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Teacher talks with middle school students

February 2, 2023 | 1 comment

Rigor in the Classroom for Grades 3-5: What It Looks Like

Note: This is the second in a series of four grade-level articles on rigor.


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Are you trying to increase rigor in your grades 3-5 classroom? Perhaps you aren’t sure what rigor is or what it looks like. It isn’t doing more work; it’s about incorporating challenging, appropriate instruction in your classroom.

Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels; each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels; and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2018).

Let’s take a look at several examples.

Exploring a Theme

After reading a series of picture books/short stories or poems on friendship, determine common themes that seem to recur. Create a parallel chart or semantic feature analysis of four of the texts, noting commonalities and differences in plot, characters, conflict, etc. Write a brief analysis of each story/poem, concluding with an overarching theme that connects them. Justify your ideas with textual evidence from the texts.

Finally, decide how this theme is present in your own life. As the protagonist in your own story, to what degree are you learning this life lesson?

In this example, students are asked to make connections across several literary texts and identify a theme that appears in each of the stories (nonfiction, fiction and poetry). They must develop a rationale for their chosen theme by using textual evidence from each story. Finally, they go beyond the text by applying this theme to their own life and determining whether they are learning from the wisdom in the theme. This could also be easily adapted to social studies with any topic that involves themes.

Exploring Perspectives

Imagine a dinner party with esteemed guests such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, the Wright brothers and Alexander Graham Bell. Using our texts and lessons on inventors, write a script in which these historical figures would discuss their inventions. Choose a character and role-play this scenario, thinking about what your inventor would say about the other inventions and about how his or her invention impacted society then and now.

In the next example, students must take information they have learned and go beyond the knowledge gained to internalize the information and use it in another format. Students are stepping into a role-play scenario, using evidence and reasoning to generate hypothetical conversations between people with opposing viewpoints while maintaining the essence of the person’s true personality. Finally, they are taking the knowledge about each of the people and applying it to a current situation. This also requires students to move beyond the text, which in this case is what they have learned. With younger learners, consider role-play through discussion and a seminar without a written script. While this assignment uses inventors, it could easily be used with characters from a novel or historical figures.


You must figure out how much cereal will fit into a cereal box without measuring the box. Three responses have been provided, and you must decide which makes more sense. Illustrate or write how you figured out which response made more sense. Justify or support your reasoning as to why the others did not make sense.

There are several characteristics of a rigorous assignment reflected above. First, students are required to recognize and explain misconceptions, which is an aspect of reasoning as they consider the appropriateness of the solutions to the problems. Next, they must verify the reasonableness of their answers and provide a sound argument in support of their response that elaborates on the real-life situations.

Catastrophic Events

Using their knowledge of past catastrophic events that have affected the Earth and life on Earth such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, weather devastations and asteroid contact, students must predict the next catastrophic event that is likely to occur. They must base their prediction on research from a minimum of three sources other than the classroom text. Additionally, they must justify their prediction using their research and real-life examples and provide information as to how, if at all, people could prevent or lessen the effects of the catastrophe.

In this example, based on the range of events that happen across the world, students must make and justify a conjecture using a logical argument. Because they must research and synthesize information about past events, they are also attempting to generalize a pattern.

A Final Note

Incorporating rigor in your classroom does not mean simply doubling the amount of problems you give students. Rather, you incorporate specific aspects of higher-order thinking into engaging activities to give students opportunities to rise to the challenge.

More from Barbara: Let's Up the Rigor: K-12 Instructional Strategies

Looking for how to apply these strategies? Register now for Barb Blackburn’s 2023 Virtual Conference free webinar, Let's Up the Rigor: K-12 Instructional Strategies. Learn about a variety of instructional strategies for all grade levels and subject areas that will help you adapt what you are doing to incorporate more rigor!

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Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 30 best-selling books.

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