Part 3: You Mean My Students Can Do This?


Independent practice can be daunting. My first time attempting it was an exercise in failure. Picture a new kindergarten classroom with 20 students. Tommy was running with scissors, and Tammy, who was monitoring her classmates, reported anything she deemed wrong. Very few students were focused and on-task. The result was a room full of frustrated and flustered people. It wasn’t until Teacher Nancy came, and modeled how to run groups, that I began to experience success. As I refined my implementation the class was more successful, resulting in students ready to soar with this important instructional practice.

I am sure you are wondering what exactly made the difference for me. First and foremost it was the understanding that, in order for everyone to get the best out of this instructional block, my objective was to prepare my students for success. Everything I did was for that purpose. If my students weren’t successful, then ultimately they missed out on important practice and I missed out on meeting their individual needs. This is a team effort. How do I set students up for independent practice now? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Teach activities long before students engage in them independently: This step calls for advance planning on your part. Think of activities that students do on a regular basis that can eventually be released to them as independent work. For example; Primary students may focus on writing skills to help develop their hand strength and coordination. All students may use the time to read independently or engage in fluency practice, create a response to something read, revise or edit writing, work on research, or complete a math skill-related task. This is a reoccurring task that is important for learning but can eventually be released to students to implement on their own or collaboratively.
  2. Embrace classroom routines: From day one in your classroom, begin to teach the routines that will be important for the smooth implementation of independent practice. Things to consider include how to: work collaboratively in groups or in pairs; read independently; manage the materials in the classroom; perform jobs or responsibilities; transition from one activity to another; and take care of basic needs (go to the restroom, use the tissue, get water…).
  3. Establish the rules and expectations, and be consistent: This starts day one of class and is reinforced throughout the year. Management is key! When students know and understand the expectations, when they have had practice to refine their behavior and have been supported in their efforts, the ease of releasing them to work independently is increased a hundred-fold! This is not an exaggeration. Management is 95% of whether independent practice (and small group instruction) is successful or not.

Remember, students need ample practice to be ready to take on the task of working without the guidance of the teacher. They need time to build fluency. You will know they are ready when they can work or perform a task to a rate of 85% – 90% success. Literally, by being proactive and consistent in your instructional practice, students are set up for success.

By: Terri Hamilton

Part 2: Practice – About That…


The idea of practice is one of those things that we lose sight of in the classroom. We tend to attribute it to skill and drill, or overlook its effectiveness as an instructional tool. How about taking another look at practice, but in a different way, using Direct Instruction, the Model of Gradual Release, and the Stages of Skill Development. Let’s change the lens from how we used each model separately to now having them coordinate to make explicit the design and implementation of small group instruction and independent practice.

Direct Instruction (with a lowercase “di”) in its simplest form involves practice. Literally 3 out of the 5 stages include a level of practice. Looking at practice through this lens not only calls it out explicitly, but demonstrates how the practice is to be implemented. The how is determined by where the learner is in their understanding of a concepts/skill, and what level of support is needed. So students who need more support are engaged in practice that is designed to have more teacher support, and those who need less are engaged in practice that has less teacher support. Let’s look closer.

In the 5 stages of Direct Instruction each stage identifies where the teacher’s responsibility in instruction lays. At the beginning of this model, when the teacher is introducing and teaching the skill, we see very heavy teacher responsibility; as the concept/skill is being taught and modeled. As the lesson progresses the teacher gradually hands the task over to the students, sharing the responsibility. This is characterized by a gradual reduction of the frequency and level of support in corrective feedback. At the end of this model, students are able to do the concept/skill correctly and may only need occasional redirection or feedback. Feedback is used to move the practice gradually to it being independent. Do you see what we did there? Yes, it’s the model of Gradual Release, which is embedded within di. Shall we add another layer to this?

During the National Reading First Conference, in 2006, David Howe spoke of how to bring struggling readers up to grade-level. Within his presentation he showed a simple model of learning, which addressed the stages of skill development, and spoke to the importance of practice when guiding learners across the continuum of skill development. The stages include skills moving from Unknown, to Accuracy, to Fluency, and ultimately Maintenance. In his presentation, he spoke of the important role that perfect practice makes in moving students through each stage.

What I would like to do is to put each of these concepts together to create a map for understanding how to determine where students understanding of a concept or skill is to know what level of support is needed in the classroom. If we know where a learner is in their development of a skill, then we understand where we are in our instruction, the level and frequency of practice and feedback needed, and when small group instruction and independent work is appropriate. Take a look at the organizer below.

Interactive Map for Small Group Instruction and Independent Practice framed

Can you see it – how these models interact together to make the designing and implementation of small group and independent practice successful? Remember it because we will revisit it within this topic.

By: Terri Hamilton


Direct Instruction Model:

Model of Gradual Release:

Stages of Skill Development:

Did Somebody Say Practice?

I would like to start this segment with a high leveled view of independent practice. The reason I chose to highlight independent practice in this series is that it is critical to small group instruction. They are intrinsically intertwined. Though independent practice can exist without small group instruction, small group instruction cannot occur in the classroom without the presence of independent practice. Independent practice is the vehicle by which teachers are able to create time and space to implement small group instruction; therefore, attention to how it is implemented must be a high level of focus within the classroom.

Let’s look at practice through the lens of our students’ physical brains. Students’ brains are in the process of growth and change. This state of pliability is ripe for learning information, which is directly linked to memory. There are two types of memory, short-term (STM) and long-term (LTM), of which information is stored in the brain. When information is taught, students are able to recall it somewhere between 3 to 24 hours after.1 Though we see evidence the information has been learned following the lesson, it will last for only for a short period of time in STM. Touchback to real life; we experience this when we spend time painstakingly teaching a concept, only for students to return the following day looking like deer in headlight when we revisit it. It makes perfect sense now that we understand STM gives us a very limited retention of what has been learned. Ultimately any new information we teach cannot be stored in LTM without the presence of practice.

So, why is practice important?  It moves new or learned information from STM to LTM. Once a neural pathway is developed, it is the presence of practice that reinforces the strength of the connection; making it thicker and more streamlined.2 Think of a hiking trail. The more people who walk the trail, and the more often they walk it, the thicker, more pronounced it will be. Similarly, the more that students practice a concept or skill, the thicker, more strongly reinforced and better linked the neural pathways will be in their brains.

How do we move information from STM to LTM; where it can be easier to retrieve and lasts longer? Say it with me. Practice. This is why our focus is on independent practice when considering small group instruction. Once a concept or skill is taught, and students are accurate in its use, it is practice that moves them from accuracy, to fluency, and then to maintenance. We use small group instruction to ensure that the practice is correct and fluency is developed. Independent practice is there to make sure students maintain, or keep a strong neuropathway to, the concept or skill.

Essentially, through the use of practice, we are sculptors of the developing mind. We literally mold and refine the connections in students’ brains creating long-term memories that are a work of art.

By: Terri Hamilton