How often should teachers use literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking) to help students learn their subject matter?

How often should teachers use literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking) to help students learn their subject matter?

How frequently should teachers have their students perform silent reading to learn new subject matter? And what about in career-technical classrooms?

This is a question that is frequently asked of me and of my colleagues at MAX Teaching. We say it should be used virtually every day. We run into so much teacher resistance to content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI) that perhaps we tend to overstate the case. Nothing works every day. However, most people have never seen the results of a curriculum that immerses students in CLBI. It is pretty amazing. What is most important about MAX Teaching (CLBI) is the framework of instruction of (M) motivation, (A) acquisition, and (X) eXtension: getting ready to learn, learning, and then making sense of what was learned. In the high school classes I have taught over the years, I have wrapped that 3-step instructional pattern around readings from the text, readings from articles, Internet searches, field trips, guest lecturers, videos, labs, or whatever learning experience was appropriate to help students develop understandings through their own interactions with the content. (Far and away, the most frequent was reading, for many reasons.) At the same time, a great many students are not self-motivated to read informational text, especially textbooks or other teacher-provided materials. So we have to set up circumstances that will motivate and support students’ reading of complex text.

Motivation

In the Motivation stage of the class, we establish the problem. The human brain is hard-wired to make sense of novel or problematic situations, and we take advantage of that need by enticing curiosity to find out something. There are many ways to do this, but it is what drives the students into wanting to find out. Thus they are motivated to read. The motivation stage of the class might involve the use of a mini-lecture to explain an important concept. It might involve a short video from YouTube. There is not one set way to motivate students, nor is there one device that always works. It is the principal goal of the teacher to get the students interested in the topic. Sometimes the Motivation stage takes five minutes. Sometimes it takes thirty. The point is, I am not putting students into a piece of text unless they are ready to attack it. (This is the element that an awful lot of teachers leave out, causing the students to check out. Many teachers will simply start a class by telling students that they have twenty minutes to read a section of the text, “and then we will discuss it.” Better yet, they give students a fill-in-the-blank work sheet and tell them to read and find the answers in anticipation of the “discussion.” Hate to say it, but neither of those reading prompts is a motivator. The first one essentially says, “Don’t read it.” The second one says “Don’t read it in any meaningful way, but scan to find the answers.”) So, let’s say we have the students in a place where they are curious. They need to find out something. Is that enough? I say not, for most students. Why not do what any reasonable coach would do; explain the skill they will use to process the text. Explicitly model a comprehension skill, or a note taking skill, or a memory skill, or an analytical skill. Show them exactly how they are going to practice the skill. Now you have students who want to find out something, and have the self-confidence to take on the task. Now it’s time to acquire new information (and skills—through practice).

An example: When I recently facilitated a textbook reading in a chemistry class on the topic of electron configurations and chemical reactivity in the Group One Elements of the periodic table, I used a very well-known one-minute you-tube video clip wherein a chemist proceeds down the group dropping small amounts of first lithium, then sodium, then potassium, rubidium, and cesium into large glass containers of water, noting the relatively increasing reactivity of each of the elements with the water, to the point of causing an explosion upon combining cesium with water. The whole video takes about a minute. Before that video, I used a SmartBoard to project some slides I had made to establish the context for both the video and the reading that was to come. One slide was designed to help students conceive of the idea of electron layers, and to make the point about each of the group 1 element’s outer layers containing a single valence electron. (See image.)

This all took about three or four minutes before previewing the section of the textbook that students were about to read. So, yes, I used more than just reading. I used SmartBoard and YouTube – two technologies not even in existence when I started using CLBI in my classroom in 1989. (I would have used an overhead transparency back in the day, and maybe a 16mm film if one existed.) I took the time to build the prior knowledge that would facilitate students’ understanding of the text they were about to read. After that, I introduced a comprehension strategy that would facilitate students’ processing of the text, and only then did they read silently, followed by discussion and other extension activities. In other words, I coached the students through the concepts and the skills involved in reading for learning. And, they coached each other in understanding the concepts from the text. That was the other coach—the text.

Acquisition

As I said above, the acquisition phase of the class could be accomplished through any number of instructional formats, but reading is far and away the most effective for several reasons (that have been stated in some of my other posts and in my book). During the acquisition stage, students are actively processing information individually, preparing for the third phase of the class. Each student has the opportunity to personally analyze the text and construct meaning, connecting new information through her own schemata. A classroom full of students reading the same information may be interpreting the information in quite different ways than the others in the class, simply based on their background knowledge. So, during this phase of the lesson, students are allowed to process ideas in all the complexity that print allows. Students are thus afforded the opportunity to practice metacognitive behaviors. They can go back and reread ideas as they wish to clarify their thinking or to enhance comprehension of ideas that are interrelated. They can write to gather their thoughts. What is acquired during the acquisition phase of the lesson? Both information and skills are developed simultaneously, one reinforcing the other. Students can ask questions, refer to illustrations, or do whatever they need individually to make sense of ideas, all in preparation for the third step, extending beyond the text.

EXtension

Once students have gathered evidence to support their thinking, they meet with other students to sort things out. Usually there is some room for debate as to how the information that has been processed should be interpreted, but that is a good thing. Now the metacognitive process is brought out into the open, as students help one another to clarify, question, and summarize what they have read. This part of the class tends to be the most animated simply because everyone is on board the intellectual train. It is not like the traditional classroom wherein most students have not done the required reading to prepare for discussion, or dozed off during the lecture or video. Instead, everyone is in the discussion. Middle and high school students are pretty much hard-wired to argue. So this part of the class tends to be pretty fun for them. Extension beyond the text may also involve writing or making notes, or it may involve going into the shop to apply what was learned. There are many forms of behavior appropriate for this phase of the lesson. The important thing is that everyone is in it.

Reading for learning should not be seen as the only instructional activity that happens in a well-designed curriculum that focuses on the use of the literacy skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking. However, such literacy skills are so underused that most students graduate from high school reading like proficient fifth-graders. They are graduating into an information-oriented world in which problem solving and literacy-related skills make up the chief capital for success.

Todd Luke provides the following example of the relevance of reading for a CTE student. Consider the automotive technician that must read a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) to troubleshoot a vibration in the front of a 2007 Buick. That particular TSB is 48 pages long, and the technician will have to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize the apparent vehicle problem with the information in the TSB to determine which corrective action will likely solve the problem. He might narrow down his search to a wheel bearing and then must analyze and evaluate whether it is the inner wheel bearing or the outer wheel bearing based on synthesis of the customer complaint and the TSB information. After analysis and evaluation, the technician will replace and reassemble the faulty wheel bearing assembly, road test the vehicle and communicate to the customer that the issue is resolved.

The intellectual process undertaken by the auto technician is one that is similar for any number of professionals such as cosmetologists, nurses, computer specialists, etc. who find themselves in problem-solving settings in which they must think for themselves and process information at a fairly sophisticated level. Career-technical students deserve access to the skills involved in a CLBI curriculum just as much as do other students.

I have taught for many years, mostly in social studies and science classrooms, wherein my high school students were immersed in content-literacy-based instruction as the principal means of acquiring information and developing new understandings. I have used the techniques in 50-minute classes, 90-minute blocks, and 115-minute blocks, with students of a very wide range of abilities. My experience is that students quickly become comfortable with reading for learning if it is the routine. For many students, such immersion in content-literacy-based instruction is the first time in their lives that they have had enough information to actually participate in a classroom conversation. (In most traditional classes, students must rely on what they were supposed to have read for “homework” or what the teacher said fifteen minutes ago, or yesterday, or the bullet points from a teacher’s slide presentation. In other words, they are pretty much unprepared to take a stand on much of anything. The students only have tidbits of information to go on.) In my classes, all students—those on an IEP as well as those on the dean’s list—were able to perform intellectually every day. What they acquire from such an experience is a sense of effortlessness with text. Students begin to see complex text as a solution to problem solving, instead of something to be avoided. That is the gift of using CLBI as an instructional tool. And such an experience will serve those students for the rest of their lives, regardless of which profession they pursue.

I know of one career-technical student who studied precision machining in a CTE school in Western Pennsylvania in the 1980s who went on to become a precision machining instructor in a CTE school, and partly because of his literacy skills, became a teacher who immersed his students in CLBI. He also continued his education, and is nearly finished with his PhD as of this writing. His doctoral studies have focused on the use of CLBI in CTE classes, and the data clearly demonstrate that CLBI leads CTE students to better perform on NOCTI as well as the state’s more academically oriented tests. More importantly, he is not labeling anyone as a “hands-on” student, but instead preparing all of his students to achieve to their potential, regardless of whether or not they are even aware of that potential at this point in their lives.

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When Is Feedback Most Effective?

The Coaching Model

Effective athletic coaches use a formative assessment and feedback process to develop their players on the athletic field. They set up small-sided drills wherein their players are practicing a skill or tactic that is easily observable because of the way the coach has designed the drill.

Two forms of feedback are built into this model. As a coach moves around the field observing player interactions within the small groups, the coach can stop to discuss with a particular group of players, providing some feedback based on what s/he has seen them do. The coach may blow the whistle and bring the entire team back together to provide such feedback, or s/he may choose to do it individually.

The other form of feedback is from other players competing in the drills. If one does not execute properly, opponents provide immediate feedback by stifling the success of the player. The important thing to note about the process is that there are constant opportunities to provide/receive feedback based on observations and player interaction. This way, bad habits are less likely to be formed by players, and players are receiving clarification about their execution of important skills or tactics while they are in the process of developing them.

It would be a shame if the coach failed to use such a process, but rather simply outlined with the team, at practice or on a chalkboard, how they should play the game, and then waited until after a match was played against another team to provide feedback on how the players executed the plan that had been discussed. Such an assessment and feedback process would be executed too late to affect the outcome of the match. However, in a classroom in which instruction takes place, leading only to a quiz or a test of student mastery of the subject matter, the exact same process may be occurring – instruction followed by a summative assessment leading to a grade that is a measure of success or failure – too late to make a difference.

Formative Assessment and Feedback in the Classroom

Formative assessment, leading to the opportunity to provide timely feedback, is the essence of effective classroom instruction. This notion is not new. Lev Vygotsky called it “dynamic assessment” in the 1930’s. Benjamin Bloom used the term “formative assessment” in his “Mastery Learning” program in the 1960’s and the process was widely known as “authentic assessment” in the literature of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

A great deal of recently reported research has demonstrated that both formative assessment and feedback lead to significant achievement gains. One such source is John Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009), a 20-year synthesis of hundreds of meta-analyses that reports student achievement effect sizes of .90 for formative assessment and .73 for feedback.

Yet, in a classroom where a teacher presents information to students through the culturally normative model of instruction, the forms that formative assessment and feedback take are often closer to what the coach who waits until after the match has been played to provide feedback does than to that of the coach who provides it on a timely basis in small-sided drills at practice, where the feedback can have the most positive effect on player development. This is to a large extent due to the culturally normative information-presentation model still common in most classrooms, wherein the teacher presents information in the form of a lecture that is often accompanied by visuals such as slides, with teacher questions to determine student comprehension of the information presented, and often followed by the use of worksheets or other activities designed to have students practice whatever has been presented. Students are then expected to study the notes that the teacher provided in the presentation process, and, eventually, the test or quiz determines student acquisition of new knowledge. What is wrong with this picture? It is the lack of some of the essential elements of classic coaching involving complex, timely, developmental, dynamic, authentic, and differentiated formative assessment and feedback.

Formative Assessment and Feedback in a MAX Teaching Classroom

How can a teacher with thirty students know what is going on inside each of the heads in the classroom? The answer is that the teacher can’t. Try as s/he might, the teacher does not have the visibility that a coach has, simply because the action takes place inside the heads of the students. However, in a MAX Teaching classroom, timely, prescriptive, and differentiated formative assessment is the norm, only it comes from multiple sources. In a recent Education|Update, Katie Rapp lists seven characteristics of the formative assessment and feedback loop that are found in a well-coached classroom:

  • Tie the feedback to a specific learning goal.
  • Provide information that students can use to improve their performance.
  • Deliver feedback on student work in a timely manner.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in generating feedback rather than acting as passive receivers of information.
  • Feedback doesn’t always have to be tied to a grade.
  • Help students self-regulate.
  • When giving students feedback, take the time to think about what will help students actually improve.

Yet much of the current literature on feedback is geared toward teacher-to-student feedback that takes the form of frequent quizzes or other teacher-administered forms of assessment that, although they provide some measure of formative assessment in the form of student-to-teacher feedback, do not address many of these seven characteristics, especially in the complex curricula of a middle or high school classroom, where the learning goals are numerous, complex, and different from student to student (since each student comes with different background knowledge).

In the MAX Teaching classroom, wherein students participate in a routine of reading for learning, with small-group interaction preceding and following the reading, the opportunities for feedback are multiplied and built-in. Feedback occurs from teacher-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-student, text-to-student, and ultimately, from student-to-self – metacognition, or self-regulated learning.

In fact, one of the main goals of the MAX Teaching process is to scaffold the development of self-regulated learning for all students through the practice of a three-step lesson framework that facilitates the use of text to help students learn new subject matter. If a teacher has selected appropriate text, and students have been scaffolded into the successful processing of that text, one can be fairly certain that the feedback is going to be widespread, on-target, timely, differentiated, unthreatening, and immediately useful to each student in the process of developing new understandings.

Just as in the small-sided drills on the athletic field, the MAX Teaching classroom assures a multitude of timely feedback opportunities differentiated for the needs of each student.