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Connecting Students To Learning Through Explicit Teaching

Christine Edwards-Groves

Building a culture of learning within today’s classrooms requires teachers and students to jointly engage in teaching and learning that is purposeful, relevant and clearly defined. In contemporary educational media ‘explicit teaching’ has been highlighted as an effective approach to literacy pedagogy that directly influences literacy learning.

Understanding what explicit teaching is, calls for teachers knowing how the social dimension of classroom life (through the context of classroom interactions) enters the pedagogy of literacy and constructs the learning environment.

The interactive nature of classroom lessons

Explicit teaching is essentially about the talk of classroom lessons. Careful examination of literacy interactive practices in the context of classroom teaching provides detailed information about teaching practice and leads to important conclusions about instructional efficacy for all students.

By looking at the patterns of classroom interaction (through transcript or video technology), what the talk ‘enables’ and what the talk ‘disables’ becomes evident. Observations of classroom talk capture what is set up to be of primary importance in literacy lessons by displaying:

  • what teachers and students talk about (what topics are the focus of the interaction)
  • how lessons begin (what students hear as the focal point and the purpose of the lesson)
  • how lessons progress (whether the literacy topic is maintained)
  • how lessons conclude (whether students are reconnected to learning goals)

A large body of research shows effective classroom interaction leads to successful learning when it is explicit and student-centred (for example see, Freebody, Ludwig & Gunn, 1995; Edwards-Groves, 1998). Opportunities for learning are enhanced when classroom talk is clearly focused on learning about aspects of literacy and directly responds to the learning needs of the students. Effective and explicit classroom talk emerges to be a pivotal feature of quality pedagogy as it ‘enables’ students to know what is of primary relevance and what is secondary for this lesson at this time, and they will know what is useful and relevant to take to new learning situations.

Explicit instructional talk enables students to have the opportunity to invest in their own learning in a meaningful way and not have to be engaged in ‘psycholinguistic guessing games’ where the student is having to ‘get inside the teacher's head’ to establish the purposes for learning. When the learning objectives are blurred or implicit, many students may find the integration of implicit references to aspects of literacy confusing or even impossible.

Piecing together ‘snippets’ of information that are heard embedded within a whole range of organisational and management ‘school-type’ talk is a demanding and potentially difficult cognitive task (Edwards-Groves, 1998). Explicit teaching therefore is a powerful way of ‘letting the students in on the big secret of what is going on’ (as suggested by a Year 4 teacher in my doctoral study) resulting in a more genuinely student-centred pedagogy that moves toward catering, more equitably, for the diversity of learners present in the ‘everyday classroom'.

Explicit Teaching – Student-Centred Learning Across The Developmental Continuum

Literacy needs to be taught explicitly from Kindergarten to Year 12 and beyond because the social and cognitive demands of literacy are constantly changing, evolving and expanding. All these demands increase in complexity and sophistication as students move through school. In each new context students need to know what they know, the relevance of new learning and how to apply their knowledge to make active connections to their world with greater precision.

Explicit teaching is critically about clarity in:

  1. knowing the learner
  2. responding to the learner
  3. implementing focused lessons
  4. reflection and review

Knowing and responding to the learner

An inherent feature of explicit teaching is that the talk in lessons shapes classroom learning and the learning context, and simultaneously is shaped by knowledge of the learner. Explicit teaching builds onto what is known.

Effective teachers build on the notion that meaningful teaching and learning acts on knowledge of the learner – they know their students and respond to their learning needs. This is mirrored in the classroom talk. An essential component of explicit teaching therefore is linked to collecting definitive assessment evidence of student learning; teachers need to know what students can do in order to respond authentically and explicitly to their learning needs (both in their talk and in the tasks they design for their students).

Knowing individual learning needs helps to direct teaching and the talk of the classroom toward assisting students to achieve desired outcomes. Not only do they act on clear instructional goals and focused planning of learning outcomes, they directly seek clarification from their students by responding to what is said to ensure that what students ‘hear’ and ‘talk about’ clearly relates to learning objectives.

In all classrooms, it is vital for teachers to use explicit talk in both whole class and small focused group teaching sessions to effectively maximise learning outcomes for all students. This enhances the accessibility to the literacy curriculum. For example instructional strategies such as Cooperative Reading (Raison, 2002) and Reciprocal Teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1985) used in guided reading sessions provide opportunities for meaningful interactions that motivate learners to engage with their learning in a enjoyable, interesting and reflective way. They explicitly orient the talk to learning about specific aspects of literacy focusing on the Four Roles of the Reader (Freebody & Luke, 1990) – learning about text code and meaning, using and analysing texts.

These are strategic approaches used within a balanced literacy programme and are suitable for teaching all students across all developmental stages. Such strategies can be used in whole class instruction, or in small needs-based groups. Students are provided with opportunities to take on different roles which assists them to construct the meaning of text through reading and focused talking and listening; and significantly they are not only encouraged to do most of the talking, but students are explicitly taught to self-reflect and generate meaningful questions and statements.

The talk focuses on making explicit connections in the talk to all levels of text (visual, word, meaning, function and critical) through predicting, clarifying, questioning (both at literal and an inferential levels) and summarising. Teachers respond to student responses in a way that shapes the talk around learning about specific aspects of literacy.

Implementing focused lessons

Explicit teaching is not just merely giving students clear directions or even stating the learning goals at the beginning of a lesson – it is a way of thinking about and acting out teaching and learning in a principled way throughout the lesson (from assessment through to planning, implementation and review).

Explicit instructional talk is evident when it directly and intentionally prepares students for their learning, informs them of the learning path and enables them to develop metacognitive strategies for knowing that learning has taken place. It is an approach that clearly explicates and maintains the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of any given lesson. It:

  • makes assessment and learning purposes and goals clear by presenting students with ‘upfront’ information about the new learning in terms of the primary topic and purpose for the learning or assessment task
  • engages student thinking for the purpose of learning about specific aspects of literacy and involves a clear progressive lesson structure that allows introduction-elaboration-practice-summary/review. It requires the teacher to work within a structured framework for the focused teaching of all aspects of literacy that connects what is new to what is known
  • assesses student learning throughout the lesson by monitoring the talk. It responds to student contributions in a way that makes the connections to specific learning a priority
  • responds to students’ contributions in lessons in a meaningful way that provides scope for them to reformulate ideas, skills and knowledge and articulate their learning to make real connections to their learning at all stages of the lesson
  • builds on, and asks students to build on to each others’ responses
  • engages in focused instructional talk, and does not allow conversations about ‘everyday familiar topics’ or talk orienting to ‘behaviour management’ to cut into and override the main learning agenda
  • enables the Four Roles of the Reader to be presented systematically and strategically
  • allows time at the end of the lesson for students to share their learning with talk (or brief written notes) that summarise, review or reflect on the main learning points of the lesson

The framework for focused literacy instruction

As teachers we can only provide an active, progressive and sequential program of instruction when we are clear about what it is we want children to learn; when we provide a meaningful, child-centred and focused instructional program. When consideration is given to focused learning we need to provide students with opportunities to make sense of the learning by creating purposeful connections between lesson purposes, lesson tasks and texts, and lesson reviews or conclusions.

The following framework for teaching and learning literacy (an adaptation of ‘The model of effective teaching’ by Rosenshine and Stevens, 1986) supports teachers to organise their instruction in an explicit and systematic way. Applying the framework assists teachers to construct lessons in a way that the literacy learning purposes are clear, direct and progressively presented.

It is important for students in that it establishes the learning task and the management and organisational routines clearly and does not allow the learning task to be loosely presented or blurred within talk about other things. It enables the students to actively connect ‘new learning’ to ‘what is known’.

Time allocated in each phase is determined by the specific lesson purpose for that lesson on that day.


A Framework for Explicit Instruction Focused Literacy Lessons


Maintenance of the specific literacy learning focus






Brief Lesson Orientation

Setting up focused lessons in terms of specific aspects of literacy

Overview of new learning

Purposes of assessment tasks are made clear

Review of relevant prior learning


Linking new to known concepts; re-teaching if necessary


Demonstration and modelling

Guided Instruction using Guided reading/writing, Reciprocal Teaching or Cooperative Reading

Guided Student Practice


Independent practice

Skills, knowledge & use of aspects of literacy

Application of new learning


Summary, Review & Reflection of specific literacy learning (oral and /or written)

Student reformulation and articulation of learning

Formative assessment through monitoring of the talk is ongoing across the phases of the lesson


Improving teaching and learning through reflective practice: reflection and review

Explicit teaching visibly connects teachers and students with learning through focused self-reflection and evaluation in a deliberate and conscious way. There are two dimensions to this feature:

  1. reflecting on teaching practice (monitoring and evaluating teacher and student talk)

  2. reflecting on learning (allowing time in the lesson for student reflection and review)

Reflecting on classroom interaction assists teachers to refocus their talk to engage in a learning-centred pedagogy that keeps learning about literacy as the primary concern for the diversity of students. Videoing or taping their own lessons can further assist teachers to reflect on their own teaching practice in a focused way. Practically, asking, considering and reflecting on the following questions can assist teachers to reflect on and review the details of interaction in their own lessons.

Teacher Self-Reflection questions

Ask Yourself: What counts in my lessons? Do I accomplish what I set out to teach? How do I know? Is it evidenced in the talk of the classroom?

  1. Do I use assessment information to guide my practice? Do I plan for learning opportunities where the purposes for the learning are clear and well-defined?
  2. How do I introduce the main learning goals of the lesson? Is the new learning made explicit? Do I share with students the specific nature of the task, the rationale for learning and its value to their learning?
  3. Does the talk ensure students are aware of what it is that they will be expected to demonstrate to show achievement of the task?
  4. Is the literacy learning focus maintained throughout the lesson?
  5. Does my talk authentically respond to students learning needs in a way that supports and extends their learning?
  6. Do I scaffold the learner through explicitly demonstrating and modelling new skills and knowledge?
  7. Do I provide explicit feedback to students that specifically links lesson goals to student responses and performance?
  8. Do I allow time in the lesson conclusion to connect students to their learning for students to reflect on, reformulate or articulate their learning?
  9. What are the ‘take-home messages’ students are left with as a result of this lesson?

Building a culture of learning means putting learning at the centre of classroom interactions. Explicit instruction is a powerful way to create a classroom environment that not only values but also demonstrates that learning is the focal point of the talk encountered in classroom literacy lessons. It liberates students to control and monitor their own learning by connecting them to their learning through focused talk. Effective teachers act in the knowledge of their learners and respond authentically to their contributions and learning needs. Furthermore explicit teaching actively enables students’ new learning to be informed by what they know enhancing the transfer and application of skills and knowledge across the key curriculum areas. Teachers and students are then able to act in the knowledge of what they are doing and why in order to mutually accomplish purposeful teaching and learning.


Edwards-Groves, C.J. (1998). The Reconceptualisation of Classroom Events as Structured Lessons: Documenting Changing the Teaching of Literacy in the Primary School. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Griffith University.

Edwards-Groves, C.J. (1999). Explicit Teaching: Focusing Teacher Talk on Literacy. PEN 118, PETA, NSW.

Edwards-Groves, C.J. (2002). Building an inclusive classroom through explicit pedagogy: A focus on the language of teaching. Literacy Lexicon Sydney: Prentice Hall, Australia Pty Ltd (in press).

Freebody, P., Ludwig, C, & Gunn, S. (1995). The Literacy Practices in and out of Schools in Low Socio-Economic Urban Communities. Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Training, Curriculum Corporation, Commonwealth of Australia.

Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programmes: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: A Journal of Australian TESOL 11: 7-16.

Palincsar, A. & Brown, A. (1985). Reciprocal teaching: activities to promote ‘reading with your mind’. Reading, Thinking, and Concept Development: Strategies for the Classroom. Harris, T. & Cooper, E.(eds). NY, College Board Public.

Raison, G. (2002). Cooperative Reading: As simple as ABC. (joint online ALEA and AATE project). MyRead: Strategies for teaching reading in the middle years.

Rosenshine, B. & Stevens, R. (1986). Teaching Functions. M. Wittrock (ed.). Handbook of Research on Teaching. Macmillan Publishing Co, p376-391.


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