What is Explicit Instruction?

When people think of teaching, they may think of an expert, or teacher, imparting information to a novice, or student. For some, the term may conjure images of a person at the front of the room talking and sharing information, or “filling the brains” of people with new information. While this is indeed a portion of teaching, and is a part of explicit instruction, it does not embody everything that explicit instruction entails.

In fact, explicit instruction involves a variety of topics, including active engagement and participation, a brisk or perky pace in instruction, the use of the gradual release of responsibility, and frequent checks for understanding. It is, in fact, excellent instruction, especially for English learners, emergent bilinguals, and multilingual students.

Explicit instruction is not lecture, necessarily; it involves the students in learning in a variety of ways. Students should be actively involved in the lesson, through using the four language modalities of speaking, writing, reading and listening, and participating in a variety of activities that help them to practice the new learning.

Teachers should engage students through modeling and demonstration, guided practice as a whole group as well as in smaller per groups, and independent practice. The pacing should maintain the students’ interest by being brisk, but not so fast as to leave students behind. In order to accomplish this, frequent checks for understanding will need to be utilized.

Why Should We Provide Explicit Instruction?

Explicit instruction is exceptionally helpful when students are learning new content, have experienced difficulty learning information, and/or lack background knowledge. For students learning a new language, it also lowers the cognitive demand as they practice both new content and a new language.

When students are clear about what they will be learning through the posting and sharing of objectives, they are more likely to grasp the concepts being taught as they can focus their attention on the new learning, rather than trying or figuring out what is important, what is key, and what they should remember in the lesson. Explicit instruction ensures that students are taught clearly and explicitly both the content concepts and skills of the lesson, as well as the language that will be needed to think and communicate about the lesson concepts and skills.

This is critical for emergent bilinguals and multilingual students, as they have to process a lot of information during a lesson, including the content and the language. By sharing clearly what students should know and be able to do, and by teaching the language and skills clearly, students can more easily focus on what is to be learned.

While there is value in constructive learning, wherein students are led to new discoveries, teachers can make explicit that this is indeed the goal. In other words, build discovery into the objectives, model the processes, including the thinking, that you use and will expect them to use in the lesson. Have them practice those processes, and check for understanding along the way so that students are not left confused by the purpose of the lesson or the discovery they are intended to make.

How Can We Provide Explicit Instruction (Face-to-Face and Virtually)?

First and foremost, learning should be the focus. Consider how you will provide instruction to facilitate learning, utilizing the concepts of active engagement, the gradual release model, brisk pacing, and frequent checks for understanding. If you are providing instruction virtually, the platform and technology used does have an impact, but instruction will matter more. How you provide instruction, how you model, how you will facilitate conversations among and with students, and how you will have students practice the content concepts, skills, and language being presented are all important.

The lesson itself should follow three basic parts, which can of course be adjusted and modified to fit the needs of your students as well as the timeframe and potentially the technology you will be utilizing.

First, start with a warm-up activity in which you focus student attention, review previous concepts, and share the objectives for the day. During the direct instruction portion of the lesson, utilize the gradual release of responsibility through the “I do-We do-You do together-You do independently” model of instruction. At the conclusion of the lesson, review what was learned through the lesson, preview the upcoming lesson(s), and assigned individual practice of the lesson concepts and language.

As you begin a new lesson, review the key concepts from the previous lesson through an activity such as a discussion, a quick-write or quick-sketch, video clip, or other means. Once students have refreshed their memories on previously learned material and language, provide them with the objectives for the day, and make explicit how the new learning for the day will build upon what has already been learned, or will extend the learning.

During instruction, especially when teaching virtually, be sure to condense the instruction down to the most critical points. Consider what the most critical pieces are for students to learn. An analogy to consider is a target or the layers of an onion. At the center or core is the most important concept, skill, and language (words and phrases) that students absolutely must know and be able to do as a result of this lesson.

The center or core represents the most essential pieces. The next layer represents that which is extremely important to know and be able to do, based on the standards you are teaching. The next layers are important to know, good to know, and “would be nice to know.” Explicit instruction will focus most on the center or core for all students. As students begin to master these critical concepts, you can move to teaching the outer rings through differentiation. Some students will need additional practice with the most essential content and language, and other students may be ready to move to additional information.

When teaching the information, clearly demonstrate the concepts, skills, and language step-by-step through well designed, organized, and focused lessons. Keep the goals in mind as you demonstrate for students, then have them practice with you as well as with each other.

Have students respond frequently, both during demonstrations as well as during guided practice, through choral responses and small group activities, as well as individual responses through writing or sharing orally. Choral responses may look and sound different in the virtual environment. For example, students may be on mute within a virtual platform, but if they are on video you will be able to see their mouths moving as they respond. Small groups may need to be conducted through breakout rooms or potentially in separate meetings.

In any of these scenarios, you will need to monitor student responses and learning through frequent checks for understanding. In the classroom, it is easier to listen in to student discussions and look over the shoulder of students while they write or sketch to see what they are producing.

In the virtual environment, you can have students unmute (either individually or in small groups) to respond, or have them write on a collaborative online document so that you can monitor their production of language as well as the thinking that they are doing. Using a variety of formative and summative assessments will be helpful as you monitor learning.

As you close the lesson, review what was learned in the lesson. This can be separate from the formative and summative assessments provided. Have students reflect upon the objectives, and consider their learning, including the new language and skills presented. This helps to reinforce and strengthen the neurological pathways created during the lesson and will facilitate longer-term retention of information.

Then, preview what is to come in terms of student learning, so that students are aware of the path they will be taking and assign independent practice of the lesson concepts and language as appropriate. Independent practice should not be assigned if there are still serious misconceptions and if students do not have adequate knowledge to practice new skills. Independent practice can, however, focus on previously mastered skills and language that are still critical in learning and practicing the new learning.

Every teacher knows that excellent instruction is easier said than done, and as many move to virtual learning, new methodologies will be required. It is important that we remember that we are learners also, and to allow ourselves to experiment and refine our practices as we find what is successful with our students. Regardless of the scenario, virtual learning, hybrid, or face-to-face, students, and all of us, are facing unprecedented times with the current pandemic. Please remember to be kind to each other and to yourselves as we continue to learn and provide opportunities for our students to progress academically, socially and emotionally.