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Explicit teaching works

Dr Helen Walls, The Writing Teacher, explains why we should move away from constructivism and towards explicit teaching.
Explicit Teaching works

An introduction to explicit teaching

Constructivism has had a strong influence on teaching methods in many countries, especially in New Zealand. This ideology is grounded in the belief that students will learn better through discovery-style activities and in collaboration with their peers. It has led to ambivalence about the role of explicit teaching and has positioned teachers in a facilitatory role – as ‘a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage’.

In the world of writing instruction, constructivism informed Process Writing/Whole Language/Balanced Literacy approaches. These were popularised by theorists such as Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins in the 1980s.

According to Graves and co, writing development would occur ‘naturally’, so long as students were engaged in tasks that were personally meaningful to them. Teachers were advised to let students choose their own topics and to use students’ personal experiences as motivation for writing.

The importance of explicit teaching, including of technical skills such as handwriting and spelling, was downplayed. A student’s free expression of ideas was seen as more important than correctness in writing or being able to follow conventions of text structure, genre and style.[i]

Such recommendations sound appealing, don’t they?

One gets the impression that we can take the hard work out of writing, out of the teaching of writing, and just let the ideas ‘flow’. And, the methods were promoted, despite a lack of empirical evidence to support them, through association with values that we all hold dear.

Advocates told us that the constructivist classroom was a more ‘democratic’ and ‘child-centred’ one. Such loaded associations made honest evaluation of the approaches difficult.

How can one reject a method when it is described in these terms? Teachers who do may be accused of underestimating their students’ inherent intelligence and seeing them as ‘empty vessels’. They may be regarded as authoritarian, or of not prioritising student agency.

This framing has been devastating to our profession, and to student achievement, with many teachers now confused and demoralised.

The research on explicit teaching

New Zealand, long-known for its constructivist curriculum and ‘balanced’ approaches to literacy instruction, is now in a state of crisis. National studies reveal that only a third of secondary students are achieving at expected levels for writing. The situation is particularly bad for students from low-income households. In a 2021 Ministry of Education pilot of new standards for literacy (for Year 10/Grade 9 students), only 2% of the lowest-income students passed writing.[ii]

The failure of constructivist approaches should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the empirical literature, of which Kirschner and colleagues (2006) provide summary:

These [discovery-style] approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less efficient and less effective than methods which place a strong emphasis on guidance of the learning process. (p. 75)[iii]

For teaching writing, numerous studies have demonstrated that explicit teaching is essential, including my own study of teachers’ practices.

For this, I surveyed 626 primary school teachers on their approaches. Then, I asked a subsample of respondents to supply me with writing samples at two time points to measure progress made over two school terms. Using this data I was able to see which beliefs and practices were associated with greater rates of progress.

Significantly, only explicit teaching items were found to be positively and statistically-significantly correlated with progress. The two items with the strongest positive correlations were: I explicitly teach spelling, and I explicitly teach handwriting.[iv]

Reject the loaded terms and associations

While the constructivist classroom may sound more democratic, the results of such methods are decidedly undemocratic with many students leaving school illiterate, and those students from lower-income households particularly disadvantaged.

Teacher directed learning may not sound quite so lovely, but it is the most ethical approach. We know that certain skills are essential for success in work and life and should not leave the acquisition of such skills to chance.

Finally, consider the children you’ve observed working in a teacher-directed classroom. Most often, they appreciate clear explanations, routines, and closely guided practice. When teachers are explicit, learning is made tangible to students. When teachers are effective, students grow in confidence and motivation. 

Explicit teaching of writing skills and knowledge

The explicit teaching of writing skills is essential. We must show children how to form letters, how to segment words, and how to write in sentences. At a later stage, we must teach other strategies, such as how to organise paragraphs, and the whole text, and how to use more complex punctuation.

Knowledge must be explicitly taught too. Here, I refer to literacy-related knowledge (such as knowledge of spelling patterns and text structures) but also conceptual and vocabulary knowledge across all subject areas. This will allow students to express themselves precisely on a range of topics and to understand all that they discuss and read.

We must remember that vocabulary knowledge is the strongest predictor of reading comprehension by Year 8 (Grade 9) and that a wide vocabulary enables further learning while a limited vocabulary inhibits it. This is because it is easier for a student to infer the meaning of a new word if they already understand most of the words in a text (and harder if they know only a few).[v]

Teacher planning will ensure that students engage with a range of concepts. Student-led inquiry leaves too much to chance as students do not know what they do not yet know.

Teach knowledge-rich lessons in science and history, and then use these as inspiration for writing. For example, one could teach students about the solar system and then have students write stories set on Mars. This will reinforce students’ content knowledge and their knowledge of narrative text structure (and will be much more motivating than the weekend recount).

For more practical ideas, check out How to Teach Writing, Spelling and Grammar to purchase my and Dr Christine Braid’s recently published resource. Or enrol in a professional learning workshop through Essential Resources, or my website.

What about creativity?

Explicit teaching is the very best way to enhance creativity because, as certain skills are automatised, students will be able to focus on other, ‘deeper’ features. For example, as a student writes the story set on Mars, they will be able to focus on decisions such as, what will the story problem be? How will I describe the barren landscape? And not – which way around does the d go?

So, teachers, let’s teach. Teacher-directed learning is the best way to set our students up for a future of hope and opportunity.

References

[i] See, for example, Calkins, L. (1986). The Art of Teaching Writing. Ontario: Concord Publishing.

[ii] Evaluation Associates. (2022). 2021 NCEA Te Reo Matatini me te Pangarau / Literacy and Numeracy Pilot Evaluation: Evaluation Report One.

[iii] Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance Does Not Work: An Analysis of the failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

[iv] Walls, H. & Johnston, M. (2023). Teachers’ beliefs for the teaching of writing: influences on student progress. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 28(1), 27-54.

[v] Nagy, W. E. (1988). Teaching vocabulary to improve reading comprehension. Newark, D.E: International Reading Association.

About the author

Dr Helen Walls is a professional learning facilitator and educational researcher, with 20 years’ experience working in schools. She is committed to raising achievement in writing by sharing evidence-based, practical methods to engage every student. Helen is managing director of The Writing Teacher, a consultancy that provides writing workshops and resources for teachers, all accessible online. She is also a member of the Massey University school support team. For her PhD thesis, Helen conducted two empirical studies into the teaching of writing, which included a trial of the Fast Feedback Formative Evaluation System outlined in this book. She has published with The Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties and The Education Hub.

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