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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

Learn. Teach. Lead.
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Books in Translation

Mike Schmoker: Get Back to Basics

In his new ASCD book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, author Michael Schmoker makes an urgent plea for educators to radically home in on using the primary teaching tools to close the achievement gap. What are the three essentials?

  1. Coherent curriculum.
  2. Sound lessons.
  3. Reading and writing in each discipline.

In Chapter 3, "How to Teach," Schmoker addresses the second of those essentials by spotlighting the elements of sound lessons that educators ought to be using. Rather than a mysterious combination of "talent, technique, or long experience," to make lessons effective, teachers need to have

  • Clear objectives,
  • Teaching/modeling/demonstrating,
  • Guided practice, and
  • Checks for understanding.

Building on Hunter's Work

Schmoker pays tribute to the late Madeline Hunter, who, using those terms and others, gave teachers in the last decades of the 20th century an articulate framework to help them plan and execute sound lessons. Hunter's work has been expanded on by education researchers who came after her.

Some of today's most promising or already prominent researchers have built on Hunter's work, whether it's the "gradual release of responsibility" and "guided instruction" of Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, the "planned steps" of Marilyn Burns, or Robert J. Marzano's argument for "routine components of every lesson" in his book The Art and Science of Teaching. James Popham, too, points out that formative assessment—what Hunter called "checks for understanding"—has one of the highest effects on learning. Researchers say teachers today often leave out this pivotal element from their lessons.

Instead, educators have been seduced by "a parade of popular initiatives and trainings into which we pour time and money while our most effective, least expensive interventions are left at the curb," Schmoker writes. Whether it's a heavily scripted reading program tied to high-stakes testing or interdisciplinary, technology-heavy, hands-on, or project-based learning, many teachers forget the basics for lessons that deliver learning and fail to check that students are making sense of the content knowledge while they teach.

Sharing Schoolwide Methods

Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., is one school in which students have profited—on school, state, and AP exams—because their teachers use a common, general lesson template. Furthermore, professional learning communities at Stevenson have been the vehicles for teaming to improve both the curriculum and those lessons. Lessons are broken down into small steps and include modeling and multiple cycles of guided practice, informed throughout by checks for understanding, which Stevenson school officials say are at the heart of effective teaching.

For example, in a math class, teachers will model only one or two problems, then allow students to practice those problems while they circulate to check for understanding. In one class period, there will be four or five such cycles of learning.

Effective Universal Templates

With a reasonably coherent curriculum in place, Schmoker suggests that two templates can effectively teach 80 percent of the school curriculum:

  1. Interactive lecture and direct teaching, where the focus is on the teacher's words and directions, but students take part in lots of pair-sharing, note-taking, or quick writing.Citing Silver, Strong, and Perini's The Strategic Teacher and the work of Marzano, Schmoker emphasizes that lecturing should last no more than five minutes before teachers give students a chance to process the information through writing or interacting with peers. The interactive processes—taking notes, reviewing notes, annotating, summarizing, and so on—need to be periodically modeled by the teacher in a variety of contexts.
  2. Literacy-based lessons (read, talk, and write) with a focus on any text require more lengthy treatment and would be used more often than the lecture template in most subjects.Calling the focus on text an age-old template for authentic literacy in any subject area, Schmoker declares that it's been "driven underground" in schools. Basically, it consists of close reading and underlining or annotating the text, followed by discussion about the text, and finally writing about it—informed by the reading and discussion.

Schmoker insists that once students have had the benefit of close reading, annotating, and sharing with partners, they will be eager to discuss and debate issues they find in their textbooks, historical documents, editorials, or other print and online publications. Discussions shouldn't be free-for-alls; rather, they should address the learning goals and include practices such as text citation, civility, and staying on point. In turn, close reading and discussions are the perfect preparation for writing, which takes student thinking to a higher level, allowing students to make connections and achieve clarity, logic, and precision.


Using interactive lecturing or literacy-based lessons on a regular basis, Schmoker writes, will give students an education that equips them for the rigors and pleasures of contributive citizenship, careers, or college.

See the table of contents. 


ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 8. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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