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  • Maayan Yavne

The Four Horsemen of Teaching ELA

Updated: 3 days ago

From teaching students the alphabet to guiding them as they read and write fluently, teaching English Language Arts (ELA) lies in the very foundation of learning. Reading and writing skills are essential in allowing students to flourish, not just in ELA but in all subject areas.

Ensuring that each student is consistently improving and progressing in ELA is vital.

However, despite the emphasis we place on reading and writing from early on, even the most experienced of teachers encounter significant challenges teaching ELA in the classroom. These challenges, like the dreaded four horsemen of the Apocolypse, can lead to the downfall of even the most planned and prepped ELA lesson. We’ve all met them in the classroom, and today we’re going to dig deeper into the Four Horsemen of Teaching ELA to better understand how we can tackle them together.



The First Horseman: Reading Level Extremes

This horseman is no stranger to our classrooms. In almost all ELA classrooms you will find students who reach far beyond their grade level of reading while also having students who can be up to three years behind. As teachers, we know that different reading levels are to be expected, and we hope that as students move through their elementary years the gaps in reading levels will eventually decrease. However, the horseman of extreme reading levels is an everyday reality in our classroom. How are we, as teachers, supposed to move all students forward in their ELA skills while accommodating for the wide variability of reading levels in the classroom — all this while maintaining consistent classroom management?

The Second Horseman: Time to Cover Standards

Unlike math or science, ELA has a cyclical curriculum. You don’t complete a standard and move on, rather standards are repeated throughout the year. For example, informative writing is not just practiced once and tested, it is consistently learned and practiced throughout the year. Apart from maintaining a consistent reading and writing curriculum, we are also expected to cover grammar, language and speaking and listening standards, both in class and through intervention. Keeping up with students reading and writing, while also focusing on all other standards creates a delicate juggling act for each teacher. So for each of us, making sure students have reached all standards and are constantly improving in this non-linear process seems almost impossible. When you throw in the immense lack of time each teacher feels throughout the year, the Second Horseman rears its ugly head.




The Third Horseman: Different Background Knowledge

ELA skills are not taught in a vacuum - they are always taught in a context that comes with background knowledge, vocabulary and even a personal connection for the student. Taking into consideration a students’ prior knowledge of a topic is important is key. Each student has their own unique background with varied experiences that can provide them with a context in some topic areas but leave them with a knowledge gap in others. Therefore, we find that students can often fall behind, not due to their lack of ELA skills but due to knowledge gaps in background information and context. The Third Horseman of teaching ELA only serves to solidify the gaps and disparity for our students, making it extremely difficult for teachers to connect with each student on his or her own level.

The Fourth Horseman: Classroom Engagement

Successful ELA lessons and deliberate practice requires both motivation and engagement. When students are excited about a topic area, such as outer space, their motivation to read and write skyrockets (pun intended) and they are extremely engaged in their learning. Unfortunately, the opposite holds as well. The minute students are disengaged from a topic area, you can lose them for lessons on end. How often do we find students complaining about a boring story when we’re really just trying to get them to focus on highlighting the main idea — irrelevant of what the story is about? It seems that the solution is easy, just provide constant engaging content for all your students! Easier said than done. When you’re teaching a class of 20–30 students, all with varied interests and passions, the Fourth Horseman of engaging your entire class seems close to impossible to overcome.

How to fight (and defeat) the Four Horseman?

The Four Horsemen of teaching ELA are a constant reality in our classroom. They are undoubtedly frightening and overcoming them can feel impossible at times. However, armed with recent developments in learning science research, we, as teachers, have our own secret weapon — differentiation.

Differentiation is key in order to adapt to students reading levels, background knowledge, varying skill sets, and interests.

By differentiating your instruction, you are able to simultaneously bring down the Four Horsemen with a single stroke. Grouping your students by reading levels or by background knowledge will enable you to embrace the variability of your students while not losing precious time. Adapting your instruction by leveraging effective instructional strategies increases student engagement — as each student is provided the most effective learning experience differentiated to their needs.

Although deeply understanding each student, creating student groups and differentiating accordingly is not always feasible — there are new tools being developed every day that are built to help teachers fight the Four Horsemen! At Tailor-ED, we aim to help make differentiation happen in every classroom.

Interested in learning more about how to use differentiation to beat the Four Horsemen? Join the Tailor-ED for ELA Beta Program! To sign up, just click here: Apply for ELA Beta Program.

To hear more feel free to get in touch or follow us on Medium where we will be drawing up a battle plan using Tailor-ED to fight and beat the Four Horsemen of ELA.


Tailor-ED is the next generation of differentiated instruction. Teachers use Tailor-ED to create lesson plans that are tailored to the students’ needs. Using Tailor-ED, teachers can continuously assess and group students by their needs to create differentiated lesson plans in minutes.

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