Instructional Strategies: A Direction for Learning

With the demands on teaching and learning in an age of 21st century learning, what do all teachers want?  How about instructional strategies that not only make teaching more effective, but learning? Not a silver bullet, but something close? Good news: that very thing exists.

The innovation and learning coaches have immersed ourselves in instructional strategies this year, based on the work of John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam,Steven Zemelman, and Anne R. Reeves.  I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve seen anything impact teaching and learning as much as some of the instructional strategies from these gurus have.   The ground breaking part is that the use of learning targets and success criteria make designing lessons much more productive, and more important, have led to deeper student learning.   Let’s first take a look at learning targets and success criteria.  Subsequent post will address other instructional strategies.

Let’s walk through an example.  First, take a look at this video about unpacking learning targets with students.

My favorite teacher line from this video is “Tell me what you know about this target, and what you’re wondering about.”   How powerful is that?  How many times do we just post or say the learning target and think “that’s it?” Unfortunately, just posting or reciting the target doesn’t mean the students really understand and internalize it.  They are the ones who REALLY need to internalize it as they are the ones doing the learning. They are the ones that need to have the learning targets at the forefront of their learning.  Let us not assume our kids just “get” the learning target?  Have you asked your kids whether they understand what’s being asked of them?  The assumption that they do can be a detriment to their learning.

After breaking down the learning target, we want to address the success criteria.  Here’s a way to explain the importance of success criteria to your kids.   Let’s say that a group of kiddos have never seen the game of basketball.  I teach them how to do lay-ups, how to shoot  free throws, how to play defense, and how to do a full-court press.  Could I then just throw them on a court and have them successfully play the game of basketball?  It would be quite interesting as you would likely have lay-ups occurring at the same time as free-throws, defense and a full-court press.  Most kids have seen the game of basketball played before, so they do, in fact, have an idea of the success criteria, and have a better understanding of what is expected of them in the end.  Our kids in our classes, need to know the same.

Take a look at this video, where they discuss success criteria.

The big lesson from these videos and instructional strategies: don’t just dive into content.  First, be sure STUDENTS have a clear idea of where they’re going and what the success looks like.  This knowledge helps lead them to owning the learning and creates an atmosphere where they are better able to regulate their own learning.

Impacting Students a Book at a Time

What impacts student achievement?  High yield instructional strategies?  Absolutely!  John Hattie’s influences on student achievement?  Without a doubt!  Marzano’s nine instructional strategies?  Without a doubt.   And, I am passionate about all of these because they increase the chances student achievement exponentially.

However, there’s this one other thing I do as a teacher and coach that reaches kids like nothing else: exhibiting the love of reading and exposing them to the adventures and lessons that lie within the pages of a book.

I’ve written on this topic before (see “Mrs. Palmer Has Changed my Life” and “Inspire the Desire to Read”) so I won’t make this a repeat of that.  But, I will say, after presenting a lesson involving critical thinking tied to the Shadow Children Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, I was reminded of this impact. I relived the impact, the feeling it gave me to see the sparkle in the eyes of kids as they got so excited to read a book.  And, what did it take?  Just a little discussion and intrigue via a values line continuum and a few minutes of showing book trailers.

What’s my evidence for knowing this impact exists, other than my observation of how engaged the kids were by simply talking about the series?  Other than noticing how they asked with a hope in their voice “how many copies does our library have?” Other than them asking questions of each other that exhibited deep critical thinking?  All that was a teacher’s dream; it’s why we teach.  But, here’s the best thing.  Afterwards, a parent of one of the kids I presented to said that her daughter came home that day with a degree of excitement that was immeasurable.  She had such an excitement for the book series and reading in general that her mom had to buy the series immediately.  And, this was motivation to read in a child that had been lacking for quite a while. That was one of those moments we never forget as teachers.  It could potentially be the start of a life-long reader.

Here’s the thing: we have to instill life-long reading in our kids, and I’m here to say it can be done. I’ve seen it time and time again.  Why is this so important?  Among other reasons, voracious reading has a huge effect on student achievement, not just reading achievement.  We have to get our kids reading more and reading because they want to.  How are they going to get better at applying the skills and strategies we teach them, if they don’t read?  It’s like a coach teaching a basketball player to do a lay-up and then never giving them time to practice.  We have to get our kids into books to “practice” and apply the five components of reading.  And, just as important, we want them to build the foundation to make this a life-long activity.  I urge you, make the time in your school day to make things like this happen.  You will leave school that day with a warm heart.

Feedback: Lessons from the Ball Field

Some of the greatest lessons I learned were on a softball field as a young adult.  Oftentimes, I find myself making connections between that context of learning and the context of learning about instruction.  Let’s make a comparison between a coach on a softball field and a teacher in a classroom and tie it all into feedback, which is one of the most powerful strategies in improving student achievement.

1. During any given practice, a softball player does not receive a score on their performance, but rather specific feedback, such as “hit the middle of the ball” or “keep your head tucked in when swinging.”  This feedback is specific and directed towards one particular player.

What this means for feedback in the classroom: Do not mistake scores for feedback.  Scores are oftentimes an end result and sends the message that learning is done.  Instead, give feedback in relation to the learning target and success criteria in the form of a verbal conversation or written explanation, not a number.  In addition, focus feedback on individuals as opposed to whole-class feedback.

2. When a coach enthusiastically yells “Way to go!” to a player, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment. It makes them feel good. This is important; however, it also does not give feedback on improvement.

What this means for feedback in the classroom: There is a place for praise in the classroom. But, research shows that praise affect’s a student’s ego, not their achievement.  And, when given in tandem with feedback, praise dissipates the power of the feedback.  The lesson: give praise in the classroom, just separate it from feedback.

3. A coach does not wait until the end of practice and definitely not until the end of the season to give instruction to their players. Feedback is constantly given in the act of learning.

What this means for feedback in the classroom:  The most powerful form of feedback is in the form of formative assessment, done daily and in the act of learning.  A teacher’s “aha’s” about student learning should come daily or weekly as opposed to that happening as a summative assessment is graded.

What other analogies can you think of connecting coaching and instruction through the lens of feedback?  I would love to hear your ideas!

Be on the Road that Leads to Awesome

I am sure many of you have seen this video from Kid President, but if you are like me, you could watch it time and again and never tire of it. It brings a sense of motivation, a sense of purpose, team work, work ethic…and a sense that we can do great things.  And that, I believe in.  That is our driving force.

We were made to be awesome

Kid President says “I want to be on the road that leads to awesome.” I can, with no hesitation say that I am seeing that path with my recent employment as an instructional coach in the Liberty Public Schools. Since joining this community of learners, I have encountered so many individuals that are passionate, driven, hard-working and has their focus exactly where it needs to be, which is on kids.

Another line I love from Kid President is “…if life is a game, aren’t we on the same team?” I am honored to be on all the learning teams at LPS from the instructional coaching team, to the teams within my buildings, and the district as a whole, which is also a team, a team that will strive to move forward as a cohesive unit.

And, a final line from Kid President, in reference to taking the road less traveled: “…and it hurt man! Rocks! Thorns! Glass!” I look forward to the challenge that lie ahead of us and embrace them and the “mistakes” we’ll make along the way, because that is how we grow. Success doesn’t come easy. The road to success challenges our thoughts, beliefs and how we’ve always done things. It makes us uncomfortable sometimes, but that discomfort can be temporary if embraced and worked through, using the many talents on your team.

So, let’s go forth and “be on the road that leads to awesome!” I’m honored to be on this path with the students, teachers, parents and all staff at LPS.

So, How DO You Teach Fluency?

If you refer to a post I wrote in January ( The Power of Fluency Instruction ) you will see that we discussed the importance of fluency instruction. It is truly a bridge between phonics and comprehension.   With 10 years of experience in the classroom, I know all too well that what teachers need is not just theory and rationale, but also practicalities…resources they can actually take and use in their classrooms.  With that said, here are some fluency resources to supplement what you are already doing in your reading block.

Fluency K-2 Lesson This is a video on fluency instruction at the kindergarten through second grade level.  It was posted by the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project, led by Lucy Calkins.

Fluency lessons This is a document that has easy-to-implement fluency lessons for all levels of readers.

Fluency practice outline This is a lesson approach by Timothy Rassinski and Nancy Padak that includes modeled reading, assisted reading, repeated reading, performance reading, word study and home and school involvement. It was put out by the International Reading Association.

Fluency Station Resources Here are some books you can purchase through The Literacy Store.  They are books you could put in a fluency literacy station.

Student fluency rubric This is a student fluency rubric put out by forthegoodofallstudents.blogspot.com.

Timothy Raskinski on itunes I would highly suggest these podcasts by Timothy Rasinski put out by Teacher Created Materials.  They are concise and help to explain clearly why fluency instruction is crucial.

Step-Up Comprehension Instruction

For those of who teach reading, we know that the goal of reading is ultimately comprehension.  I would also venture to say that those of us who teach reading comprehension do so using the release of responsibility approach, where there is first ample modeling, followed by shared reading (where the students and the teacher think together), and then finally interactive or independent reading (where students have the opportunity to practice a reading strategy on their own).

The question for us today is to what level do we teach comprehension?  Do you expect children of all ages to read at a deep level (of course, a deep level that is determined by their cognitive abilities)?  This means there are different levels of comprehension even at the kindergarten level, and without a doubt at grade levels above kindergarten. Do you have an awareness or  a deep understanding of what different levels of comprehension look like at your grade level.  And if you do not, do not feel bad. Teaching reading effectively is tough work and there is always more to learn (and only so much time in the PD schedule districts have).

If you are needing more knowledge on the different levels of comprehension, consider using these rubrics: http://www.readinglady.com/mosaic/tools/Strategy%20Rubrics.pdf   (Thanks to the Reading Lady website for providing this to teachers).   These are strategy rubrics for grade levels K/1, 2/3, and 4/5.  I have used these rubrics as I model effective small-group and whole-group reading instruction.  It is also good practice to put this rubric in front of your students. Teach THEM what surface level and deep level comprehension is.

And remember, the method by which a teacher teaches comprehension (mechanically or strategically) is important in ensuring the effectiveness of comprehension instruction (Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, and Rodriguez, 2003). So, go forth and take your comprehension instruction to another level!

The Power of Fluency Instruction

As you look into most primary grade classrooms across the country, one would almost always see an abundance of phonics instruction.  If one would look into most upper elementary classrooms across the country, one would see an abundance of comprehension instruction.  Both of these scenarios are appropriate and supported by research.  In addition, it is likely to see phonemic awareness, particularly at the kindergarten and first grade level along with vocabulary at all grade levels. I would also venture to say that a multitude of reading programs hit these components hard.  But, the question is where does fluency fit in?  Is solid fluency instruction in our classrooms and in our reading programs?  According to Raskinski & Zutell (1996) programs and materials addressing reading instruction and teacher training seldom tackle reading fluency. Fluency is the bridge between phonics and comprehension, which necessitates the need  to examine its role, or lack there of, in our classrooms. In addition, oral reading fluency is one of the biggest predictors of reading achievement.

So, why does research say there is a lack of fluency focus in our programs and teacher training?  If you were to ask nearly every teacher if reading fluency is important, I have little doubt they would say absolutely.  However, if you were to ask if reading fluency is a major component of their reading instruction, the answer may not be the same.  The question is this: is this simply a matter of needing more professional development on the topic of fluency?  Perhaps this is not the only reason, but likely a big part of it.

So, here are some things to contemplate in relation to reading fluency in your classroom.

What is reading fluency?

Reading fluency includes the ability to decode words, automatic processing of material read (meaning the bulk of a student’s energies needs to be spent on comprehension, but that cannot be accomplished if they are not fluent), and the ability to read with prosody (expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Do your students know how to decode (including at the upper elementary level)? Please note, the teaching of decoding strategies should not end after the primary grades.  Upper elementary students are exposed to much more complex words, some they have seen before and others they have not.  Definitely beginning in second grade, and to some extent in first grade, students should begin to learn and apply the types of syllables.  Fourth and fifth grade students need to be able to apply their knowledge of syllables and their patterns (such as the VCCV) to decode words.

Do you have students who have trouble in comprehension?  If so, do not always assume the problem lies in them not being able to apply reading strategies.  If they do not read fluently, they are only surface readers.  One cannot grasp the deeper meaning of text, if their energies are focused on reading fluently.

Do you teach expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace?  If not, do you need to seek out resources to help you with this?   Be sure to teach students that expression affects comprehension.  For example, pretend you are listening to a presenter and in your head, you are agreeing with everything the presenter is saying. In your head you are saying “right.”  Let’s say to your right though, there is someone who disagree with the presenter and they are also saying “right” in their head.  The way you say right is different than the way the person next to you is saying right. That affects meaning of the situation, just as it would in text.   So, teach your students expression and teach them how it affects meaning.  Do the same with phrasing, smoothness and pace.

Specific activities that teach fluency include the following: repeated readings, reader’s theater, modeling of fluent reading, read aloud performances, and  use of a prosody rubric, among a multitude of others.  See Timothy Rasinski’s work for more ideas.

In Conclusion

Take some time to consider your reading instruction and the reading program you use.  Does fluency instruction exist?  If so, is it sound and consistent instruction?  If not, what resources can you find to assist you?  Perhaps a book, a colleague, a reading specialist?  Whatever the case, continue to develop and build on your knowledge on fluency, the all-too-often forgotten component of reading.