You know you have heard a great keynote speech when a few lines stay with you months after the conference has ended. This happened for us recently. Doug Fisher was talking about the importance of the gradual release of responsibility. He believes that the gradual release of responsibility has morphed into the “sudden release of responsibility.” Not only did he get the audience laughing, he got us thinking. Are we asking children to apply what they have learned too quickly? In our efforts to emphasize the importance of explicit modeling in our own demonstration lessons, have we de-emphasized the importance of guided practice?
After Doug Fisher’s talk, we began rereading the professional literature on guided practice. Many sources site Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory when discussing scaffolding and guided practice. Vygotsky believed that a learner’s developmental level consisted of two parts: the “actual developmental level” and the “potential developmental level.” The zone of proximal development, then, is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.
In Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller writes, “Guided practice, or what I like to call ‘having at it’ consists of gradually giving children more responsibility for using each strategy in a variety of authentic situations.” When Ellin Keene writes about the importance of guided practice in her book To Understand, she discusses the importance of having children “savor the struggle.” She explains, “Teaching is not about making things easier or more fun, or more entertaining, but about helping kids discover the powerful capacity of their own minds, which is in and of itself intoxicating and by the way, fun!”
We have been thinking about the balance in our lessons of student problem-solving with adult guidance, and independent problem-solving. Here are some strategies we have developed to increase the amount of guided practice during lessons.
Beginning with a Less-Scaffolded Prompt
Sometimes our first impulse when we watch children practice a newly learned strategy is to step in before they falter. Yet in order to truly learn something anyone needs lots of opportunities to practice. We need to try it, falter a bit, learn from our mistakes, watch a more experienced person, and then try it again. We know from our own learning experiences that this process can be tedious and frustrating at times, but there are great rewards in the end.
We try to resist the temptation to intervene immediately when watching a student try to apply new learning, so they can experience these rewards. We observe for just a moment to see what the child tries to do. After that quick observation, we decide if we need to intervene. If we do, we begin teaching by using a prompt that keeps the student doing as much of the work as possible.
For example, if a beginning reader is trying to figure out an unfamiliar word and the teacher prompts “look at the picture” before the child makes an attempt, then the teacher does not know what strategy the child would have employed. Instead, we suggest beginning with a “less-scaffolded response” — something like, “What will you try now?” This type of prompt helps the teacher understand the strategies the child knows or can recall. If the child shrugs his or her shoulders or says, “I don’t know,” we might say, “We have learned many strategies to figure out tricky words. You can look at the picture, say the sound of the first letter, or reread. Which do you want to try first?” Again, we are guiding the child to make a decision. It isn’t that one prompt is right and one is wrong. If our goal is independence, then we need to scaffold for independence. Part of being an independent thinker is learning to make decisions. We want to use a prompt that gets the child making decisions about which strategies to use. We want the student doing the work of thinking through options and making choices.
When we are planning our lessons, we now brainstorm three or four possible prompts, and rank order them in terms of level of support for the student. We find that spending two or three minutes brainstorming helps us to avoid stepping in before it is necessary, giving students time to problem-solve under adult guidance.
Sticking with a Student
Many years ago we had the opportunity to watch Ellin Keene as she taught a group of fourth graders to infer. Ellin not only modeled clearly and explicitly, she had a saying that we have never forgotten. When a student raised his or her hand but was unsure what to say, Ellen said, “I know you don’t know, but if you did know what might you say?” Then she waited.
After several seconds of uncomfortable silence, the student shared his or her thinking. It seemed that Ellin’s words not only held the child accountable, but let them know that it was okay to be unsure. This mix of high expectations and support seemed to free the student from worry so that he or she could think. Since then, we have repeated her words in countless classrooms and they usually work wonders. Once students share their thinking we can help them expand their thoughts if necessary.
If we move from student to student during a lesson to find a correct answer, we may be inadvertently telling students that we only want to hear from them when they are sure of the answer. We want to send the opposite message. We want our students to know it is important that they “give it a go,” and the teacher will be right there to support you. This gives the students more opportunities to problem solve with adult guidance.
Moving Our Chair Back During Small-Group Lessons and Conferences
When we are teaching, we often notice that when a child falters sometimes his or her first reaction is to look at the teacher. We know this is a normal reaction, but we worry about what children do when they are working on their own. After we have explicitly modeled and the students have practiced, we sometimes find it helpful to move our chair two or three feet away from where the students are working. This distance is enough for us to see what they are doing, yet it gives the message that we expect the students to try it on their own.
We often find that the children may still look at us, but once we give them a reassuring smile or a friendly signal to keep trying from a few feet away, they begin to problem-solve on their own. We can always move back if we need to jump in, but these types of guided practice experiences help the students apply what we have taught.
Allowing Kids to Construct Understanding
In a fourth-grade classroom, students were learning to infer character traits when reading and to take notes to support their inferences. After we modeled how to use a two-column chart to record thinking and evidence, we asked the class to make a two-column chart in their reading notebooks to use while independently reading. We noticed a few students made a tiny chart in the corner of a page of their notebook. Our first instinct was to ask them to fix the chart. After reflection, we realized it was important for us to allow the students to practice using this tool as they designed it to see if it would work for them. The best way to learn may be for those students to try to use that tiny chart, understand that it is ineffective, make a mess of one notebook page, and begin again on a new page. This takes time. But as we watch students who have many opportunities for guided practice, we find that once they construct the understanding themselves through authentic experiences, they use the tools and strategies we are teaching more effectively to enhance their comprehension.
We are trying to move away from “the sudden release of responsibility” by including time for guided practice in all of our whole-class, small-group, and one-on-one lessons. We take time to model our thinking, but we also take time to have students practice. There is no shortcut when it comes to giving students enough time to practice using strategies flexibly and effectively on their own.