Scaffolding the Curriculum Renaissance with Explicit Instruction

A previous post argued that curriculum and instruction should be considered two sides of the same coin to be improved together, not separately. This post will detail the delivery and design components of explicit instruction and how they can be used to better scaffold the curriculum renaissance.

The [Controversial] Superiority of Explicit Instruction

Explicit instruction is a structured, systematic, and proven methodology for planning and teaching academic content using a series of scaffolds that include:

  • Logical selection and sequencing of content
  • Breaking down of content into manageable instructional chunks based on students’ cognitive abilities and prior knowledge
  • Lessons delivered with clear descriptions and demonstrations of a skill, followed by supported practice and immediate feedback

Archer and Hughes (2011), Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching

Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009) write that “students learn more and learn faster when the teacher stands up in the front of the room and explicitly teaches the whole class.” Jeanne Chall’s review of a century of research definitively supports the effectiveness of explicit, teacher-led instruction for all abilities, with even greater effects seen with English language learners and students with learning difficulties (p. 11)


Yet declaring the superiority of explicit instruction is still considered controversial in many colleges of education. For at least the past 30 years, teachers have been trained in a progressive education ideology that pushes vague notions of pedagogical constructivism.

Gradually, the idealized teacher became one that talks less, directly teaches less, and facilitates the development of “21st century skills” – e.g. technology-assisted group projects and discovery learning. But most concerning has been the rampant denigration of content knowledge and memorization in pursuit of elusive “critical thinking skills,” all while research continues to show that a critical part of critical thinking (and reading comprehension) is the background knowledge one has in those domains.

It is a relief then that discussion in the U.S. about improving student outcomes is beginning to shift to the implementation of a knowledge-rich curriculum. In the U.S., this has taken the form of the curriculum renaissance the spread of full-service curricular resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards and designed to build deep and robust background knowledge, unlike other curricula which were organized around things like “finding the main idea.”  

After looking closely through many new curricula (in particular, EL Education, Wit & Wisdom, and Eureka Math), I’m…legitimately hopeful. These curricula, while including appropriate and deliberate space for inquiry and discovery, largely fall more in the realm of teacher-led, explicit instruction. By including detailed lesson delivery guides (ahem, scripted lessons), these curricula bravely attempt to actually train teachers how to teach alongside meaningful content – something our colleges of education forgot to do.

However, these curricula will not be a perfect fit for every classroom right out of the box. In fact, as my previous post outlines, when students struggle to access challenging content, teachers will all too often water down the material or supplement with easier resources.

Therefore, teachers must be equipped with a research-informed set of tools to increase student access to complex, grade-level content. Scaffolding these curricula with explicit instruction is, I believe, the key to truly unlocking the potential of the curriculum renaissance.

The next section outlines the fundamentals of explicit lesson delivery and design.

Explicit Lesson Delivery

While many of the curriculum renaissance materials contain valuable teacher guides with scripted teacher questions, almost none include frequent Checks for Understanding (CFU).

A CFU is basically the routine practice of verifying that students are learning what is being taught during the lesson delivery. Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009) created a process for checking student understanding – TAPPLE.

TAPPLE completely levels the playing field in terms of background knowledge, and gives every student a shot by teaching content first. Students cannot, and need not always be expected to “discover” difficult academic content on their own (or with a partner). Rather, using TAPPLE, the teacher explicitly teaches content first. 

“When you ask questions before you teach, you are not really measuring the effectiveness of your teaching. Instead, you are assessing the existing background knowledge of your students.”

Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009), Explicit Direct Instruction

After teaching, the teacher asks a question to the whole class about what was just taught; pair-shares so all students can practice responding; and picks non-volunteers using popsicle sticks (EL Education refers to these as “equity sticks”) or cold-calls to ensure all students have a response ready. The teacher then listens to the response/s carefully and then provides effective feedback by echoing correct responses, elaborating on partially-correct responses, or reteaching.

As a general rule, Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009) recommend teachers survey three students for every CFU, and reteach after two incorrect responses. The picking of non-volunteers is not to embarrass students – it ensures the teacher is getting an accurate read of what the whole class knows, not just the confident extroverts raising their hands all the time. Frequent CFU also ensures that evidence of student learning dictates whether the lesson progresses or not – it is an entirely “student-centered” way of teaching.

This routine of checking for understanding is the bread-and-butter of explicit teaching, and is applicable for all subject areas. Using TAPPLE, all students are taught the necessary knowledge, all students have numerous interactions with the content, and all students receive valuable feedback.The tempo of lesson delivery is also fast-paced and energetic, with as many meaningful interactions as possible per lesson.

To take CFU to the next level, Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009) recommend teachers provide mini-whiteboards (cheaply created using sheet protectors with cardstock) for students to record and rapidly receive feedback. Rather than only surveying three students after every question, check everyone’s understanding instantly by saying “ready, set, show!”

Cardstock and sheet protector white boards

To clarify, checking for understanding is not the same as simply including “turn-and-talks” or “think-pair-shares” throughout lessons, as is the case in many of the curriculum renaissance materials. Often, the T in TAPPLE is left out, and teachers are encouraged to continuously ask questions about content that has not been taught. Do not be afraid to teach first. In time, students background knowledge will increase and the need for these scaffolds will decrease.

“In many classrooms, students are continuously interrogated as if teaching has become asking questions to students who do not know the answers…students need to be taught the content first. After teaching, then, absolutely ask questions to verify that your students now know.”

-Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009), Explicit Direct Instruction

Explicit Lesson Design

Having previously outlined fundamentals of explicit lesson delivery, this section will briefly outline the essential design components as summarized by Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009). These design components make up a series of scaffolds that can be gradually reduced as learners progress from novice to expert in their subject.

  • Learning Objective: A concise and realistic statement of what students will learn in the lesson. It’s best for students to interact with the objective through reading/writing/telling a partner. Do not just put it on the board or read it aloud to students.
  • Activate Prior Knowledge: Make students actively retrieve prior knowledge that the current lesson will build on.
  • Concept Development, Skill Development, Lesson Importance: Explain and model the concept/s to be taught, any steps or procedural knowledge necessary, and connect to the “big picture” or over-arching concept.
  • Guided Practice: Do the work with students, step-by-step, with immediate formative assessment (mini-whiteboards). This work should exactly match and over-prepare students for the work they will do independently.
  • Lesson Closure: Revisit the lesson objective and have students summarize what was learned.
  • Independent Practice: Focused, deliberate practice on what was just learned with feedback every 5-10 minutes. Circulate the room at this point, looking for common errors to discuss with the whole group, while also providing extra assistance to those who struggled during guided practice. This time can also be used for periodic low-stakes retrieval quizzes and interleaved review of previously-learned material.

These explicit lesson design scaffolds are likely well-known to most teachers, and often closely mirror the structure of many curriculum renaissance lessons. However, knowing this structure is most useful when teachers need to modify lessons because students cannot, or mightily struggle to access curricular content due to gaps in knowledge or ability.  

In these cases, teachers must be able to slow down and break the lesson into smaller, more manageable chunks with additional whole-group guided practice. Using these scaffolds properly increases access without watering down the academic rigor.

Here are the most common ways I scaffold challenging curriculum using explicit instruction design:

  • Segmenting complex skills into smaller instructional units to avoid cognitive overload
  • Creating and labeling explicit steps while demonstrating a new procedure/skill
  • Including extra worked examples, or exemplars, of problems students will be expected to complete independently
  • Designing 3-5 extra guided practice exercises to be solved with students on whiteboards using the independent practice as a guide
  • Explicitly teaching writing with The Writing Revolution sentence starters and deliberate practice exercises

In summary, these scaffolds of explicit instruction delivery and design can together be used to systematically modify and increase student success with challenging and rigorous curricula. 

A More Research-Informed Profession

Teachers should embrace the curriculum renaissance, knowing that improved resources can save hundreds of hours otherwise spent sifting through TpT and Pinterest.  However, we must also recognize that no curriculum will be a perfect fit right out of the box, and that to scaffold and better support the implementation of these rigorous curriculum for struggling learners, teachers must be empowered with the research-informed fundamentals of explicit instruction. 

Follow me on Twitter at MrGMPLS


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