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Explicit instruction

Teaching strategies

Explicit instruction: a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

An old-school teacher-centred strategy that gets results all day, every day.

Explicit instruction – the teacher models, demonstrates and presents content to students (often with worked examples on a board).

A teacher aide sitting at a table in a classroom with two young students

When teachers are pictured in movies or on TV they are usually implementing some form of explicit instruction – standing at the front of the class, writing on the board, asking questions, giving feedback, having students answer specific questions from their textbook and so forth. What audiences see is similar to explicit instruction – the structured, systematic, routine, teacher-led, step-by-step delivery of course content. When non-teachers imagine a teacher in a classroom they think along the lines of explicit instruction – this is however only half the picture. Aspects of explicit instruction are rooted in old-fashioned traditional teaching methods with a few modern twists. Explicit instruction focuses on fast-paced short activities, worked examples, questioning techniques, feedback, adjustments, goals, reflection, opportunities to practise and a data-driven environment that targets areas of need.

Explicit instruction classrooms are highly controlled but are safe and engaging learning environments – students know what is expected of them and what they need to do to achieve it. These classrooms are goal-oriented and data-driven.

Explicit instruction is not a strategy per se, but a style of teaching that utilises a set of tried and tested strategies such as revision, modelling, guided and shared learning, worked examples, board work, pair and small group work, questioning and feedback techniques, formative assessment and short, sharp activities delivered in a high-paced ‘waste-no-time’ format.i Explicit instruction classrooms are highly controlled but are safe and engaging learning environments – students know what is expected of them and what they need to do to achieve it. These classrooms are goal-oriented and data-driven. Teachers work hard to develop rapport with students but do not go as far as trying to ‘befriend’ them.

Explicit instruction is considered by many to be good-old fashioned teaching: the teacher determines what students need to know and then teaches it – no new-age strategies with fancy names, no special resources or other ‘scientifically-proven’ techniques – simply show students what they need to know in small manageable steps and then let them practise. This definition of explicit instruction is not entirely incorrect, but it does oversimplify what might just be one of the most difficult teaching strategies to master. Explicit instruction is the ultimate in multitasking: chunking, scaffolding and explaining complex content, answering tricky questions, completing worked examples, using think-alouds to explain your every thought, checking for understanding, accounting for various abilities, managing behaviour and doing all of those things with 30 students carefully watching, listening and analysing your every move. Explicit instruction is very teacher-centred, high-paced and highly structured, which can be intimidating for newcomers.

Explicit instruction is very teacher-centred, high-paced and highly structured, which can be intimidating for newcomers.

Chart of an explicit instruction lesion.

A typical explicit instruction lesson from start to finish. While explicit instruction as a style of teaching is not dogmatic in terms of requiring teachers to follow this structure, many experienced teachers eventually adopt this structure even if they are not aware of the term 'explicit instruction'.

There are several key elements to explicit instruction which are outlined below:

  • Lessons are well-planned, structured, routine and have clear expectations and rules. In practice, teachers adapt their lessons depending on factors such as the content, topic, time of year, resources available, upcoming assessments and what works (and does not work) for their class.
  • Lessons move through a series of short, sharp activities of 3-10 minutes each.
  • The pace of the lesson is faster than most people would expect, although this does not mean that slower students are left behind. Fast-paced lessons are exciting – on-task time is near 100% and behavioural issues are reduced significantly.
  • Activities are timed by the teacher. For example, ‘you have 2 minutes to go’.
  • The teacher breaks learning down into chunks and teaches 1 or 2 chunks at a time.
  • Lessons begin with a revision to link new learning with previous learning. A teacher may revise the previous lesson by having students complete a quick problem or writing exercise which is then discussed.
  • Specific educational goals (also called learning intentions or learning goals) and success criteria are set at the start of the lesson and clearly communicated to students (such as by writing them on the board). The teacher tells students what they want them to know or do by the end of the lesson – “This is what I want to you to know by the end of today: First…”.
  • The first activity is almost always a teacher-led demonstration (modelling) and explanation. For example, the teacher could explain a maths concept and complete several examples on the board. An alternative to get students started is a warm-up activity. Common warm-up activities include a quick quiz, a short game, rapid-fire questions, an intriguing hypothetical question for discussion, use of an interesting prop or item that students have never seen before, a short video, or any other 2-6-minute activity that gets students in the mood for learning.
  • The teacher makes use of think-alouds for all worked examples.
  • The teacher continually asks questions to confirm understanding and to hold students accountable (in other words to ensure they pay attention). Students are randomly selected to answer questions.
  • Following the modelling phase, the teacher often begins the shared learning and/or guided learning phase, or students skip straight to individual practise.
  • Students will work individually on practice activities while the teacher circulates to provide support as needed. For additional structure, excitement and pace, many teachers will have students complete 1 or 2 problems in 2-3 minutes and then focus the class on the board to work through the problem/s. Then the next question is completed using the same routine.
  • Pair and small group work may be implemented such as think-pair-share. Activities are short with specific instructions. Students are not simply ‘discussing’ or ‘having a chat’.
  • Students can be called to write answers or responses on the board to share with the class.
  • A consolidation, revision or other activity rounds out the lesson. This may include a Q&A, a class discussion, an advanced problem modelled by the teacher or another short activity. The teacher wraps up the lesson by explaining what the goals of the lesson were, whether they were achieved, how the class performed and what students can expect in the next lesson.
  • The teacher uses formative assessment throughout to evaluate progress, provide feedback and to make adjustments as needed.ii
  • Other best-practice teaching strategies can be implemented such as learning styles and multiple intelligences (which can be achieved by adding a variety of resources and topics), anchor activities, teaching aids and props, games and quizzes, whole-part-whole learning, learning by teaching, role plays, brainstorms, graphic organisers and building metacognitive skills.
  • While not a rule per se, teachers who practise explicit instruction tend to rarely use online learning or other technologies (other than interactive whiteboards as part of their modelling and worked examples). Explicit instruction, for the most part, is about the teacher being in front of the class and teaching the class. Explicit instruction is also applicable to teachers who are instructing small groups and individuals.
  • At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher makes an entry in their diary as to what students achieved and where the next lesson will begin (this is their ‘lesson plan’ for the following lesson). Note that this is not an ‘official’ explicit instruction step – but plenty of teachers do it.

Explicit instruction should not be confused with direct instruction or DI. Direct instruction requires the teacher to follow a pre-written script (from a textbook) which tells teachers what to say (literally word by word). It is not dissimilar to a movie script. DI is mainly associated with language and literacy learning. Students repeat words after the teacher in fast repetitive bursts of 2-3 seconds per word. For example, a teacher reads a word, students repeat the word, the teacher reads the next word, the students repeat it etc. As DI is used for foundational skills such as learning to read, it is mostly found in lower school grades.

A variation of DI is explicit direct instruction (EDI), which is actually quite different to DI. For starters, it doesn’t use a script, which is the main focus of DI. Unlike explicit instruction however (which is a set of recommended strategies such as modelling and feedback), EDI is much more rigid in what teachers are expected to do (explicit instruction is not much more than a loose collection of suggested techniques used in a lesson that broadly follows a traditional structure).iii

Foot notes:

  1. Hughes, C.A., Morris, J.R., Therrien, W.J. and Benson, S.K. (2017). Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32, 140-148. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12142.
  2. Formative assessment is one of the key differences between traditional (e.g. 1940s) teacher-centred methods that are now considered outdated and more modern, explicit, teacher-led styles of delivery. Many schools are upskilling their staff specifically in formative assessment skills and incorporating a data-driven approach to planning.
  3. Hollingsworh, J.R., Ybarra, S.E. (2017). Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) The Power of the Well-Crafted, Well-Taught Lesson. US: SAGE Publications Inc.

About the author

Image of the managing director of FTTA.

ADAM GREEN

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of FTTA, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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