Explicit Instruction: Modeling

In a systematic review of the literature, Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson (2017) reviewed 86 studies and determined that explicit instruction has 5 Pillars. The first pillar is segmenting complex skills. The second pillar is large, so I divided it up into two posts, think-alouds (teacher talk) and modeling.

In order for modeling to be effective, a teacher must have their teacher-talk down pat. As we are communicating our model, our language must be concise, clear, and strategically repetitive. Being concise is essential because our students are novices and do not have a well-developed schema. Being concise saves their working memory for the content of our course and the repetition helps ensure the content is integrated into their schema. However, concise-ity alone is not all we need. 

We must pair our conciseness with clarity. To speak clearly you ought to plan ahead, avoid ambiguity, and use proper grammar. In addition, be careful with figurative language. If you must use it, and it’s quite likely that you must, explicitly explain the figurative phrases to your students. 

Modeling

Modeling is one of the most efficient ways to learn new skills or knowledge (Bandura, 1986). At its most basic, modeling helps students learn skills, procedures, or behaviors through observation rather than through direct experience (Salisu & Ransom, 2014).

Modeling is important because it increases access to the curriculum. When we leave modeling out of our instruction, less students will be able to acquire and apply complex comprehension strategies (Fielding & Pearson, 1994).

When to Model

Modeling has been found to be particularly useful for well-structured tasks. These are tasks that can easily be broken down into component steps. Math is the most obvious example, you have a standard algorithm to follow that can be broken down into smaller sub-steps.

Less-structured tasks are tasks that cannot be easily broken down into sub-steps. As a result, these tasks are seen as higher-leveled. Modeling with less structured tasks is likely to be more difficult and less effective because, in order to succeed, students will need to pull knowledge and skills from a variety of areas. 

How to Model

Before you start modeling a concept or skill, bring your students’ background knowledge to mind. This can be done through review, sharing an image or video, etc. I am partial to using a combination of choral response and think-pair-share as a way to bring background knowledge to mind. By having students think about what they already know, you are making it easier for them to integrate the new knowledge into their existing schema and allowing students to move forward with the least amount of confusion.

When we are modeling a concept or skill for our students, we should make it as short and simple as possible. Only include what is important, don’t go down the rabbit hole. Interesting asides can wait. In addition, check for understanding throughout the modeling process. Even if you have your teacher talk down pat and have a well planned model, don’t assume that you can just run through the model once and have your students understand. Even with the most precise, perfect model, you still need to break it down into small steps and check for understanding.

Steps to Modeling

  1. Bring background knowledge to mind
  2. Make each step of your modeling short and simple
  3. Check for understanding between the steps
  4. Give students guided practice with feedback

Modeling Behavior

Disposition Modeling: When done well, this helps convey personal values and thought processes. By modeling a disposition, we are often able to make abstract rules and expectations more concrete.

To model dispositions we can simply explain and act out what we feel or think when a student is misbehaving. It is very important to note that this is not done with a condescending tone. It is done to help students understand the expectations, not to shame or let off some frustrated steam.

Educational Modeling

As far as education goes, there are many different types of modeling.

Meta-Cognitive Modeling: This is the classic think-aloud. Teachers talk through their own thought process and intentionally make the implicit steps explicit. This is particularly useful for teaching students how to interpret information, analyze concepts, and draw conclusions.

Modeling as Scaffolding: This takes into account where individual students are in the learning process. This type of modeling is the most difficult, because different students have different levels of knowledge and differing knowledge gaps. So, in order to model as scaffolding, a teacher must not only know the curriculum inside and out, he or she must also know their students.

In order to scaffold effectively, it is useful to think about where you expect students to struggle. Ask yourself, “What makes this concept difficult? Will my students lack the necessary background knowledge?” 

This planning helps in at least four ways.
1. If your students lack the necessary background knowledge, give it to children so that they have a chance to understand the model and concept you are trying to teach.
2.  It reduces your stress levels. If you have additional explanations and models at the ready, you will not be racking your brain for an example to give a student in the middle of class.
3. By preplanning additional models or supplementary explanations, you will likely help your struggling students understand the materials better.
4. You may even find that all your students benefit from the additional models and explanations. When this is the case, everyone’s’ life is easier (teacher & students) because more students understand from your teaching (whole class scaffolding) and less students need customized help, improving class flow and learning.

Task and Performance Modeling: In this, the teacher demonstrates a task to students before they do it on their own. This is the type of modeling that teachers most often used in a preplanned manner.

For complex processes like the scientific method or writing, it will likely be best to break down your modeling rather significantly by teaching one step per lesson. 

For example, I have tried to teach students how to form a hypothesis in one day, and the results have never really been pretty. The reason for this is that making a hypothesis involves many sub-steps including: observations, inferences, background knowledge, and asking scientific questions. Each of these sub-steps is relatively complicated by itself, let alone when you combine them! When students new to the scientific method try to apply all those steps at once, they experience cognitive overload. And, even if they follow the steps correctly, they are unlikely to remember how to use the scientific method the next day.

When dealing with complex material, students need to be exposed to one idea at a time. They do not yet have a developed schema with which to hold all this information. We need to remember this, and to build their schemas over time, they need to know and understand each sub-step. And, as we teach, we build on the previously learned material.

So, after learning from my own teaching failures, I have changed how I teach complex skills. Now, when I teach the scientific method to 5th or 6th grade students, I will generally start by teaching observations and inferences. We spend nearly a full lesson on this. After my students understand both observations and inferences, I will then teach them how to transfer that knowledge into a hypothesis.

In strategically breaking down my model of the scientific method into multiple days by focusing on one sub-step at a time, I have initially made the choice to cover less content. I have found that this approach pays dividends quickly and repeatedly. Now, my students better understand the complex process that is the scientific method. In addition, their better understanding allows for us to move through the content more quickly, which also gives us more time to go deeper.

Sometimes less leads to more.

Other blogposts in this series.

  1. What is Explicit Instruction?
  2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
  3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
  4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
  5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading

Sources

Bandura A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fialding, L. G., & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Synthesis of research reading comprehension: What works. Educational leadership, 51, 62-62.

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

Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching Students to Generate Questions: A Review of the Intervention Studies. Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 181-221. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1170607

Salisu, A., & Ransom, E. N. (2014). The Role of Modeling towards Impacting Quality Education. International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, 32, 54–61. doi: 10.18052/www.scipress.com/ilshs.32.54

Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity

Posts in this series…
1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading
6. Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond

Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson describe Modeling and Think Alouds as a core component of explicit instruction. In a subset to this component, they include “clear and precise language” (2017).

As teacher talk is seen as important no matter where you fall on the education traditional-progressive divide (though neither side remotely agrees on the type/amount of talk) it is depressing that empirical evidence supporting precise guidelines for teacher talk is generally lacking (Hollo & Wehby, 2017).

However, while guidelines are lacking, research into teacher talk is not. We know that teachers talk more than students (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). If we do not talk enough, we fail to communicate the content. Conversely, if we talk too much, we will overwhelm our students’ working memory (Grunewald & Pollack, 1990). Either way, our students fail to learn. Getting teacher talk right is important.

Lack of Clarity is Problematic

Lack of clarity is another problem that increases instructional casualties. This happens when teachers use poorly organized speech, characterized by vague terminology and hemming and hawing (Brophy, 1988, p. 245). Lack of clarity hurts all students, but it doesn’t do so equally. Unclear teacher talk hits struggling students with low language proficiency particularly hard (Ernst-Slavit & Mason, 2011), decreasing educational equity. 

The first step towards changing this is to know what types of speech make learning more difficult for students. However, changing teacher speech patterns is notoriously difficult (Dickinson, 2011). So we shouldn’t expect our habits or others’ habits to change just because we now know better. But we can and should expect consistent effort.

Sloppy Language

Sloppy language includes ambiguity, mazes, and errors. In their 2017 article, Hollo and Wehby described ambiguity as 

“words or phrases that indicate the speaker lacks confidence or knowledge, as demonstrated by equivocating, approximating, hedging, or bluffing (pretty much, maybe, probably, I guess; Hiller et al., 1969); decreased specificity of content or context (the thing, some kind of, all that; Smith, 1980); ambiguous referents (e.g., a pronoun without its noun referent; Chilcoat, 1987; Masterson et al., 2006); or hesitations that indicate the speaker’s lack of confidence (Bugental et al., 1999). Ambiguity also includes cloze statements in which the teacher asks an open-ended or fill-in-the-blank type of question, expecting a specific answer when in fact a range of responses would be logical (squirrels do what?).” 

Verbal mazes can occur in simple sentences with concrete and familiar vocabulary when the delivery lacks smoothness and/or is disfluent. Disfluency includes silent pauses, word and non-word fillers (like, uh, um), repetitions of words (But, but what I meant was), and repetitions of phrases (What I want, what I want you to do next is) (ASHA, 2020). 

Both ambiguous and disfluent (maze) teacher talk decrease student attention and increase student errors (Bugental et al., 1999)

Teachers can also flat out error. We can use incorrect grammar such as subject-verb agreement, improper tenses, and misplaced clauses. Commonsensically, it has been found that elementary student performance is better when they are taught with proper grammar have increased performance when they are taught with proper grammar (Forney & Smith, 1979).

Neat Language

I think it is probably easiest to fix ambiguous language and mazes. The path to fixing both is good planning. Ask yourself, “How should I explain this concept?” How should I model this skill?” Then jot down some notes and see what you can cut out, see what you should re-word. When you have made your explanation or model as simple and straightforward as possible without making it simplistic, you have arrived.

I am of the opinion that fixing errors is the most difficult because I this is the most ingrained speech pattern. You have been speaking and writing since you were a small child, getting rid of habitual errors will take a lot of intentional effort to undo. For this, I’d recommend humbling yourself and picking up a grammar workbook.

Clear Figurative Language?

Figurative language is one area where clarity is lacking by definition. Figurative language is simply words or phrases that have nonliteral meanings and are quite common in daily speech (ex: Metaphors, Similes, and phrases like “America is a melting pot.” “Time is money.” etc). Use of figurative language reduces the comprehension of students with specific language impairment (Nippold, 1991) and emotional behavioral disturbance (Mack & Warr-Leeper, 1992). In addition, figurative language also reduces the comprehension of English language learners (Palmer, Shackelford, Miller, & Leclere, 2006).

One reason comprehension of figurative language is reduced for the above populations is that many of these students have limited vocabularies with a narrow range of representations (Beck & McKeown, 2007). Essentially, when we use idioms, irony, wordplay, or colloquialisms, the information just goes over many students’ heads. And that’s problematic, just ask Drax.

drax

We must be careful with our use of figurative language. If we do not think it through, many students will struggle to access our teaching. The solution isn’t to avoid all forms figurative language like they have the plague. Imagine an English class that avoids metaphors and similes, or a science or social studies class that avoids abstract concepts. Describing that approach as being crazy as a loon and dumb as a doorknob barely scratches the surface of it. Such approaches obviously don’t support language development (Dickinson, 2011).

Increase Clarity, Increase Learning

Instead, we should make things clear. We should be explicit. We can explicitly teach students about figurative language whether we teach English or not. We should recognize when we use phrases that cause confusion and use it as an extra teachable moment. “When I say _________, what it means is________.” Basically, this is a student friendly definition for a phrase.

In addition to being explicit about our course content and about the language we use, we can restate key information in multiple linguistic forms. This strategic redundancy improves comprehension for general education students (Brophy, 1988; Crossan & Olson, 1969). And it increases equity because special education students (Lapadat, 2002), and ELLs (Park, 2002) also benefit from being exposed to the same content in different forms. 

This does increase teacher talk, but it needn’t reduce student talk. The solution is to take shorter “turns.” Nobody likes a monologue and besides, they are hard to follow, “The longer the speaking turn, the denser the informational chunk, and the greater the oral literacy demand” (Roter, Erby, Larson, & Ellington, 2007, p. 1445). Free up your students’ working memory and talk in short chunks.

The second part of taking a shorter speaking turn involves allowing students to talk. I believe the form this takes is generally of secondary importance, while the way you model, structure, and enforce behavior when it is the students’ turn to talk is of paramount importance (Modeling will be the subject of my next post in this series). 

Your students must know exactly what to do and how to do it. The effectiveness of student talk depends on how you model it and provide structure. I have found success with Choral Response and Think-Pair-Share as described in my article for CogSciSci.

An added benefit of this approach is that you will be giving students additional chances to respond, which has been shown to increase student performance (Haydon, Macsuga-Gage, Simonsen, & Hawkins, 2012) while also decreasing problem behavior in children with emotional behavioral distance (Sutherland & Wehby, 2001). 

This approach is effective because each question forces students to engage in retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been proven to work with a wide array of students and subjects (Dunlovsky, 2013), increasing equity.

Increase Equity with Slow Teaching

Another effective practice for increasing equity is to simply slow down. Children with specific language impairments have been shown to have increased comprehension when the teacher speaks at a rate of 4.4 syllables per second or less. This slowed rate did not affect comprehension in children with typically developing language abilities (Montgomery, 2004). 

Increasing your wait time has been found to result in both increased quality and quantity of student responses (Tobin, 1986). By waiting just a little bit longer than normal, you allow for more students to think through your question.

Sources

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