Principles of (English) Instruction Part 3 – Small Steps

This is Part 3 of my so called series on ‘Principles of Instruction‘ by Barak Rosenshine. If you’d like to read Part 1 and Part 2, there they are.

The second principle is “Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.”

Do I do this?

[Embarrassed pause]

Not as often as I should. (I’m not going to get 100% on this quiz, Sir.)

Why don’t I do it more often? Sometimes I think due to ‘the curse of knowledge‘: I underestimate what I know and sometimes think that tasks are simple, one-step tasks when, for novice learners, they are actually a couple of steep flights.

And sometimes, in what is developing as a bit of a motif, I am panicked about ‘getting through the text’. But less haste, more speed. What does it avail any of us to have ‘done’ the text, if students lack quick, confident understanding and haven’t been given enough opportunity to consolidate their knowledge in written form? Can we complain about their poor written analysis when we don’t prioritise writing in class? No! (She says, acutely conscious of her own shortcomings in this very area.)

Okay. So. On board with this idea. But how to go about it?

[Thinks hard. Eats some Sakatas.]

Start at the beginning

Teach characters and plot. Really teach them. Test them. Make them required knowledge. Anyone who has taught The Tempest for two months only to discover that their students still aren’t sure which one’s Antonio and which one’s Alonso will understand the importance of this, ditto anyone who has had students gasp when they realise Boo Radley is in the Finch house, even though you are seven weeks into the unit and they were supposed to read the novel in the holidays. As Anthony Radice has pointed out, students need to know the full plot at the beginning of their study in order to understand the significance of events and images as they occur in the text. If students don’t know characters and plot, I’m building my house on sand.

Start before the beginning

What would really help with the whole small steps thing is careful sequencing of school programs. For example, we teach Shakespeare to every year group. (Well, in the schools I’ve worked at; I’m lucky.) Ideally, after five years of annual Shakespeare instruction, we should not need to spend much – if any – time teaching his context to Year 12. We should, if we’ve sequenced our instruction carefully in the earlier years, have Year 12 students who are all over Elizabeth I, James I, the Chain of Being, the Age of Discovery, Renaissance Humanism and the Post-Reformation spiritual and political turmoil.

Know what I want my students to know

Map out exactly what I want them to know at the end. Sounds obvious, but it takes more time and effort to figure out than you can possibly imagine. You need to know something really, really well to communicate it clearly to someone else. There’s probably an Einstein quotation about that somewhere.

Then let students have that map.

Write early, write often

Carve out the time. Teach a small chunk of the text. Then set a writing exercise based on that. Then teach the next chunk. Then they write. Let them write. Every lesson.

How small should that small chunk be? I don’t know. Ten minutes of text teaching -> ten minutes of modelling and student writing -> ten minutes of text teaching, etcetera? Or twenty-five minutes of text teaching -> ten minutes of modelling -> fifteen minutes of student writing?

It might vary; I need to experiment with that. And it’s time to get hard core about student punctuality and preparation: we’re all on the clock.


5 thoughts on “Principles of (English) Instruction Part 3 – Small Steps

  1. This couldn’t be more different from the obfuscating stuff educationists so often write. The exposition is lucid, the advice practical and the style itself a model of good writing. (Love the “Learning by Heart” title!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great project, Felicity – I am in the process of codifying my own practice in a similar manner.

    As an English teacher, it’s maddening how far from instruction our kin have gone. A recent post from the Quirky Teacher made me realise how useless much of our ‘best practice’ is just comprehension questions for texts that a) students have no reference for and b) often haven’t read!.

    Following Rosenshine I am now giving the facts (plot, characters, quotes, vocab) and asking students to memorise them using flash cards and knowledge organisers. I have just started to use the flash cards for retrieval practice and elaboration. I give the students two flash cards and ask them to connect them in sentences. Then they have to retrieve them for homework.

    Without modelling this, and building paragraphs word-by-word (step-by-step), I don’t know what we are expecting. Simply asking ‘what is wrong with Hamlet in Act 1, Scene 2?’ seems like the stupidest thing in the world now!

    Keep it up!


    1. Thanks, Alex! I love hearing from other English teachers and stealing their ideas! Flashcards are a good idea. I’ve dipped my toe in the knowledge organiser pond, but really need to do more with that. See you around the interweb!


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