Not So Gradual Release


My students don’t understand what they are reading! As the K-3 literacy coach, I meet with each teacher two times a month for our coaching conversations. Several months have passed and the vast majority of teachers share this very same concern. The level of frustration is exacerbated by the fact that several of these teachers are spending a lot of time planning and implementing comprehension strategy lessons. When concerns like this arise in our coaching conversations, I can’t help but feel a little like a therapist when I respond by saying tell me more about this problem. The teachers go on to describe their last comprehension strategy lesson often involving an exact order of teach, model, group practice, and then independent practice. Their explanation sounds exactly like Pearson & Gallagher’s gradual release of responsibility model.

Gradual Release Model

The gradual release of responsibility model has been proven to be very effective in strategy instruction by many leading literacy experts, so what could the teachers possibly be doing wrong? I probe further and hear that the teach and model steps can sometimes last for days. It seems logical to slow down the pace of the teach and model for the comprehension strategies because it’s a really hard strategy. The teachers need to explain several times and model several times before the students are ready to try, right?

It’s not logical though. It’s ineffective. And teachers need to release the responsibility sooner rather than later.

How can they practice the strategy if they’re not ready? When I tell the teachers this idea, they are quick to respond with frustration, sometimes anger, in their voices citing reasons such as It’s too soon! or My kids can’t do it yet or They’re not ready. A year ago, I may have nodded my head in agreement with the teachers. But now? I release the responsibility earlier, often times immediately after my short (approximately 15 minutes) whole-group strategy lesson. The teachers continue to look at me as if I have completely lost all sense of the reality in the classroom. It was time to win them over with a metaphor.

Metaphor for Not So Gradual Release. Imagine the children are learning to shoot a basketball. You first teach them by telling them what basketball is, then discussing the importance of getting the basketball into the net as many times as possible, and then emphasizing how often you have to practice to become good at shooting hoops. After the long speech, you stand up and model for the children as you think-aloud while taking the basketball and positioning yourself for the perfect shot. The children are excited. The children are eagerly watching. A little boy reaches for the basketball eager to give it a shot, but you stop him and say, “Keep watching me, you’ll get to practice later!” After all that teaching and all that modeling, the students are getting squirmy. Then you say, “You’ll get to try, tomorrow, when we have more time.”

I repeat, release the responsibility sooner. The teachers nod and are starting to see that I’m not crazy. They are starting to see the benefits. The students choose a book at their independent reading level and get to practice a strategy that is fresh in their mind. During the students’ first attempt, the teacher circulates the room and confers with each student and is able to see exactly where they are in their level of understanding of the strategy. Don’t be alarmed if they stumble on their first try! Just like in the basketball example, children will most likely miss the basket on their very first attempt. You watch them carefully as they practice though. You might notice that a child tossed the ball with all of their might, so you coach them and tell them to try jumping a little as they toss the ball. The child may miss again, but perhaps they got a little closer to the basket. Much like conferring, observe your students while they practice the strategy during reading and take notes. Using the anecdotal notes, you can make informed instructional decisions for guided reading and coach your students as they make several more attempts.

Further reading. If you are curious how I came to this understanding, I encourage you to read Debbie Miller’s chapter titled, “Not So Gradual Release” from Comprehension Going Forward: Where We Are/What’s Next (2011). Additionally, watch the video in which she explains her rethinking since she published Reading with Meaning. My improved understanding of the gradual release of responsibility model has positively impacted the way I teach and the students I teach. The students are eager to try and are elated when they get to try right away. This new way of thinking also allows for the students to practice even more, rather than spending most of their watching me model. I can’t believe it took me this long to discover this idea from Debbie Miller!

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