the theme or topic,” or “I can highlight two or more transition words in the text and explain to a partner how the words demonstrate relationships between ideas and concepts.”

It’s important that the objectives and criteria are appropriately sized. One of the quickest ways to get off course is to try to cram too many lessons into one class. You may work on the same objectives for a series of lessons, but each lesson should have distinct success criteria that allows all students to see how they are progressing toward the standard and recognize where they need additional support.

Strategy No. 3: Include vocabulary instruction in every lesson.

When students grasp the vocabulary associated with a specific lesson, they can develop pegs in their mind on which to hang the specific concepts they’re about to learn. Vocabulary instruction, per The New CITW, builds declarative knowledge by helping students understand, recall, and apply subject specific words and academic terms. It has been linked to student success and reading comprehension.

To effectively use vocabulary instruction, teachers should dedicate time during lesson planning to identify what terms need to be explained and how to do so in student-friendly language. It’s important to consider how to teach the words in multiple ways and address words that can have multiple meanings. Words could be introduced in advance of conceptual learning, following an introduction to concepts, or in parallel. Regardless of the approach, after introducing the vocabulary, time must be devoted to practice using the words and terms in authentic conversation and writing related to learning content.

Vocabulary instruction’s importance across ages and topics is well documented, and it has been found to be especially beneficial for multilingual learners. In one study, middle school English language learners in a treatment group attended an afterschool program that focused on 60 key academic vocabulary words. Over the course of 75-minute lessons in 20 afterschool sessions, the students had multiple opportunities to process the words’ meanings, personalize them, and encounter them in a variety of ways, including direct instruction, word games, and other activities. At the end of the study, students in the treatment group showed significantly more growth in knowledge compared with students in the control group who attended an afterschool homework club.

Vocabulary instruction goes beyond traditional reading and writing comprehension. It should be applied to all academic topics, as highlighted in another study of 5th grade students in a low socioeconomic status school who were learning about photosynthesis. In the treatment group, the topic was introduced in students’ everyday language prior to introducing the academic terms. The learning gains between pre- and post-tests demonstrated significant effect when compared to the gains of students in the control group, who were taught the scientific concepts and academic vocabulary at the same time.

• Takeaway: Devote time to explain new vocabulary using age-appropriate terms at the beginning of every lesson. Students will use this as their anchor to understand the larger concepts of the lesson, so creating this context is imperative. Once the vocabulary is introduced, provide students with multiple opportunities to practice the new words in conversations and in writing tasks to ensure they fully understand the concepts. We want students to develop deeper conceptual understanding and comprehension as a result of vocabulary learning, so it’s wise to avoid using word lists with drill-and-kill activities that support memorization without deeper learning.

For many teachers, it’s likely that you already use some or all three of these strategies to some degree. But with a bit more focus and consistency during lesson planning and delivery, these strategies can each play a significant role in closing achievement gaps and helping all your students succeed.


Karen Baptiste Ed.D., a senior consultant at McREL International, has worked with K–12 schools across the U.S. to support improved teaching and learning with an emphasis on quality implementation of evidence-based instructional strategies for diverse learners, including helping teachers create learning environments that encourage student voice and ownership of learning. She is a co-author of The New Classroom Instruction That Works.


Michele Kimball, B.A., a consultant at McREL, leverages her experience as a bilingual early childhood educator in Texas and as a national school support consultant (pre-K–12) to develop and support educators in ways that have a lasting impact on their students. Ms. Kimball has helped educators and educational leaders identify and understand evidence-based best practices, skills, and processes that can be used to change their school culture, support school goals, and advance student learning. She is a co-author of The New Classroom Instruction That Works.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.