Why 3-Act Tasks are Powerful for English Language Learners

As I continue to study accessibility in education, specifically Universal Design for Learning, structure and strategies for supporting learners served through Special Education and Gifted and Talented Education, and our English Language Learner population, I have come to the (obvious) conclusion that curriculum development and design involves a complicated, intricate web of planning long before the first words are added to a blank canvas of direction for educators.  It comes down to scalability.  What format/structure/strategies should be embedded in the curriculum (that may be applied horizontally and vertically throughout) so that the resources are seen with clarity and may be supported through efficient and effective professional learning?

Before I can move forward, I need a plan.  This is a huge opportunity and I want to make the most of it.

Recently, my perspective on curriculum development and design has been impacted by a Ted Talk by Todd Rose and various articles and information related to Universal Design for Learning.

  • Todd Rose: The Myth of Average (TEDx): Mr. Rose shares the story of the U.S. Air Force design of the cockpit  for the average pilot and makes a connection to an education system’s design for an average student.  He challenges us to to wonder: Does there exist an average student?  If not, then if we design for the average student, we design for nobody.  We must recognize that students vary in each dimension and we must respond accordingly.  As Mr. Rose says – Ban the average. Design to the edges.
  • Universal Design for Learning: By planning from the beginning for curriculum to be accessible to as many learners as possible, the need to retro-fit lessons and materials are minimized.  (Hunt & Andreasen, 2011).

Enter: The 3-Act Task.

First, a little background on the format of 3-Act Tasks (more info here):

  • Act One: The learners are provided with an image, video, or other piece of information that introduces a conflict.  This conflict may be that the learners disagree with their classmates, or with themselves.  That is, what they see may be contrary to what they believe, mathematically.  Key: Use as little text as possible, because once you tell the learners something, you cannot untell them.
  • Act Two: The learners determine what tools are needed to resolve the conflict or problem.  They must either request these tools or develop these themselves.  Key: Provide as little as possible, because once you give the learners something, you cannot ungive them.
  • Act Three: The learners resolve the conflict.  This is when the solution is determined and compared to the initial idea for reasonableness.  A reflection occurs to foster metacognition and add to the learners’ toolboxes to use in future problem solving.

Now, for the connection to our English Language Learners:

According to Beyond Good Teaching: Advancing Mathematics Education for ELLsthere are five Guiding Principles for Teaching Mathematics to English Language Learners.  I argue the inquiry model of 3-Act Tasks in mathematics (done well) support these guiding principles.

1.  Challenging Mathematical Tasks

All learners, ELLs included, need to experience mathematical tasks at a high level of cognitive demand.  This article (link) articulates the four levels of Depth of Knowledge according to Norman Webb.  The levels are neither developmental (this means even our youngest learners can experience strategic and extended thinking) nor sequential (learners need not experience level 1 before tackling level 2, etc.).

One of my favorite 3-Act Tasks is Volcano.  Challenging, indeed!  There are multiple entry points to solve this problem.  That is, the learners may successfully solve the problem in various means – not only by using a single algorithm.  They may draw a picture, look for a pattern, make a table of data, or use abstract formulas to solve.  Because the task contradicts the obvious method of solving (2-dimensional measurement rather than 1-dimensional), I argue this is a level 3 DOK task.  And thus, engaging!

2.  Linguistically Sensitive Social Environment

Such a learning environment fosters extensive educator-supported interactions in all forms among the learners and the educator (this includes between the leaners themselves).  This atmosphere is safe, allowing for opportunities for learners to ask questions and seek knowledge related to language.  Careful attention is paid to providing a low-stress classroom.

During the Volcano task, the town name “Tarata” and the abbreviations for hour and minute should be clarified to avoid barriers that may occur.  Though the language of this task is very minimal, even the three aforementioned terms could cause a stressful environment for ELLs to manage and therefore may be unable to engage optimally in this learning experience.  The educator should kindly check in with ELLs and provide a safe environment for them to ask questions, either to other learners or to the educator.

3.  Support for Learning English While Learning Mathematics

A Mathematics Discourse Community (MDC) supports all learners’ communication about mathematics.  This includes reading, writing, speaking, listening – all about the mathematics of the task.  Mathematical discourse builds the language while learning the mathematics concepts.

Technology integration while experiencing the Volcano task provides an opportunity to capture the process of problem solving.  Using a voice recorder app such as Voice Record Pro allows learners (specifically ELLs) to capture the metacognition involved in the problem solving process.  Note taking apps such as Notes or Notability allow learners to capture images within notes and have an embedded microphone feature to include verbal reflection as well.  Once learners have engaged in the MDC and practiced articulating the mathematics of the task in a safe environment, they may use technology tools to capture their language.

4.  Mathematical Tools and Modeling as Resources

Within Act Two of the inquiry experience, learners recognize the necessity for specific tools to support the problem solving process.  These tools may include measurement tools, images, or diagrams as scaffolds for the task.

In the Volcano task, handouts include maps with city names and additional video footage of the situation.  Additional models may include recreations of volcanic eruptions (as concrete representations) and connections to concepts of area, distance, and other measures.  Educators and learners may create/reference anchor charts as tools as well.

5.  Cultural and Linguistic Differences as Intellectual Resources

As members of a learning community, the cultural and linguistic differences among the class are valuable resources, seen as a commodity to be used to collaboratively solve problems and feed into the MDC.

Related to the Volcano task, the MDC within the classroom should foster input from all learners, supporting the collective insight of the members.  Strategies such as a Socratic Seminar build learners’ discussion and listening skills and provide opportunities to contribute to the MDC.

3-Act Tasks are more than engaging, high quality math problems.  Their structure, with intentional implementation of MDCs and technology integration, supports the Guiding Principles for Teaching Mathematics to English Language Learners.  Done well, 3-Act Tasks support implementation of the English Language Proficiency Standards and open the doors of problem solving to all learners.  All Learners.

Then, those learners who have positively, successfully tackled inquiry experiences continue to build background knowledge and a positive perspective on mathematics learning.  And, we know the value of mindset.


Hunt, Jessica and Janet Andreasen. 2011. “Making the Most of Universal Design for Learning.” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. 17: 167-72.


Anticipation Guides

As I continue to study ways to move local and state mathematics teaching and learning forward, I am focused on accessibility (content and language) for all students.  This study has brought me to the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) and Sheltered Instruction strategies.  Using these lenses as I continue to guide teachers and campus/district instructional leaders to transform their practices (with the Visioning Document as the North Star), I recognize the overlap is unavoidable: redefine practices with intentionally designed, responsive teaching practices and meet the needs of each learner – taking them from where they are to next steps in their learning journey.

This post is about one tool to support learners, especially English Language Learners: Anticipation Guides.

An Anticipation Guide is a comprehension tool used before a learning experience to activate learners’ prior knowledge.  It may also be used to link new learning to prior learning.

Anticipation Guides are intentionally created lists of questions or statements about a specific topic of study.  Students are provided the document in which to read and reflect in the form of a checklist. Typical checklists for Anticipation Guides are True/False and Agree/Disagree.

Numbers, by Apple, is a productivity app that allows you to create spreadsheets with templates, including a checklist.  Numbers supports collaboration (currently in Beta form) through iCloud, allows for integration with PC users, and is compatible with Microsoft Excel.


In 4th Grade Mathematics, students study angles in a new way.  In this grade level, students measure angles with protractors and consider angles in triangles in order to classify the geometric shapes.  The Anticipation Guide example below, created using Numbers, includes this 4th Grade Mathematics content.  Notice the boxes in the Agree/Disagree columns provided for learners to respond to before and after the learning experience.


Downloadable files linked below:

The images below show examples of before (left) and after (right) completion of the Anticipation Guide.  Notice the checklist selections made before the learning experience are not changed or erased as a result of new learning.  This provides the student and educator evidence of learning when comparing the selections with those made after the learning experience.

Example documents linked below:

Anticipation Guides are among Sheltered Instruction Strategies for English Language Learners as they may allow educators to intentionally build background and comprehensible input for students.


High Priority Standards: Professional Learning

Following a recent curriculum audit, I am in the beginning stages of curriculum design for K-12 mathematics.  The first step is to guide a team of teacher leaders and instructional coaches in the identification of High Priority Learning Standards, or the Essentials.

These High Priority Learning Standards, or HPLS, are identified based on endurance, leverage, and readiness for the next level.  In addition, we consider college and career readiness, connection to the global competencies, and emphasis identified by TEA’s Student Assessment division.

The HPLS are what grounds our guaranteed curriculum.  These are the big rocks that we guarantee all learners in our district will understand.  These are the most important pieces that narrow our focus for curriculum support of our educators and campus instructional leaders.

These HPLS will ultimately impact the design of our curriculum as they will be the basis of our programmatic assessment – how do we measure the success of our program?  Also, what exemplary content do we provide as a model for our educators? This exemplary content will support the teaching and learning of the HPLS primarily.  For what content do we intervene and measure the progress of our learners?  Certainly this will be focused on our HPLS.  In the case of accelerated instruction and enrichment, the design is rooted in the HPLS.  Also, student goal setting and reflection will be guided by the most important content they will learn, the HPLS.


To guide our campus administrators to recognize the connection of the HPLS with the rest of our curricular system, I designed and facilitated a professional learning experience to model that we must begin with the most important content or pieces of our program (HPLS) before we fill in the remaining details.



Depth of Knowledge: Professional Learning

Today I had the opportunity to provide professional learning for campus principals about Depth of Knowledge.

First, each participant received a brown paper bag containing 6 items.  To model Level 1: Recall and Reproduction, they were to empty the items from the bag, study them for one minute, then return the items to the bags.  Then, on a sticky note, they were to recall the items and describe them to the best of their ability.


To model Level 2: Skills and Concepts, once again they used the items in their bags.  This time, they were to categorize the items into two groups and name the categories.  This step required the participants to make a decision about the content beyond recall from level 1.


For Level 3: Strategic Thinking, the participants identified the animal or creature in their bag.  Then, they were to find a partner in the room whose animal or creature is of nearly the same scale.  This step required the participants to use planning and evidence, solving a non-routine problem.


We did not practice Level 4: Extended Thinking due to the time frame.  An example was shared, however, of designing an experiment to compare the properties of the items in the bags, such as motion, texture, or size.

A discussion followed this experience related to:

  • DOK Levels are not developmental.
  • DOC Levels are not sequential.
  • The verb does not define the DOK Level.

I shared examples from mathematics…

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Mathematics resources for DOK content:

General DOK resources:

Finally, the session was wrapped up with a reflection on what evidence will you look for in your classrooms and hallways?  Also, I shared the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrices for further reading and next steps.






I have joined the #ObserveMe movement to promote transparency, encourage feedback, and model continuous improvement.  Based on my Mission Statement, I designed my #ObserveMe sign to gather feedback in the areas that are important to me as a leader:

  • celebrateWhen awesome things happen, we should celebrate – small things and big things.  It’s all about perspective – what is small to one may be huge to another.  I want to celebrate others for who they are and what they do.
  • honor – People should feel they are important.  They should be valued.  The alternative, feeling unimportant and not valued, is so detrimental and so challenging from which to recover, showing honor is not negotiable.  I want to honor people.
  • acknowledge – Recognition of others’ insight, perspective, time, and even presence matters.  I want to acknowledge other people, all people.
  • inspire – I want others to be better, personally and professionally, because they have interacted with me (short term or long term).
  • notice – The phrase I see you is worth its weight in gold!  It is so important to show a little kindness and think of others and notice people – sometimes those who should be noticed are right in front of us.  I want to notice others.

Robert Kaplinsky, Mathematics Teacher Specialist in Southern California, recently posted this challenge to his blog andincluded a template to use.  He says, “We can make the idea of peer observations commonplace.”

This sign is hanging in my office:



Scanning the QR code will bring you to this google form:


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Desmos: Number Lines

The amazing Desmos can be used to create number lines for our upper elementary learners.  After a few simple steps you can create a number line from a two-variable coordinate plane…

1. Access http://www.desmos.com.


2. Tap Graph Settings (the wrench tool) and uncheck the boxes for Grid and Y-Axis.



3. Check the box for Arrows.



4.  Add the point (a,0).


5.  Click the button to add a slider for a.


Press the play button and watch the point move between -10 and 10.  These are the default values.  You can adjust these values by clicking on the number and typing the value you prefer.

Now, the awesome part…

Press the pause button and ask what is the value?  Or, given a specific number, place the point on the number line.

Zoom in and out to adjust the minimum and maximum values or tap on Graph Settings (the wrench tool) to adjust precisely.


My New Favorite Digital Tools

Lately I have explored new-to-me digital tools for graphic design.  Canva, Freepik, and Typorama are definitely worth sharing.

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Canva is a web- and app-based design tool that uses a drag-and-drop feature to make graphic design possible for rookies.

Tip: Go to https://www.canva.com/templates/ and navigate through the free templates.  My favorite: Infographics.

Some of my Canva creations…

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Freepik is a website with free vector art, illustrations, photos, and more.  Using the freemium business model, Freepik allows for free use of the majority of its resources (as long as you credit the author).

Vector art is created from polygons to represent images in graphics.

Tip: You can edit vector files from Freepik by using Adobe Illustrator.  Generally, there are two layers in the AI file: the background layer and the main layer (called ‘objects’).  The main layer is where you can edit the text or other graphic features in the image.

One of my Freepik creations (edited with Adobe Illustrator)…

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Typorama is a typography generator App that is super user-friendly.

Tip: You can use images from your camera roll as backgrounds, so save some of your favorites from Pixabay or Freepik to use with Typorama.

Some of my Typorama creations…

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