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.


Unlock Student Achievement, Teach Tier 2 Words

Many of the vocabulary words I teach in science (or you teach in math, social studies, English, etc) class would be classified as tier 3 words. Yet, in order to understand these words, students are often required to understand a variety of tier 2 words. Therefore, when students lack the necessary tier 2 words, they are not able to efficiently/effectively learn the new vocabulary words. Without a robust tier 2 vocabulary, students will be locked out of academic success.


Convection Currents: current in a fluid that results in hotter, less dense material rising and colder, more dense material sinking

In order to understand “Convection Currents” a student must know and understand the following tier 2 words ‘current, fluid, and dense’. If students do not know the tier 2 words, they will be stuck memorizing the definition without gaining understanding. This problem compounds itself when students face an assessment.


Compare and contrast convection currents in the Earth’s mantle with those that happen in Earth’s atmosphere.

If they do not understand the tier 2 words, they do not have a hope of answering the question correctly, even if they know the content. For example, ‘compare/contrast’ Even if a student understands convection currents, they must also understand what the question is asking.

We can often assume that students know and understand tier 2 words since they appear everywhere and are used in multiple classes. This assuming is a problem as it makes learning much harder than necessary for low-achieving students.

I have experienced students performing poorly on an assessment who know the content well. But, when I rephrase the question, they are able to give a perfect answer.


How are convection currents in the Earth’s mantle and in the atmosphere the same? How are they different?

My students understood the content, they did not understand the question. I likely face this issue more than other teachers as I teach in an entirely ESL context. However, like most good teaching practices, there are steps you can take that will benefit ALL students.

We can explicitly teach tier two words. This will be particularly helpful for students because they will see these words in multiple classes. And if they can understand them, learning the content-specific vocabulary words will become much easier. Students will also be able to perform better on assessments because they will better understand the questions being asked. Tier 2 words are key for academic success. Give your students the key.

One way my department is trying to address this issue is by making a list of common tier 2 words with student friendly definitions. We will put this list on Quizlet and have students practice the flashcards. We used to do nothing, now we are doing something. What do you do for words in tier 2?

Getting Students To Use New Vocabulary

Present student friendly explanations first then get students using and applying the words in such a way where you can provide correction and feedback. Below are some strategies from “Bringing Words To Life”. I highly recommend you buy and read the book as it is chock full of research and everyday applications for teachers.

  1. Word Associations
    1. infamous, criminal, outlaw, bandit
    2. Ask students
      1. Which word goes with ________?
    3. Then ask students why
    4. Goal: build explicit connections between known words and new words, forces students to directly deal with the word by manipulating it
    5. Associations are not just synonyms!!
  2. Have You Ever…?
    1. Helps students associate new words with their lives.
    2. This strategy can work particularly well when the vocabulary deals with actions and emotions.
  3. Applause Applause
    1. In this strategy, the students clap hard and quickly if they would like to be associated with the word, or soft and quietly if they would not like to be associated with the word.
      1. Make students explain why they clapped loudly or quietly. This helps ensure that the students are actually engaging with the word’s meaning.
        1. This can be done by having students talk with a partner (engaging all students)
          1. You can walk around the room and listen to student explanations to make sure they are on track
  4. Which Would…
    1. In this strategy, the teacher can pose a question with the vocabulary word (students can pose each other questions as a way to review). Students should then explain why they chose their answer.
      1. Which situation would be more disappointing…forgetting your homework or losing your favorite toy? Why?
        1. Students can then talk with a partner and you can walk around the room assessing students’ understanding.

Teaching Vocab: Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt Not

A lot of this article will essentially be a summary of Bringing Words to Life. If you find it helpful, you’ll find the actual book is even better (Find it here). 

Trade books are very helpful in teaching young students new vocabulary. A trade book is essentially a large book that teachers will read out loud to the entire class. These books are helpful because the teacher can pre-teach key words and ask questions as they go. This helps keep every understand the story.

Before choosing a trade book, the teacher must first think about target vocabulary. There are two main rules for picking out target words:

  1. The word must be explainable in words the students already understand.
  2. The word must be useful/interesting/applicable to students’ daily lives.

The first is important because if you must use words outside of a student’s vocabulary when explaining them, then the student will not be likely to understand the target word. The second is important because it will help students remember the word’s meaning and, if it is applicable to their lives, it will give them opportunities to utilize said target word.

The goal with any vocab word is for it to become a permanent part of the student’s vocabulary. (No-one wants a student to forget the words after the unit/test.) To make words permanent, teachers should:

  1. Give students multiple exposures to the word/s over time (spaced and retrieval practice)
  2. Individual Reading
    1. Introduce important words (words that could disrupt comprehension) before students being individual reading
      1. 3-5 words per lesson and ~5-9 per week seem to be the sweet spot
      2. If too many words, students won’t remember their definitions
  3. Group Reading
    1. Introduce words as you encounter them
      1. Add a phrase to describe the meaning and move on
        1. Brief is best (during reading focus on text meaning, not vocab building)
      2. Too many words will disrupt the “flow of comprehension” and students will understand less of the text
  4. Thou Shalt Not
    1. Ask, “What do you think this word means?”
      1. This promotes inaccurate definitions and guessing, leading to misconceptions.
      2. Just tell them and have them apply the words.
    2. Have students regularly look up words in a dictionary as a way to learn new vocabulary
      1. Dictionary definitions are not effective for a myriad of reasons.
      2. Definitions lack context/differentiation due to space constraints
        1. Ex: conspicuous=easily seen
          1. Technically true, but likely to lead to an incorrect understanding of the word’s meaning.
        1. Vague language: definition does not include enough info to be useful to a student
        2. More likely interpretation: dictionary gives a different meaning of the word, student doesn’t know/understand and uses the word in the wrong context
        3. Multiple pieces of information: definition includes a list but doesn’t explain how to apply the list (prescriptive or descriptive)
  5. Instead of dictionaries…
    1. Use student friendly explanations
      1. Capture the essence of the word and how it is typically used
      2. Explain the meaning in everyday language
        1. Ex: exacerbate=an action that makes that makes a bad situation even worse
      3. Student friendly explanations will tend to be longer than a dictionary’s definition
        1. Often include: something, someone, describes

Side note 1: A lot of this is simply good teaching practice and is applicable no matter what subject/content you are teaching.

Side note 2: When words are homographs (sound spelling/sound but different meaning) teachers should not teach all the meanings together as this will confuse students. Teachers should teach the meaning that the context gives.

Teaching Vocabulary: The Word Tiers

I have largely used information from Bringing Words to Life, 2nd addition by Isabel L. Beck, PhD, Margaret G. McKeown, PhD, and Linda Kucan, PhD. I would highly recommend buying their book as it is very well researched and has been tremendously practical so far (I am only 3 chapters in.)

Words have been divided into three tiers. Tier one words tend to be common and used in everyday language such as dog, happy, cold, etc. Tier two words are common in literature but not necessarily common in spoken language such as equation, impulse, nutrition. While tier three words are rare in both written and spoken language such as isotope, isosceles, and impressionism.

Our students are already very likely to have a large vocabulary of tier one words, as they are so common. And, these words are common enough that if there are small gaps in a child’s vocabulary they will likely be able to pick them up quickly.

Tier two words are likely to appear with a high frequency in both written and oral communication. A helpful way to determine if the word is tier two is asking yourself, “Does this word offer my students a more specific way to describe something?”

Tier 1 Tier 2
happy jubilant
sad mourn
close precise

The key here is that the words are not just synonyms, but that the words offer students more precise ways of expressing themselves. For example, a child could say “The man is sad because his test score is low.” Or “The man is mourning because his friend man died.” You would not put the word mourn in the first sentence, and putting the word mourn into the second sentence gives it more meaning and paints a more vivid picture for the reader.

The entire concept of word tiers is not clear cut. What separates the words into theirs are general rules that the teacher can apply. This means that we do not need to get bogged down in which category to place the words into. We can use the following guidelines to help us intentionally choose vocabulary words to teach our students.

  • Importance and utility: Do these words appear in many different domains (Subjects)?
  • Conceptual Understanding: Does the word help students understand a key concept with specific language?
What a student might say Tier 2
The water goes up. evaporate
The rock sinks because it is heavier than water. The rock sinks because it is more dense than the water.
The wall blocks the light The wall is impermeable to light.
  • Instructional Potential: Can the words that can be used in different contexts with different meanings?
What a student might say Tier 2
1. The boy is doesn’t need help.
2. America no longer belongs to England.
1. The boy is independent.

2. America became independent when it won the war against England.

1. The throw was perfect.

2. What you said is true.

1. The throw was very accurate.

2. What you said was accurate.

Tier three words are generally domain (subject) specific like “Homeric Greek literature” and are unlikely to come up outside of specific circumstances. As a result, they are not worth teaching like tier two words because it would simply take too much time. The authors of Bringing Words To Life recommend that teachers teach these words as they come up in the text or class. As an important note, many subjects use tier three words as regular vocabulary words. Tier three words should not be reduced to “isolated words”. Tier three words need to be taught as content knowledge. This means that as students are learning these words, they should practice using them in authentic contexts. For example:

Science Tier 3 Words Potential Activities to Practice Tier 3 Words
1. Convection Currents 1. Have students compare the words

2. Have students draw diagrams

3. Give students concrete examples and have them explain why it is a god example

2. Plate Tectonics

When you choose the words to teach, focus on the tier two words as those have the most utility. Just don’t make students find the meanings in their dictionaries.

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.