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Three tips to address a relevance gap

The Newsela Team
Jan 21, 2022

If students struggle to see the broader purpose in what they are learning, that can be a sign of a relevance gap. This means that the core resource lacks the cultural responsiveness and real world connections that show students why they should care. When students do not see the relevancy in lessons, they may be less engaged to find the value in learning the material. Understanding the background of your students helps to cultivate engaging lessons. No curriculum or lesson plan can replace a teacher who genuinely cares about and cultivates a relationship with their students. 

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development emphasizes that learning must be relevant and applicable to the lived experiences of students. In order for teachers to mold instruction so the lessons are more relevant, for both virtual learners and in person learners, the right materials need to be in place. That’s why we are sharing 3 tips to address a relevance gap.

1. Ensure that students see themselves represented in instructional materials

Addressing a relevance gap includes ensuring that student subgroups see themselves reflected in culturally responsive instructional materials. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at The Ohio State University, who wrote the essay Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors, explained that when students don’t see themselves in literature, this can teach them another lesson: being devalued. That’s why representation in classroom content matters.

Newsela’s Embedded Action: LGBTQ+ Rights Movement resource, which is included as a C3 Inquiry in Newsela Social Studies, provides content on the LGBTQ+ rights movement and the importance of taking informed action. As students explore the movement, they can take informed action by making connections to the issues still affecting the world today such as the Racial divide in the LGBTQ community. When this connection to current issues occurs, the content becomes relevant.

A culturally responsive curriculum should include content that is inclusive of all communities. Research even shows that curriculum that includes LGBTQ+ representation in classroom content, for instance, helps reduce stigma and bullying. Whether or not your students identify as LGBTQ+, understanding the unique differences and diversity among people is important to the learning process and builds culturally relevant and responsive teaching. 

2. Connect content from historical periods to the current day

Content focused on historical moments must make relevant, real world connections in order for students to stay engaged. Ensuring students have an opportunity to take what they learned from a moment in history and link it to their life today is essential to addressing the relevance gap.

For instance, you may choose to pair your current curricular materials with relevant content students can connect with, such as Unit 6D:  The Greeks, our unit on Greek mythology for 6th grade students. Students can pair content on Greek mythology with historical heroes, such as the biography on civil rights activist Harriet Tubman, or relevant stories of modern community heroes, such as the travels of climate activist Greta Thungburg or Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther King Jr. 's granddaughter. This text set connects the bravery of heroes from the past and present, showcasing to students the elements of the hero's journey and relevance to today.

3. Scaffold texts for different reading levels

Since students continue to enter the classroom at different reading levels, it’s important that educators take time now to prioritize scaffolding texts. Learning may start to not feel relevant if a student reads material that is not aligned with their reading ability. Too often striving readers have to consume content that matches their reading level, but is well below their maturity level. This is a surefire way to create a relevance gap.

Educators can support learners who need extra support or lack the required background knowledge and English Language Learners with leveled, scaffolded content that builds confidence and background knowledge.

For instance, we present students with texts at their current reading level by taking into consideration factors such as lexile level and student performance data on our comprehension quizzes. Once students have read a few texts, the student will begin to receive texts at their just right reading level. With this adaptive leveling, students can read texts that align with their reading level and interest, making it more relevant. They are also likely to experience more success in reading comprehension, which in turn will boost their sense of competence and self-efficacy. 

Addressing the relevance gap helps educators better meet the diverse needs of students. When students understand that learning expands beyond the classroom or beyond that one moment in history, they can begin to make real world connections to the lessons. In other words, it becomes relevant. Curriculum and materials should reflect student differences, allowing students to see themselves represented. With Newsela’s high-quality, culturally responsive content, you can help fill this relevance gap.

This is our first blog in the series on common gaps in core materials and tips to fill them. Stay tuned for more about the common gaps in core materials with our next blog in the series on the student agency gap. In the meantime, take a look at this story of how a school district engaged their students with relevant content. 

Want to learn more about building relevance into your curriculum with Newsela? Watch the whole session here

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