Using Essential Questions to Guide Your Planning Priorities

August 12, 2020
Anne Lyneis

When planning for an upcoming unit, it can be hard to know where to start. Should you look at the text first, the standards, the assessment, the essential questions, the lessons? How do you figure out what to prioritize and when? 

We recommend starting with the essential questions, as they are the heart of every Fishtank unit. All Fishtank ELA units are built around a series of engaging and thought-provoking essential questions. Often the essential questions push students to think about history 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. 

If students can answer the essential questions by the end of the unit, then they have internalized the key knowledge and content of the unit. The texts, standards and tasks all act in service of the essential questions. Each unit is intentionally sequenced to gradually deepen student understanding of the essential questions, ensuring that they have the opportunities for the critical thinking and synthesis required to fully engage with each essential question.

Let’s look at a few essential questions from our Fishtank ELA units: 

1st Grade - Being A Good Friend? What does it mean to be a good friend?
3rd Grade - Embracing Difference: The Hundred Dresses and Garvey's Choice

What does it mean to be accepting of ourselves and others?

5th Grade - Seedfolks In what ways can prejudice impact the way people treat one another?
6th Grade - Developing Resilience: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 How do personal and historically significant events shape the way a person sees the world?
8th Grade - Facing Prejudice: All American Boys What responsibility do people have when they witness—or are the victim of—injustice?

As you’ll notice, these essential questions each have the potential to be relevant and engaging for students. And engagement is a key driver of a student's desire to grapple with complex texts, to persevere with tricky writing prompts, and to read additional texts independently. 

Our essential questions are also designed to help develop students' social and emotional skills alongside academic skills, not separately. A focus on building knowledge with embedded social and emotional skills are key recommendations from Student Achievement Partners’ Priority Instructional Content guide.

Once you’ve determined and internalized a unit’s essential questions, you can use them to guide your planning decisions. Ideally, the whole unit would be taught as is, but we know that isn’t always going to be the case. We have a few recommendations about how to use the essential questions as a guide.

First, we always recommend prioritizing lessons that build the knowledge and understandings that are key to understanding the essential questions. This means: 

  • Focusing on readings and assignments that directly connect to an essential question or understanding in class. Assignments that do not include essential content can be done as independent assignments. 
  • Thinking strategically about which questions and tasks to ask students to complete. Some questions are more aligned with key understandings and essential questions than others. Of course, if students need the more literal, text-based questions, don’t skip those, but we also caution about swinging too far and only focusing on literal questions. When applicable, there should be at least one question each lesson that drives towards a unit essential question.
  • Ensuring students participate in class discussions of the unit essential questions. It might be tempting to turn discussion days into written assignments, or to skip them entirely, but part of fully internalizing an essential question is being able to articulate the key understandings and to refine thinking based on peers, which can only happen during a discussion. 
  • Ensuring assessment adequately reflects students' understanding of the essential questions. Students could be asked to show their understanding in different formats (i.e creating videos, powerpoints, etc.) instead of taking a traditional unit assessment. 

Next, we recommend using the essential questions as a guide for how to enrich and supplement units, particularly when students are learning remotely. This means: 

  • Adding additional research projects that require students to grapple with and build understanding of the unit essential questions. 
  • Adding additional articles that are easily accessible online and at home for students to read. 
  • Adding additional writing assignments that push students understanding of key content. 


Focusing on essential questions will allow you to have a clear vision for your planing, and will allow students to have a clear vision of what they will be learning, either at home or at school. 


Anne Lyneis is the Managing Director of ELA Curriculum and the author of the Literature and Science and Social Studies curriculum for grades K-5. She began her career in education through Teach for America South Louisiana where she fell in love with teaching. She taught elementary school for 8 years in both public and charter schools in Louisiana, Texas, and Massachusetts before joining the Fishtank team. She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Master’s degree in school leadership from Louisiana State University.

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