What Kind of Knowledge Can an ELA Curriculum Build?

October 13, 2022

As educators, we know that reading fluency and comprehension are critical skills for students to develop. Not only do reading skills allow students to successfully engage in all school subjects, but these skills offer students the opportunity to continually learn about the world around them. 

At Fishtank, we recognize that students can build these reading skills while simultaneously developing deep knowledge of the world, themselves, and how they interact with the world. Students are guided through this knowledge building process as they follow lines of inquiry established by each unit’s Essential Questions. These Essential Questions ground students in rigorous texts that allow them to understand—and see how they can impact—the world they live in.


Building Knowledge of the World

To prepare students to tackle challenging texts, we must first help them build background knowledge of a diverse range of topics. In an article for Edweek, lead author of the Common Core State Standards for ELA Susan Pimentel points out that, “Some of the most profoundly important, yet under-recognized, reading research shows that students’ reading comprehension depends heavily on their background knowledge about the world—knowledge that comes largely from learning about science and social studies topics.” Within Fishtank ELA, we help students build their knowledge of the world around them throughout every unit at every grade level. At the elementary level specifically, students engage with both literature units and science and social studies units to directly teach students about the world around them. 

At P.J. Kennedy Elementary School, principal Kristen Goncalves Redden has seen students across grade levels developing the ability to engage with rigorous texts and question where information was coming from. She was especially impressed by how students engaged with the 2nd grade Stories of Immigration Unit and the 3rd grade Rediscovering Thanksgiving Unit: “The topics of discussion, what kids are thinking about and what they are grappling with are very real world and really get to what kids need to be talking about and learning about. I think that is crucial for our kids because they are not only learning the standards but learning about the world around them.”

Within her Edweek article, Susan Pimentel continues on to say that schools should structure ELA instruction “to incorporate rich content, organized around conceptually-related topics, into the reading curriculum so that students learn new information about the world while they develop as readers.” Fishtank ELA is designed to do just that by centering units around core texts and strategically pairing nonfiction resources to build foundational knowledge. 

Janice Bligen, 6th grade humanities teacher at Community Partnerships Charter School, told our team how much the paired resources have helped her students when there were things they “encountered in the books that they really don't know of. And me just telling them in that moment might not be enough.” Specifically, she shared how the paired text and audio interviews about The Green Book with the core fiction text Watsons Go to Birmingham helped her students: “It was imperative for them to know. They needed to know what The Green Book was and why the mom in the book had to make a journal of stops that they had to go to and why they just couldn't stop in any old place on their journey in the south. Those are things that kids need to know, and it builds in history too, because these are things that actually happened.”

Selected additional Fishtank ELA units that focus on developing students’ knowledge of the world

  • 1st Grade: Movement for Equality
    • Focus Topics: Women’s rights, civil rights, labor and workers’ rights, LGBTQ+, disability rights, and Indigenous Water Protectors movements
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: Why are movements for equal rights important? 
  • 4th Grade: Powering Our Future: Energy
    • Focus Topics: Types of energy, pros and cons of different types of renewable and nonrenewable energy, implications for the world’s energy future 
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: What are the pros and cons of using nonrenewable energy? 
  • 5th Grade: Sí Se Puede: The Migrant Workers’ Movement
    • Focus Topics: Latino civil rights movement, nonviolent protests, and the history of migrant farm workers
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: How did the farm workers use different types of nonviolent protest to educate the public and push for change?
  • 9th Grade: Humor, Love, and Systemic Oppression in Born a Crime
    • Focus Topics: Apartheid and the post-apartheid era in South Africa, bans against interracial marriage in the United States, and the impacts of societal and structual foces on individual identites
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: How do governmental systems determine who, what, and how we can love?


Building Knowledge of Yourself and Others

While we recognize the importance of students learning about the world around them, we also understand that it is critical for students to build their knowledge of themselves and honor their unique identities, and the identities of others. 

Often, students are only asked to grapple with these topics during designated SEL blocks within their schedule. Conversely, at Fishtank, we believe that SEL is deeply intertwined with the learning process and that it deserves to be embedded within ELA instruction. In an article for the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), educators Christina Riley and Scott Hartl shared that a high-quality curriculum should “present opportunities to not only build students' knowledge of a diverse world, but also to build their social-emotional skills, so that they feel the responsibility over their learning to understand how to take action on a topic. This is healing for students, and especially important for those who have experienced trauma.”

Our view is further reflected by the Social Justice Standards set forth by Learning for Justice, which outline Identity and Diversity as two main goals of instruction. Emphasizing the importance of addressing Social Justice Standards in the classroom, co-authors of Leading Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards share that “early childhood education themes of self-discovery, family, and community are deeper, and more meaningful, when they include explorations of ability, culture, economic class, gender identity, and racialized identity.” 

Fishtank ELA thoughtfully selects texts for each grade level and unit to ensure that students see a widely diverse range of experiences and voices reflected in the curriculum. We strive to not only allow students to see themselves reflected in the texts, but also provide students with opportunities to explore the experiences and voices of people they may never have encountered. Manager of Teaching and Learning at Community Partnership Charter School Esosa Ogbahon, shared that this key aspect of Fishtank ELA is what he sees as its greatest strength: “I think the key strength of the Fishtank curriculum is its ability to deepen our students’ knowledge of themselves. And we see that through the culturally relevant curriculum and the texts that are chosen. So our students see themselves in the books that are chosen, but then Fishtank goes beyond that and really gives our students entree into the broader world.”

During a student interview at PJK Elementary School, 5th grade student Kimberly shared that “one of the books that helped me learn a lot was definitely Seedfolks because there were a lot of people from all over the world.” She also shared how much she enjoyed The Breadwinner and learning how women were treated differently in other countries which was “really interesting, especially as a woman.”

At CS 300 elementary school, instructional leader Olga Fotinis has seen students opening up more to teachers and sharing about themselves through academic discourse and writing. She shared that, “children are truly making their identity more visible to people because they’re feeling more comfortable with what they’re doing and because they’re seeing themselves in these books.”

Selected additional Fishtank ELA units that focus on developing students’ knowledge themselves and those around them

  • 1st Grade: Love Makes a Family
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, K–2 Identity 5: I see that the way my family and I do things is both the same as and different from how other people do things, and I am interested in both. 
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: How does having different kinds of families make the world and our classroom community a richer place?
  • 3rd Grade: Defining Identity: Dyamonde Daniel and My Name is María Isabel
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, 3–5  Action 17: I know it’s important for me to stand up for myself and for others, and I know how to get help if I need ideas on how to do this. 
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: What makes me who I am?
  • 7th Grade: Exploring Identity: American Born Chinese
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, 6–8 Justice 14: I know that all people (including myself ) have certain advantages and disadvantages in society based on who they are and where they were born.
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: What might motivate a person to reject aspects of their identity, and what are the risks of doing so?
  • 10th Grade: Feminism and Self-Respect in Sula
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, 9–12 Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: To what extent are people innately good or evil?


Building Knowledge of Your Power

As students build their knowledge of the world and their own identities, they must also have the opportunity to develop their understanding of the impact they can have and the ways in which they can change the world. The second two domains of the Social Justice Standards are Justice and Action which both encourage students to recognize and address injustices, stereotypes, and biases in modern and historical contexts. In their ASCD article, Riley and Hartl also point out that a high-quality curriculum “includes lessons that empower students and develop their critical thinking and communication skills, which in turn creates a classroom culture that nurtures students’ leadership and agency and encourages critical analysis of the world.”

At Fishtank, we provide students with opportunities to examine injustice through core texts and build the skills necessary to address such injustices effectively in their own lives. At New Heights Middle School, ELA teacher Danta Carter, was a bit nervous about texts like Night and Animal Farm because of the heaviness of the topics. However, her students “honestly, really, really liked the texts” and were able to have meaningful conversations about the injustices described in those texts and how students felt about what they were learning. 

Elizabeth Navarro, 7th grade ELA teacher at Beginning With Children Charter School shared that Fishtank ELA “sets students up to be responsible citizens starting at a much younger age than we used to.” Her students examined social and political movements that have helped shape American history and identity and were able to critically analyze how individuals have impacted that history through units like Fighting Injustice: UprisingFlesh and Blood So Cheap

Fellow 7th grade ELA teacher Shaz’men Whitehurst shared how Fishtank texts allowed students to “have conversations and not only talk about what's happening in the news, but then look at a story and compare and contrast why these things are happening or how we got this far, or why haven't we gotten so far.” Specifically, Shaz’men shared how the Claiming Our Place: LGBTQ+ Experiences in the United States unit allowed students to discuss the “consequences and feelings that occur when you misgender a person” and how they could support someone that was dealing with those consequences and feelings. 

Selected additional Fishtank ELA units that focus on developing students’ knowledge of their power

  • 2nd Grade: People Who Changed the World
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, K–2 Justice 15: I know about people who helped stop unfairness and worked to make life better for many people.
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: What does it take to change the world?
  • 5th Grade: Young Heroes: Children of the Civil Rights Movement
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, 3–5 Justice 15: I know about the actions of people and groups who have worked throughout history to bring more justice and fairness to the world.
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: How did the persistence of racism and racist attitudes fuel the opposition to the civil rights movement? 
  • 6th Grade: Fleeing Conflict: Refugee and The Unwanted
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, 6–8 Action 17: I know how to stand up for myself and for others when faced with exclusion, prejudice and injustice.
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: How do people respond when they see others in need?
  • 9th Grade: Power, Alienation, and The American Dream in Of Mice and Men and The Central Park Five
    • Aligned Social Justice Standard, 9–12 Justice 13: I can explain the short and long-term impact of biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws and institutions that limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups.
    • Sample Unit Essential Question: What is the relationship between power dynamics, otherness, and the American Dream?


Want to learn more about how Fishtank ELA builds knowledge? Explore The Knowledge Matters Campaign which recognized Fishtank ELA as a knowledge building curriculum that restores “wonder and curiosity” in ELA instruction.

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