Ensuring Rigor for English Learners using Depth of Knowledge

By: Sarah Ottow

How can we provide equitable opportunities for English Learners to master rigorous college and career readiness standards? How can ALL of our students engage successfully in high-complexity tasks? How do we provide appropriate language support to ELL students that doesn’t “water down” the curriculum?

Depth of Knowledge as Framework

In this article, I will share a framework for ensuring rigor for English Language Learners (ELLs) called Depth of Knowledge (DOK).  A special thank you to WebbAlign for allowing us to learn about the DOK framework which was developed by Dr. Norman Webb in the late 1990s for use by educators, content writers and assessment developers to help align content standards in curriculum and assessment.  The DOK framework is comprised of four levels of complexity as follows:

  • DOK 1: recall-type tasks and performance of routine procedures
  • DOK 2: application of skills and concepts, requires underlying conceptual understanding
  • DOK 3: strategic thinking, non-routine problem-solving, and heavy reasoning
  • DOK 4: tasks and expectations at least as complex as DOK 3 but that require an extended time to complete

Learn more about DOK here.

 When working with ELLs, it is especially important that the complexity of instructional tasks and assessments are not solely DOK 1, but instead, that we are challenging all students to engage in high-complexity tasks with the appropriate differentiation pathway to achieve at high standards. In other words, if we work exclusively within basic recall or tasks, we are not supporting  ELLs as they work to realize the rigor of the content standards. The DOK framework is a powerful tool for educators to understand content complexity and to ensure that all content teachers can explicitly plan, teach and assess high-complexity tasks for all learners with a special focus on academic language development and differentiation. 

An Example of a Rigorous Lesson for ELLs

Let’s take a lesson from Middle School Social Studies, for example, where students will address the essential question, What effects does injustice have on individuals people and groups of people?  throughout the course of a larger unit on civil rights. The class will first study the primary text, “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech by Sojourner Truth.  Before reading, students will engage in a discussion of what they know about slavery in the United States supported by visuals like photographs of Sojourner Truth and a video clip of the speech.  Students will also be encouraged to share personal anecdotes and connections to examples they have been exposed to in pop culture or other media.  These discussions could be done first in small groups then in the whole group to provide scaffolding and peer support for ELLs and other students who could benefit from language models and extra time for processing.  During the whole group discussion, teacher would provide written support by capturing students’ answers of what students know about this topic on a classroom anchor chart, as well as providing key biographical information about Ms. Truth (she spoke only Dutch until she was 9 years old, was born into slavery, left a legacy of fighting for women's’ rights and anti-slavery).  Connecting to students’ backgrounds both American-born and those with ties to other countries with similar histories would be important to support a culturally-responsive and student-centered approach.

The teacher would also present key language for the lesson, potentially as follows, in a reading guide for each student:

  • Tier 3 content-specific vocabulary: civil rights, injustice, abolition, suffrage, convention, slavery
  • Tier 2 general academic vocabulary: claim, evidence, speech, privilege, legacy
  • Sentence frames for writing and speaking tasks: Sojourner Truth experienced __________________________(claim).  We know this because in the text, she says ______________________________________(evidence).  This reminds me of ____________ because _____________________________________________________________.
  • Discourse support through mentor texts of speeches like Sojourner Truth’s that focus on fighting injustice and graphic organizers to show text structure

These pre-reading activities would activate and build students’ backgrounds and generate interest of the topic before diving into the complex text.  ELLs, as with all students in this classroom, will participate in rigorous thinking, reading and writing tasks to meet core standard expectations. Interactive discussions and cooperative learning would be expected by all students to maximize engagement and promote a language-rich classroom.  Perhaps a shared “close reading” in small groups of the text at first would allow all levels of learners to participate before being expected to read alone or by acting out key passages in pairs. Also, by allowing students to follow along to the video of the speech would provide language support so that they could focus on the meaning of the text.  Those students at emerging English proficiency levels would benefit from the support of written out key language for the lesson, potentially in a reading guide with the sentence stems for reading response, as well as access to bilingual support like words in their heritage language through bilingual dictionaries, “language buddies” or instructional aides.  Tiered materials allow teachers and students flexibility in differentiating instructional tasks while still providing a high level of rigor for every learner. Moreover, if the students also knew that a culminating, end-of-unit performance task would be to create their own speech around a topic of injustice impacting a group of people, they could “start with the end in mind” as they begin this unit.  This final project could be a collaborative, multimedia experience, encouraging students to be creative and focus on their interpretation of the essential question across various contexts.

If we examine the above lesson snippet for levels of DOK, we may find--

DOK 1: recall

  • define key words used in discussion and in passage
  • identify context of passage

DOK 2: skill/concept

  • In your own words, explain the civil rights issues of late 1900s
  • In your own words, describe the causes and effects of slavery and subsequent civil rights issues
  • use context clues to find the meaning of words used in the text
  • make connections between pre-reading discussion and prior knowledge

DOK 3: strategic thinking

  • evaluate the effects of slavery
  • synthesize themes of slavery and civil rights
  • justify claims and warrants using evidence from the texts or multiple sources

DOK 4: extended thinking

  • develop and present a multimedia presentation that answers the essential question

Teaching through a DOK framework does not mean we start at DOK 1 then sequentially move to DOK 4.  We can start at DOK 3 here, for instance, by starting with a discussion the topic and essential question of injustice for a group of people then drill down into DOK tasks like identifying vocabulary and elements in a text.  Because learning is fluid, as is academic language, the complexity of the tasks can reflect that fluidity while also providing appropriate language support for students to engage in tasks at any level. Using the DOK framework is not about making tasks “difficult” per se, but making sure that the complexity of the standards match to the tasks.

If we examine the lesson for adequate use of all four language domains, we may find--


  • read essential question and key language for unit
  • read classroom anchor chart or pre-reading discussion notes
  • read “Ain’t I a Woman?” collaboratively in small group


  • write essential question and key language for unit
  • write pre-reading discussion notes in learning journal
  • write response to “Ain’t I a Woman?” using sentence frames and partner support


  • listen to pre-reading discussion
  • listen to “Ain’t I a Woman?” video clip


  • repeat key language for lesson
  • participate in pre-reading discussion

We know that ELLs--and all students, as exemplified by the shifts in college and career readiness standards--benefit from productive tasks through speaking and writing and receptive tasks through listening and reading.  With ELLs, it is especially important to attend to all four language domains so that students are getting a lot of practice time with the new content and language. A helpful tip for ensuring all four language domains are employed is to use the above graphic organizer is planning instruction.  If the ratio of teacher talk to student talk is low, consider structuring more explicit student discussion time through strategies like “think-pair-share” and “reporting back”.

If we parse out the content and language standards, we may find--

Content Standards


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.


Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

Language Standards

Students at all levels of language proficiency EVALUATE the effects of slavery on Sojourner Truth, and then, in subsequent lessons, on the group of African-Americans during the late 1800s.

ELLs at all levels of English language proficiency interact with grade-level words and expressions such as:

    • Tier 3 content-specific vocabulary: civil rights, injustice, abolition, suffrage, convention, slavery
    • Tier 2 general academic vocabulary: claim, evidence, speech, privilege, legacy
    • Sentence frames for writing and speaking tasks: Sojourner Truth experienced __________________________(claim).  We know this because in the text, she says ______________________________________(evidence).  This reminds me of ____________ because _____________________________________________________________.
  • Discourse support through mentor texts of speeches like Sojourner Truth’s that focus on fighting injustice and graphic organizers to show text structure

We can see here that the language standards provide that “language lens” that is necessary when planning, teaching and assessing ELLs.  Teaching social studies, as exemplified here, is more than just teaching the content of social studies. It is about teaching the language of social studies--the language of justifying claims and warrants, the language of slavery and civil rights, the language of working together in groups to do shared reading.  

In Conclusion

Remember that meaningful, language-rich classrooms are necessary when working with ELLs.  As previously stated, we are teaching not just content but language, too. And so in teaching that content-specific language, we are supporting ELLs’ English language development.  Through this practice, we can all be teachers of language, no matter what we teach. Starting with our students is a great place to start when creating classrooms that “hook” students’ interests in high-complexity themes.  Like in the Sojourner Truth lesson, engaging students through the lens of injustice and hearing peers’ connections to the topic can really motivate students. The theme of injustice is not a low-level idea, but rather a high-level, complex one, one that all students can relate to and, hopefully, care about as it pertains to different contexts in their own life or in their history.  It is our job, as educators, to find a way for ELLs, and all students, to want to learn more about these topics and to share their connections and learning to these big ideas. By organizing our instruction around complex essential questions, we can be sure we are not just focused on meaningful, real-world higher-order concepts but that those higher-order concepts come with differentiated language supports that allow all students access and opportunity to participate in this learning.  Even if ELLs “don’t have the language yet” of the task, we can provide that language through our interactive, language-rich lessons. We can, in fact, teach language through content.  DOK is a way to ensure we are doing that in rigorous and engaging ways that provide language pathways to ELLs.


WebbAlign, the leading provider of training in assessment and standards alignment using the depth of knowledge (DOK) framework, supports teams apply DOK when developing or evaluating instructional materials.  

Thank you to Teaching Tolerance for the learning plan idea about Sojourner Truth.  This resource of social justice-themed learning plans is free to educators.


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