Curriculum Mapping: The Basics

Lori McDonald
Lori McDonald
Elementary school teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration
Person writing in a notebook next to a laptop with ‘curriculum’ on the screen.

Every year, teachers are given a list from their state and/or district that contains a detailed catalog of skills and concepts for students to master. It is the sole responsibility of the teacher to make sure that happens before the students move on to the next grade level. This is a very serious undertaking and can seem like an overwhelming task, especially for new teachers. However, with some basic knowledge of curriculum mapping, teachers can utilize a process through which they can organize and prepare for the coming year to make all those goals much more manageable and achievable.

What is Curriculum Mapping?

Curriculum mapping is the process of planning or “mapping out” an academic path for the year for your students. And it doesn’t have to be a monstrous task. By investing some time on the front end, teachers can actually make their lives a lot easier by long-term planning with high expectations and developmentally appropriate instruction in mind.

What Does Curriculum Mapping Hope to Achieve?

Curriculum mapping can be approached in different ways. Here are some examples of different approaches to curriculum mapping, all of which have their own purposes and goals.

Horizontal Mapping

This is a way of mapping that considers one grade level and subject area. So a teacher that is using horizontal mapping would be looking at the entire school year or term. This allows teachers to plan for appropriate pacing in order to meet all the standards for that grade level and subject.

Vertical Mapping

Vertical mapping involves looking at the grade levels above and below in order to find academic gaps, redundancies, and misalignments. This can be done by working independently with multiple grade-level standards to find these issues or, ideally, it can be done with teachers from those grade levels working together to improve continuity between the grade levels. Looking at the grade level above your own can also be especially beneficial as teachers can easily view where their students should be at the end of the grade level, which will help in setting goals.

Other Considerations

Regardless of which approach is taken for curriculum mapping, there are other benefits like interdisciplinary alignment. When looking at a particular subject area for long-term planning, teachers are able to easily see where subject areas intersect and cross-curricular activities can be integrated. Also, gaps can be identified so that teachers can fill in as needed to cover missed skills.

The Basics: How to Get Started

Remember, curriculum mapping does not have to be a beast. If broken down into manageable chunks, it can be a very reasonable and achievable goal. It can also make a teacher far more effective. So, if you don’t know where to begin, consider the following steps for beginning the journey into curriculum mapping.

  1. Individualized instruction – Before beginning a curriculum mapping project, you must first know the individual abilities of your students. By giving a few beginning-of-the-year assessments and conferencing with students, you will have a far greater chance of understanding what your students need and how to develop a curriculum that will meet them where they are and keep them engaged.
  2. Unpacking standards – Next, you need to take an in-depth look at the standards for which you will be responsible. By carefully reviewing standards, you can prioritize them by determining which ones are foundational and which ones are supporting.
  3. Materials inventory – As an extension of unpacking standards, it is helpful to take inventory and document materials that you have on hand to support instruction. It may be that you have textbooks that meet most of your standards. That’s great! “Textbook” is not a bad word! However, you don’t want to be tied down to the textbook. Be sure to adjust for the individual needs and learning styles of your students. Look for ways to make learning more creative and engaging. And be very aware that all your standards may not be included in that textbook. In that case, you need to look for materials to teach those standards. By taking inventory early on, you will know where the gaps are in your materials and what you need to look for to be prepared for the year.
  4. Pacing – Perhaps the most important aspect of curriculum mapping is pacing. Teachers are a determined bunch that wants to teach it until their students get it. However, we all know there is a long list of standards to teach and you have to know how to pace yourself to get to all of those standards. Just remember to allow extra time for more complex standards and pace appropriately, allowing for review time throughout.
  5. Expectations – Throughout the year, you will be assessing those benchmark skills and standards that you’ve taught to measure the success of your students. What is one of the most central keys to student success? HIGH EXPECTATIONS! When teachers expect a lot, they generally get it (or at least get a lot closer to it). There’s an old saying that says, “Aim for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll still be among the stars.” Expect a lot, even from struggling students. Teach them to expect a lot from themselves. They cannot reach the moon or the stars if they are aiming for the ground!
  6. Flexibility – When your map is all completed and you’ve worked so hard to make everything fit perfectly, remember – it will most certainly change. Highly effective teachers know when to say, “That didn’t work. My timeline wasn’t right. Let’s regroup and try that again another way.” Pacing may have to be shifted and missed skills from previous gaps in curriculum may need to be addressed. Be flexible and understand that your beautiful plan may not be perfect the first time around (or ever) and that’s okay!

Just like when you plan a road trip, you map it out to get to where you want to be. So, map out your year with student success as your destination. There may be a few bumps in the road along the way, but you can and will get so much closer to where to want to be!

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