photo: Michael Grover, ©Heinemann Publishing

Must All Good Instruction Begin With Teacher Modeling?

Reconceptualizing the To-With-By of Gradual Release

Written by Olivia Wahl

For the last twenty years as an educator I have believed the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model, first articulated by Margaret Gallagher and P. David Pearson in 1983, alongside a workshop approach are ideal ways to impart literacy instruction. Yet, over the last ten years, I have come to disagree with the notion that all instruction must begin with teacher modeling.

This grappling propelled me to reenvision the Gradual Release Model and how balanced literacy components as well as minilessons may be used to support students in leading their own literacy work. I have seen my role as a teacher shift from modeling first to coaching and scaffolding as needed while implicitly exposing children to nuances of upcoming minilessons. On the heels of the 2017 NCTE annual convention themed “The First Chapter,” I found resonance in Vicki Vinton’s words: “[as] literacy educators, we were leaving an old story behind and embarking on a new one.”

The first chapter of my new story begins with a question for all of us as educators. Instead of instruction always moving from a sequence of “to” (I do, you watch) → “with” (I do, you help → you do, I help) → “by” (you do, I watch), how can we help our students live the concepts they will be transferring to their own writing in workshop through “with” balanced literacy components? I can tell you, it has been a game changer for me as well as my colleagues to immerse and collaborate with our students in upcoming writing genres, skills, and strategies.

Immersion to support self-directed writers unfolds as children participate in rich discussions around mentor texts as well as rehearsing and drawing/writing about shared-class experiences. During the immersion phase, we can gauge our students’ current understandings and provide just enough scaffolding so that they can transfer the work to independence with ease. P. David Pearson states in his coda to Comprehension Going Forward, “It is a ‘Goldilocks’ phenomenon — not too much, not too little, but just the right amount.”

This shift in thinking is desperately needed. Teachers feel constrained by a culture that too often sees balanced literacy components as isolated structures that must be implemented in prescribed ways. Today with some school districts turning to commercialized writing programs or curricula, minilessons feel rigid, much too teacher-driven and often not so “mini.” When “mini” lessons turn into “maxi” lessons it reduces the amount of time students have to practice writing independently, as well as the amount of time teachers have to confer and instruct small groups. The writing skills being taught become overwhelmingly complicated and, in turn, seemingly more important than developing ideas that the strategies were intended to nurture.

Minilessons should not be the first time students are presented with writing strategies or craft moves. Imagine how irresponsible it would be if after a ten-minute minilesson, adults were given keys to a bus (because they know how to drive a car) and expected to drive and deliver forty children home safely at the end of a school day! Instead, to be successful, we can consider how scaffolding may vary during immersion to best meet the needs of each learner.

I am asking fellow educators to stretch the boundaries of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model and components of balanced literacy. We can maximize student voice through collaborative immersion experiences around big ideas tied to content, structures, and transferrable strategies through flexibly selecting components that nurture this work. I want to help teachers reconceive selected components of balanced literacy as flexible structures that can serve the larger goal of building students’ voice, identity, and agency. I hope your writers will too see themselves as decision makers, intentionally developing their ideas with their readers in mind.

An example of how I see the shift to facilitating more student-centered learning for writers is below:

I hope to help teachers see that immersion can shift and bridge students’ thinking from one genre of writing to another. It allows children to see and hear and touch content — living the genre through inquiry that is responsive to their needs. It builds excitement and anticipation around writing within a new genre and upcoming writing work. It builds background and vocabulary (leveling the playing field for all learners) and supports teachers in developing a clear understanding of content to be taken on by writers.

While immersion before a new unit of study launches supports writers in connecting their “known to new,” it is also important for us to plan immersion experiences throughout a unit of study. We can continue to collaborate as our writers follow the writing process to co-construct pieces during shared drawing/writing with qualities of genres and modes in mind.

As P. David Pearson revisits his Gradual Release of Responsibility in the book Comprehension Going Forward, he clarifies the core of the GRR framework is not “as many infer, that we always begin a sequence of modeling, then moving to guided practice, and finally independent practice. We could begin a sequence by asking students to ‘try it on their own,’ offering feedback and assistance as students demonstrate the need for it.” (Pearson 2011, 248) This is the crux of making thoughtful choices for which components of balanced literacy will best support independence with writers.

Olivia Wahl has been an educator for over twenty years. She provides PreK-8 staff development in literacy instruction, focusing much of her time in school districts in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina and Washington. Olivia has participated in coaching groups with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Olivia has led institutes for teachers nationwide. Institutes have focused on helping teachers establish structures and routines needed for successful launching and sustainability of reader’s and writer’s workshops. She supports teachers with matching students to texts, conferring and using assessments to drive instruction and support responsive teaching. Olivia advocates for planning immersion through various balanced literacy components and reconceptualizing the Gradual Release of Responsibility to enhance student voice and engagement.

Works Cited:

Pearson, P. David. 2011. “Toward the Next Generation of Comprehension Instruction: A Coda.” In Comprehension Going Forward, edited by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Vinton, Vicki. 2017. “My First Chapter: Aligning Our Practices with Our Beliefs.” To Make a Prairie. November 26, 2017,

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