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Why I Prefer Pre-Teaching to Remediation for Struggling Students

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We’re all terrible at something. For me, the list includes mini-golf, piano, and the torturous mash-up of yoga, ballet, and Spanish Inquisition techniques known as “Barre3.”

Take a moment to imagine something you are terrible at doing. Recall your physical clumsiness, your desperate flailing efforts, the flush creeping up your neck in response to the cruel sneers of all those looking on as you work really hard, try your very best, and still fail.

For a handful of children in any classroom, this kind of misery is a daily experience. It happens every day during reading or math.

Most of us can avoid the things we’re no good at doing. I simply steer clear of mini-golf courses, piano recitals, and Barre3 studios.

Students who struggle with reading and math don’t have that option. They have to attempt what is hardest and most agonizing for them on a daily basis, for many hours of the day.

An Epiphany

There’s plenty we can do as teachers, of course, to make these kids less miserable. Build a supportive classroom culture. Focus on their strengths. Differentiate instruction so they experience success on a daily basis.

Still, the only true antidote to failure is success. Once these kids learn to read and do math, they can take a breath and begin to enjoy it. But the path to proficiency can be steep and winding, and walking that path is often excruciating.

—Photo by Justin Minkel

Take Pablo, a 2nd grader with a learning disability who is fascinated by ancient Egypt and Greek mythology. But all the books he can actually read are about balloons, crayons, and talking chickens in polka dot dresses.

How do we help these kids?

Often they get more of the same, and it mainly falls under the category of remediation. Tutoring after school, so they can do more worksheets that didn’t help them the first time around. Summer school, so they can experience year-round academic misery while their friends are biking to the pool or playing their Xboxes. Pull-out interventions focused on material the other kids mastered last week, causing them to miss this week's content because they're not in class.

After two years of teaching and many hours of engaging in various kinds of remediation, I had an epiphany that I think has made my struggling students’ lives a little easier. Here it is:

Remediation is often a terrible way to help kids catch up. Pre-teaching is more effective and more fun.

An example of what I mean:

Manuel is the only 1st grader in the class who still doesn’t know how much a dime is worth. Nickels and quarters look pretty much the same to him—he knows one is worth five cents, the other 25, but it’s hard to keep them straight.

Here’s what remediation looks like for Manuel:

Later that day or at tutoring the next morning, I meet with Manuel one-on-one for about 20 minutes to walk him through the values of each coin once again.

Worst case, he still doesn’t get it. Best case, he finally understands what the other kids mastered days ago. Either way, he knows he’s dumb. Nothing I can say will convince him otherwise.

By contrast, let’s look at an example of what I mean by pre-teaching. First, we have to go back in time, to the day before the first lesson in our money unit.

The intervention itself looks pretty much the same. I spend 20 minutes with Manuel outside of class, walking him through the values of the coins, but in this case the other kids haven’t had the lesson yet.

I tell him what we’ll be doing in our money lesson tomorrow, and I give him a “preview” of that lesson before any of the other kids get to see it.

Fast forward to the money lesson. To the surprise of his classmates and Manuel himself, he’s ahead of the curve for once. He knows some of the answers before the other kids do. He is one of the first students to finish the game we play with the coins. I ask him to go help Will, the top math student in the class, who is usually the one to help Manuel.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

In both scenarios, I have spent the same amount of time with Manuel. I have spent that time doing the same thing with the same concept.

But with remediation, he still feels dumb. Even if he did finally understand the concept, he’s still behind, and he will probably be behind again tomorrow.

Pre-teaching has a very different outcome. Manuel is one of the top students in the class. He experiences the role of “helper” instead of “helped.” Manuel also got more out of the whole-class math lesson, for a simple reason: He spent it doing the right thing the right way, not fumbling through errors in a frantic attempt to catch up.

There’s an added benefit for his teacher, too. During that pre-teaching session, I got some clues about what might confuse other kids in the class when the time came for the lesson. For example, just as with Manuel, nickels and quarters might look similar to them. They’ll probably be OK counting by fives and tens, but they might struggle to add five or ten to 25.

I can anticipate these errors, using Manuel’s confusion as a possible preview of stumbling blocks for the other kids.

Transformative Moments

Pre-teaching isn’t a magic spell. Sometimes Manuel will still struggle, even with help on the front end.

There’s also an argument to be made that you can’t assume a student will fail at a certain concept before he has a chance to try it. The usual model—teach a lesson, see who doesn’t get it, then help those kids in a small group or one-on-one—has its place.

But within a few weeks of school, we generally understand a great deal about which concepts tend to trip up our struggling readers and mathematicians. For little Janet from the Marshall Islands, who has trouble distinguishing vowel sounds in English, the “short e” and “short i” sounds will probably be tricky. For Manuel, who struggles with number sense, the idea that a single coin can have a value of either 25 cents or a single cent may take a little while to sink in.

If we’re wrong, and the child would have been just fine without any pre-teaching, we gave him a little extra boost. But when we’re right, the difference between pre-teaching and remediation can be profound.

For the same 20-minute investment of time, we can change the way a child sees himself as a reader, thinker, or mathematician. We can give Manuel the rare experience of being the kid who gets it first, who helps the other kids figure it out, who is ready with the answer the moment he hears the question.

For children accustomed to struggle, those moments can be transformative. They can make reading an act of pleasure instead of torture. Math can become fun instead of frustrating. The feeling of confidence can linger long after the class has moved on to the next concept.

Responsibility and delight can coexist. My struggling readers and frustrated math students often display a determination to succeed that inspires me. But they’re a lot more likely to hang on to that determination if they experience a little delight along the way.

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