Goeke on Explicit Instruction

Jennifer Goeke defends a contemporary variant of didactic literacy pedagogy:

Robert was a student in my first second-grade class. His mother brought him to meet me one day as I was excitedly preparing my new classroom. She sheepishly introduced him: “This is Robert. He can’t read.” I assured Robert’s mother that my approach to teaching would get Robert reading. He probably lacked confidence and needed a caring teacher who could change his attitude toward reading. I was trained by some of the most prominent people in the field of literacy, so I was more than prepared to deal with Robert’s difficulties. In my class, reading would be fun.

As the year progressed, Robert’s attitude toward reading did not change. In fact, it got worse. It got so bad by the spring of that year that Robert went from an introverted, sullen boy to a full-fledged behavior problem. One day, after I had repeatedly asked him to take out a book and begin reading, he took off his shoes, tied them together, and threw them at me, yelling, “I can’t read!” It literally took Robert to hit me over the head with his shoes for me to realize that he did not need me to change his attitude or boost his confidence; he needed me to teach him how to read. I am embarrassed, in retrospect, by my willful naïveté. I persisted in my belief that I was doing the best for my students long past the point when I should have realized that in neglecting their instructional needs, I was actually doing them harm. Robert would go to third grade having neither acquired nor mastered a single reading skill or strategy in my classroom. This was especially painful because I knew that the outlook for third grade—where the emphasis abruptly shifted from learning to read to reading to learn—was dismal for those who weren’t competent readers. I felt that I had worked so hard. I had exhausted myself, staying in my classroom for hours after school devising creative learning activities and designing a rich literacy environment. I tirelessly performed everything that my teacher preparation had taught me was not only effective but also right, and yet I had failed—miserably.

My devastating experience with Robert (and several others like him) led me to a critical reconsideration of my approach to teaching. I discovered that my teacher education had developed only one extreme end of a full continuum of essential teaching skills and strategies. I knew how to create a warm, welcoming environment that offered many creative learning opportunities to students who already had the skills and motivation to engage in them. But I lacked any knowledge and skills to adequately—if not effectively—teach the students with learning disabilities included in my classroom, those like Robert who were not identified but who were at risk for reading failure, or those who simply needed much more structure and direction in order to learn well. How could I have completed an entire teacher education program and never learned how to actually stand up and deliver a lesson? During the next few years, I doggedly pursued every professional development avenue to remake myself into an expert—and truly inclusive—teacher. Along the way, I met many other teachers with similar experiences. …

[T]eachers … have two very distinct and conflicting views of each other. General educators are viewed as masters of the art of teaching, whereas special educators are masters of the science. General educators focus on big ideas like caring, democratic, student-centered practice, while special educators promote practices such as differentiated instruction, universal design for learning, and functional behavioral assessment. Big ideas can be seductive because they sound kinder, gentler, more child centered. As a young graduate student, I was swept up in them too. It is in contrast to these big ideas that explicit instruction “looks ugly” (Traub, 1999) to many teachers, scholars, and advocates. …

Over the past 25 years, competing educational philosophies and instructional models have often been described as “at war.” The “reading wars” are a prominent example of how disagreements over different teaching approaches have characterized the instructional landscape of schools. Teacher-directed instructional approaches have been the particular target of disdain among educators. Often, when working with a group of teachers or teacher education students, I will ask them to play a game of free association: “When I say the words explicit instruction, what words come immediately to mind?” Almost unanimously, they will say boring, rote, mechanistic, robotic—sometimes even cruel and harmful 1 then ask them to examine the reasons why explicit instruction has garnered such a negative reputation, especially in light of the fact that it has been strongly supported by research in a variety of settings, for different types of learners. After all, many less well documented strategies have very positive reputations among educators. …

As teacher-directed approaches fell out of favor among educators, more student-centered, constructivist methods gained popularity. According to these approaches, the teacher should not function as a disseminator of knowledge; rather, students must actively construct their own learning. The teacher serves as a facilitator or guide, arranging the environment in ways that maximize students’ learning. A central tenet of constructivist approaches is the “minilesson.” Teachers conduct brief periods of explanation in response to student questioning or “teachable moments.” Labeling any direct teaching as “mini” might be interpreted as a response to the overwhelming amount of teacher talk that could be found in more traditional classrooms. It’s as if educators wanted to say, “You can’t accuse me of being one of those boring windbags! I don’t spend much time directly teaching at all!”

The rise of constructivist methods meant that once again, many teachers (myself included) uniformly applied these approaches without regard to the consequences for some students. It takes a fairly bright, engaged student to think to ask the right question at precisely the right moment. What about those students who are so lost that they don’t know what question to ask? “Mini” instruction may not be sufficient for them. In addition, teaching that happens only in response to teachable moments demands that teachers are prepared to provide any explanation in response to any question at any time. While many experienced teachers may feel comfortable and competent teaching “on the fly,” less experienced teachers may need more careful planning in order to provide students with clear, accurate explanations. Although many teachers may feel more comfortable as a “guide” than as a “director,” it is important to acknowledge that even in general education classrooms, many students actually need instruction that is explicit, directive, and intense, especially as they work to acquire basic skills and strategies. As Mrs. N, a fifth-grade resource teacher, wrote about her struggle to meet her students’ needs,

A great deal of content I must teach is based on the assumption that my students have certain skills, which they do not possess. When students are given strategies for accomplishing a task, they perform with greater success. One of the greatest issues of concern to me is that many of my colleagues do not want to spend time teaching something they feel students should have learned prior to entering their class. What difference does it make who teaches the student as long as the student is taught? If they do not learn skills and strategies they need, they cannot possibly move forward and access the content of any curriculum. Often my colleagues assume that a student can do the work, but chooses not to. This is difficult to assess. How do I know when a student is choosing not to work? If they are making that choice, why are they making it? Are they frustrated? I think most often the student is not taught strategies for how to react when they do not understand something. Also, they may not be taught how to generalize a strategy—that a strategy that was helpful in sixth grade may also be helpful in seventh.

Mrs. N’s comments reflect a common tension between educators in inclusive settings. Mrs. N believes in the merits of providing explicit instruction across the curriculum—even to the extent of teaching her students affective strategies, such as how to express frustration appropriately. Others view themselves as grade-level or content-area specialists; bringing students “up to speed” is outside their realm of responsibility or expertise. Mrs. N’s frustration highlights the need for inclusive educators to reconceptualize effective teaching across grade levels, content areas, and settings. …

Gain Students’ Attention

An effective attention-gaining strategy is the first step to an effective lesson. … Once you have begun a teaching without fully gaining student attention, you have implicitly conveyed, “I don’t really care if you listen to this lesson or not. What I have to say isn’t that important.” Once this message is conveyed, subsequent efforts to gain student attention can be difficult.

Examples of Attention-Gaining Strategies

Teach and use a signal such as holding up two fingers or placing a finger over the lips to signal quiet. For signals to be successful, it is essential to use your e.i. skills to explicitly teach the signal, role play the signal repeatedly, and practice it in multiple contexts.

  • Review expectations for behavior before beginning an e.i. lesson. For example,“At this time you should he sitting up straight, pretzel-legged, looking at me. Hands are still and in your lap. Great job! Let’s begin.”

    “SLANT!” (Sit up, Lean forward, Ask questions, Nod your head, Track the speaker)

  • Affirm students for their good attending behavior. For example,“It’s wonderful when I come to the carpet to begin a lesson and you are already quiet, sitting up straight, keeping your hands still in your laps, ready to listen. Terrific job! Let’s begin.”
  • Relate the content of your lesson to students’ interests or use questions to arouse their curiosity. These questions, called “openers,” are not intended to have a single right an
swer or even to reflect the fine details of what will follow but rather are meant to amuse, stimulate, or even bewilderstudents so that they become interested and receptive to the content that follows. For example,“Have you ever wondered why some animals only come out at night?”

    “Can you guess what I have in this box?”

In order for attention-gaining strategies to be effective, they must be explicitly taught using multiple examples … , role-played, practiced in multiple contexts, and consistently reinforced. For example, at the beginning of the school year, the teacher decides which attention-gaining signals she wants to use (e.g., hand claps and response or call-and-response). During the first few days of school, the teacher explains and explicitly models the signal for students. The teacher and students role-play responding to the signal. The teacher randomly uses the signal in multiple contexts and then positively reinforces students for responding to it.

Ideally, once students have learned the signal or focusing statement and you have positively reinforced it over time, they will respond with minimal effort on your part. For example, a few weeks into the school year, students become familiar with the routine. They know that explicit instruction takes place on the carpet at a particular time each day. You have given a signal for students to sit quietly on the carpet. When you come to the carpet and sit in the teacher’s chair, students automatically give you their attention. They have internalized the focusing signal and become independent; they give you their full attention without your having to do more.


Goeke, Jennifer L. 2009. Explicit Instruction. Upper Saddle River NJ: Merrill, pp.xi-xii, 3-4, 50-52. || Amazon


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