We all know what it is like to be put in situations where we are going to “sink or swim” by being pushed into the deep end of the pool. It can be a terrifying and even traumatic experience. We know that most students do not learn by being thrown into the deep end without having had enough scaffolding and teaching first, and that maybe throwing them in is not so kind.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) helps teachers consider an alternative to “sink or swim” by offering a clear framework for helping students take on more and more responsibility over time. You could picture it as students walking down the steps of a ladder into the deep end of the pool. Rather than offer direct instruction and then “assign and hope” for learning, the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model moves from teacher modeling (I Go), to shared experiences (We Go), to independent practice (You Go). In this model, teachers move along this gradient of doing less over time, based on the pace that their particular students need. When we add student choice to our instructional model our end goal is not simply independent practice that is directed by the teacher, but independent application that is directed and chosen by the student because it is relevant (You Choose To Go).
What if rather than pushing our students into the deep end (sink or swim model), or telling students to walk down the ladder into the deep end one rung at a time (gradual release model), we gave students a choice about whether or not and when they wanted to go swimming (ownership model)? This helps student readers develop excitement about feeling ready to take the leap themselves into the water. Once in the pool they choose if they want to tread, do laps, or float.
Figure 1: The Gradual Release of Responsibility Instructional Model Re-imagined with student ownership as the goal
In order for students to make choices about their own reading lives teachers must view student ownership as a realistic and valuable goal, and open up spaces in their classrooms for more student-direction.
Believe in Student’s Ability to Make Choices
The psychology research is clear that whatever we expect from students is what they will demonstrate (Achor, 2010). Positive psychologist , Shawn Achor explains, “the expectations we have about our children-whether or not they are even voiced—can make that expectation a reality.” This is called the Pygmalion Effect and means that if we believe student readers can make wise choices about their own reading lives or that they can’t, we will be proven correct.
I know not every student enters our classrooms knowing how to make choices or being confident in their ability to make choices and this gives teachers the opportunity to teach them how to make a choice. If and when students struggle with making choices about which book to read, which strategy to use, what to talk about with their book buddy, then we can take note and be grateful we now know what to teach them. We can view students’ struggle with choice-making as a necessary part of the learning process.
When we look at the steps of the typical Gradual Release of Responsibility Model we see that student’s independent practice is the last phase. But, what about all of our students who only use strategies when they are told to use them? What about all of our students who are afraid to make a wrong choice so they wait for us to make choices for them? If we believe students can learn to make wise choices about their reading then our classrooms will make space for students to be self-directed.
In my book Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge (2016) I included several lessons that help students learn to make choices for themselves. The lessons fall into three main categories: how to set goals for yourself as a reader, how to make choices based on your goals, and how to reflect on your learning towards that goal. Just because we believe students can make choices does not mean we don’t also spend time mentoring them in the process.
Open Up Spaces for Students to Make Choices
It is not enough to say we believe student readers can make wise choices, we actually have to create space for them to be able to make them. Let’s consider a typical reading lesson. At the beginning of the lesson are you assigning students a strategy to use that day or reminding them of their strategy choices? We often think we are offering students opportunities to make choices, but in reality all of the reading time is directed by the teachers. I suggest we all study our own classrooms and notice just how much space and time there is for students to actually take charge.
The following chart shows a few examples of what our teacher language might sound like when we are assigning and directing and when we are creating space for students to be self-directed.
The Benefits of Ownership
There are so many benefits of teaching students to make choices and one major one is the level of engagement and ownership students experience. Rather than having to cajole a student into using a strategy or forcing them to read, they begin to self-initiate and truly transfer learning. Students begin to view instruction as adding to their toolbox and they decide which tool to use when. We can help every student shift from reading on their own to owning their reading. I have seen so many students choose to “jump from the high dive” and find joy in their decision and ultimately find joy in reading.
Achor, S. (2010) The Happiness Advantage. New York, NY: Random House.
Goldberg, G. (2015). Mindsets and moves: Strategies that help readers take charge. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.
Pearson, P. D. and M. C. Gallagher, “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317-344.