How to Teach So Learning Sticks

Degrees of Transfer: How to Teach So Learning Sticks
By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

One of the greatest conundrums faced by educators is how to teach in ways that empower readers to apply new practices independently. We teach students how to use strategies–such as inferring and questioning and determining importance–yet, in the face of needing to apply their learning, students oftentimes don’t, or at least not as well as we expect they should. Once we get past our exasperation, we are left feeling deflated, defeated, confused, and wondering: Why is this happening? Why isn’t our instruction transferring?

Over the course of our work as classroom teachers, building literacy coaches, and staff developers, we, too, have wrestled with the question of transfer. In seeking to understand the obstacles blocking the path to independent and proficient readers, we have identified the following three factors as pivotal contributors to degree of transfer.

How do children learn to read? By reading, of course! In the wake of the Common Core Standards and teaching to the test, we have encountered a movement toward presenting students with more “complex” text, which is too often synonymous with giving students texts that are dull, poorly written, culturally insensitive, and/or age and grade level inappropriate.

While we believe that shining a light on text complexity was intended to help us become more discerning about our text choices, poor implementation of this idea comes with the serious consequence of creating readers who see reading as a task that is done only for school. Student energy for and investment in applying the skills and strategies we are teaching them depends on the quality and accessibility of the texts they are given to read. Furthermore, excessive time in texts that are too difficult causes students to develop inefficient reading processes, which become habituated and can only be righted through intervention. Thus, it is hard–if not impossible–to create great readers without great texts.

So, what are we to do? As teachers, we must ardently return to the core belief that great text is the backbone of great reading instruction. Rather than being an ancillary piece to instructional decision making, text choice needs to be the fulcrum upon which all reading instruction rests. When we select books for students, or when we help students select books for themselves, we want to ask the following questions:

  • How accessible is this text? How much support will students need in order to successfully be able to read this text?
  • How much thinking will students do in this text? Is it worth rereading?
  • How does this text represent the students I teach? Does it promote racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and gender awareness and understanding?
  • How engaging is this text? Does it promote a visceral response, make students wonder, want to take action, or teach empathy?
  • Will this text give students opportunities to practice the strategies we want them to habituate?

Considering these questions makes text selection considerably more challenging. In fact, we find that text selection generally represents about 60% of our work when we develop lessons. When we give such careful consideration to text choice, however, we find that students are much more likely to bring their best, most engaged thinking to the work. What’s more, presenting children with beautiful texts allows text to assume the responsibility of the hardest part of teaching a child to read–helping them to see the value in reading for the sake of reading.

When learning to read, students are taxed with needing to understand a host of difficult skills and strategies, such as making inferences, questioning, determining importance, and analyzing text. Over the years, these skills and strategies have been studied and dissected and distilled into their most basic components. As a result, there is an abundance of very good lessons that have been developed to teach children how to learn these valuable skills and strategies. In many cases, these lessons present students with these new concepts by employing a process that begins with the teacher modeling, proceeds with involving students in applying their new learning while supported by a teacher, and concludes with directing and expecting students to apply their new learning on their own. However, in spite of our very best efforts to teach these very good lessons, too many of our students don’t demonstrate the proficiency we expect, which brings us back around to the question: Why?

One commonly embraced aspect of instruction that we question is whether the gradual release across a single lesson gives students enough time to practice and really learn the new concepts that we wish to teach them. In exploring this question, we have grown to appreciate that the skills and strategies that are required to become an independent and proficient reader are complex and integrated. If our end goal is for students to be able to apply new learning on their own, then it is imperative that we give them multiple opportunities to practice honing their newly learned skills and strategies.

For this reason, we have shifted away from thinking about the gradual release across a single lesson to thinking about it across several instructional contexts. We find that by introducing a concept using a visual text and providing repeated exposure with texts of decreasing complexity in read aloud, shared, guided and independent reading, students are given the practice they need to really be able to apply new learning.

If you’re a teacher, you know that teaching is synonymous with helping. It’s what gets us up in the morning. It’s what we do. Naturally, when we are faced with a student who is struggling, it is our instinct to swoop in and help them to solve the problem. When teaching reading, helping oftentimes comes in the form of saying things like, “What would make sense there?” or “Sound it out.” While well-intended, what we don’t realize is that when language such as this is our default setting, we may be inadvertently robbing students of opportunities to practice employing the new skills and strategies we have been teaching them. Unintentionally, we create learned helplessness.

As teachers, it is important to remember that somewhere between too easy and too hard is the sweet spot where our best learning happens. In the face of struggle, our task should be to scaffold students in ways that expects them to apply new learning. This requires resetting our teaching language default to asking questions like “What can you try?” or “What can you figure out?” at the point of difficulty and saving questions and prompts like “Does that make sense?” or “Look at the picture,” as a last resort. Such simple shifts in teaching language empowers students with a newfound sense of agency, as they learn to rely on themselves when they struggle.

Closing Thoughts

These key considerations are the backbone of the ideas we presented in Who’s Doing the Work? How To Say Less So Readers Can Do More. Unto themselves, each point is relatively simple to implement; however, when it comes to threading it all together–making decisions about which texts are great texts, which texts to use in each of the different instructional contexts, and what language to employ when students encounter difficulty–it becomes infinitely more difficult. Eager to optimize their balanced literacy instruction in ways that truly lead to students transfer of learning, teachers repeatedly ask us, What does this look like? How do we do this with our own students in our own classrooms?

Because many teachers have expressed a desire for something to scaffold them as they work to flesh out their vision for teaching in ways that hit upon all three of these points, we have written Who’s Doing the Work? lesson sets for grades K-2, and we are working on lesson sets for grades 3-5, which will be available next spring. These supplemental lessons–in which we share thoughtfully-selected literature and flesh out lessons that teach the same concepts with visual art, read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading–can give you a clearer vision of how to adjust your instructional practices so that instruction transfers better, regardless of whether you use a basal reader, reader’s workshop, the Daily Five, or any other balanced literacy based program. Our ultimate goal is that classrooms be filled with joyful teaching and learning.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are the authors of Who’s Doing The Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More and the Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets.

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