Gradual Release of Responsibility and Complex Text

  • 27 October, 2018
  • 11 Comments

Teacher question:

I am working with schools who are strongly committed to the “I Do, We Do, You Do” method of teaching reading, and attempt to use this method when working with the reading of complex texts. I have noticed that this approach doesn’t often exist with “highly aligned curricula.” My questions are: What is the role of modeling as it relates to complex text? What does good modeling look like with a complex text that doesn't simplify understanding of a text down to just using one reading strategy? I would appreciate any insights you have here. Thank you!

 Shanahan's response:

Cool question.

I don’t think that is a bad way to think about teaching complex text, I just haven’t usually thought of it that way myself.

The method you summarize as “I do, we do, you do,” is often described as “gradual release of responsibility.” The idea being that initially the teacher takes full responsibility for carrying out a particular task – reading comprehension, in this case – and then through a series of steps relinquishes more and more of the responsibility to the students.

Your teachers are wise to be committed to this approach because it is well supported by research. According to the What Works Clearinghouse, the gradual release approach to teaching reading comprehension has strong research support.

Unfortunately, as effective as this approach can be, it is often badly done. Teachers may turn over the keys to the kids too quickly… sometimes without any modeling or guided practice at all. When done like that, the method is no more than an independent reading assignment. “Go to your desks, read the text and fill out the chart. Good luck!”

Or, teachers may model—like when they read a text to the students—but without adequate attention focusing or explanation. If I read the text and tell the kids what I learned or noticed from it, it is very unlikely kids will be able to duplicate that effort on their own.

As you point out, many programs don’t include this kind of approach, and no wonder. The easy parts of the process are at the endpoints. Initially, when the teacher does all the work it can be scripted, and at the end when the kids do everything, no more is needed than an assignment.

But what about in the middle? How much guidance should the teacher give? How quickly should she turn over the process? How gradual is gradual?

Those decisions are hard because they need to be made on the spot. And, when they are wrong—that is, when it turns out that the kids can’t take the reins successfully—the teacher has to take back the responsibility, for the time being that is.

That’s why I think of gradual release as: I do it, we do it, I do it again, we try to do it again but this time a little differently, we do it, we do it, oops, I have to do some of it with more explanation, you do it (no, not quite like that), you do it, we do it again, okay now you can do it. (I know it isn’t catchy, but it is more descriptive of how the process really tends to work).

So what does that approach have to do with teaching students to comprehend complex text?

First, you have to identify a particular text barrier to understanding that you want to teach. Authors build affordances or barriers to understanding into their texts, and readers have to learn how to take advantage of these or to surmount them. In this case, let’s say you want to teach students how to use context to make sense of a word’s meaning or how to transform a sentence with an independent and dependent clause into two independent sentences to clarify meaning. (The point is to teach kids to operate on the text so that something unclear initially makes sense.)

Then, you need to explain this to the kids and show them how you do it… with several examples. Be sure to show them how you notice that you don’t know the meaning of a word (e.g., “that’s a new one to me,” “oh, I’ve looked that one up before but don’t remember its meaning,” or “I thought I knew that word, but the definition I know doesn’t fit this context, hmm”). Once you’ve noticed this barrier to understanding, then you have to show the kids how you deal with it. Breaking the sentence down or looking for context clues that may clue you in to the meaning of the unknown word.

That’s the “I do it” part of the equation (and, yes, you might have to go back and show these steps again multiple times—even after the kids have tried it themselves).

To start to release control, the kids have to read something under the teacher’s supervision. Of course, the text chosen needs to have some of the potential barriers you’re trying to teach them to overcome. The key here is to have some target problems to home in on.

I usually come up with questions aimed at testing the kids’ understanding of the particular idea expressed in the text that the barrier should have blocked them from. If they can answer the question—if they unpacked the sentence themselves or made the cohesive link or figured out the unknown word—there is nothing to be done. However, if they can’t answer, then you can guide them to figure it out… showing them what to look for or how to operate on the text.

At some point, when the kids are getting better at solving such problems, then you can provide them with reading assignments to do on their own. Such an assignment might include a text along with written questions. That could serve both as independent practice, but also as an assessment. Were they able to monitor their understanding of the text? Were they able to take actions successfully when they weren’t understanding it? Could they show you what they did to figure out the answer to a question?

I haven’t done it that way myself with making sense of complex texts, since I tend to focus more on the “We Do It” portion of the sequence, but the introduction of these tools into the process could allow teachers to raise their game.

One last suggestion: tell the kids right up front that complex text is a problem to be solved or a mountain to be climbed. Explain that you are going to try to provide them with tools that will allow them to make sense of a text, even when they initially couldn't make heads or tails of it. (Too often kids think you either get it or you don’t when it comes to reading; give them some ways to overcome barriers to understanding instead of just giving up.)

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Rebecca Pennington
Oct 27, 2018 11:27 PM

I just love this. It demonstrates the messiness of comprehension, but also give explicit help for teachers trying to use "gradual release of responsibility" in a meaningful way. Thank you!

Margaret Ridgeway
Oct 28, 2018 01:11 AM

My biggest problem is getting them to change the way they do things. No one told them before to think while reading. Too many just read the words, without any thought. I call it the "git er done" method of reading. Holding a conversation while we read seems to help.

SAM BOMMARITO
Oct 28, 2018 03:41 AM

I concur. Gradual Release is a great method when done correctly. However, if the teacher doesn't leave sufficient work for the child (overscaffolds) things can go badly. I like Burkins and Yaris's take on this. I think following their advice can avoid the pitfall of over scaffolding. From my own training I learned that if you have a good answer to the question of what work are you leaving for the child and why, you've got a good chance of scaffolding correctly.

Annarita Howell
Oct 28, 2018 04:31 AM

I appreciate the clear explanations and suggestions to improve instructional practice and student learning. As an Elementary school principal who has many first year teachers, it is often overwhelming to select a starting point with feedback. How do you answer the question, “What does a highly effective literacy block look like?”

Harriett Janetos
Oct 28, 2018 03:37 PM

I recently attended a workshop sponsored by the International Dyslexia Association and they strongly advocate a shift away from "balanced literacy" toward "structured literacy".

Bill Keeney
Oct 28, 2018 09:53 PM

First off, I would like to ban anyone from teaching who ever uses the term "hidden meanings." Writing is designed to EXPRESS meaning, not to hide it. That some meanings might be apparent to skilled readers but not to novices makes them "hidden" to the novices, but that is not the fault--or the intention--of the writing or the writer!

Second, Isabel Beck's book Questioning the Author provides an excellent model of guided reading instruction. As to when you "gradually release responsibility"--not until the reader has had lots and lots of experience with reading THOSE KINDS OF TEXTS written at THAT LEVEL. I kept getting guidance in my reading right through graduate school until I began working on my PhD in English....

Brian Spivey
Oct 29, 2018 01:38 AM

This is a great breakdown of a very complex process that is loaded with variables. There truly is no one way to do it, but having a process lain out helps to clarify.

ssw
Oct 30, 2018 01:33 PM

Excellent explanation of GRR! I love t he way the "cycle" is adjusted to meet needs of the LEARNERS!!! The "I do it again" "We do it again but differently"....
That's what is often missing when I see GRR is in place. The concept of GRR is wonderful, now if we can get educators to grasp the process and "own" it to effective impact learning.
Thanks so much!

Gail Brown
Oct 30, 2018 09:26 PM

I think this is a wonderful confirmation for explicit instruction (Rosenshine & Stevens, 1986), and no matter what you call these teaching strategies, they work! Thanks Tim, for confirming what many effective teachers know and do. And yes, like any skill, we all get better with practice - "practice make perfect" - and the more we all use these effective methods of teaching - the more our students learn, and the more teachers learn! Becoming skilled in modelling, guided and then ensuring motivation to practice skills is a wonderful instructional cycle! Thanks again - you have motivated me to write about this on my own blog!

Gail Brown
Oct 30, 2018 09:27 PM

I think this is a wonderful confirmation for explicit instruction (Rosenshine & Stevens, 1986), and no matter what you call these teaching strategies, they work! Thanks Tim, for confirming what many effective teachers know and do. And yes, like any skill, we all get better with practice - "practice make perfect" - and the more we all use these effective methods of teaching - the more our students learn, and the more teachers learn! Becoming skilled in modelling, guided and then ensuring motivation to practice skills is a wonderful instructional cycle! Thanks again - you have motivated me to write about this on my own blog!

Victoria Taylor
Nov 06, 2018 04:51 PM

This is a great explanation of how and why GRR works. Many times I see the initial "I do" with simpler text in order to teach a skill and then "upping" the complexity of the text in order to apply the skill to grade level text. I would ask the question, "What is your opinion about beginning with complex text (as Common Core curriculum often recommends) as opposed to beginning with a lesser complex text?" Might there be better transfer of the skill if the text were more manageable in the initial stages?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *
Name*
Email*
Website
Comments

Gradual Release of Responsibility and Complex Text

11 comments

One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.