I used to make the best presentations. Attractive design? Check. Multimedia? Check. Gratuitous use of memes/pop-culture to appeal to the youths? Double check. Whenever I introduced my students to new concepts, I’d fire up Prezi (remember Prezi?) and create the most elaborate, pop-culture infused presentation imaginable. In case you’re wondering just how extra I was, or if you had any doubt that I’m a cringey millennial, I give you Exhibits A-Z.

Over time, however, I’ve realized that no matter how engaging or interactive my presentations were, at the end of the day students were still just sitting at their desks and taking notes. Whilst direct instruction, storytelling, and lectures have their place, I came to realize my pedagogy wasn’t aligned with my purpose. My goal was to develop and deepen students’ understanding of key disciplinary concepts. What my students got was a superficial overview wrapped in GIFs, sparkles, and dated pop-culture references. I needed new strategies.

While there are a variety of ways we can help students acquire conceptual understanding, the three that I’ve found most useful in English Language Arts class are concept attainment, sorting, and modeling. Each one has its own affordances and applications, so I’ll provide an overview of how they’ve looked in my class and provide some examples. 

Concept Attainment

You may have heard of this one before, but it’s a classic for a reason. We lay out these five steps for concept attainment in our book, Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World.

  1. Identify the Critical Attributes of the concept(s) you want students to acquire
  2. Find examples of the concept(s): this can be images, tangible artifacts, etc. Make sure these examples clearly illustrate the critical attributes of your concept(s)
  3. Find non-examples. At first, it should be obvious they don’t align to the attributes of the concept. 
  4. Provide students with the images either on the board or as cards and have them analyze the images to determine the critical attributes of the concept so they can distinguish examples from non examples.
  5. Find images that might complicate or deepen students’ thinking

I frequently use concept attainment in my class, whether we’re talking about design concepts (the patterns and processes used to make meaning) or human experience concepts (themes, theories, and concepts from the humanities). For instance, when introducing my students to the concept of power, I slowly reveal each of these image tiles and ask my students to consider all the different, nuanced ways power manifests itself. 

By providing them with these examples, they are able to develop a more robust and complex understanding of the concept than they would with a simple definition and clip. By asking them to generalize their understanding, they’re better equipped to recognize and interpret future texts where power is relevant. 

Concept Sort 

Another way to encourage students to acquire understanding of concepts is to have them sort examples into different categories. This encourages them to seek patterns across several examples, notice key differences, and develop a deeper awareness of each concept’s critical attributes. For example, consider this sorting activity I designed when introducing ethos, pathos, and logos to my 10th graders. Students were given a selection of images, posters, and advertisements and had to sort them based on whether they thought they were an appeal to logic, emotion, or credibility.

Instead of simply writing down definitions and seeing a single example from a slide deck, students were given the opportunity to make meaning of each concept themselves. As a result, they developed deeper insights than they’d have otherwise–the prevalence of fear and guilt in commercials, the way statistics can be manipulated based on context, and how influencers create a sense of familiarity with their audiences to better market and sell products.


If we want our students to read, write, and think like disciplinary practitioners (and we should!) we have to model how that looks ourselves. After all, being able to name the critical attributes of an effective claim isn’t quite the same as being able to write one. With that in mind, we should constantly be modeling how we think about and apply our understanding of concepts for our students. For example, when I introduced my students to claims, I wrote each example below live in class and did a think aloud about my craft moves and decisions. 

Based on the patterns students recognize across each example, we come up with a list of shared critical attributes of a good claim. Then, I reveal a “non-example” set so students can further discern what effective claims look like in comparison with ineffective ones. Engaging in this form of cognitive apprenticeship provides students opportunities to study the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that characterize the discipline we’re teaching. Of course, it can and should also be used in more complex contexts, but it’s a great way to reinforce design concepts from previous learning by demonstrating how our thinking evolves based on more experience.

While I still whip out a fancy Prezi now and again, my expanded repertoire of instructional moves gives my students more opportunities to take ownership of their learning and meaning making. Now, instead of merely memorizing important concepts and definitions, they’re able to acquire understanding for themselves. For more strategies, tips, tricks, and thinking routines you can use in your classroom, check out our companion website for a ton of resources.

If you’re looking for a deeper dive on how to help students develop conceptual understanding, navigate a variety of complex texts, and transfer their learning to their own lives and experiences, consider signing up for our English Language Arts Learning that Transfers course. You’ll be joining teachers, administrators, and educators from around the world in a journey to explore and apply Learning that Transfers in your setting. Cohort 2 kicks off September 19th!