Condition 1: Supporting a Common Language of Instruction

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By: Kathleen Marx

In IE’s Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model PD Updates Newsletter, we’re dedicating the next several blogs to how leaders can develop teacher expertise. This blog will focus on the first of five conditions. You can read an overview of all five conditions here: 5 Conditions for Leaders to Develop Teacher Expertise.

In the five conditions overview blog, we encouraged you to reflect on your school’s current practices related to growth and professional development. Using a decision-making process, you prioritized five critical attributes for increasing teacher expertise (see Table 1) to determine where to focus going forward.

Now it’s time to move that vision to action and determine how to address those prioritized areas that can result in strengthening the school culture and increasing student achievement.

In this blog, we’ll tackle the first condition: ensuring there is a common language of instruction in the school.

Five Critical Attributes for Increasing Teacher Effectiveness
  1. Common language of instruction (a well-articulated knowledge base for teaching)
  2. Focused feedback and deliberate practice
  3. Opportunities to observe and discuss teaching and learning
  4. Clear criteria and a plan for success
  5. Recognition of progress towards expertise

Table 1. Marzano, Frontier, and Livingston (2011, p. 4)

What is a common language of instruction?

“The school leader must, first of all, have a vision for what effective classroom instruction looks like when aligned to a standards-based curriculum and what the desired outcomes of effective instruction should be” (Carbaugh & Marzano, 2018, p. 38). 

A common language of instruction is a well-articulated knowledge base for teaching that everyone in the school understands and uses. Ideally, it is based on an organized instructional framework strongly grounded in the research around teaching and learning, such as the Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model. A common language of instruction defines what good instruction looks and sounds like and includes a common set of terms educators can use to plan and discuss teaching.


What are the benefits of a common language for instruction?

    1. Provide clarity for teachers to understand the vision of instruction: Consider the challenges of leading teachers to a destination if you don’t really know or can’t clearly articulate where “there” is. Determining and sharing a vision for instruction must be the first step and foundation that supports all actions and endeavors.
    2. Prevent miscommunication and misconceptions: It’s easy to assume everyone knows what was said and understands it, when in reality they may not. The leader may not even realize when miscommunication and misconceptions happen and may wonder why there hasn’t been more progress in the school. A school-wide framework and common language for instruction helps school leaders and teachers come to agreement about best classroom practices.
    3. Keep the focus on effective teacher practices to achieve the vision: Leading your teachers through the process of examining, analyzing, and reflecting on the instructional vision and on current practices is a strong step in the direction of increasing teacher effectiveness. That process allows a team to focus in on the areas that will provide the most positive impact in moving towards the vision.
    4. Clearly communicate across the system: An understanding of a common language and of common goals allows for clear communication across the system, both vertically (from district leader to school leader to teacher) and horizontally (between teachers and instructional support members and between teachers across the district).
    5. Offer specific and effective growth feedback for teachers: Having a common language of instruction that is research-based, like the Focused Teacher Evaluation Model, allows leaders to help teachers focus on instructional strategies and to give specific feedback that supports growth.

While most districts understand the benefits of a common language of instruction, their systems may not yet encourage it. Ultimately, a common language of instruction keeps district leadership focused on improving instruction, which in turn improves student achievement. Visionary district leadership understands that teacher behavior predicts student achievement and will utilize a common language of instruction as part of their decision-making processes (Carbaugh et al., 2013).


How do you implement a common language of instruction?

“This goes beyond one-on-one learning and coaching with teachers; it has to be a schoolwide, and preferably district-wide, effort. The common language needs to be developed and shared in multiple settings throughout the school day and year, including PLCs, staff meetings, walkthroughs, and evaluations. If leadership actively supports and structures these activities, it will happen. If not, it won’t” (Abla, 2019).

Once leaders determine the framework or instructional model for a common language of instruction, the next action is to ensure that all members of the school community know and understand it and are using it in classrooms and in professional development opportunities.

Ideas for Implementing:
    • Write it out: Ensure you have a written document delineating the instructional framework that you and your staff utilize in staff meetings, in PLCs, and in individual conferences.
    • Share and discuss it: In a staff meeting, review the instructional framework or model. Consider organizing all staff into teams to discuss and explore the model. Whether your staff has already been using the model or are just being introduced to it, it is beneficial to allow teachers to periodically “dive deeper” into the strategies or elements, to identify how they may already be implementing specific pieces, and to brainstorm and share ideas for future use. The Marzano Focused Teacher Evaluation Model provides protocols for each element that not only describe but give many examples. These protocols can be used to give teachers dedicated time to explore and ideas from which to draw.
    • Dive deeper in book studies: Consider book studies in which teachers can focus on specific elements or strategies from the instructional framework (see book study list below).
    • Incorporate into lesson plans and review those plans: Encourage PLCs to use the common language of the instructional model as they plan and discuss teaching and learning. Provide copies of the framework and supporting documents. Ask them to assess their lesson plans to see if the elements of the model are represented appropriately. Periodically review and give feedback as to whether plans reflect the agreed upon framework.
    • Inspect classroom evidence via walkthroughs and provide feedback: Use walkthroughs and informal observations to track the use of the instructional framework. Are you seeing the implementation of the agreed upon model? If not, provide feedback that helps teachers to make the needed transitions.


Common Language of Instruction:
How will you know when this attribute is strong in your school?
  • A written document (model of instruction) articulating the common language is available and commonly used in staff meetings, PLCs, and team meetings.
  • Teachers use the common language when discussing teaching and learning.
  • Teachers can describe the connection between their use of the key elements of the instructional model and student achievement.
  • District and building leaders support the use of the common language in professional development and other interactions.


Resources for School and District Leaders

 Leaders – create a customized plan:

    • Expert consulting
    • Side-by-side coaching for leaders: Refresh and calibrate – practice accurate scoring to increase teacher confidence and increase effectiveness of feedback
    • Classroom walkthrough tools for actionable, daily data without directly evaluating teachers


Professional development for leaders and leadership teams:


Professional development courses for teachers:

    • Onsite or virtual Deep Dives: two-hour virtual sessions focused on a single component of the instructional model.
      For instance, a “dive deeper” into strategies and how-to’s around:

      • Identifying Critical Content
      • Engaging in Cognitively Complex Tasks
      • Revising Knowledge
      • And more
    • Onsite or virtual half or full-day sessions focused on topics like:
      • Monitoring for Learning
      • Creating Conditions for Learning
      • Deliberate Practice
      • And more


Book studies (four one-hour virtual sessions led by an IE expert):





Abla, C. (March 14, 2019). Why we love to hear a common instructional language. McREL International.

Carbaugh, B. G., & Marzano, R. J. (2018). School leadership for results: A focused model. Instructional Empowerment.

Carbaugh, B., Marzano, R., & Toth, M. (2013). Common language, common goals: How an aligned evaluation and growth system for district leaders, school leaders, teachers, and support personnel drives student achievement. Instructional Empowerment.

Marzano, R. J., Frontier, T., & Livingston, D. (2011). Effective supervision: Supporting the art and science of teaching. ASCD.



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