In recent times I have been involved in trying to help construct an early years literacy program. As part of the work we investigated ways to help our students’ reading (or listening) comprehension and writing. It was easy to find teaching strategies (like read-alouds and shared writing) but much more difficult to find the specifics of techniques and strategies in comprehension and writing that we needed our students to learn and use. I was surprised that, in many cases, this detail was best addressed in articles and journals aimed at our “strugglers” in reading, writing or mathematics.
That got me thinking about the relationship between instruction that we would call “intervention instruction” and that which occurs in our “regular” everyday classrooms. In particular, I wonder about why some students can make such incredible gains while in an intervention class but then have more difficulty when placed in a regular classroom.
From time to time, in my role at work, students will approach me about one or another of their classes. They want to discuss how they are progressing with a particular teacher. Perhaps it is Mrs Brown and her Mathematics class. The students usually start by saying that they like Mrs Brown and get along with her but her teaching is not working for them. They comment that the explanations are unclear, they have little time to work on things and Mrs Brown has no sense of whether they know something and no alternative explanations when they don’t understand the first time. They say that Mrs Brown’s instruction is much worse than the teacher they had last year.
The problem is, other kids in the same class have a much different opinion of Mrs Brown’s teaching. Students who are strong at mathematics adore her instruction. They say that they understand the key concepts, the explanations are clear and precise and they have ample time to practise their calculations and become fluent with a concept before moving on. They comment that Mrs Brown is a much better teacher than last year’s teacher because they get through so much more and feel that they are learning every lesson.
When I then visit the classroom periodically over a number of weeks I think I can see some reasons why different students see Mrs Brown’s class differently. The pace is very fast in Mrs Brown’s class. The work is ordered appropriately but students are left to guess how exactly one concept links to another. When working through a series of operations on the board Mrs Brown skips a number of steps, quickly verbalising what is happening in those jumps. Sometimes the kids have to rediscover aspects of the course – perhaps they are being asked to rediscover the circle area formula by cutting up a circle and trying to make it look like a rectangle.
In this class the concepts being taught are spaced and the connections between them are not particularly clear. It reminds me of islands in an archipelago*. Those students who understand the underlying concepts well can build the necessary bridges between the islands; they understand what is happening between each step and can identify ideas and connections that are left implicit. They can cope without a degree of explicit instruction that is carefully sequenced because they already have a strong working knowledge of mathematics. For those that are weaker, they can’t see how one concept relates to another. They have to “just trust” a teacher when they don’t see how things are connected. Without a bridge being specifically built between the islands they get stranded on one and look helplessly on as other kids in the class hop freely from island to island.
Island-bound kids are sometimes sent for some type of intervention. Effective intervention instruction, the type we identify for those who have fallen behind (for whatever reason), usually has the following features:
Small group sizes – often the intervention instruction is taught in smaller group sizes than regular classes.
Heavily structured and specific – there is a particular sequence that needs to be taught in a particular way. Often the lesson has predictable elements that recur often.
Explicit – when dealing with basic skills, and even some more complex ideas, concepts and links to previously learnt things are taught explicitly.
Small steps – the learning sequence is broken into tiny chunks with time for practise in between.
Frequent and sustained practice – students have ample time to practice what they have learned before they move on.
In classes like these it is impossible for kids to get stuck on an island because the instruction is set up so that there are as few islands as possible; instead, there is a strip of land leading from where they are now to where we need them to be. Even though the classes are smaller, the systematic instruction they involve is just as important in making sure that students are mastering concepts. If conceptual jumps are required we give them time to make the leap and we don’t move on until they have. Sometimes this instruction doesn’t seem challenging (or perhaps boring) to us – but it is challenging for these students. Getting from one island to another, even when the jumps are small, represent a real obstacle that they can’t overcome with Mrs Brown’s instruction.
In many cases the students in the intervention group not only start to make gains but can actually make ground on their peers. I am starting to think that perhaps intervention instruction works because it is actually more effective instruction – not just for those kids, but for everybody. This type of structured approach may just be the best way for the strongest kids to learn as well, but we can afford to make them take greater conceptual leaps with less practice and explanation. These leaps can be, and often are, entirely appropriate for these student in order for them to encounter more difficult examples and widen their understanding. Sometimes, however, the jumps we ask our students to make are not appropriate at all.
Perhaps, in Mrs Brown’s case, she needs to take some leaves out of the intervention instruction booklet to help her students. She could break the work into smaller chunks and introduce more frequent opportunities for practice around sub-skills or ideas. Then student opinions of her instruction might be more congruent.
*I am sure I have heard the archipelago analogy before but I am struggling to find someone to attribute it to. I will amend it if someone can point me towards it.