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April 4, 2010 Fundamentals of Instruction: Getting Back to Basics By Justin Lim

    Every teacher has personal obstacles when it comes to regularly implementing the best instructional strategies. For some, it's having to stick to rigid pacing plans and trying not to fall behind. For others, it's having to deal with tough classroom management issues. Perhaps another challenge is administrative pressure to prepare students for state testing. For me, my personal challenge is a sneaky one - falling into a comfortable routine.

    As I approach the final few months of the year, I always find it challenging to self-evaluate. By now, my kids and I have fallen into a rhythm, where procedures and classroom efficiency are no longer concerns; this is what I've been working towards the whole year. While I love the fact that the class seems to run itself, I often need to be reminded that teaching, as a profession, is alive; it requires constant sharpening and nourishment to stay healthy. As much as I hate to admit it, I'll never be a perfectly complete teacher and falling into a state of complacency is the last thing that I want for my classroom and for my teaching.

    Here are three fundamental instructional strategies that I always check for as I plan my lessons:

    1. The Sandwich Method - The sandwich method is based on the idea that students are most likely to remember what is presented at the beginning and at the end of a lesson. This means that if there is a key concept that you need your students to understand, you should teach it right away and then review it right before dismissing the class. Some professionals refer to this technique as front-loading. While it is a well known strategy, it often gets pushed to the wayside as soon as teachers start falling behind their pacing plans. If you're anything like me, then sometimes you need to resist the temptation to simply start the next day by continuing where you left off, instead remembering to focus on key concepts at the beginning of each class.


    2. Short Meaningful Activities - Some researchers suggest that in general, the attention span of most students, if measured in minutes, is equivalent to their age plus two. In other words, the attention span of the average 15-year-old would be a mere 17 minutes. While I'm no expert at cognitive studies, I can testify that it is much more effective to break up a period into two or three short activities than it is to have a single long one. Consider some of the tasks that you assign on a regular basis such as in-class reading or vocabulary. Try not to spend any more than 20 minutes on any one of them in a given day and spread them across a few days instead. This will help to keep your students more engaged.

    3. Setting the Purpose - Setting the purpose simply means that students should be aware of what the objective is for every single task. Although this sounds obvious, you might be surprised at how easy it is to simply give your students directions and start them off working without actually explaining what it is that they should be learning. One pedagogical study indicated that the single most influential factor of student achievement on a task was how clearly they understood the learning goal.

    Often, setting the purpose is as simple as writing down an objective and reminding students immediately before starting the activity. For instance, right before I have students read a passage to each other, I might point out that the purpose is to practice fluency by observing all of the punctuation. The more specific I am when stating the purpose the better. For a more advanced class, I might tell them that the purpose is to practice identifying indirect characterization as they analyze a passage from a novel. In both examples, setting the purpose could have been easily overlooked, in which case even though students might be working, they would not have known what to focus on.


    As the year progresses and you find yourself falling into a rhythm, it gets harder and harder to stay true to good instructional strategies. By now, you've probably figured out what works, which means that it's going to take all the more effort to pursue what might work better.

    What are some fundamental strategies that you use to guide instruction?

    Warm regards,

    Justin Lim

    Rosemead High School


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