We spend a lot of time trying to remediate students who have failed or are failing our classes. I often wonder why we don’t take that energy we use addressing failure by doing what we can to prevent failure in the first place.
As you begin your plans for the year, look for ways to set students up to be successful.
Here are five steps you can take:
1. Anticipate Confusion: As you plan your lessons for the year, take time to think about how students will react to them. What might they find confusing? With what vocabulary will they be unfamiliar? What skills does the lesson demand that they may not have? Think through every phase of your lesson and look for areas for which students may be un-prepared or under-prepared. Then address these areas by putting into place the supports they will need to be successful before the lesson begins.
2. Pre-teach key vocabulary: Many students struggle in school because they do not understand the academic vocabulary required. It’s hard to read a chapter, keep up with a class discussion, or effectively complete work if students don’t understand the key concepts and terms being used. Set students up for success by pre-teaching the key concepts and vocabulary prior to, or right at the beginning of a unit. Don’t just teach the definition, have students put the definition into their own words and create non-linguistic representations (such as pictures, diagrams, or drawings) of the concept. Doing so can increase student achievement dramatically and even a brief exposure to the word prior to learning will help students learn more effectively. You can then reintroduce the word within the context during the actual lesson.
3. Accelerate Students by Pre-teaching Required Soft Skills: Soft skills are those skill students use to learn. Knowing how to take notes, or read a text effectively, understanding how to participate in a class discussion or organize their notebooks and papers or study for a test are not skills that most students naturally acquire. They must be taught. When you show students how to take notes on the chapter you’ve just assigned for homework (or better yet, give them a graphic organizer they can use!), when you show students how to study for an upcoming test or quiz, or when you prepare students to read a chapter by giving them a graphic organizer that makes the organization of the chapter clear for students and gives them a tool for taking notes, you make it more likely that students will complete these tasks successfully and learn more meaningfully in the process.
4. Provide Advanced Organizers: The key to learning meaningfully is for students to organize new information in their minds so that they can access it later and manipulate it in a way that helps them create meaning for themselves. Many students cannot access or think rigorously about what they have learned because they do not organize information in their minds. They just dump new information into their short-term memory and hold it there long enough to pass the upcoming quiz or test. Information stored that way evaporates. Instead, show students how to organize and store new information in their minds by giving them advanced organizers. It might be a graphic organizer they can use to take notes, or a visual way to see how the concepts in the unit you are working on connect, or even a template they can use to keep their notebooks and planbooks organized. Show students how to organize new information and how it relates to the information they already know. Doing so will help them learn in a meaningful way and retain what they are learning.
5. Activate or Back-fill Key Background Knowledge: Activating background knowledge is a powerful strategy for helping students connect what they are about to learn to what they know already. But what about those students who are missing critical background knowledge. Instead of waiting for these gaps in background knowledge to interfere with students’ new learning, uncover these gaps early and backfill them. You can use a pre-assessment to find out what background knowledge students are missing, and then plan mini-lessons or a mini-units to help students acquire at least a familiarity with foundational concepts they will need to be successful with an upcoming unit. You can use film clips, children’s books, grade-level appropriate supplementary readings, or even a brief demonstration and practice exercises disguised as a game to help students acquire a familiarity with key background knowledge.
For more information and step-by-step instructions for how to set students up to be successful, check out my new book How to Support Struggling Students.