– Explicit teaching

In the first few moments of her three-day workshop, Supporting Reading Comprehension, Writing, and Study Skills at the Landmark College Institute, Linda Hecker prompted participants (I was one of five) to introduce ourselves and say why we came.

When it was my turn, I answered that I wanted to learn and develop more explicit teaching methods, to help not only my students with learning disabilities, but all students I work with. We were invited to tell the story of a student, and I talked about A., who, when I very clearly proposed to him an alternative structure for his paper, said to me: “I understand what you mean, but I don’t know how to do what you’re saying.” I’d like to know, I said to Linda and the group, how to teach better those students who don’t intuitively know all the little steps involved in tackling a big writing task. What’s involved, for example, in summarizing a passage or chapter? I know how to summarize — but do I know how to teach the same skill?


In the workshop, I did learn a strategy for teaching the summary, and picked up a few tools as well. Landmark emphasizes multimodal teaching, which engages a student aurally, visually, and kinesthetically in learning.  Even though their faculty have developed this kind of teaching to reach students with learning disabilities and AD/HD, this pedagogy is applicable to all learners.

Indeed, after three days at Landmark, I wanted to try out some of these exercises and tools not only on students, but on my own reading and writing practices. They’re more than effective — they seem motivating and, dare I say, fun.

What follows here is a select list of some of the ideas, remarks, readings, tools, and websites that seemed most immediately interesting to me. Certainly, there was more. It was a great experience, and, if you teach, I recommend that you go.


Cerebrodiversity, coined by Gordon Sherman.

Dyslexia is “an alternative brain arrangement,” said researcher Margaret Rawson, who took a diversity approach to dyslexia.

Writing is the most cognitively complex of all the academic practices. There is a “cognitive work space,” and in it, both low-order processes (like spelling and mechanics) and high-order processes (like analysis) are “competing for space.” Constrictors of cognitive working space include weakness in memory, language deficits, poorly automatized skills, and anxiety. (Imagine if you have troubles with word retrieval and your cognitive work space is constricted by anxiety. What room is left for articulating your ideas?)

Writing is also the academic task that “requires the most self-regulation. One way students can be more self-regulating is to be more metacognitive” about their learning processes and good habits, said Linda. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Teachers can support students in developing awareness of their learning and writing processes by beginning and ending a course with “attention to self-understanding and knowledge transfer.” One exit assignment is to have students write a letter to their next writing instructor, describing what the student would like the instructor to know about the student “as a writer, a learner, a student? What will be important to work successfully in that class?” (Note: the letter is for the benefit of the student’s metacognition, not for the next writing instructor.)

Teach active reading in the classroom. (Don’t just assign reading and expect it to happen effectively.) Give each student a photocopy of the same short article. On their own, they should read the article silently. For each paragraph, they should highlight text that contains the main idea (in a phrase or sentence). In the margin near the paragraph, they should jot the main idea in their own words. When they finish reading the full article, they can look back and divide it into chunks: intro, identifiable segments, and conclusion. Finally, as a group, discuss one paragraph at a time, so that students can share and negotiate their findings.

— To get students to experience the sequence of their ideas kinesthetically, ask them to “walk an essay,” or “walk a story.” Take the outline or draft of an argumentative essay, and prompt a student to stand and start speaking aloud their essays points. When she (student) makes a point or claim that advances her argument, she should take a step forward. If her point repeats the point she just said, she should stand still. If she makes a counter claim (and she should do some, but not too much, of this), she takes a step back. The point is to get somewhere forward in this walk, which will approximate the rhetorical progression of the essay. This activity obviously lends itself to narrative or process writing, too. We watched Linda model the walking of a story, and it was riveting.


Gift of Dyslexia, by Ronald D. Davis. A point that Linda made a few times is how something like dyslexia is more than, say, letter recognition problems. Clustered with the problems are also real talents, for visual and spatial thinking, for example. Landmark, and many in the field of learning disabilities, want to recognize the full range of abilities in different kinds of learners. This book is apparently an example of that optimistic approach. Davis has since written a companion book, called Gift of Learning.

It’s About Time: The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them, by Dr. Linda Sapadin. We all procrastinate, teachers, too, although we love to complain about our students’ downfalls in time management. Confession: my interest in this book is entirely self-centered.

Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and AD/HD Give You the Tools, by J. Mooney and D. Cole.  One of the authors is a Landmark alum. Has good advice for “volume reading” and “Ph.D. Skimming,” or how to get a lot of academic reading done strategically and well.


— Teachers should understand the benefits of technology for their students,be aware of technology options available, and set small, achievable goals to advance their own technology skills [emphasis mine].

Kurzweil 3000 is text-to-speech software that allows readers to also annotate the text in notes or their own speech. It has many thoughtful and easy-to-use features that help students not only with reading, but with reading to write. It’s expensive, so it’s the kind of tool probably best made available through an academic support center or library, yet it’s good to know about. There are other, stripped-down text-to-speech tools available for anyone who’d like to use it (James, who was also at the Landmark workshop, said that he has used it as a writing and revising tool, to hear his own writing in another voice and get some helpful distance from it). Kindle has a text-to-speech function. You can also, in your computer’s system preferences, activate a text-to-speech toggle. Go to your system’s help menu to find it.

— I loved the graphic organizer by Inspiration. I’m going to write more about in the next few days. It’s an inviting and powerful tool for brainstorming, outlining, and reading. Go get yourself the free trial copy, now. (And, if you like it, it’s not expensive to buy: only $69.) If you’re like me, and you have trouble getting started on big projects — they just seem so big, and as though I’ll have to do all the parts at once! — this is something to try. It makes beginning feel like playing.


— If you want to know more about Universal Design for Learning, start at the site for CAST: Center for Applied Special Technology.

— Researchers at North Carolina State University publish a Learning Styles web questionnaire, where you and your students can learn about your learning styles on four spectrums and gain metacognitive strategies for building on your strengths in a way that boosts what I might call your lesser faculties. I took the test, and I found the results and strategies to be affirmative.

I hope I haven’t made the workshop seem like a trade show, where all we did was sample products. Au contraire — it was a real, integrated, and hands-on learning experience, well structured and presented by Linda Hecker. From the workshop, I have a sense of how to integrate these tools into teaching and my own practice, more so than I would have if I had stumbled across these on my own. What I wanted to offer here, however, are some resources that float to the top, that might appeal to other curious learners and teachers who’d like to find out a bit more or experiment with tools outside their usual kit. I will be experimenting myself with some of these and others during the freer days of summer, and I’ll report on them here.

5 thoughts on “– Explicit teaching

  1. This is so interesting to me as a synchro swim coach-I can actually interpret and use these tips!

    The woman who mentored me as a coach taught me strategies for how to teach kids synchro skills. Some swimmers can actually learn some of the skills without demonstration, and just a verbal explanation, some can learn just by watching, while others have to have me physically place their appendages in the right place. I can usually figure out which swimmer needs which type of explanation early on – if not, I use all three strategies with them.

    However, the most useful tool the mentor-coach ever taught me was this “head, body, hands.” First-the swimmer needs to understand what it is they need to do and then be able to visualize it and then communicate it back to me. Secondly, they need to demonstrate it with their body (such as the airborne leg perpendicular to horizontal body). Lastly, we add the propulsion technique–using their hands to propel or hold their airborne weight above the water.

    • Emily, I love the “head, body, hands” mnemonic. At another teacher development workshop I went to, there was a noticeable pattern to the activities, which I now might call listen, write, speak (or head, hands, mouth). We’d listen and read, then write, and then say something aloud about what we wrote.

      During the Landmark workshop, I actually thought of what you told me about training (from when you were doing that at GSE): for every principle or lesson you teach a group, you should follow it up with an activity. Always make the lesson concrete or physical.

      I could do more of this. In college writing classes, there’s often more talking than anything else (teacher and students). There should be more doing.

  2. So many wonderful ideas here, thank you. Funny how in the summer I find myself returning to teaching, even though I’m not physically teaching. I’m not sure I miss teaching right now, but I do find that I enjoy the breathing time to reflect on my teaching practices, which inspires me to think ahead. (Speaking of Inspiration: can’t wait to try it for free towards the end of the summer, when I need to start drafting my first chapter).

    Thank you!

    • It’s true that we usually only get time to reflect on teaching during the summer. When I taught first year writing at Simmons College, however, the director would get us to write a brief reflection on our teaching at the end of each semester, and although it sometimes felt like One More Task to Do, I was really glad of the opportunity. She read them all (and, later, a he after the directorship changed hands), and it was also a good basis for conversation.

      One thing I like about my job at MIT is that I frequently get to co-teach a class with another instructor. Our planning of the class actually becomes a kind of reflection on teaching, although that’s not the intent.

      Pocha, I’m also starting to experiment with Scrivener, in concert with Inspiration. I’ll post my findings here — you might find that tool (Scrivener) interesting, too.

  3. Thanks for the reminder about the DOING and allowing the students/athletes time to make mistakes. By working it out on their own, and then discussing their strategies, is helpful for them, and for the entire classroom of students.

    I also use this technique in coaching- I only give ONE correction at a time (if I can be disciplined). I try to make it the major correction (using the “heads, body, hands” strategy). When they have made that correction, or a good attempt, I make another correction. Additionally, when they have made the correction I ask them “How did you fix it and how did it feel?” This helps them to remember for next time.

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