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How to teach using explicit instruction

By Kim Greene, MA

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Explicit instruction is an approach to teaching that helps all students, especially those who learn and think differently. Teachers use explicit instruction to teach concepts or skills in a very structured way. 

Here’s how to use explicit instruction in the classroom.

1. Identify a clear, specific objective.

How: When you’re planning the lesson, name what you expect students to learn by the end of the lesson. Make sure that this objective builds on prior learning.

Why: A clear objective helps you plan your explicit instruction. An unclear objective can make it hard for you to model the skill and for your students to know what to do.

Planning tips

  • Write a clear, concise, and correct explanation of the skill in your lesson plan.

  • Plan how you will explain this learning objective and why it matters to your students.

  • Make sure the skill or information you choose to teach matches the learning objective for the lesson.

Download: Explicit instruction checklist

Use the printable checklist below to help you plan and reflect on your explicit instruction lessons.

Explicit Instruction Checklist

PDF

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2. Break the information into chunks.

How: Take the skill, concept, or information and break it down into manageable, sequential chunks.

Why: Breaking down information into easy-to-follow steps or chunks reduces the demand on students’ working memory.

Planning tips

  • Identify the background knowledge, vocabulary, and skills students need for the lesson. Plan how you will pre-teach this information.

  • Double-check that you’ve included all the steps or chunks by sharing them with a colleague. Sometimes an outside perspective can help you identify the gaps.

3. Model with clear explanations.

How: Explain or demonstrate the skill in the same way students will practice it. Use language that is clear, concise, and consistent. Focus on the most critical parts of the content you are teaching. 

Why: Clear explanations take out the guesswork from learning. Plus, some students may need to see a model (or different models) several times. To decide if that’s necessary, check for understanding by asking students to help you do an example.

Planning tips

  • Plan for multiple examples (some that may be different from each other).

  • Plan to model the examples in the same way students will practice it.

  • Include a note in your plan to check for students’ understanding after each example.

4. Verbalize the thinking process.

How: As you are modeling, do a think-aloud of what’s going on in your mind. For instance, if you’re comparing fractions, you might talk through how you realized that the denominators aren’t common. For instance, you might say, “I notice these two denominators aren’t the same. In this fraction, the denominator is a 5. But in this fraction, the denominator is a 6.”

Why: Students who learn and think differently often don’t know how to begin a task or what to do when they’re stuck. Modeling self-talk can be particularly helpful for these students.

Planning tips

  • Script how you will verbalize your thinking. You don’t need to write out everything, but it’s important to have your most important points planned out. 

  • Think of places where students might get stuck. Plan how you’ll verbalize working through those tricky spots. 

5. Provide opportunities to practice.

How: During guided practice, you might work through several problems as a class and either pre-correct or correct errors as they occur. Guided practice is your chance to make sure every step is clear to students so that they are ready to work independently. If students haven’t grasped the skill, you can model or verbalize it again. 

Once students are successful with guided practice, move on to independent practice. This is when the skill or strategy becomes fluent. Resist the urge to introduce more difficult material. Instead, focus on independent practice tasks that align with the skill you modeled. Students should master the tasks during independent practice about 90 percent of the time.

After independent practice, do a cumulative review of both old and newly learned skills and knowledge. The review will help students gain and retain automaticity with them. Remember that many students who learn and think differently will need more repetition and opportunities for practice than other students.

Why: Students need to practice a skill for it to “stick” in their long-term memory. Guided and independent practice, as well as cumulative review, can help that process. 

Planning tips for guided practice:

  • Give yourself enough time for multiple opportunities to practice.

  • Plan for practice that students are likely to succeed with.

  • Script your prompts, but remember that you may need to adjust your script in the moment to meet students’ needs. 

Planning tips for independent practice:

  • Review expectations and the resources students will use before beginning. 

  • Design opportunities that you feel students will be able to work on without support.

  • Use multiple ways of getting student responses during practice to check for understanding. For instance:

  • Allow plenty of time for students to practice on their own.

  • Plan for verbal responses, like choral responses.

  • Plan for written responses, like “stop and jot” or writing a response on dry-erase boards.

  • Plan for physical responses, like nonverbal signals (fist-to-five or thumbs up/thumbs down).

Planning tips for cumulative review:

  • Identify the set of skills needed to meet the learning objective.

  • Plan ways to review previously taught skills that ladder up to the new skills you’re teaching.

  • Plan ways to review the newly acquired skills or information.

  • Keep the cumulative review brief and focused.

You may be thinking that explicit instruction sounds a lot like “I Do, We Do, You Do.” That’s because explicit instruction can work within this lesson framework. During the “I do,” explicit instruction reminds you to be clear and to verbalize your thinking. In the “we do,” explicit instruction helps you plan for multiple practice opportunities. And during the “you do,” you’ll remember to give feedback.

6. Give feedback.

How: As your students engage in guided and independent practice, give them immediate and actionable feedback. 

Why: A quick response will guide students to success and will reduce the chance that they’ll practice a skill or strategy with errors.

Planning tips

  • Make note of times in the lesson when you’ll be able to move about the room to make informal observations of students. 

  • Attach a sheet of paper with your students’ names to a clipboard. That way, you’ll be ready to record your observations of their work.

  • Leave time to deliver timely, specific feedback to each student.

  • Make a note in your plan to analyze student data after the lesson. You’ll want to use the data to make decisions about what instruction a student needs next.

How to use explicit instruction during distance learning

During distance learning, it’s even more important to break down and explain information clearly. That’s because students are in charge of their learning more than ever before. Plus, you may find it harder to monitor students’ accuracy and understanding. 

Try these tips for using explicit instruction during distance learning:

  • Record a short video to explain directions or to teach a lesson, concept, or skill. This allows students to rewatch sections as many times as needed. 

  • Explicitly teach students and their families how to use the technology needed for distance learning. Show them how to do tasks, like finding and submitting class assignments and turning the camera or microphone on and off. 

  • Give students clear timelines and task lists to help them manage their learning.

  • Use strategy instruction to help students develop time management and organization strategies.

  • During synchronous learning, use strategies that encourage all students to actively participate and show their understanding. This can include small group breakouts, collaboration tools, polls, quizzes (like Kahoot or Poll Everywhere), or the reactions and chat features during a video call.

Learn more by exploring the distance learning toolkit .

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