Teaching Opinion

Response: “Ten Elements Of Effective Instruction”

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 03, 2013 10 min read
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(This is Part Two of a two-part series. You can see Part One here)

The question asked two weeks ago was:

How can English Teachers Best Improve Their Craft?

I’ve previously posted a number of responses that apply to this question, including a five-part series on teaching reading and another five-part series on teaching writing.

I also shared additional resources in Part One of this series.

Also in Part One, author/educators Penny Kittle and Carol Jago contributed responses. This week’s post includes pieces from Jim Burke and David B. Cohen, as well as comments from readers.

Response From Jim Burke

Jim Burke (@englishcomp, www.englishcompanion.com) is the author of the English Teacher’s Companion, Fourth Edition and What’s the Big Idea?, and many other bestselling professional books; the founder of the English Companion Ning; and a senior author on the Holt McDougal Harcourt Literature series. He teaches at Burlingame High School in California:

What we want, what we need is a clear set of teaching moves we can use to make teaching consistently effective despite the inherent complexity of the classroom. Every year it seems we are asked to do more, though never, of course, given more time in which to accomplish the goals. One year I kept track of every minute taken from my instructional time--whether for interruptions from the counseling office, extended lunch activities, mandatory state testing, or anything else: it added up to, cumulatively, 29 hours. As our classes grow larger and more diverse, the core of our work--teaching students to read, write, speak, and think--grows more complex. Atul Gawande, writing about a similar though inevitably more accelerated trend in medicine in his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, identifies three kinds of problems related to work: simple, complicated, and complex (49).

Simple problems, explains Gawunde, have established steps, such as using a recipe to bake a cake, one can follow. Complicated problems, such as sending a rocket to the moon, can be broken into a series of simple problems. Complicated problems, such as building that rocket, require greater expertise; however, since this problem has already been solved, success can be achieved with some reliability. Complex problems, such as teaching a class of 35 adolescents, however, have no inevitable, replicable solution given their inherent--dare I say it?--complexity. As a parent of three children (two boys and a girl), I can attest to the lack of any available recipe that delivers a predictable result. After teaching adolescents for more than 25 years, I know only one thing for sure: they are complex.

As Gawande notes in his book about the practice of medicine (surgery in particular), “a doctor must be prepared for unpredictable turns . . . [because] medicine contains the entire range of problems--the simple, the complicated, and the complex” (51). Teaching is not so different.

Gawande set out to create what he called the “safe surgery checklist,” a brief list of actions a doctor could complete before, during, and after any operation, under any conditions, to ensure a safe and successful procedure.

After analyzing many studies on effective literacy and English language arts instruction, I arrived at the following 10 elements of effective instruction. These elements appear on my lesson plan template so that I can consult them when planning. I find, as Gawande did when he demanded of himself that he use his own safe-surgery checklist, that I am more consistently effective and have become, over time, more conscious of what I do that makes a difference.

The Ten Elements of Effective Instruction

1. Provide the necessary conditions for optimum learning and engagement: a safe and supportive environment in which students can do what you want them to so that they learn within a meaningful, authentic context.

2. Establish and communicate clear, specific learning objectives aligned with established state and national academic and career standards.

3. Make explicit connections between present and past lessons, students’ lives, other texts or subjects, the real world, and the Big Ideas around which lessons are organized.

4. Prepare students by teaching relevant background knowledge, skills, and academic language and literacies.

5. Integrate assessment throughout the instructional process, using the data to establish initial understanding, measure progress, provide feedback, refine instruction, and prepare students for future performances; this includes students reflecting on and assessing their own performance and progress.

6. Teach students strategies for learning, remembering, and doing.

7. Demystify literacy practices and performances by modeling, providing examples, and giving clear directions as students graduate from dependence on you to responsibility for their own learning.

8. Use different instructional methods, modes, and media in clear, coherent ways.

9. Ask students to generate a range of ideas, interpretations, solutions, questions, and connections.

10. Provide meaningful opportunities to practice, perfect, and perform all lessons in class and at home.

Let me briefly address one immediate concern that any such list of elements raises: control, or the exercise of professional knowledge. As Gawande observes, “We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. . . . It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us--those we aspire to be--handle situations. . . . The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists” (173). Gawande then suggests that “maybe our idea of heroism needs updating” (173).

So, too, perhaps with teaching: What helps our students learn best is what must guide us. What causes them to learn the skills and knowledge they need to live rich lives is what must guide us. Thus, the elements listed above offer a guide, not a mechanistic, lockstep solution to the problem of how to teach any student at any level. They provide what I find to be a succinct, useful, and effective set of solutions to the problem of how to teach 35 students to read, write, speak, and think. Which order you use, the way you implement these elements--those are your calls to make; I am suggesting, however, that at some level, each of these elements applies to every lesson, every day, regardless of what you are teaching.

Response From David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen has taught English for 17 years, and is in his 11th year at Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, CA. He is a National Board Certified Teacher, and an associate director of Accomplished California Teachers:

One of the most influential books in my learning about teaching was not actually about teaching. Daniel Pink’s Drive provides a compelling and clear explanation for much of what I understood intuitively but couldn’t always explain about motivation in general. The applications to teaching and learning come easily. There are three main conditions that generate and support intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In any individual classroom or school, teachers operate with unique sets of conditions that provide some limits (both appropriate and inappropriate) on our instructional choices. But to the extent possible, when I’m making decisions about my classes, I’m thinking about ways to increase student autonomy, push towards mastery, and instill a sense of purpose.

Autonomy doesn’t have to mean students have complete choice and just do whatever they want; that would be impractical. Still, look for ways to give students meaningful choices within the framework you establish. If your goal is to assess understanding of text, offer some choice about the way knowledge is demonstrated. If your goal is to assess public speaking skills, offer flexibility regarding topics. When you find it necessary to limit choices about form and content, give students some flexibility about timing, or repeating the task if necessary to approach mastery. To whatever extent possible, give students some input and control over their education.

Mastery, as an element of motivation, means that people are motivated to engage in tasks in which there’s a chance to succeed at something challenging and worthwhile. If students feel that success is out of reach, or that their efforts will not advance them towards success, they shut down. At the same time, if you lower the expectations to ensure easy success, students do not develop a disposition towards taking on challenges. The key is to provide the support students need in order to see progress towards mastery, to understand that something is possible when approached the right way. Sometimes in conversations with parents or school counselors, I hear that my assignments and expectations are closer to college level than tenth grade. I tell them that the expectations are set that high by design, and that the key difference between tenth grade and college is how much support I offer to help students master challenging material and complex skills.

Purpose may be the most essential of the three components of motivation. The more we understand and believe in the purpose of a task or challenge, the more we are willing to persevere, and even relinquish some autonomy. Not just English teachers, but every teacher, should have a deep and abiding sense of purpose that can be effectively communicated - and experienced - in the classroom. Sometimes that purpose is shared through what are loosely termed “authentic” experiences, putting language arts practice to use for public audiences or community issues. It is also “authentic” when our classes address students’ lives and interests in substantive and meaningful ways - though that doesn’t mean we have to route every lesson through hip-hop and sports. Adolescents are interested in universal and timeless themes relating to justice, honor, respect, love and family. Linking classic literature to students’ lives and concerns makes inquiry “authentic.”

I believe English is the subject area with the broadest applicability to students’ future lives and the future of our society. Operating from that premise is what guides my practices and growth as a teacher, and helps me foster some drive in students. I may not be offering anything you can click, copy, and paste into a better lesson for tomorrow. My advice is to constantly deepen your understanding of what you do and why. It’s an essential mindset for effective teaching.

Responses From Readers

Matt Althoff:

Jump on the flipped classroom train. There is no better way to individualize the instruction of grammar and writing. Students learn what they need to learn, at a pace they can handle. They learn it at home where they can take their time, re-play lessons, and experiment without the fear of embarrassment. In the classroom, teachers get one-on-one time with students every day. For the gifted reader and writer, the teacher can challenge them and inspire them to grow. For the struggling and reluctant reader and writer, the teacher can help them take the next step.

Right now, most of the materials out there are for math and science, but self-made videos (on YouTube or on Doodlecast Pro) are simple and more engaging for the students anyway.

It works!


It’s so glaringly simple that it’s overlooked time and time again by teachers, administrators and reformers alike.

The best way to improve our craft as English teachers is to keep developing our own identities as readers and writers and keep drawing on that fresh experience to help students develop into readers and writers.

I meet a good many English teachers who don’t write at all and feel that an English degree is all they ever needed to teach students about writing. For reading, I hear the old excuse about time--especially now that teaching fills their lives. If it’s not important for us, the message we communicate is that reading and writing are school practices, not life practices.

Thanks to Jim, David and to readers for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.
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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.