Transferring skills from unit to unit: Solving Predictable Problems Blog Series

When one of my daughters was switching from playing soccer to playing field hockey, weNovember 2017 Twitter Chat had several conversations about the similar skills each sport required. It didn’t take us long to figure out that her understanding of passing, moving to space, and cutting off pathways would be helpful as she transitioned, not to mention her physical fitness, speed and foot speed. When she realized how much she already knew about hitting a ball with a stick from her experience with playing golf, she made the decision and switched sports. Change is less overwhelming when you have skills you can transfer.

I have realized that students benefit from explicit instruction when we are transitioning to new units. My assumption as I write this post is that you teach genres of writing in multi-week blocks of time. For example, you may start the year with a personal narrative unit, move into a realistic fiction unit, and from there into an information or opinion unit. The order does not matter as much as the concept of teaching in genre-based units. Students don’t always make the transfer as intuitively as we might think. So how to help them?

  1. First off make sure to tell them. Make sure that students are all there when you tell them. Many times, the students who need to hear about the transition the most are at an intervention during that lesson and miss the memo that one unit is ending and another is beginning. They are the students who seem confused a lot of the time–they are the students who are confused a lot of the time–and they are also frequently the ones who miss instruction a lot of the time because of the extra help or special services they are receiving.

Speaking of special services, make sure that the adults who work in your room also know the genre is changing. Cycling in and out of classes is hard and can be confusing–I used to do it. Special services providers juggle a lot whether they are teachers, paraprofessionals, or tutors, and sometimes they might not register what you think is obvious.

2. When you are switching genres, this is a good time to clear out charts and learning tools that students don’t need any more. If you are moving on to an information unit, they don’t need a narrative process chart. However, if you explain why you leave some charts and not others, students have an easier time holding on to what will help them. For example, a conventions chart should stay, and a chart about workshop structures might stay. Clear spaces give room for for new learning and new charts that explicitly show the lines of transfer, charts like the ones I’m sharing later in this post.

3. When students know the genre is changing, you can teach them how specific steps of one type of writing are similar to the steps they’ve already learned in another genre of writing. One of the charts I’m including shows how you can bridge the transfer of how we plan for various genres. Another one is a template for an inquiry lesson you can do with students, co-creating it with them. Learning something new is always easier when we are accessing what we already know!


4. Create charts that state the parallels between various genres of writing. I especially like categorizing those parallels into the concepts of structure, development, and conventions. Students love to see that conventions don’t change; they have to just keep applying what they’ve already learned. And it’s important for students to realize that regardless of the genre, all written pieces need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

One chart I’m sharing is one I’ve used as an inquiry lesson with a middle elementary class as they transition from information to opinion. I purposely included narrative on the chart so that they would remember its existence.

Another series of charts I keep in my notebook that I use for PD and also in classes is the following:


These charts are important for teachers as well as students to see and think about! These charts emphasize the transfer of knowledge that can happen. I love the phrase, “If we already know ______, then we can learn _________.”

5. Even though this post is more about how to help students transfer what they know over the course of one year, I don’t want to leave out the idea of getting them to remember and transfer what they’ve learned in previous years. As you switch genres, it’s a great time to ask students about their experiences with that genre. Talk to their teachers from prior years. “Last year as third-graders, I know you wrote about ways to change the world in your opinion writing unit. What do you remember about this type of writing” is a powerful statement to say to fourth-graders, even before you pre-assess them. Sometimes we all need a reminder in order to say, oh yes, I remember that.

Instructional minutes are precious in classrooms. We all have so much to teach. Any pathway we can find to tap into prior learning is an important path to take.


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