Like many educational approaches, the outer edges of explicit instruction are vague. But thankfully scholars have put in the effort to define its core components. The term explicit instruction first gained traction in the early 1990s to refer to “unambiguous, structured, systematic, and scaffolded” instruction (Archer & Hughes, 2011).
In order to determine what researchers meant when they referred to explicit instruction, Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson reviewed 86 studies mentioning a variety of key phrases associated with explicit instruction and found that it has 5 key components (2017).
Pillar 1: Segment Complex Skills/Content
This strategy is rather straightforward. Instead of starting out with the whole kit and caboodle, break it up into smaller chunks. The chunks are not just pieces of information, but time as well. Complex skills and knowledge should be taught step-by-step over time. The time may be as small as a single lesson or as large as an entire unit.
Ideally, students will be able to achieve consistent success in one chunk of the skills/content before moving on to the next. The chunks should be taught cumulatively, meaning that students will continue to practice the skills/content they have already mastered along with the new subset of skills/content.
Scientific Method Example: There are a variety of ways that I like to segment the various skills/content I teach my students. In science class, one complex skill all students must learn is how to apply the scientific method. Depending on where you look, there can be anywhere from 6-9 steps. So, I segment this by teaching one step at a time. However, even when breaking this down into single steps, the steps each have their own unique substeps students must master before they can successfully apply the scientific method.
Step 1: Ask a question
Scientific Method Example: I first teach my students that an observation precedes a question and that we use knowledge gained from our senses to generate questions. Next, I define what a scientific question is (must be testable). Then we generate some examples and non-examples.
Pillar 2: Draw Student Attention to Important Features of the Content through Modeling/Think-Alouds
Modeling and think-alouds are used extensively in this pillar. The goal is to both show and tell students how to solve a problem or complete a task. Both modeling and think-alouds should be kept brief and consistent language should be used. Consistent word choice acts as another que, helping students remember the next step in a procedure, subset of the skill, part of the content.
Scientific Method Example: As I model making observations and asking scientific questions, I am conscious to consistently use various keywords as I provide numerous examples.
“I observed the lion roaring with my sense of hearing. I observed the lion chasing the zebra with my sense of sight.”
This gives students more exposure with the vocabulary and provides a familiar format for them to later apply the skill themselves. I then tell my students that we need to link our observations to our questions.
“I am going to use my observation of the lion chasing the zebra to create a question. Why is the lion chasing the zebra?”
Pillar 3: Promote Successful Engagement by Using Systematically Faded Supports/Prompts
After the initial set of modeling and explaining, teachers should still provide students with a substantial amount of support. This helps to ensure a high rate of initial success. As students find success in applying the skill/content, teachers should gradually remove support and give students more independence. This process should repeat until students are able to successfully complete work with full independence.
Scientific Method Example: Students will start applying the skill of asking scientific questions using the exact same structure I used in my examples in scenarios that are, initially, similar as well. This initial similarity helps students to successfully apply the skill. Then I gradually withdraw the support by having students make observations and ask questions in scenarios that become significantly different from the examples I taught at the beginning of class.
Pillar 4: Provide Opportunities for Students to Respond and Receive Feedback
Frequent opportunities to respond gives students frequent practice, which ensures that the teacher is able to give frequent feedback. This is a flexible strategy and can easily be applied to group, pair, or individual work in a variety of forms including oral, written, and action. It can also be used to informally assess a variety of knowledge depths and types including factual, procedural, conceptual, and conditional. In addition, these opportunities can be scaffolded, allowing all students to access the opportunity to respond.
Scientific Method Example: As my students are practicing the skill of making observations and asking scientific questions I walk around the room and provide feedback to different groups of students. I also keep the work periods relatively short by bringing the class back together to do brief whole-class activities.
For example, I may write a question on the board and ask students to raise their hand if it is a scientific question. This gets all students participating. I then confirm the answer. “It is a scientific question.” or “It is not a scientific question.”
I quickly shift into a Pair and Share activity (Students already did the “Think” step by raising or not raising their hand). “Tell you neighbor why this is/isn’t a scientific question. Ready… GO!”
During the whole-class activities I am able to get a rough gauge on the class’s understanding and can adjust my teaching as I go. After a few brief whole-class activities I redirect my students to their individual/small group work.
Pillar 5: Create Purposeful Practice Opportunities
Practice after the initial lesson reinforces what was learned and is important for generalizing and transferring new knowledge and skills. What is important is that the teacher is intentional with the practice opportunities they craft for their students. Whatever form the practice takes should be accompanied with feedback.
Scientific Method Example: See the example for pillar 4.
As you read through this, hopefully it became clear that many of the pillars should be applied at the same time. For example, if you are providing students with purposeful practice in class (Pillar 5) you should also be providing live feedback (Pillar 4). In giving feedback, you will find that students benefit from additional modeling/thinking aloud (Pillar 2) because they need more support (Pillar 3) as they practice that particular segment of the content (Pillar 1).
Other blogposts in this series
- Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
- Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
- Explicit Instruction: Modeling
- Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading
- Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond
Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York: Guilford Press.
Hughes, C. A., Morris, J. R., Therrien, W. J., & Benson, S. K. (2017). Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32(3), 140–148. doi: 10.1111/ldrp.12142