Moving from Content to Process in Instruction: How Educators Can Make the Shift

2019 was a big year for New York state librarians with the relaunch of the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum (ESIFC). Dr. Barbara Stripling, the principal author, defined the changes as “increased or new attention to pre-kindergarten, multiple literacies, digital citizenship and civic responsibility, multiple perspectives, personalization of learning, design thinking, student voice and agency, and social and emotional growth.” The purpose of the ESIFC is to “prepare each one of our students to develop the skills and agency to be both critical consumers and creators of information as they navigate and succeed in their academic and personal lives.”

I quote at length from the “Welcome Statement” at because it presents the vital but challenging task of integrating the continuum across the entire school curriculum. So how can we collaborate with a majority of our overwhelmed teachers to get this work done? I believe the first step is to understand the instructional shift from content-based lessons to process-based ones. Once we can articulate our instructional role of building student understanding and critical thinking of curriculum to teachers, they will be more receptive to working together and opening up their unit plans.

Requiring our students to evaluate, synthesize, and transform information critically depends upon educators who design and deliver lessons with information literacy skills as the expected learning outcomes.

Step One: Decide the skill you want students to learn and master. Is it how to make inferences? Draw conclusions? Understand multiple perspectives? Know the difference between an opinion and a claim? Read laterally?

Step Two: Begin the mini-lesson or prompt with the skill. Content-based lessons focus on the topic as the prompt to engage students in thinking about it. (For example, review the characteristics of Puritan culture and beliefs.) The process lesson demands students think critically from the onset. As a result, educators are free to use any resource as a model. For example, in a lesson on making inferences, present an image of a diseased animal, such as the one at

Ask: What can you infer is wrong with this animal? How do you know? Elicit what an inference is: a speculation or conclusion based on evidence and prior knowledge from experiences, reading, and observations.

Step Three: Model the skill in the guided practice with the selected content.

Content-based lessons focus on topic immersion: students recall and explain what they read and observe. For example, in a lesson about the Salem Witch Trials, students would respond to questions to find the main idea of a text: Why did the panic over witches spread so quickly in Salem? Using this same content for a lesson on making inferences requires students to find the main idea at the beginning of the lesson in order to make multiple inferences from the text.

Example: Elicit the main idea: “Puritans living in Salem in 1692 faced harsh living conditions and rigid beliefs that made them susceptible to social panic and hysteria.”

Text from the article to support the main idea (analysis of what the text says/viewpoint). “’Everyone believed in witchcraft,” says Mary Beth Norton, an expert on the events in Salem. “It was the explanation for all kinds of weird things.”

What can you infer from this passage?

Puritans believed supernatural forces explained behavior and events they could not understand.

How did you make this inference from the text? “Puritans thought that forces of evil caused hardships.”

Step Four: Use the independent practice time for students to apply the selected skill individually or in designated small groups. Content-based lessons build student knowledge of curriculum topics, while process-based lessons increase student understanding of them by challenging them to analyze and think critically about what they learn. For example, the content lesson on the Salem Witch Trials would end with recall questions about what they read such as:

  • What happened in the courtroom?
  • Were the accused guilty of being witches?

Contrast this with the process-based lesson, which requires students to draw conclusions and apply their knowledge to other content areas:

  • Why did the panic over witches spread so quickly in Salem?
  • What inferences can you make about Puritan society based on their reading of this article?
  • Can you think of contemporary examples of social panic and hysteria that lead to dire consequences for those involved?
  • What are some ways to combat the rise of social panic, hysteria, and false beliefs?

Information Literacy Integration

Once we articulate our essential role in curriculum development and delivery through process-based instruction, teachers will welcome our support in integrating information fluency such as the ESIFC because it impacts student learning in all areas:

  • Multiple literacies: Using any resource type for the mini-lesson or prompt.
  • Digital citizenship and civic responsibility: Having students apply their knowledge and thinking to other contexts, and groups develop their voice and agency and empathy (social and emotional growth).
  • Multiple perspectives: Being able to make inferences, draw conclusions, deconstruct logical fallacies, read laterally, recognize bias and so on allows our students to evaluate multiple perspectives beyond reductive pro/con stances.
  • Personalization of learning: The more our students know, the more self-direction they will take in their learning quests.
  • Design thinking: Information literacy fosters creativity, ambition, and collaborative problem-solving.

Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Professional Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. You’re an awesome coordinator, Leanne!!!

    Wow! Your article is the first that I have read that really spells out the how to for a lesson. Most writings skirt the how and why parts of the lessons impact. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Congratulations and I look forward to your next writing.

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