Robust Vocabulary Instruction: Bringing Knowledge-Rich Curricula to Life

The “knowledge-gap” is pinpointed most recently by Natalie Wexler as a culprit for continued stagnant reading proficiency levels and growing disparities in student outcomes in the U.S. Thankfully, more and more are realizing that students’ ability to think critically and creatively is severely hampered without a solid foundation of background knowledge.

Yet beyond adopting a “knowledge-rich” curricula and understanding the importance of building a deep structure of knowledge, I’ve recently caught myself struggling to think of how, specifically, knowledge-building happens within lessons. As in, I was unsure exactly how a knowledge-rich curriculum was brought to life and best imparted to students on a day-to-day basis.

While I prioritize class time around a cohesive curricula with reading, writing, and discussion and have found tremendous benefits from using knowledge organizers, I was still left feeling my approach to “knowledge-building” was missing…something. That something, I learned recently, was robust vocabulary instruction. 

Why Is Vocabulary Important?

As a profession, we’ve come to associate a variety of stale and ineffective practices with vocabulary instruction. I used to practice the following “vocabulary activities,” deliriously hoping I was building students’ vocabulary.

  • Repetitively teaching vocabulary with the same definition (this is actually rote learning)
  • Using matching exercises and one-dimensional puzzles
  • Having students copy opaque, poorly-written definitions from dictionaries or glossaries
  • Challenging students to vaguely “write a new sentence using this word.”

What I and many others have passed off as vocabulary instruction is completely inadequate and fails to allow students the opportunity to take advantage of the power of a deep and interconnected vocabulary. Shanahan (2005) writes in The National Reading Panel Report: Practical Advice for Teachers.

“The importance of vocabulary is beyond doubt…such knowledge is integral to any activities that involve language, and psychologists have shown how vocabulary is more than a list of ‘word meanings in the mind,’ but actually functions as an index of a much richer and harder to measure constellation of understandings and experiences.”

This interconnected web of vocabulary we each carry around has been found to be a vital foundation for reading comprehension. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) highlight the close relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension.

“There is much evidence – strong correlations, several causal studies, as well as rich theoretical orientations – that shows that vocabulary is tightly related to reading comprehension across the age span.”

And so, while the empirical support for vocabulary instruction is present, what are teachers to do with more than a quarter million words in most dictionaries? How can teachers best approach the daunting, yet crucial challenge of vocabulary instruction? To start, the answer is certainly not to rely on independent reading to do the job.

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) point out that while “wide reading” is indeed an important source of vocabulary development for students, it should not be seen as a replacement for robust instruction.

“Written context is clearly an important source of new vocabulary for any reader. But relying on learning word meanings from independent reading is not an adequate way to deal with students’ vocabulary development.”

Furthermore, the Matthew Effect must be considered. Shanahan (2005) points out “studies suggest lower achieving readers acquire less incidental vocabulary than good readers acquire.” In other words, it is teachers’ great responsibility to provide all students with access to the vocabulary required to experience success in school. First though, we have to figure out what vocabulary to teach.

Three Tier Framework

The Three Tier framework, articulated by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013), is a powerful tool to help teachers categorize and identify high-value vocabulary that can improve students’ verbal functioning and reading comprehension. Essentially, words are categorized into three buckets:

  • Tier One: “Words typically found in oral language.” These words are typically found in high frequency word lists, and do not require much focus as students hear these on a regular basis in conversation.
  • Tier Three: “Words that tend to be limited to specific domains.” These are the words textbooks typically put in bold. While important, these words have limited use outside the specific content area, and are not very helpful for enriching descriptions or explanations.
  • Tier Two: “Words that are more characteristic of written language, and not so common in conversation.” These are words that students will not hear, but will encounter across various domains as they read and write in school. These words are to be prioritized for instruction.

It’s estimated that to read with minimal disturbance in comprehension, readers need a vocabulary of around 15,000 words. Of those 15,000 words, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) conclude that 8,000 are Tier One which require minimal focus, and 7,000 are Tier Two and should be the focus of robust vocabulary instruction. That breaks down to between 300-400 Tier Two words per year to be deliberately taught alongside the context/content they authentically arise.

Tier Two words are so important because they fundamentally expand students’ verbal functioning by building rich representations of words that can be used in a variety of contexts. These Tier Two words empower students to provide more specific, mature ways of describing and explaining the world. While an exact science does not exist to pinpoint Tier Two vocabulary, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) do provide some helpful questions to ponder when identifying Tier 2 words.

  1. Generally, how useful is the word; will students see it in multiple contexts; will it help students better describe their experiences?
  2. How does the word contribute to the overall text being read; does it communicate vital meaning or tone?
  3. How does the word relate to other words and previously-learned content?

Having identified a rough process identifying Tier Two vocabulary, what are best practices for introducing, teaching, and assessing this vocabulary?

Best Practices for Teaching Vocabulary

When designing vocabulary instruction, it is important to keep in mind two words: frequency and robustness. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) write about the importance of providing “frequent and varied encounters with target words and robust instructional activities that engage students in deep processing.”

To accomplish frequent and robust encounters with vocabulary, the instructional sequence for words is spread across at least three days, but ideally five or more days. In this sequence, a variety of deliberately-designed exercises are done with students to use the words to describe new contexts, explore the multidimensional nature of words, and consider relationships among words (seriously, buy the book, it is loaded with exercises to use!). Here is an outline of the instructional sequence recommended in Bringing Words to Life:

  • Day 1: Introduce words to students with student-friendly explanations and context
  • Days 2-4: Follow-up activities
    • Identify examples/non-examples; form word associations with new contexts, additional writing exercises (The Writing Revolution makes for a great supplement here).
  • Day 5: Assessment

When introducing new vocabulary, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) highlight the importance of providing student-friendly explanations, the original context the word came from, and opportunities for students to interact with word meanings. “A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the meanings of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up.”

Therefore, to get started, I first scanned each lesson’s text for Tier Two vocabulary, and then created a table with the target word, instructional context, and a student-friendly definition modified from learner’s dictionaries. (Optional: I also created a “student dictionary” with the explanation cells left blank for students to fill in as a lesson starter).

Screenshot 2019-08-20 at 7.37.05 AM

Then, I created a variety of exercises (example/non-example and writing sentence stems) to be completed with students to start lessons after the new words have been introduced.

Ideally students are working with each word 3-4 days in a row, and further challenge should be gradually added by having students generate new situations to match target words (e.g. How would a critical person write about a music show?). Here’s an example of encouraging students to interact with vocabulary meaning in new contexts.

Screenshot 2019-08-20 at 4.25.49 PM.png

The key is to make sure students are having plenty of opportunities to explain why they made the yes/no choice they did, and then to discuss it whole-class. While students complete this table, they have their “student dictionary” available to refer to.

Finally, at the end of units, I created true/false assessments with explanations to measure more surface level knowledge (e.g. does a critical person think carefully before making decisions?) and deeper knowledge (e.g. how can the history of Columbus be analyzed critically?). In this way, the full instructional sequence of Tier Two word instruction is designed to simultaneously improve students’ verbal functioning and activate background knowledge.


Robust vocabulary instruction is a crucial driver of knowledge-building. While many knowledge-rich curricula might emphasize the importance of vocabulary and identify key vocabulary words in each lesson (typically Tier Three), ultimately the quality and robustness of vocabulary instruction comes down to teacher expertise and judgement.

Shanahan (2005) summarizes it best: “the most effective direct instruction in vocabulary helps children gain deep understanding of word meanings (much more than simple dictionary definitions); requires plenty of reading, writing, talking, and listening; emphasizes the interconnections among words and word meanings and the connections of words to children’s own experiences; and provides abundant ongoing review and repetition.”

We do a disservice to students when we devalue vocabulary instruction to a level of copying definitions and matching exercises. Knowledge-building is made more robust with vocabulary instruction.

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Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel Report. Practical Advice for Teachers. Learning Point Associates/North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).





Tracing the Origins: The Slippery Slope of Cooperative Learning

“Tracing the Origins” is a multi-part series. Each post explores how an initially promising finding in education research became distorted and misinterpreted in its widespread implementation. Part 1 examined the origin of “reading comprehension strategies.” 

A week or so ago, there was one sentence that stopped me cold while reading. It was Robert Slavin (1996) proclaiming “research on cooperative learning is one of the greatest success stories in the history of educational research.”

This bold assertion was backed up by in Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment (2011). He wrote “activating students as learning resources for one another produces tangible and substantial increases in students’ learning.”

Huh? I thought cooperative learning, or “group work,” was unproven – a fad synonymous with various varieties of minimally-guided instruction. I’ve taken my fair share of shots at “group work” in the past, and was experiencing serious cognitive dissonance.

And so began my journey to discover how original research on cooperative learning came to be misinterpreted. How did specific conditions for working in pairs or groups devolve into students socializing while making posters? How did students acting as “learning resources for one another” become students being hastily put in groups to “discover things?” 

Research-Informed Cooperative Learning

In the 1990s, professor and researcher Robert Slavin conducted a wide review of research on cooperative learning, seeking to isolate what specific elements and conditions accounted for its effectiveness.

“While there is a growing consensus among researchers about the positive effects of cooperative learning on student achievement…there is still a great deal of confusion and disagreement about why cooperative learning methods affect achievement and, even more importantly, under what conditions cooperative learning has these effects.” – Robert Slavin, “Research on Cooperative Learning and Achievement

Slavin (1996) organized his review of existing research using the two primary perspectives in cooperative learning research – incentive structure and task structure. 

1. Incentive structure of cooperative work. Within the incentive structure perspective, researchers sought to understand the importance of motivation in collaborative learning. For example, the use of group rewards tied to individual performance (e.g. a team score based on the individual scores of each group member) would be theorized to encourage peer-to-peer tutoring within groups.

According to Slavin (1996) “while groupmates may readily interact with each other and help each other, without appropriate structuring this interaction and help may take the form of sharing answers or doing each other’s work rather than making certain that group mates can independently solve problems or know the material. ” Basically, an incentive structure proactively discourages social loafing by introducing a clear motivation for interacting along with a form of individual accountability.

2. Task structure of cooperative work. Task structure researchers wanted to know if cooperative activities and mental processes (discussion, argument, clarification) involved during student interactions were responsible for increases in achievement. 

Task structure researchers were grounded in developmental perspective theorists Piaget and Vygotsky, who held that social-arbitrary knowledge (language, values, rules etc.) are best learned through social interactions, and that learner interactions should be mediated by a “Zone of Proximal Development.” 

And so, which perspective – incentive or task structure – was consistently found to be most associated with achievement in Slavin’s (1996) review of research? What Slavin discovered was that the incentive structure of group rewards tied to individual performance was found to have the greatest effect on student achievement.

“Reviewers of the cooperative learning literature have long concluded that cooperative learning has its greatest effects on student learning when groups are recognized or rewarded based on individual learning of their members.

However, Slavin (1996) found that task structure and cooperative activities to encourage debate and interaction did not have much effect on achievement .

“Despite considerable support from theoretical and laboratory research, there is little evidence from classroom experiments done over meaningful time periods that ‘pure’ cooperative methods, which depend solely on interaction to produce higher achievement, will do so.”

Wiliam (2011) put it even more succinctly: “just focusing on social cohesion, without attending to other factors, appears to have little effect on student learning.” In summary, here are two things we can definitively say regarding effective cooperative group work.

  1. There must be group goals with individual accountability (e.g. group rewards based on the sum of individual learning performances)
  2. Help from peers must take the form of elaborated explanations. Merely receiving the answer (ahem, Jigsaws) from another student actually can produce a drop in achievement, according to Slavin (1996).

The Importance of Structure

Having outlined the development and intricacies of cooperative learning research, it is now important to recognize all the different ways this research has been misinterpreted and misconstrued in classrooms. According to Wiliam (2011), “what teachers describe as cooperative learning in their classrooms rarely has the features that would make it effective.”

Slavin (2010) differentiates between Structured Team Learning (STL) and Informal Group Learning. In STL, the focus is on what students are learning together, not on on what they are doing together as a team.SLT also incorporates the fundamental conditions for effectiveness: group goals tied to individual accountability. Again, the success of the pair/team must depend on the individual learning of each group member.

In contrast, Informal Group Learning is characterized by the common use of jigsaws or group investigations. Unfortunately, Slavin (2010) writes that “most use of cooperative learning is informal, and does not incorporate group goals and individual accountability that research has identified to be essential.”

Here are a few other ways cooperative learning has dangerously strayed from its original intent:

  • Cooperative learning has come to mean students discover concepts or pursue open-ended projects in groups with minimal teacher guidance. The research reviewed by Slavin (1996) did not include such methods, and he wrote “most research on cooperative learning has involved the use of these methods to help children master fairly well-defined skills or information.”
  • Cooperative learning has been cleverly wielded by ideology-driven teacher training programs to create a false dichotomy demonizing “teacher talk” and pressuring teachers into creating more “student-centered” classrooms at the expense of explicit teaching and guided practice.
  • Cooperative learning became more about removing explicit teacher guidance, and less and less about peer-assessment and elaboration. Wiliam (2011) reminds us that with cooperative learning, “many of these techniques focus specifically on peer assessment, which, provided it is geared toward improvement rather than evaluation, can be especially powerful – students tend to be much more direct with each other than any teacher would dare to be.”

How Will I Use Cooperative Learning?

Having outlined the research and conditions necessary for effectiveness, I think it’s vitally important to be extremely cautious and implement cooperative learning with great care.

And so, here are a few simple, research-informed examples of cooperative learning I plan to use. Note that I will use these as a supplement to a foundation of explicitly taught lessons. Each example also has group goals tied to individual accountability, and utilizes students as learning resources.

  1. Retrieval Practice. Students quiz each other in pairs or small groups with flash cards or a set of self-generated questions. After a set amount of time, students individually take a short quiz on the material and team members’ scores are averaged.
  2. Reciprocal Teaching. In deliberately-chosen pairs, students work together to formulate questions and/or summarize narrative or expository texts to increase comprehension. Afterwards, students take a short quiz and are rewarded based on the learning of both group members. More research on RT can be found here.
  3. What did we learn today? Like a group exit slip – five minutes before the end of a class, have students form pairs/groups to write a list of 3-5 things learned in the lesson. Then, randomly call on five students to share a reflection.

Put Simply

  1. Cooperative learning is shown to be effective so long as group goals tied to individual accountability are built in.
  2. Cooperative learning was designed to emphasize peer assessment, peer-tutoring, and elaboration (not just sharing answers or creating group products like posters and presentations which allow for social loafing). Cooperative learning is not discovery.
  3. While a promising instructional strategy, cooperative learning was never meant to replace or supplant the strong research behind teacher-led explicit teaching. Cooperative learning is a useful supplement that can be effective in the right conditions.


Slavin, R. E. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary educational psychology21(1), 43-69.  LINK

Slavin, R. E. (2010). Co-operative learning: what makes group-work work. The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice, 161-178. LINK

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press.





Tracing the Origins: “Reading Comprehension Strategies”

“Tracing the Origins” is a multi-part series. Each post explores how a promising finding in education research became distorted and misinterpreted in its widespread implementation. 

Frenemies: Background Knowledge and Comprehension Strategies

This post untangles the fascinating history and current misunderstandings around what teachers nowadays commonly refer to as “reading comprehension strategies.” Surprisingly, modern misconceptions around reading comprehension have their roots in promising research from the 1970s in Cognitive Strategy Instruction.  

Rosenshine (1997) wrote “the research using cognitive strategies, from 1970-1990, has produced incredible results, results for which we as a profession can be justly proud.”  However, things seemed to go downhill, quickly. Dole (2009) states “in the transition from research to practice, strategy instruction has morphed into so many things that it no longer has a shared meaning.”

As such, reading comprehension strategies are out, and an emphasis on background knowledge is in. In an excerpt from her new book, The Knowledge Gap, author Natalie Wexler captures this shift:

“What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized—including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?”

Wexler’s assessment, that the teaching of reading comprehension has become narrowly constricted to practicing a growing set of disconnected skills similar to multiple choice exams (“find the main idea…make inferences”) is absolutely spot-on. What is missing, however, is a careful consideration of what strategies are actually effective for aiding comprehension of knowledge-rich text, given existence of sufficient prior knowledge. Or put simply, how can we best help students meaningfully interact with text to deepen comprehension?

When we look back in history at the original research, it becomes apparent that knowledge-building and research-informed cognitive strategy instruction were never enemies, and actually went hand-in-hand.

Teacher Effects and Cognitive Strategy Instruction

Lately, there has been an incredible resurgence of interest in Teacher Effects research that flourished from 1960-1980. This research studied teachers whose students made the most and least gains on achievement tests, and then compared the instructional procedures used by the effective (expert) and ineffective (novice) teachers to isolate specific, research-based principles of instruction

The results of these Teacher Effects studies were used to form the instructional models articulated by Brophy & Good (1986) and Rosenshine & Stevens (1986). However, there were obvious limitations to this Teacher Effects research.

“The concepts from the teacher effects research were very useful when we could break a task into series of explicit steps, guide student practice on those steps, and provide support, feedback, and practice to enable students to respond at a high level of success.

But the concepts from the teacher effects research seemed less useful for teaching tasks that could not be broken into explicit steps, tasks such as reading comprehension.”

Rosenshine (1997)

To better understand how to teach tasks in which each step could not be explicitly specified, a companion to Teacher Effects research emerged in the 1970s-80s: Cognitive Strategy Instruction. This research was based on the idea that humans develop cognitive strategies for processing incoming information and meta-cognitive strategies for monitoring and evaluating the understanding of that information.

Cognitive strategies were to be explicitly taught initially, and Dole (2009) writes “with time and practice, the use of both cognitive and metacognitive strategies can become less effortful and can be carried out efficiently and effectively at an automatic level.” 

To gradually release responsibility to students while teaching a strategy, teachers would scaffold concrete procedural prompts. For example, in teaching the strategy of question-generation, the teacher might scaffold this by modeling the process while thinking aloud, and guiding practice using a concrete prompt such as a list of question words (who, what when). In this way, the Teacher Effects and Cognitive Strategy Instruction research built off each other, and were practically joined at the hip.

“When we compare the instructional procedures from the earlier teacher effects literature with those that emerged from this cognitive strategy research, we find that these two sets of instructional procedures complement each other…both sets of concepts are important for instruction.”

Rosenshine (1997)

But here’s the crucial part that was seemingly missed as publishers began swiftly introducing a wide variety of additional “comprehension strategies” and “skill sheets.” 

“Procedural prompts are most useful when the student has sufficient background knowledge and can understand the concepts in the material. Procedural prompts and the use of scaffolds cannot overcome the limitations imposed by a student’s insufficient background knowledge.”

-Rosenshine, Meister & Chapman (1996)

To summarize so far:

  • There were two primary strands of educational research in the 1960s-1980s that were tightly connected and responsible for promising findings:
    • Teacher Effects: identified effectiveness of frequent review, guided practice, and questioning. Led to research-based principles of instruction.
    • Cognitive Strategy Instruction: identified effectiveness of teachers’ scaffolding of concrete prompts while teaching abstract, higher-order cognitive strategies such as question-generation and summarization.
  • These cognitive strategies were to be explicitly taught at first, and were recognized to be contingent on the degree of existing background knowledge.

Reciprocal Teaching 

Emerging from Cognitive Strategy Instruction research was a promising reading comprehension procedure – Reciprocal Teaching that would initially be taught whole group, but could over time be done effectively in pairs (Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Rosenshine & Meister, 1993). 

The core idea behind Reciprocal Teaching, or “ReQuest” was to teach students four specific cognitive strategies to aid reading comprehension (Dole, 2009). These strategies included question-generation, summarization, predicting, and clarifying. According to Rosenshine and Meister’s (1993) review of 19 studies involving Reciprocal Teaching, two of the four strategies were consistently found to be the most effective in boosting comprehension:

“Based on this research, the strategy of question-generation, taught individually and in combination with other strategies, had the highest success rate, followed by summarization.”

To support students in generating questions, Rosenshine, Meister & Chapman (1996) recommended teachers model and teach using two types of prompts:

  • Signal Words – prompting with “when…why…how”
  • Generic Question Types/Stems
    • “What is another example of _____”
    • “How are ____ and ____ alike/different”
    • “How does ____ affect ____”

And to support summarization, the Kintsch & van Dijk (1976) procedures were reviewed (deletion, superordination, selection, and invention) along with the legs-and-table procedure in which students list main details to generate a summary sentence.

These strategies, question-generation and summarization, are actually heavily emphasized in Hochman and Wexler’s (2017) The Writing Revolution as key to improving reading comprehension. 

“It’s as important for students to learn how to generate questions as it is for them to learn how to answer them…summarizing can be a challenging and rigorous activity that provides powerful benefits.”

And so, how did we get from the research-based foundation of Cognitive Strategy Instruction, to where we are now – the Wild, Wild West of research comprehension strategies and skills.

Screenshot 2019-07-29 at 1.31.56 AM
“With 300 Strategies”

What Went Wrong – Skills or Strategies?

Dole, Nokes, and Drits (2009) reviewed the history of Cognitive Strategy Instruction and concluded “much of the fidelity of cognitive strategy implementation has been lost in the translation from research to practice.” One of the biggest confusions arose over the confusion between strategies and skills. 

“During the 1980s, when so much research was being conducted on cognitive strategies, teachers taught reading comprehension as a sequence of separate skills that were identified in the basal reading programs.” – Dole, Nokes, and Drits (2009)

Over time, educators were led to mistakenly believe that with repeated practice in more and more skills (finding main idea, sequencing, inferring, visualizing, identifying theme etc.), students’ comprehension would magically improve. As a result, an increasing number of skills were thrown at students with very little explicit teaching. It became a matter of quantity over quality.

“Teachers did no teaching; instead, students practiced the skills and teachers “tested” whether students could use them. In other words, when teachers directed students to “find the main idea” and to “create a summary of a story,” there was no help or assistance for students who could not find the main idea or create a summary.” – Dole, Nokes, and Drits (2009)

In addition, as the number of reading skills and strategies metastasized in workbooks and test-preparation booklets, the deliberate focus of building students’ precious background knowledge was buried.

“In the rush to teach cognitive strategies, teachers work on the strategies without regard to the content of the text…These teachers may forget that the goal of strategy instruction is improved understanding of a given text, and improving the ability to comprehend across texts, not learning the strategies.” – Dole, Nokes, and Drits (2009)

Where Do We Go from Here?

I hope to have shown over the course of this analysis that there are redeeming qualities of cognitive strategy instruction, so long as a few strategies are implemented with care and attention to the original guiding research. Students do not need 300 different strategies and skills for reading, they probably will do just fine with two.

In order to replace rampant, ineffective practices we see in schools, I suggest we radically simplify and dramatically refocus discussions around reading comprehension strategies, while continuing the much-needed emphasis on developing students background knowledge.  

Put Simply

  • The cognitive strategies of question-generation and summarization are found to best support reading comprehension. Shanahan has a wonderful two-part series on teaching summarization.
  • For Cognitive Strategy Instruction to be effective, sufficient background knowledge must be present.
  • Cognitive strategies should be explicitly taught and practiced extensively as a whole-group before being gradually released.

Next post in this series: Tracing the Origins: The Slippery Slope of Cooperative Learning

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Dole, J. A., Nokes, J. D., & Drits, D. (2009). 16 Cognitive Strategy Instruction. Handbook of research on reading comprehension, 347. 

Rosenshine, B. (1997). The case for explicit, teacher-led, cognitive strategy instruction. MF Graves (Chair), What sort of comprehension strategy instruction should schools provide. LINK

Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C. E. (1993). Reciprocal teaching: A review of 19 experimental studies. Center for the Study of Reading Technical Report; no. 574. LINK

Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions: A review of the intervention studies. Review of educational research, 66(2), 181-221. LINK


Checking For Understanding: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Questioning

Mike Schmoker sounded the alarm when he wrote in Results Now that “for the majority of lessons, no evidence exists by which a teacher could gauge or report on how well students are learning.”

In an interview, author and former teacher Tom Sherrington said “as a profession, we need to think harder about how to engineer more time-efficient ways to check for understanding  across a class…checking for understanding is something which needs to be way higher in teachers’ consciousness.”

What’s so important about asking students questions while teaching, and why is it so hard for teachers to do this consistently? What are some of the most time-efficient ways to check all students’ understanding, and what’s at stake when we fail to formatively assess students?

Pedagogy Beats Curriculum

The importance of knowledge-rich curricula for improving overall literacy has gained traction lately, and this is a major step in the right direction. However, we must be realistic and recognize curriculum alone is not enough

I fear that courageous attempts to make the recent curriculum renaissance “teacher-proof” with extensive teacher guides, on-site professional development, and complex scripts will not only be ineffective, but could even backfire if implemented without genuine teacher buy-in. For full impact, we need to pay as much (if not more)  attention to improving pedagogy as we do curriculum. 

Dylan Wiliam writes, “changes in curriculum rarely impact practices in classrooms. Trying to change students’ classroom experience through changes in curriculum is very difficult. A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum.”

This then, is a call to empower teachers with universal fundamentals of effective lesson delivery and formative assessment that are are rarely taught or deliberately practiced in our colleges and universities. Having a toolbox of formative assessment techniques is key for teachers to unlock and scaffold the most rigorous curricula. 

Ultimately, how we get students to interact with knowledge-rich curriculum is what is most important, and teachers need far more than external, one-shot professional development sessions, hap-hazard coaching and lock-step curriculum guides.  Formative assessment and continuous checking for understanding (CFU) should be a top priority for all new teachers in training, and a long-term endeavor in teacher professional development. 

Refocusing on CFU will take a fair amount of unlearning and relearning as many generations of teachers have been actively discouraged from taking an active role in directing students learning and attention in the classroom. The rush to “limit teacher talk” has been taken to the extreme. Therefore to start, we’ll re-examine what exactly formative checks for understanding look like in the classroom. 

CFU Fundamentals

Dylan Wiliam famously articulated how formative assessment, at it’s most fundamental level, allows a teacher to distinguish “I taught it” from “they learned it.” In Embedded Formative Assessment, Wiliam outlines what makes an assessment truly formative:

“An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence.” 

In Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine concludes that “more-effective teachers frequently check to see if all the students are learning the new material.” Rosenshine outlines two purposes of checking for understanding (CFU):

  • To provide students opportunities to elaborate on, and move new learning into long-term memory
  • To let the teacher know if students understand or have developed misconceptions.

Noticing student misconceptions is absolutely vital while CFU. Again, Rosenshine: “when left on their own, many students make errors in the process of constructing this mental summary. These errors occur, particularly, when the information is new and the student does not have adequate or well-formed background knowledge.

By noticing misconceptions and understandings, teachers can skillfully decide how to proceed in the lesson. In Explicit Direct Instruction, Ybarra and Hollingsworth write that “the power of CFU is the real-time information it provides you for making instructional decisions during the lesson. It tells you when to speed up, slow down, or reteach. In reality, your students’ ability to successfully answer CFU questions determines the pace of the lesson.”

Dataworks developed the acronym TAPPLE to assist teachers in this instructional routine: Teach first; Ask a Question; Pair-Share; Pick a Non-Volunteer; Listen; Effective Feedback. 

Screenshot 2019-07-18 at 9.54.30 AM

Formative CFU might take the form of a diagnostic multiple choice question in a math lesson, or a brief Because/But/So writing exercise from The Writing Revolution to check reading comprehension. CFU should take place at least every 5-10 minutes, should take no longer than 1-2 minutes for all students to respond, and ideally the teacher should be able to view and interpret the responses from the whole class in less than 30 seconds. 

“As students practice, and between each step in the lesson, the teacher should conduct “formative assessment” by checking – assessing – to see how many students have mastered that particular step.”

Focus by Mike Schmoker

Done properly, a CFU should function like a reliable sample or poll. Teachers should call on at least three non-volunteers for every CFU, and when two students in a row cannot answer, it’s a sign to reteach. One student answering correctly is never enough.

It is most crucial that all students are thinking and responding whenever a question is asked to the whole group. Mike Schmoker writes “we must ensure that every student is responding, multiple times, to questions throughout.” When we limit questions to individual students or high-achievers who always raise their hands, it gives the rest of the class an clear opportunity to check out

These frequent checks can be done time-efficiently during guided practice using mini-whiteboards (card stock with a sheet protector) or hand signals (fist to five with multiple choice questions). Having outlined the fundamentals of CFU, the next section will identify what is not formative assessment. 

That’s Not CFU

Teachers spend a tremendous amount of the school year assessing using benchmark tests and other assessments, but the results are rarely (if ever) used to meaningfully adjust instruction or improve student learning. Robert Slavin states it clearly, “research finds that benchmark assessments do not make any difference in achievement.”

Instead of formative assessment, teachers are constantly distracted by all sorts of other fruitless assessments. We spend hours inputting and analyzing test data after the factwhen we should be gathering data and adjusting instruction in the moment.

Most time-consuming and often impractical are current preoccupations with “individual conferences” in the workshop model, and other 1:1 assessments frequently used to level student instruction.

In Results Now, Mike Schmoker writes “teachers have lately been required to conduct exhaustive, student-by-student reading assessments that can take days to conduct. But few are told how to use their results. We never encountered a single case where teachers used these assessment results to adjust or improve instruction; they used them to group or regroup students.”

The core question we must confront in our profession is, as Dylan Wiliam states, “does the teacher find out whether students have understood something when they [students] are still in the class, when there is time to do something about it?” Put another way, are we using assessments to adjust instruction in the moment, or are we merely hoping to catch misconceptions later? 

Whats At Stake

While there are very few, if any, silver-bullets in education, formative CFU might be one of the most agreed-upon, promising frameworks at our disposal. As Ybarra and Hollingsworth state, “continuous CFU, implemented properly, is the backbone of effective instruction.” 

When teachers do not consistently check student understanding, instructional decisions are made blindly and student learning is fragile. Tom Sherrington put it best – “where students underachieve in school, they are pushed on too far beyond what they can learn all the time. So they have this array of insecure schema for lots of different topics constantly being built on top of.”

It’s no longer enough to hope that students have learned something from our lessons. We must break the habit of asking students to self-report with “any questions…do you understand…ready to move on?” and instead utilize the simple and devastating power of frequent checks for student understanding.

Put Simply

  • The most powerful assessments happen during instruction when misconceptions can be caught and adjustments can be made.
  • It is vital that all students are thinking and interacting with each CFU question, and that at least three non-volunteers are sampled to gauge student understanding.
  • If an assessment does not meaningfully impact instruction or lead to valuable feedback, carefully examine the time and effort invested.

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Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your classroom. ASCD.

Hochman, J. C., & Wexler, N. (2017). The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. John Wiley & Sons.

Hollingsworth, J., & Ybarra, S. (2009). Explicit direct instruction: the power of the well-crafted and well taught lesion. DataWORKS Educational Research: Fowler, CA.

Rosenshine, B. (2010). Principles of instruction. International Academy of Education.

Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. ASCD.

Schmoker, M. (2018). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Ascd.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press.


Developing Teachers’ Research Comprehension

With all the emphasis on literacy and reading comprehension in schools, it’s quite ironic that we teachers ourselves are not very adept at actually reading and comprehending educational research.

This is illustrative, for three reasons.

  1. Research is its own domain with multiple sub-domains. Teachers struggle with the same problem facing younger students in their reading comprehension – we do not have sufficient background knowledge to comprehend educational research. We do not know what we do not know. It follows that most of us cannot differentiate between cognitive science, neuroscience, and developmental psychology – they are all some vague form of research. Good luck trying to explain the limitations of effect sizes in the lunch room. Predictably, authors, book publishers and professional development companies exploit this knowledge gap ruthlessly. 
  2. We’ve got it all backwards. When we teach students how to write an argumentative essay, we often have students form their opinions before looking for supporting evidence to make a “stronger argument.” This is fundamentally backwards. It’s not a surprise that we do the same thing when asked “what is the best way to teach?” Most of us pick which side we’re on (what we learned in teacher training and/or anecdotally from colleagues), and then go searching for research to support what we already do. The result is a both-sides scenario with entrenched opinions and dueling research. Teachers become exhausted and confused and inevitably lose trust for anyone who claims to say they know anything conclusively.
  3. Teachers rely upon book publishers and things that look “researchy.” You’ve probably already seen it, but the next sticker to be placed on every single teacher trade book will be evidence-based! Beware. Generally, many recommendations that arise from useful educational research do not require the purchasing of trade books, fancy equipment, or technology. They instead encourage teachers to do simple things like: ask more questions, sequence lessons thoughtfully, and utilize retrieval practice.

Possible solutions

How then, can we improve teachers’ research comprehension given these challenges? Again, I’ll propose three ideas.

  1. Teachers need background in cognitive science, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and educational philosophy. Not only do we need background knowledge in each of these domains, we need to know which domain can best answer questions we have in classrooms. To make this process more efficient, we should lean on trusted curators that have spent years developing their expertise in each domain. I look to Daniel T. Willingham, Daisy Christodoulou, Dylan Wiliam, Tim ShanahanThe Learning Scientists, Deans of ImpactHarry Fletcher-Wood, Mr. Barton, and Ollie Lovell.
  2. Teachers need more role models sharing better information. Organizations like ResearchED are vital for lifting up trusted role models and elevating the dialogue among teachers. ResearchED has helped me connect with teachers all over the globe who use and write about research-informed practices in their classrooms. The best part is that this is a grassroots movement. It is not led by book publishers and consultants, it is spearheaded through blogs and teachers.
  3. We need to be cautious and patient. I sometimes hit the repost button a little too eagerly. I read the headline, but not the methodology or limitations. I’m going to work on this, and take my time when reading through educational research. There is no rush to be “right” with research – instead, we should seek to fully understand and develop a deep structure of knowledge that informs the thousands of decisions we make each day in the classroom.

And so, if you have the time, I urge you to take the journey into education research. Be willing to unlearn. Dig into methodologies, and read literature reviews.

With so much variability in classrooms, research can only give us our best shot at effective teaching (empirical generalizations) – it is not a silver bullet or meant to be pedantic/prescriptive. But we cannot continue to silo ourselves off as a profession and stick with folk mythology, anecdotal experience, and ideas that only survive because book publishers keep them alive.

Put Simply

  • Recognize the deep gaps in teachers’ background knowledge of education research.
  • Identify trusted curators to fill these gaps and develop Research Comprehension
  • Be patient, and be willing to unlearn when necessary.

Are You More Student-Centered or Teacher-Centered?

A Loaded Question

A question all teachers encounter is are you more teacher-centered, or student-centered in your instruction? It’s a truly worthless question.

Because our brains are built to make split-second associations, words and feelings unconsciously come to mind when we hear ‘teacher-centered.’ Words like traditional, lecture, and authoritative. And when we hear ‘student-centered,’ we think progressive, personalized, joyful. Broadly speaking, one word clearly has positive associations, and the other negative. This is intentional.

Before the question is answered, a distorted and unhelpful debate is framed. As Archer and Hughes articulate in Explicit Instruction (2011):

“Using the labels ‘teacher-centered’ and ‘student-centered’ to characterize instructional approaches is misleading and is the result of constructivism proponents’ efforts to cast their methodologies in a positive light (e.g. our approach is about the student) and explicit instruction methods in a less favorable light (e.g. their approach is about what the teacher wants)

The dishonest and disingenuous teacher vs. student-centered dichotomy is constantly forced upon teachers and pervades the evaluation of instruction. This polarization also obscures the core attributes of explicit instruction, which are, ironically, almost entirely “student-centered” when examined more closely.

“Appropriate use of explicit elements of instruction is indeed ‘student-centered,’ in that it incorporates what we know about how students learn new material and about the skills they need in order to be successful…all instructional decisions are based entirely on student needs and performance, rather than on a rigid adherence to ‘teacher-centered’ techniques.”

Archer and Hughes (2011), Explicit Instruction

What is not prioritized in explicit instruction is student choice. And this is what is actually at the root of this unproductive debate. The fixation on choice is based on a loose assumption that motivation (and in turn, learning) will automatically improve when students are given more choice over what they learn.

Unfortunately, the APA’s Top 20 Principles from Psychology for K-12 Teaching and Learning do not support this assumption on the connection between motivation and learning. Rather, feelings of mastery and success are found to cultivate intrinsic motivation, which in turn makes learning more pleasurable.

“As more basic skills become automatic, the tasks require less effort and are
more enjoyable. Just as in sports, students improve their reading, writing, and mathematics skills when they do these activities repeatedly with teacher guidance and feedback, gradually progressing from less complex tasks to more difficult ones…When students have reached this point, learning often becomes its own intrinsic reward.”

Furthermore, while a need to learn can be made more personal and relevant for a student (e.g. how is this topic useful to you?…why is success in this subject important to your friends and family?), this should not be misconstrued to mean that students are individually choosing the content in their curricula.

In Motivating Students: Setting Goals for Autonomy and CompetenceHarry Fletcher-Wood explains the motivational power of personalizing the need for learning and goal-setting process.

“A goal can be made more motivating, and a task more attractive, through underscoring its value, framing it carefully and personalising it.”

To reiterate, students needs and goals are personalized to increase motivation, but the content and curriculum are shared. This captures the benefits of student motivation while avoiding the fragmentation of a classroom and loss of shared learning.

To replace the unhelpful teacher/student-centered dichotomy, we should instead look to create knowledge and learner-centered environments.

Creating Knowledge and Learner-Centered Environments

The terms learner-centered and knowledge-centered were outlined in Bransford, Brown, and Cocking’s (1999) How People Learn, and I find they provide a more valuable and less polarizing lens for discussing instructional approaches.

learner-centered environment recognizes the importance of building on students’ prior conceptual and cultural knowledge. In this way, learner-centered classrooms are culturally responsive and take into account students’ varying beliefs, understandings, and cultural practices.

“If teaching is conceived as constructing a bridge between the subject matter and the student, learner-centered teachers keep a constant eye on both ends of the
bridge…learner-centered environments attempt to help students make connections between their previous knowledge and their current academic tasks.”

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking’s (1999) How People Learn

In addition, a knowledge-centered environment takes seriously the development of deep and cohesive knowledge of academic disciplines. Teachers who emphasize knowledge recognize it is the key to unlocking deeper conceptual understanding.

“Environments that are solely learner centered would not necessarily
help students acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to function effectively in society…the ability of experts to think and solve problems is not simply due to a generic set of “thinking skills” or strategies but, instead, requires well-organized bodies of knowledge that support planning and strategic thinking.

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking’s (1999) How People Learn

Thankfully, learner and knowledge-centered terminology also avoid popular misunderstandings and myths around constructivism, which as implemented as a pedagogy has been interpreted to encourage teachers to, well, not actually teach.

“A common misconception regarding ‘constructivist’ theories of knowing (that existing knowledge is used to build new knowledge) is that teachers should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This perspective confuses a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing.”

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking’s (1999) How People Learn

And so, the next time you are asked “are you more teacher-centered, or student-centered in your instruction?” the correct response is to simply not answer that question. Instead, articulate the importance of cultivating a learner and knowledge-centered environment using research-informed best practices. It’ll be a more productive conversation.

Put Simply

  • Let go of the terms student and/or teacher-centered and note their vagueness and polarization in conversations and meetings.
  • These terms intentionally create a false dichotomy and frame discussions in a way to eliminate nuance and refute the clear benefits of teacher-led explicit instruction.
  • If the goal is to enable intrinsic motivation, then develop student mastery and personalize student learning needs and goals (not, however, the content).
  • Strive to create a knowledge and learner-centered environment driven by research-informed practices.

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Rethinking Rigor: How to Actually Develop Conceptual Understanding and Flexible Thinking

Explicitly Teaching Yoga and Music

When I picked up yoga a few years ago, my teachers did not ask me to “construct” my own understanding of poses and sequences – they were explicitly taught to me. When I started piano lessons at 4 years old, my mother did not ask me to “discover” how to read music or play scales. It was modeled and then I would try on my own. In neither case was my motivation to learn harmed.

Ignoring the power and efficiency of explicit teaching short-changes students of opportunities to develop creativity and critical thinking. Rigorous teaching recognizes that to develop creativity and critical thinking, a foundation of inflexible knowledge must first be built.

Inflexible and Procedural Knowledge Get No Love

Recently it seems that conceptual understanding and transfer are all the rage, with factual and procedural knowledge taught only as a last resort. This infatuation with conceptual understanding underpins both balanced literacy and discovery approaches to mathematics.

The narrow focus on building students’ conceptual understanding has led to the normalizing of unhelpful beliefs about teaching. For example, in math classrooms teachers are often encouraged to not show students formulas or algorithms until after they understand why they work. Or in language arts, it is common for teachers to organize instruction around “universal concepts” and then allow students to choose different books to practice “comprehension strategies.”

In these cases and many others, educators are trying to take a shortcut – skipping procedural knowledge in hopes of getting right to critical thinking and creativity. As educators, we’re giving into impatience and it’s not helping our students.

In Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham outlines how conceptual understanding is built, and the shortsightedness of discounting more procedural, or inflexible knowledge.

“Much of what is commonly taken to be rote knowledge is in fact not rote knowledge. Rather, what we often think of as rote is, instead, inflexible knowledge, which is a normal product of learning and a common part of the journey toward expertise.”

Willingham notes that inflexible knowledge is a prerequisite for expertise because the human mind is initially drawn to the more concretesurface features of problems. As inflexible knowledge is developed through numerous examples and non-examples, a deep structure develops that allows for students to think more abstractly and apply knowledge more flexibly to novel situations.

“Knowledge tends to be inflexible when it is first learned. As you continue to work with the knowledge, you gain expertise; the knowledge is no longer organized around surface forms, but rather is organized around deep structure.”

Returning to yoga and music – as a novice learner I was explicitly taught the more inflexible and procedural surface knowledge necessary to gain entry into each domain. In yoga, I was taught the correct alignment of core poses (downward dog, upward dog, warrior poses etc.) along with proper sequencing and transitions between these poses. In music, this entailed proper posture, technique, rote practicing of scales, and the ability to read music.

Being taught this inflexible knowledge by an expert did not diminish my motivation or kill my creativity – it served as a strong foundation to build upon, and eventually grow out of. Without a base of this procedural knowledge in both yoga and music, I would not be able to partake in improvisational “jam” sessions with friends or create my own sun salutation sequence. The explicit teaching and development of inflexible procedural knowledge was key to unlocking and enabling my own creativity and critical thinking.

Proven Ways to Build Conceptual Understanding

As educators, we all want to enable our students to think critically and creatively. The difficult question is, what is the best way to accomplish this? As the previous section outlined, we must take surface-level, inflexible knowledge seriously. But how do we make this knowledge more flexible over time?

In his book How to Explain Absolutely Anything To Absolutely Anyone, Andy Tharby provides a useful guide for deepening conceptual understanding. Here are four strategies:

  1. Have lots of examples. “Perhaps a golden rule for teachers is to always have as many examples as possible at the ready.” Examples help students figure out defining aspects of concepts in ways definitions cannot. This is particularly true when teaching grammar.
  2. Prepare non-examples. “Non-examples are particularly useful because they prevent students overgeneralizing and encourage them to discriminate between similar concepts.” I like to think of the non-examples as highlighting the boundaries and limits of concepts.
  3. List “must haves” and “may haves.” Isolating vital and non-vital attributes helps students tease out the nuance and grey area between concepts. It also helps students think more carefully and develop the ability to not always jump to conclusions.
  4. Prepare for misconceptions. Particularly in math and science, students take many misconceptions into the classroom from popular culture and media. As teachers, being aware of misconceptions gives us a chance to be a step ahead of students.

By preparing examples, non-examples, critical attributes, and misconceptions for complex concepts, teachers are able to directly support students in deepening their surface-level knowledge and building conceptual understanding.

In terms of an explicit teaching sequence, this could all take place during the guided practice portion of the lesson which the teacher completes with students, accompanied by frequent checks for understanding by non-volunteers.  This initial instruction is teacher-led, with a shared text/problem set, and does not happen through small group work and/or discovery. Such enrichment activities have a place later in the learning sequence once students have built a deep structure of knowledge with teacher guidance.

Put Simply

  • Inflexible surface knowledge (procedures, facts, concrete examples) have been devalued in education due to technological advances and a wealth of external resources at our fingertips (computers, smartphones etc.)
  • However, cognitive science informs us that inflexible surface knowledge is necessary for developing a more flexible, deep structure of knowledge (which in turn allows for transfer, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving).
  • Teacher-led lessons with plentiful examples and non-examples are the best way to develop conceptual understanding and deep structure knowledge.

In case you missed it, here is the first part in this series: Rethinking Rigor: Desirable Difficulties vs. Heavy Lifting


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