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The What and How of Explicit Instruction

While it’s true that human beings have inherent cognitive abilities that aid in navigating the world and acquiring certain skills, there are crucial areas, particularly in Literacy, where explicit instruction is indispensable. This blog delves into the concept of explicit instruction, its importance in teaching, and practical strategies for educators to implement it effectively.

What and How of Explicit Instruction
“Primary knowledge comes to the fore as human beings have an inherent cognitive architecture that focuses attention on relevant aspects of the environment. Children naturally navigate; they innately have face recognition, language acquisition and spatial navigation and have inherent motivation to lead them to engage in social activities and play.” (Geary, 1995; Gelman, 1990)

Contrary to the belief that all learning occurs through chance and discovery, Biological Secondary Knowledge needs to be explicitly taught. Cognitive scientist David Geary’s research highlights that certain skills like reading, writing, and spelling aren’t inherently linked to survival instincts, as humans do not have the cognitive architecture, motivation, or ability to assimilate knowledge automatically, but require explicit instruction.

Explicit instruction is “a structured, systematic, and effective methodology for teaching academic skills. It is called Explicit because it is an unambiguous and direct approach to teaching that includes both instructional design and delivery processes.” (Anita Archer, Explicit Instruction Effective and Efficient Teaching, 2011)

Explicit instruction is defined by Dr Dana Robertson as follows: “Explicit instruction is intentional teaching. It is a structured systematic approach to teaching strategies and concepts that optimize students’ engagement and promote specific positive outcomes based on students’ assessed needs.”

Explicit instruction is characterised by its structured, systematic, and unambiguous approach. It involves teacher modelling, demonstration, scaffolding, guided practice, and responsive feedback. Lesson planning plays a pivotal role, ensuring that content is delivered sequentially and aligns with curriculum goals. Effective explicit instruction aims to reduce the cognitive load by chunking concepts and providing manageable instructional units. It also sets clear expectations and boundaries, fostering a conducive learning environment.

Explicit instruction is intentional with thoughtful planning in conjunction with engaging and concise delivery. It is taught in a sequential manner with a relevant and up to date Scope and Sequence which is cumulative, allowing for ongoing rehearsal, review and practice of prior learning combined with current.

High quality, explicit instruction is the heart and soul of teaching. It is the future of prevention. It is our goal through explicit instruction that we reduce the number of students who currently receive intervention in reading, writing, and spelling.

Over time, with intensive explicit instruction, concise and clear delivery, it is our aim that students who fall into the intervention category will find learning and gaining knowledge to be within their reach and begin to thrive academically.

It is the role of educators to explicitly support learners in the acquisition of knowledge. Students require explicit instruction and direction to gain this.

Educators can still acknowledge and find a place for play-based, child-led discovery and inquiry learning; however, literacy is not inherent and natural to a child, it needs to be explicitly taught.

Teaching children to read, write and spell is the role of educators, facilitated by direct instruction, which is explicit, structured, concise, clear, non-ambiguous, and intentional.

Elements of explicit instruction and what it entails

Teaching goals
Understand the teaching goal and the needs and strengths of individual students in the cohort. Create an equal opportunities classroom where learning and gaining new knowledge is accessible to all.

Lesson planning and content – Engage students with explicit, effective, concise, and sequential delivery of knowledge. Understanding the curriculum goals, planning explicit lessons, and knowing the learning outcomes required for success is part of efficient teaching preparation. Begin with daily review and practice and achieve mastery of knowledge before teaching new skills and concepts. Lesson plans should be detailed and thorough with step-by-step instructions on how you intend to explicitly teach the class. Commencing a lesson with an engaging “tuning in”, through to the outcomes required, every small detail should be intentional for effective explicit instruction and smooth delivery. Efficient lesson planning optimises teaching time opportunities.

Sizable and manageable instructional units – Chunk and break down concepts to reduce the cognitive load of the students and to facilitate and allow the working memory a chance to ignite.

Increase the germane memory load with visual elements – Well organised, sequenced, and structured lessons, using only relevant teaching aids will assist the memory to retain knowledge and make it easier for the retrieval of information from the long-term memory to the working memory and integrate this with new learning and knowledge.

Expectation and boundaries – No surprises come into play. Tell students the learning goal, focus and outcomes expected. Have consistent expectations regarding learning. Students perform best when they understand the expectations and boundaries during explicit instruction.

Child engagement cues – Before commencing explicit instruction, it is important to have the attention of every child. Have a classroom engagement cue that draws everyone in.

Daily review and practice – Revise prior knowledge and core literacy skills already taught and link it with the new knowledge and skills taught that day.

Oral language – Use clear, concise, vocabulary-rich unambiguous wording. The complexity of the educator’s speech and sentence structure depends on the receptive language of the cohort. Our aim is to model and enhance oral language during explicit instruction.

Modelling – This is the educators “I do”. The classroom focus is on the educator to model and demonstrate the skill. Modelling consists of demonstration and oral language. “This is often referred to as a think- aloud”. The “I do” needs to be concise, clear, and relevant. “Teach the stuff and cut the fluff.” (Anita Archer, 2021)

Scaffolded practice – The “we do” takes place when the educator provides a scaffold and guided assistance, or prompt alongside the students. Scaffolding provides students with the tools to be more successful, take risks in their application and draw in the more hesitant and reserved learners. It sets students up for success. Scaffolding engages students and holds their interest as the scaffolding in small manageable steps reduces the cognitive load and allows for the student to be cognitively engaged in the learning. Scaffolding provides initial guidance, and then systematically the educator reduces the support as the students respond with greater accuracy until they feel confident enough to independently perform the task. Scaffolded explicit instruction leads to an elevated level of cognitive engagement. Engagement is the action and responsibility of the educator to keep the students motivated, interested, and have knowledge goals.

Gradual release of responsibility – This is when the teacher’s responsibility is “reduced”, and the student’s level of responsibility is increased by the student taking ownership and responsibility for their independent learning outcome. This is the “you do”. The educator checks for understanding and the seesaw effect on teacher versus student engagement is at play as this demonstrates their knowledge, application, and proficiency with the learning task. “The student’s proficiency is the fulcrum of the released responsibility and the support required.” (Dr Dana Robertson)

Frequent responses – Maintain an elevated level of teacher/student interaction, focus and engagement in active learning. This can take the form of questioning and discussion between teacher and student and student to student discussion by listening carefully to the responses.

Genuine and positive affirmations – It is important to acknowledge student responses with positive remarks and affirmations quickly after the student’s response. Correct answers should be quickly acknowledged by the educator as this helps to keep the enthusiasm and success rate buoyant.

Monitoring student performance and outcomes – Listen carefully to student responses and adjust your teaching accordingly. Analysis of student outcomes will ascertain whether mastery has been achieved by the learner or further instruction is required by the educator. Moving around the classroom carefully and observing the nature of the “I do” tasks will allow for instant feedback, positive and constructive teacher response.

The pace of the explicit instruction – Explicit instruction should move as “fast as you can and as slow as you must”. (Anna Gillingham) “The desired pace is neither so slow that students get bored nor so quick that they can’t keep up.” (Anita Archer, Explicit instruction) The pace of instruction depends on the cohort in your class. Learning to read, write and spell requires mastery at every stage and until this is achieved by the student, the educator does not move forward. Qualitative teaching outweighs quantity. Lessons need to be at a brisk pace to maintain student focus; however, giving enough time for students to think and process the newly acquired knowledge.

Provide cumulative practice opportunities – This is practice where opportunities to retrieve prior knowledge takes place. This addresses newly learnt knowledge in combination with cumulated prior learning. It is an assessment of memory retention as well as ascertaining if the learning has gained automaticity.

Explicit instruction is not only crucial for teaching literacy skills but also serves as the foundation for academic success. By employing structured methodologies and thoughtful planning, educators can create engaging and effective learning experiences for all students. Through explicit instruction, we aim to reduce the need for intervention and empower students to thrive academically. By implementing the key elements discussed in this blog, educators can enhance their teaching practice and foster a culture of learning and achievement in their classroom.

Beata Goldman – Sunshine Books Literacy Specialist

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