5 Strategies to Increase Rigor and Engagement in the Classroom

A teacher and student look at the student's computer screen.

Challenge all of your students with compelling readings

The best lesson is one that challenges students without overwhelming them. It gets students excited to learn and conquer the challenge in front of them and results in students feeling proud that they tackled something difficult. We throw around buzzwords all the time (i.e. “rigor” and “engagement”) in an effort to build lessons that strike this perfect balance. But actually planning a lesson that meets students exactly at the nexus of challenge and ability is really hard.

At CommonLit, we believe teachers CAN have it all — challenging classes that are also extremely joyful.

When executed correctly, rigor means centering classes around student intellectual output as opposed to teacher lecture. It’s the idea that kids, not adults, should be the ones doing the “heavy lifting.” When this happens, students don’t get bored.

This is true for both high-skilled and low-skilled readers; everyone deserves to be challenged in school.

Here are 5 strategies you can use to increase both rigor and engagement in your classroom. To highlight how I would do this in my classroom, I’m going to give some examples using Langston Hughes’ poem, “Mother to Son.”

1. Use Questions to Hook ’em Early

A great way to engage students before reading is to ask a thought-provoking, open-ended question. For example, before reading “Mother to Son,” ask students whether or not everyone has equal access to the American Dream. Give students the space to explore deep questions like this and share their original ideas with their peers, and you will notice and uptick in intense critical thought. Bonus points for asking students to support their claims with relevant evidence.

2. Challenge Students After Reading with Discussion Questions

After students read and annotate the text, foster a discussion. To ground this in the text, have student answer the questions by starting their sentences with phrases like:

  • “I noticed that…”
  • “The author argues…”
  • “The dialogue proves that…”

To help students move beyond the text, push them to begin their answers with phrases like:

  • “This reminds me of…”
  • “I wonder…”
  • “This relates to…”

For this lesson specifically, I would ask students how the speaker in “Mother to Son” overcomes adversity. I would give students a chance to brainstorm their claims and find supporting evidence in the poem before sharing. Then, I’d then ask them to identify characters in other texts that exhibited similar behavior and people in their own lives that have overcome adversity.

For more great discussion questions, check out the lesson on CommonLit.

A Discussion Question from a CommonLit text.

If your students respond well to discussion, check out this other post about strategies for running a Socratic Seminar.

3. Ask Students to Compare Videos & Texts

Before reading a challenging text, spark students’ interest with an engaging video. I’d probably show students this video about the history of the Harlem Renaissance before reading “Mother to Son.” This would help to build the essential background knowledge needed to fully understand the references in the poem. To hold students accountable for understanding the video, I would ask them to answer a few short comprehension questions as post-reading. Check out this blog post on using Related Media for more ideas.

The "Related Media" tab for the text "Mother to Son."

4. Do Cross-Textual Analysis with Paired Texts

Students love making connections because they can ground new information with something they have already learned. If the texts are from different genres (like poetry and nonfiction), the variety will compel students to access different parts of their brain. At CommonLit, we offer multiple pairing suggestions for each text and created this video to help you plan your next cross-textual lesson.

The "Paired Texts" tab for the text "Mother to Son."

5. Many Texts, Same Topic

If students enjoyed reading two texts about the same topic, why not read more? One idea is to allow students to research a broader topic — like the Harlem Renaissance — and offer an array of texts to choose from. One great tool is CommonLit’s Text Sets, which include several texts on a single topic. You’ll quickly notice that this strategy lends itself to rigorous projects, writing assignments, and rich class discussions.

Check out this post for a few easy strategies on using text sets in engaging ways.

The main page of the CommonLit digital library.

Next time you use the CommonLit platform to teach a text, try incorporating these strategies to engage and challenge your students.