Foundations of Fishtank ELA

Explore our ELA research base, standards progression, and guiding principles

Fishtank ELA is aligned to the key shifts called for by the Common Core to ensure that students have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in college, career, and life. 

Rather than focusing on discrete skills, Fishtank ELA focuses on ensuring that students have regular practice with complex text and academic language. As students progress through the Fishtank ELA curriculum, they build on the strategies learned in previous grades to tackle increasingly complex texts and tasks. 

Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts is at the heart of all Fishtank ELA units. All questions and tasks within Fishtank ELA are rooted in the texts students read, requiring students in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade to answer questions based on careful attention to the text, learning how to craft arguments, and present information clearly. 

While engaging with complex text, students build knowledge of the world around them. This knowledge develops from grade to grade, as students rely on the knowledge they’ve built in previous grades to access increasingly complex texts and tasks in later grades.

ELA Standards Progression for K–8

See how the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading build year over year in the Fishtank ELA curriculum.

Our ELA Guiding Principles

Dive deeper into key reading, research, and related Teacher Tools for each of our ELA guiding principles.

Building knowledge to nurture critical thinking

Effective literacy instruction builds students’ reading/writing skills and knowledge, develops students' identity and agency, helps students understand the world around them, and creates independent critical readers.

Teacher putting her hands behind their ears to listen to a group of young students.

In the Fishtank ELA curriculum, students build knowledge, develop social-emotional skills, and internalize relevant vocabulary through thoughtfully selected texts that increase in complexity over time. Each Fishtank ELA unit supports students in building their knowledge of themselves, the world around them, and their power to create change. Texts allow students to engage in discussions and writing that build students’ agency, empathy, and ability to connect with diverse experiences. Social-emotional skills are integrated into every lesson as students analyze characters' motivations and reactions throughout historical and contemporary events. 

As students build their knowledge through both the core texts and supplemental materials, they are able to meaningfully engage with diverse, complex texts (Hirsch, 2006). In a 1987 study, researchers examined the impact of prior knowledge on middle school students’ ability to comprehend text. The researchers used a passage about a fictional baseball game and found that, with no prior knowledge of baseball, even strong readers struggled. However, those students with knowledge of baseball, even those considered “bad readers,” outperformed their peers (Wexler, 2020). With that in mind, Fishtank ELA aims to provide students with the appropriate background knowledge to comprehend and think critically about texts.

Within each unit, students address Essential Questions that push them to think critically about the world from multiple perspectives, to grapple with and explore relevant social justice issues, to learn about experiences that differ from their own, and to reflect on their own beliefs about the world around them. Both the knowledge and critical thinking skills that students develop in each unit create the foundation upon which learning in future Fishtank units takes place. 

Fishtank’s approach aligns with the Reading Rope view of literacy skill development as each unit builds students' knowledge and vocabulary through texts rather than focusing on isolated skill-based instruction (The Reading League). This ultimately allows all students to build knowledge, and become critical thinkers and independent readers.

Centering diverse, relevant, and rigorous texts

Every student, regardless of background and reading level, should read complex, engaging texts written in a variety of genres and by diverse voices, to highlight the diversity and richness of the human experience.

A student reading among bookshelves in a library.

Every Fishtank unit is centered around diverse, relevant and rigorous texts that provide students with windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to reflect students’ own lives and experiences back to them, and highlight the ways in which they are part of the larger human experience (Bishop, 1990). To ensure every student sees themselves reflected in the classroom, the authors and characters across units represent a diverse set of voices, experiences, and perspectives. 

The issues students explore through unit texts reflect both historic and modern realities. Students are able to recognize how these issues relate to their own lives and impact the world today. Not only are texts chosen to affirm and expand students’ worldviews, but texts are chosen because of the various characteristics of complexity they allow students to uncover. 

The complexity of each text drives the classroom instruction as students grapple with language, meaning, structure, and knowledge demands. In order to ensure students are engaging with these features of complexity in a meaningful way, teachers must unpack the unit texts and plan how to provide all students with access

In the Fishtank ELA curriculum, every student is reading these complex texts and there are numerous tools—Close Reading moments, Key Questions, Unit Launches, and Teacher Tools— available to guide teachers’ planning process as they consider how to ensure all students are able to engage with text. Students are not given leveled text in Fishtank ELA because every student deserves the opportunity to engage with complex text and build their understanding of what academic language looks and sounds like (Filmore, 2012).

Prioritizing student voices and ideas to build agency

Engaging in regular academic discourse is essential for students to synthesize texts and content, spark their curiosity, develop original ideas, and find their own voice.

Students sitting on a table and talking.

In the Fishtank ELA curriculum, students are engaged in daily academic discourse that facilitates deeper understanding of content and the development of communication and collaboration skills. The instructional design of each Fishtank unit ensures that every student has an opportunity to think, write, and engage in discussion about thought-provoking questions. These conversations teach students to be more than just consumers of information and take an active role in their development of critical thinking skills (Academic Conversations, pg. 15). Additionally, these conversations provide students the opportunity to utilize the knowledge and vocabulary they have built in context, ultimately leading to deeper comprehension of material as represented by the language strand of the Reading Rope (The Reading League). 

At the lesson level, students are constantly discussing the texts as they work to address Key Questions and Discussion & Writing Prompts. Teachers pose a question or prompt, students have the opportunity to think independently about their response, and then engage in a conversation with peers or the whole class. Students develop their ideas and learn to clearly communicate them with teacher support. As students become more comfortable, there are lessons dedicated to academic discourse. During these Socratic Seminar or debate lessons, students are prompted to take a specific position on a topic and utilize their knowledge, vocabulary, and text evidence to engage in a conversation.

Not only do students develop the ability to communicate and defend their ideas, but they also learn to constructively engage with those who have differing opinions. These varied structures for both formal and informal discourse allows students to recognize and be prepared to engage with the diversity of conversation conventions across cultural and academic settings (Academic Conversations, pg.21). Furthermore, by welcoming students’ opinions and thoughts throughout each lesson, teachers empower their students to ask questions, deepen discussions, and develop their understanding more fully.  Students learn the importance of using their voices within the classroom, building the transferable skills needed to become life-long learners and advocates for themselves and the issues that they care about outside of the classroom.

Learning to write, writing to learn

Writing and language skills are best taught in context, allowing students to authentically analyze an author’s craft and structure, develop their own voice as writers, and build deeper meaning with the texts and ideas.

A student erasing something in their notebook.

In the Fishtank ELA curriculum, students write in every lesson to simultaneously support student understanding of new content and build writing fluency. Similar to the approach Fishtank takes to reading instruction, writing instruction is not solely based on discrete skills. Instead, students develop their writing skills through opportunities to write daily—answering Key Questions, Close Reading Questions, and Target Task Questions—targeted mini-lessons, and strategic feedback (Powerful Tool, 2016).

At the elementary level, students are focused on the foundations of writing and building their ability to create clear, coherent sentences, working towards longer pieces of writing over time. Students engage in information/research-based writing, opinion writing, and narrative writing connected to the core texts of each unit. The knowledge students build and relevant vocabulary they internalize become the basis for these writing assignments and ensure students are able to synthesize information and clearly communicate their thoughts within the conventions of the English language. 

At the middle and high school level, students work towards longer writing assignments and more varied forms of writing including short stories and poetry. As in the elementary grades, students are using writing to process what they learn and organize new information in the context of each unit. Additionally, the daily writing activities across grade bands ensure students have the stamina and writing fluency skills to write for extended periods of time. 

Effective, targeted feedback is critical to students’ growth as their writing progresses on a continuum. To ensure students are receiving the differentiated writing instruction and guidance they need to be successful, teachers have access to a host of Writing Teacher Tools that provide rubrics and feedback guidance for all grades and types of writing. These tools help teachers assess student progress and plan to address areas for growth over the course of the year.

Dive deeper into the research behind Fishtank ELA's approach to writing instruction. 

Preparing teachers to support students

Intellectual preparation allows teachers to do their best teaching: when teachers deeply understand the text and unit themes they can help all students master grade-level content and standards. 

A teacher speaking to students who are working on computers.

At Fishtank, we trust teachers and know that they are in the best position to see and respond to their individual students’ needs. Fishtank ELA provides tools and structures to guide thorough and thoughtful intellectual preparation to ensure teachers feel prepared to deliver highly rigorous, engaging, standards-aligned lessons, and feel prepared to make in-the-moment decisions and connect students with content in a meaningful way.

Intellectual preparation is the process during which teachers read and deeply understand core texts, identify how their identity and the identities of their students will show up in the content, plan for activating prior knowledge, and determine how and when to provide additional supports for students who need them. The information teachers are able to gain about their individual students’ cultures, families, communities, interests, and academic needs is incredibly valuable to classroom instruction and Fishtank ELA trusts that teachers will utilize it throughout the intellectual preparation process. Through this process, teachers have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that Fishtank lessons are culturally responsive to their individual students.

Through Fishtank ELA Professional Learning, Unit Launches, and Enhanced Lesson Plans, we strive to support teachers in making the most effective instructional decisions for their students. With these resources, teachers are free to focus on leveraging and deepening their own expertise to best serve the students in front of them.

Further Reading

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