Best of Frank Serafini: Lesson In Comprehension- What is Explicit Instruction?

Explicitness in Comprehension Instruction

It’s hard to find the words “reading instruction” in commercial programs and government sponsored documents without finding an adjective like “explicit, direct, sequential or systematic” attached to it. But what does this really mean? Does it assume that teachers haven’t been teaching, or haven’t been teaching correctly? Does it mean that the word “instruction” has been expanded to mean too many things and we have to be more specific in our use of the word? Or does it allude to the idea that comprehension instruction must be controlled through mandated commercial programs in order to be effective?
Particular literacy educators have been advocating explicit, systematic instruction in decoding and comprehension skills for many years. Some envision explicit instruction as a series of required instructional steps or procedures designed to guarantee that students understand explicitly what is expected of them and what is being taught. Others are concerned that explicit instruction is simply a new label for commercial reading programs that contain tightly structured, scripted lessons. Whatever the case, the word explicit keeps popping up and I believe it warrants some discussion before proceeding to other considerations of quality reading comprehension instruction.
            Explicit instruction is often considered the opposite of vague, implicit or embedded instruction. The word explicit, when attached to the word instruction, implies a more sequential, more rigorous type of instruction when compared to the embedded instruction often associated with workshop approaches to reading comprehension instruction. However, I believe this is misleading. Describing the differences between explicit instruction and embedded instruction on the basis of when it takes place, where it takes place or the series of instructional steps contained in the lesson may oversimplify some important distinctions. Simply adhering to a series of instructional moves does not guarantee that explicit instruction has taken place. The degree of “explicitness” in an instructional experience hinges upon the language used in the instructional event and the relationship that is developed between the teacher and students during the instructional transaction. What may be very explicit to one student may be quite vague to another. In fact, one could go the other way and be too explicit, offering redundant information to students during a comprehension lesson.
            Randy Bomer wrote that explicitness is a focus on the degree of clarity of a particular lesson. The degree of clarity lies in the learner’s constructions and deliberate use of a particular concept, strategy or procedure. His focus was on the learning that took place, not on the degree of explicitness found in the language used by the teacher in the instructional experience. Whether we have been explicit or not can only be assessed after the learning experience, when we are able to determine if students understood what we taught them. In order to determine whether they have learned the concepts we have taught them, learners are required to demonstrate particular actions or understandings after the lessons have been completed. It is a focus on the learning that has taken place, not simply an evaluation of the language or sequence of procedures in an instructional experience that determines whether a lesson was explicit or not.
            Richard Allington describes quality reading comprehension instruction as “active” instruction, the kind of instruction that demands participation from both students and teacher. It involves rational planning, based on close observations of students. For Allington, explicitness refers to one’s ability to bring to conscious awareness one’s learning and reading processes. Based on his suggestions, maybe explicit comprehension instruction should be called “wide-awake instruction.”
            Instruction at the point of use, is how Deborah Price described explicit instruction. She suggested that instruction must be contextualized in the act of reading and should focus on students’ needs as they arise. In order to focus on students’ needs as they arise, teachers need to pay close attention to the readers in their classroom. An important aspect of explicit comprehension instruction is the teacher’s ability to observe and determine what students need to learn in order to progress as readers. Teachers would not simply follow a script, or as the opening epigraph indicates, teach one set of basics for everyone, rather they would adapt the learning experiences and focused engagements in their classroom to fit the needs of their students.
In addition, Brian Cambourne has offered a series of four “Possible Dimensions of Learning and Teaching” for us to consider when we are analyzing our instructional practices and reading comprehension lessons. He discussed the differences between explicit and implicit instruction, mindful and mindless instruction, systematic and unsystematic instruction and contextualized and decontextualized instruction. He concluded that literacy instruction that is explicit and systematic, but also mindless and decontextualized, may be dangerous because it makes learning more complex than in ought to be. He also suggested literacy instruction that is mindful and contextualized, but also implicit and unsystematic may create serious barriers for many learners. It seems that it has become more complicated than simply whether we are being explicit or not. In addition to being explicit, comprehension lessons should be:

Deliberate – The teaching that occurs during our comprehension lessons should be deliberate, meaning teachers have a purpose or goal they are trying to achieve. These purposes may range from instilling a love of reading to demonstrating specific comprehension strategies, however, in effective reading lessons we do set expectations and objectives for our instruction. Comprehension lessons should be rationally planned, meaning that we have legitimate reasons for conducting them and can articulate what these reasons are. Although, we must remain cognizant of the ways our students respond to our lessons, we also have to have an idea about where we are headed. Quality comprehension lessons are not haphazard, nor are they a single routine that leaves no room for individual differences.
Responsive – Comprehension lessons should be created based on observations of our readers, our knowledge of the reading process and the experiences we can provide in our classrooms. They are designed to respond to what students need next. Although this is not an exact science, we have to base our instruction in response to what we know about our students. Whether we call this teaching in the zone of proximal development, or providing students with their next learning steps, the idea is that teaching is based on students needs and abilities, reading research, the district and state curriculum mandates, community expectations and the teachers’ knowledge base and experience, not on a commercial scope and sequence.
Clear – The language and the demonstrations we use should help clarify to students what we are teaching. In order to do this, we have to ask students if they understand what we are talking about and watch them when they are applying what they have learned. Explicit instruction does not guarantee explicit learning. The more we clarify our intentions, the more we help students understand what we mean, the more effective our comprehension lessons will be. In other words, we need to attend to the language of our instruction, the relationships that develop between the teacher and the learner, and the concept or practice being learned.
Relevant – The comprehension lessons we provide should relate to the types of reading that readers do in the real world, not just in school. Our comprehension lessons need to be applicable in and out of school. Relevance is created when students understand the purposes and objectives of our lessons and understand how it relates to their world and their goals. I believe, that we should discontinue doing things in school in the name of literacy education that don’t occur anywhere outside the school walls.


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