Gradual Release: I Do, We Do, You Do

I Do:

“If the skill you are teaching consists of steps to follow or actions to complete, the best way to begin instruction is to show students what to do.” (Explicit Instruction, p29). When you are modeling a skill, it is important to be clear and concise. Focus on the most important aspects. Also, here is not the time to give non-examples. Giving non-examples can be very useful, but they are not to be used here as they complicate the process.

Design the “I do” portion of your lesson with the idea that students will visualize your verbalization as they perform the skill. So it must be simple if it is to be useful. Once students demonstrate proficiency in the skill, it is the teacher’s responsibility to shift to guided practice. Make the students’ responsible for their own learning. Do this by involving them in the modelling. Ask questions that require students to apply the knowledge they learned in your demonstration/modeling. Note, this portion is still teacher-led. The students are participating, but the teacher is the one “doing” the work. The students are answering questions about the content but not performing the skill.

This step (involving students) is needed because students struggle to just sit and listen for long periods of time. This helps students to be engaged in the lesson by having them recall critical content. It also allows for the teacher to verify understanding.

We Do:

The primary purpose of this stage is to both build off of the teacher model and increase the likelihood of student success. Verbal prompts make up a key component of this stage. These prompts include

  1. Directives (the teacher says, “do this”)
  2. Questions (the teacher asks, “How do we do this?”)
  3. Reminders (the teacher says, “remember to do ‘this’ step)

Each ‘step’ of the verbal prompt involves less and less scaffolding. When a teacher says “do this” it is nearly impossible for a student to make a mistake because they are being told what to do at each step. When a teacher asks questions, they are having students recall the steps that make up the skill (practicing more independently). Finally, a reminder can simply be a verbal announcement to ‘remind’ students about critical parts of the skill.

As students gain proficiency, the teacher again removes supports. By removing support, the teacher is enabling students to gain confidence in using the skill. The teacher is also able to provide immediate feedback by walking around the room and observing/interacting with students.

You Do:

The purpose and focus of independent practice is to see if students can apply the skill without any prompts. It is important to note that the initial independent practice should be done in a whole class setting, not as homework. The reason for this is to allow for corrective feedback. Practice makes permanent, so you want perfect practice to make ‘perfect’ permanent. In order to prevent/reduce imperfect practice, have students only answer one problem at a time at first. In between each problem, you (the teacher) can go over the steps and the answer. This allows students to see and fix their mistakes, and it gives the teacher another opportunity to informally assess their students and provide feedback.

Once a majority of the students are able to consistently answer questions correctly, you can give students more leeway to take on the work at their own pace, focusing on the few students who still need verbal prompts (questions/reminders).


Note: “I do, We do, You do” is not a procedure to follow blindly. The appropriate time to spend on each step depends on the complexity of the skill and the background knowledge your students have.


Don’t Be Sexy: Just Teach!

Don’t be sexy, just teach!

Education is rather famous for its buzzwords/directives/policies that are here today gone tomorrow (STEM, STEAM, student-centered, sage on the stage, guide on the side, DI, di, montessori, discovery learning, inquiry-based instruction, explicit teaching, project-based learning, jigsaw, stations, lead learner, cloud classroom, Genius Hour, No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and many more). Some of these, I think are important approaches, and will prove themselves to be timeless. Others are neither inherently good or bad. Some, are harmful.

As teachers, we must be aware of this. Know that the latest craze is likely just a flash in the pan. If it fits and it helps students learn, do it. If not, don’t. Do not use things just because they are fun/sexy/new, use them because they are useful.

The fundamentals of education do not change, because the fundamentals of how humans learn don’t change. There have obviously been changes, but those changes have been cosmetic. Even the big ones. For example, computers are objectively a revolutionary technology. They have impacted us in a myriad of ways (education included). But even computers, with immense power both for and over us, (Is Google Making Us Stupid?) have not fundamentally changed how we learn.

Before electricity humans learned by observing, being told, and attempting. And now, we learn by observing, being told, and attempting. This is because we essentially have the same brains as our ancestors. Our knowledge is stored in our brains. Our neurons fire in a certain pattern, bringing the memory (information) to mind. The more we do this, the stronger the memory becomes (Learning Rewires the Brain).

Because how we learn has not changed, we can look at what time has tested to see what works.

So, no matter what your school is doing, apply time/research-tested approaches.

  1. Spaced repetition
  2. Retrieval Practice
  3. Elaboration
  4. Interleaving
  5. Concrete Examples
  6. Dual Coding

The best resources I have found are from the Learning Scientists and Retrieval Practice websites. Both have articles explaining the research base and resources for teachers to use.

You can apply any of the 6 strategies in your teaching no matter what your context is.

Ultimately, don’t blindly follow the sexy new thing (the sexy new thing can be BOTH inquiry-based learning and explicit teaching depending on your crowd). If you know how humans learn, know what works, and why it does, then you can apply that to whatever new, sexy education thing comes your way.

Don’t be sexy, just teach.

Using Flashcards in Class: A Reflection

As I have mentioned before, I am working on integrating flashcards into my classroom. I create physical flashcards by importing an excel file into Quizlet and printing them out (For a how-to, check out How To Make Knowledge Organizers And Flashcards). I make the physical copies for my students because I teach elementary school and want my students to have access. I can only guarantee they have access to the digital format in class.

While flashcards have shown themselves to be very useful for vocabulary development and key concept understanding, I do not know that I would increase there use in my classes. I think that I am at a sweet spot in the amount of use. I am just tinkering with the “how to” as opposed to the “how much”.

Part of this tinkering has led me to lean more towards physical flashcards over digital ones. The reason being that even though digital flashcards offer a spacing algorithm for improved learning they also offer increased distractions. My students seem magnetically drawn to the Gravity game on Quizlet. Even when given explicit instructions, a few students still manage to find their way into the game version instead of a study version. This can easily reduce Quizlet’s effectiveness and negate the advantage of spacing with algorithms.

So, due to my circumstances, I have used physical flashcards more than digital ones. I have trained my students in how to use them and will give students class time (generally during a “warm-up”) to practice about once per week. The flashcard sessions last between 5-10 minutes, which is enough time for students to go through the entire deck (1 chapter) at least once. I have also assigned flashcard homework about once per week (with no real way of checking to see if students completed the homework or not).

Currently, my task is in making the flashcards feel less clunky. Part of the solution is simple. I must get used to using them in class, and my students must get used to the new routine. The other part of the solution is more complex. I have already discovered that digital flashcards increase distractions. But getting students to effectively practice with physical flashcards is more difficult since it is manual.

I have found that I must model and explain the procedure every single time we use the flashcards. For example, I explain that they need to have a correct pile and an incorrect pile. Then, when finished, they must go through the incorrect pile until all cards are in the correct pile. This is tedious, but necessary because I want the flashcards to be truly useful, not simply an activity that takes time.

I am sure that I will refine my approach more with time. In spite of the difficulties that come with change, I have found flashcards to be extremely useful and would recommend that their use would be expanded.

How To Make Knowledge Organizers and Flashcards And Reduce Your Workload

Knowledge organizers are a great way to…organize knowledge. They are also versatile and can be used in any subject. They should be used for the “core” information in a unit. This is information that you want all students to master. It will obviously include key terms, but it is not limited to memorizing vocabulary. Knowledge organizers should include concept based questions as well.

How to make a Knowledge Organizer

I start all my knowledge Organizers (KOs) in Excel/Googel Sheets. I do this because I use a brilliant tool created by Adam Boxer, Retrieval Roulette (Click on the link to see how to use Retrieval Roulettes, click on this one to see completed Retrieval Roulettes). I start by inputting the terms from an entire chapter of my science textbook.

The terms are in one column and the definitions are in another.

Next, I highlight the terms and definitions and copy them into a Word document. My KO is started. (In this example, I have already added concept questions to this Excel sheet, so the vocabulary words are spread out. To split them, I just insert a row below the last definition for the lesson.)

The Start of a KO.

The next step is to add key concept questions. I begin this in the Excel Retrieval Roulette file as well. As mentioned above, I insert the questions under the last vocabulary word for that lesson. To do so, I add a row and click the repeat button to add rows as necessary.1I repeat this step for each of the lessons in the chapter. Next, I select the questions that I think are most important for my students to grasp and I insert those into the KO using the same method as above.

Below is an example of a finished, diagram heavy KO.

After I make a KO for the chapter, I then create a flashcard set. Again, this relies on the Excel program and, as a bonus is incredibly simple. I simply highlight everything for that chapter and import it into Quizlet.

  1. Click create study set 2
  2. Click on import from Excel 3.PNG
  3. Select and copy the content you want to include from the excel file 4.PNG
  4. Paste the info here 5.PNG
  5. Click import 6.PNG
  6. Give your flashcard set a title, and then create it!

Next, depending on your students and school, physical flashcards may be more practical. Luckily, Quizlet offers an exceedingly simple solution. You can print your set of flashcards out.

  1. Click on print
  2. Select the size of flashcards you want
  3. Select double-sided printing
  4. Open the pdf
  5. Print


I’ve included some sample cards so you can get an idea of their sizes.

Small Double-Sided Flashcards Large Double-Sided Flashcards

The last thing I want to mention is that this process has greatly reduced my prep time (Once I figured out how to use the various programs/systems). I basically have my tests prewritten in the excel file and just need to reformat them when I create a test. I can also easily use the excel file to AUTOMATICALLY generate quizzes (seriously check out the retrieval roulette links at the beginning of the article, they are an absolute gold mine!)

And, as always, you must teach your students how to use the KO and flashcards even if it seems intuitive. If you don’t then your students will not benefit.

Flashcards in the Classroom

In this brief article, I intend to explain how I will put my previous article (how and why flashcards are effective) into practice.

First, I started by teaching my students how to use flashcards. This is paramount! Do not assume they understand how to use them effectively. To model how to use flashcards I borrowed a student’s set and put it under the visualizer so the whole class could see.

First, I read the card.


Then I modeled my thought process.

“Hmm. Hydrosphere, well, I know that hydro means water and I know that sphere means ball. Hmm. Earth is round and has water. Hmm. Water on Earth? Wait. All the water on Earth!”

Next, I flip the card over and check my answer.

“Awesome! I got it right. Ok, so now I will put this card into the correct pile.”

I move on to the next card.

“What causes convection currents in the geosphere?”

I model my thinking again.

“Hmm. Geosphere, well that is the Earth. Hmm. The wind causes convection currents because the sun heats the Earth unevenly.”

I flip the card over.

“Oh. I was wrong. Convection currents in the geosphere means inside of the Earth. Convection currents are actually caused by heat from the Earth’s core heats the rock and which makes it less dense so it rises. Then it cools, gains density, and falls.”

I put the card in an incorrect pile.

I then tell the students to finish the deck. Next, students need to go through the “incorrect” pile until all the cards are in the “correct” pile.

I tell my students that they must read the card and say the answer in their head before flipping the card over. I also give them a small printout that includes the steps.

Introducing New Flashcards

I introduce new KOs and flashcards on the last day of a unit because I give some sort of assessment, and when students finish they can pick up their KO and flashcards to get a head start on the new unit.

When students finish the assessment, they will turn it in and pick up a knowledge organizer (KO) and a flashcard sheet (or several) that includes vocabulary and concept Q&As based on the KO (I will explore how I make them in a future post. For now, just note that this has helped reduce my workload).

In order to assure that students actually cut out and use the flashcards, I will begin the next class by having students practice using their flashcards either by themselves or with a partner for 5-10 minutes. This approach allows me to give a quick check to see if they actually did the work and serves to get the students familiar with the chapter’s terms/concepts. A study by Kelly Grillo in 2011 found that flashcards can have a positive impact in a short amount of time, at least in terms of test scores.

One benefit I have found in implementing flashcards is that all my students are more familiar with the terms, and my more motivated students learn the entire chapter’s terms by the end of the first week. This has helped my class to engage with key concepts and to apply what we are learning on a deeper level. I have also found, both with KOs and flashcards that it improves how I use class time in the margins. If we finish a lesson early and there are a few minutes left, I can have students practice their flashcards or review their KO which helps reinforce what we are learning. Before I would ask if there were any questions or would ramble about what we were learning. Both can be useful and helpful, but they are not the best ways to spend class time.

I am sure that I will refine my methods in the future, but I am quite happy with how integrating KOs and flashcards has been so far.

Why Are Flashcards So Effective?

There are two types of flashcards, physical and digital. As for which type is better, there is evidence that goes both ways. However, a recent study (Dizon and Tang, 2017) found that both are essentially equally effective if students have been taught how to use them. For teachers, I think we are fine to use whatever type works better for our context. Don’t stress about which form to use, just make sure you teach your students how to use them.

Flashcards are effective because they force students to use the study strategy of retrieval practice. When applying retrieval practice to a flashcard, students read the cue (question) and then they must retrieve, from memory, the information (answer). Then students look at the other side of the card and get feedback on whether they were correct or not. Each time a student retrieves the information correctly, they are reconstructing the memory of that fact/concept. This reconstruction makes it easier for students to recall the relevant fact/concept in the future.

The formatting of flashcards also lends itself to spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is exactly what it sounds like, spacing the repetition of the material out. The meaning and impact of spaced repetition becomes more clear when contrasted with cramming, its opposite. Cramming can be somewhat effective at improving student performance, but it doesn’t help much for actual learning as most of what a student crams will be forgotten shortly after the test (Bjork, 2012). Spaced repetition helps with both test performance and actual learning.

Now for some hard data. Flashcards have been shown to improve student performance on tests. A study found that students who used flashcards to study for every test in an “Intro To Psyc” class much better than those who did not use flashcards (Golding, Wasarhaley, & Fletcher, 2012). Another reason that teachers should use flashcards is that subject-specific vocabulary is the strongest predictor of student performance on content-based assessments (Espin and Deno, 1995). A study done by Nate Kornell looked at flashcards and test scores found that for 90% of students, spacing out their practice was more effective than cramming (Kornell, 2011). The same Kornell study found that students who used a spaced repetition flashcard strategy scored over 30% higher than students who used a massing flashcard strategy. In this case, the massing strategy involved using a small deck of flashcards on specific topics (lessons), whereas the spaced repetition strategy used a large set of flashcards that included information for the whole chapter. This provides evidence that flashcards are more effective when they utilize the interleaving study strategy.

As teachers, we care about test performance (It is important!) but actual learning (putting information into long-term memory) matters more. I believe that the above information gives strong evidence for utilizing retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and interleaving as study/teaching strategies. I also think that flashcards can be a way to integrate these study strategies into a simple, effective, and student-friendly form.


Inquiry Vs. Explicit: Who Wins?

There seems to be a nonstop debate about how to teach. Inquiry or Explicit. The inquiry based instruction groups argue that inquiry instruction is preferable because it enhances creativity, is more natural, creates deeper memories, helps students become lifelong learners and more. The explicit based instruction groups argue that explicit instruction helps students learn to read more efficiently, is in line with scientific research, gives students the tools to become lifelong learners, and more.

I think that this debate has become slightly misplaced. With many in the inquiry camp claiming that explicit instruction means lecture and many in the explicit camp claiming that inquiry instruction means discovery learning. In my lived experience, and even in my twitter experience, both are wrong. This is part 3 in a 3 part series.

  1. Inquiry Instruction 2. Explicit Instruction 3. Inquiry Vs Explicit: Who Wins?

I’ve given brief summaries of Inquiry Instruction and Explicit Instruction in previous blog posts. You can click on the links above to read them if you like.

Before I declare my winner. Let’s push back on the derision that can accompany Inquiry and Explicit instruction based teaching.

A well planned Inquiry based lesson will look slightly chaotic to an outsider, but that does not mean learning is not taking place. The teacher is intentionally crafting the lesson to guide students toward the correct answer, to guide students towards knowledge. The hope is that this leads to a deeper understanding because the student needs to construct this knowledge for themselves, it isn’t given to them by the teacher. Throughout this process the teacher is giving feedback to students in order to guide their learning and assisting them in seeing their errors. The hope is that this helps students to become critical thinkers who are able to spot their own mistakes and fix them.

Explicit instruction is not a dry lecture. There is back and forth between the teacher and students and between students over the course of a lesson. The teacher takes time to carefully plan the lesson and introduce vocabulary and concepts in bitesize chunks that are digestible for students. Then, after students are introduced to the necessary background knowledge (includes vocab, concepts, skills) the teacher demonstrates solving a problem. Then students work together to solve a problem. And, finally, the students can solve the problem on their own. Throughout this process, the teacher is giving students informal feedback (corrective, and affirmative). The constant feedback helps students to learn more quickly and move towards accurate application of their new knowledge.

Now for the winner.

Explicit Instruction!

I believe that explicit instruction wins because it is more structured. I do not mean more planned because a good inquiry lesson is very carefully planned. But the structure matters. I believe that this structure helps students to learn more efficiently than the looser structure provided by inquiry learning. And, as always, the proof is in the pudding (student outcomes for us). What follows is an incredibly brief summary of the research into explicit instruction.

Explicit instruction has been proven to be an effective teaching strategy for “normal students” however, it is especially beneficial for students with various learning challenges (Archer, 2011). Explicit instruction is effective for all students precisely because of its structure.

The structure of and benefits explicit instruction from Hall & Vue, 2004. If you are interesting in more details about the structure and meta-analysis, click on the Hall and Vue link above.

Structure of Explicit Instruction

  • Big Ideas
  • Conspicuous strategies
  • Mediated scaffolding
  • Strategic integration
  • Primed background knowledge

Delivery of Explicit Instruction

  • Frequent Student Responses
  • Appropriate Pacing
  • Adequate Processing Time
  • Monitor Responses

A meta-analysis by Adams, 1996 found that the mean effect size for explicit instruction is .75. This is a very large, positive impact on student learning. Project Follow Through found that students taught with explicit instruction in math, reading, language, and spelling had good levels of achievement, while also having a higher self-esteem than students taught with other methods. This may be because competence in school can lead to higher self-esteem. It was also found that disadvantaged students with diverse needs benefited greatly from explicit reading instruction.

The following quote is from the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials by Hall and Vue.

One of the most visible implementations of direct instruction in public schools is Wesley Elementary in Houston, TX. When the school began implementation of instruction using direct instruction, fifth grade students were almost two years below grade level. After four years of implementation, the third, fourth, and fifth grade students were performing 1 to 1.5 years above grade level. All students scored above the 80th percentile in both reading and mathematics on the district evaluation. Wesley School continues these effective practices school-wide and continues to have exemplary scores on district, state, and national assessments.

For clarity, direct instruction (di) is a form of explicit instruction. I feel the results are clear based on research. We can use explicit instruction in our classrooms to improve the outcomes of all our students, high and low achieving while improving their self-esteem and not damaging their creativity. The evidence is explicit.