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Key Practices Intended to Help Students Acquire Skill Sets

Focus on R&D

Issue 12

February 2019

By: Hans Sandberg

ETS researchers have developed a framework of key practices that describes how sets of related skills are integrated and used in the performance of complex oral and written language tasks. Discussing and debating ideas, building and sharing knowledge, and conducting research and inquiry are examples of key practices. Focus on ETS R&D met with ETS experts Paul Deane, Christine Lyon and Caroline Wylie to talk about key practices in English Language Arts (ELA).

What is a key practice?

Photo of Paul Deane Paul Deane: Let's begin by looking at argumentation, which is a complex process that plays a big role in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We created a key practice called Discuss and Debate Ideas, which articulates what students need to master in order to engage in oral and written argumentation. This key practice describes the integration of a series of different activities or phases, such as understanding different points of view, exploring a subject, considering positions one can take, and organizing and presenting arguments. Each phase can then be specified in terms of the discrete skills that compose it. Additional key practices, such as one for Building and Sharing Knowledge, can be broken down into phases in a similar way.

Photo of Christine Lyon Christine Lyon: The reason we developed key practices is that they can add structure to closely related tasks and interactions. The key practices we developed for ELA describe the integration of specific skill sets for reading, writing and critical thinking. Having key practices allows us to focus on combinations of skills, rather than discrete or isolated skills, when we teach students and help them grow in this area.

Photo of Paul Deane Paul Deane: We know that students move through a series of critical phases within a key practice. We have associated each phase of the key practice Discuss and Debate Ideas (see Figure 1) with a set of questions a student might consider when developing an argument or a critique of another student’s argument. These questions can help a student engage in metacognitive thinking, which is another way of saying that they should be thinking about what they are doing and if their actions are meeting their intended goals.

DDI Phases3

Figure 1: Questions to develop the critiquing skills of students.

How are key practices related to learning progressions?

Photo of Caroline Wylie Caroline Wylie: You could say that every phase of a key practice is related to one or more learning progressions, which describe stages of understanding on the way toward mastery of a skill. Learning progressions are helpful, but we could end up with a teaching process that is too narrowly focused on individual skills if we only relied on them. (See the end of this issue for an explanation of learning progressions.)

Photo of Paul Deane Paul Deane: For example, a student needs to be able to write a thesis sentence in order to write an essay. But to build an argument, the student must integrate the thesis sentence with the larger purpose of the essay. We have a learning progression that focuses on how students learn to structure argument texts, including thesis sentences, but we also have learning progressions that show how students can learn to consider other people’s positions and thoughts, and analyze the structure of arguments. These skills all hang together, and having a key practice help us focus on the larger task, not just the fine-grained skills.

How do the key practices relate to the Common Core?

Photo of Paul Deane Paul Deane: The standards not only articulate important ideas about what students should achieve by the end of a given grade level, but they also specify discrete skills to be mastered. There are, for example, separate standards for argumentation in reading, writing, speaking and listening, but experienced teachers know that these skills are best taught in an integrated fashion. There is also a great deal of individual variation in how students learn these skills, even within the same grade level. Some 8th graders may be developing skills that appear in standards for the 6th grade, while others may be ready for skills that appear in standards for the 9th grade. The key practices concept shows how these skills can be brought together and grow across grade levels and levels of understanding. By using an integrated approach, it is easier for ELA teachers to make sure that all the standards related to a key practice are covered, and to differentiate their instruction to the needs of all the learners in their classrooms.

How can key practices help ELA teachers in their work?

Photo of Caroline Wylie Caroline Wylie: A key practice is like a map that shows how to take apart a complex task for purposes of teaching and assessment. The key practice decomposition can be used by the teacher for planning lessons according to the phases of the key practice, phases that can suggest a sequence for lessons and what to cover in those lessons.

Photo of Christine Lyon Christine Lyon: Teachers, particularly novice teachers, may not always have a mental model or schema for what it means for them to engage in integrated activities in the ELA domain, particularly when they are adjusting their teaching to new standards that emphasize aspects of practice, such as argumentation and research skills. The key practices concept provides that mental model. These structures are also likely to be of value for beginning teachers as they build instructional units.

Photo of Caroline Wylie Caroline Wylie: The key practices can also support formative assessment by giving the student and teacher a series of questions. The teacher can use those questions as part of the instructional discussion when engaging the class or responding to the students’ writing. For the students, these questions can function as step-by-step guides that tackle the complex task of composing an argumentative essay, as well as help them reflect on their work as it emerges.

Photo of Christine Lyon Christine Lyon: Classroom assessment tasks built on key practices offer students a chance to provide evidence of their understanding. These tasks offer scaffolding, by teasing apart the distinct phases of the work, and allow the students to engage in key practices that deepen their understanding of a subject. Such tasks can also disentangle multiple sub-goals and skills, which can help a teacher understand why a student fails to complete a complex task and whether the student masters all the phases within a key practice.

Can key practices be used in developing an assessment?

Photo of Paul Deane Paul Deane: Certainly! The phases in the key practice “work flow” (see in Figure 1) correspond to skills that students need to develop. This perspective helps us build assessment tasks that allow students to demonstrate their understanding of particular skills. When you ask students to construct an argument, you are actually asking them to engage with an interconnected array of skills, which we can measure if the assessment task is based on a key practice. Such an assessment task can model the steps that an expert might have taken to achieve a goal. It can also illustrate the kinds of social contexts within which students might attempt similar tasks.

Paul Deane, Caroline Wylie and Christine Lyon work in ETS's Research & Development division. Deane is Principal Research Scientist, Wylie is a Research Director and Lyon is a Lead Research Project Manager.

Terms Explained

Learning progressions

A way to describe how students learn. They are becoming more common in both educational research and practice. One definition for a learning progression that we have used comes from Deane, Sabatini and O’Reilly (2012):

A description of qualitative change in a student’s level of sophistication for a key concept, process, strategy, practice, or habit of mind. Change in student standing on such a progression may be due to a variety of factors, including maturation and instruction. Each progression is presumed to be modal — i.e., to hold for most, but not all, students. Finally, it is provisional, subject to empirical verification and theoretical challenge (as quoted in Randy Elliot Bennett: The Changing Nature of Educational Assessment, Review of Research in Education, v39(1), 380, March 2015).

Formative assessment
Assessing students' skills for the purpose of planning instruction for those students. Formative assessment is done before instruction begins and/or while it is taking place.

Learn more

Deane, P., Sabatini, J., Feng, G., Sparks, J., Song, Y., Fowles, M., & Foley, C. (2015). Key practices in the English Language Arts (ELA): Linking Learning Theory, Assessment, and Instruction (Research Report No. RR-15-17). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. https://doi.org/10.1002/ets2.12063

Deane, P., & Song, Y. (2015). The Key Practice, Discuss and Debate Ideas: Conceptual Framework, Literature Review, and Provisional Learning Progressions for Argumentation (Research Report No. RR-15-33). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. https://doi.org/10.1002/ets2.12079

O’Reilly, T., Deane, P., & Sabatini, J. (2015). Building and Sharing Knowledge Key Practice: What Do You Know, What Don't You Know, What Did You Learn? (Research Report No. RR-15-24). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. https://doi.org/10.1002/ets2.12074

Sandberg, H. (2016). Teaching and Assessing Mathematics Using Learning Progressions (Focus on ETS R&D, No. 3). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Song, Y., Dean, P., Graf. E. A., & van Rijn, P. (2013). Using Argumentation Learning Progressions to Support Teaching and Assessments of English Language Arts (R&D Connections, No. 22). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Wylie, C., & Lyon, C. (2012). Formative Assessment — Supporting Students’ Learning (R&D Connections, No. 19). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.