Learning Ladders

Coppell High School English Teacher Sam Neal has designed a structure for high-quality, individualized, self-paced learning like no other.  Ms. Neal’s Learning Ladder approach to planning has empowered her students to enter the learning experience at an appropriate level, operate within a community of learners, and create products to demonstrate understanding, all while mastering high school English.  Ms. Neal describes her role in the facilitation of the Learning Ladder like rounds at a hospital, but less scary!

Her students share that the unit begins with a pre-assessment, using color indicators (red, yellow, green) to place them right where they should begin on the Learning Ladder.  This eases stress to work at the exact same pace as their classmates.  One student articulates the pressure that is minimized by having access to all of the resources she needs, both digitally and print, organized in a file folder system in Ms. Neal’s classroom.

“We have access to everything we need.”

Another student shares, “other teachers don’t recognize that not everyone learns at the same pace.”  She believes Ms. Neal developed this system, “to find a way to help all students.”

“She is trying to find a way so every single student can benefit.”

Ms. Neal is meticulously organized in the process, ensuring no student falls behind.  She has a safety net in place throughout the time designated for this unit of study in which she monitors completion of rungs and contacts parents if students have more than a certain number of rungs to complete at a given time.  Ms. Neal meets with students, as shown in the photo below, reviewing work and asking questions about the process, such as, “Tell me the purpose of the article.  In what way did you create the same purpose in your infographic?”  Culminating questions are posed as well to students: “Why is it important we are all part of a community of learners?”

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Ms. Neal’s students are able to respond to her questions and engage in rich dialogue about not only the text they read, but also the connection to the work they produced as a result of the learning experience.

Ms. Neal shares that the Ask an Expert board in her room is one of her favorite pieces to the system.  This is a visual reminder that the students are both producers and consumers of knowledge, working as a community to gain understanding.

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This Learning Ladder is the first of its kind, but Ms. Neal confidently shares how she plans to organize the entire upcoming school year in this way.  The benefits what she is seeing in her students’ level of understanding is evidence enough to propel her into a summer of planning, preparing for a year of Learning Ladders in 2017-2018.  What will she do differently in the coming year?  One change is how she will utilize a homemade ladder in her classroom with magnetic student names to better connect her community of learners as well as make instructional decisions.

“I see such richer content and conversation in person because of the follow up questions I am able to ask.  It provides a better opportunity to make sure they think.”

The best way to fully grasp the complexity of Ms. Neal’s system is to immerse yourself in it by visiting one of her classes.  If you are unable to make the trip to CHS to explore the multitude of its moving parts, click the link below to access the current unit her students are exploring.

Link to Learning Ladder for Writing a Research-Based Procedural or Work-Related Text

To keep up with the latest in Ms. Neal’s English class, follow her on Twitter: @SamJKNeal.


We read in Article V: Organizational Transformation of the Visioning Document:

V.k The use of too tightly monitored curriculum and a scripted approach to teaching to ensure coverage of the material for the test instead of broad understanding of connected content is a detriment to profound learning.

Ms. Neal’s Learning Ladder approach embodies the high level alignment indicators of this premise:  Students have choices for engaging with meaningful content including classroom-based instruction, technology-driven instruction, virtual/self-paced instruction, etc. Teachers provide flexible and differentiated learning opportunities for students as needed based upon student choice, learning preference, and/or identified student needs toward mastery of rigorous content standards.

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