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Choosing a Skill for Explicit Instruction in Reading

by Model Teaching | October 30, 2018.


As a classroom teacher, it can be overwhelming to see all of the curriculum standards we are responsible for teaching. Reading instruction in particular ranges from the basics of decoding words to improving oral fluency to deeper comprehension. From time to time, it is critical that we take time to step back, look at the big picture based on data and observations, and refocus our instruction on the skills that are most needed. There are often small groups of students who might not understand a concept when it is taught via whole group instruction, and those students would most likely benefit from explicit instruction that is focused on one particular skill.



You may be asking, what is explicit instruction? Explicit instruction is a method of teaching in which the teacher breaks a specific skill down into manageable steps, clearly models those steps, and then engages the learner in guided practice, followed by independent practice. Explicit instruction is most often used for math and reading skills, but in this article, we will focus on how it can be applied to reading skills.

Explicit instruction is a gradual release method of teaching that follows three critical steps. It begins with clear modeling, also known as the “I do” stage. Once the teacher has modeled the new skill, they move onto guided practice, working alongside the students. This second step is often referred to as the “We do” stage. Once students are performing the skill well with teacher guidance, they are ready for the third step which is some form of independent practice, also known as the “You do” stage. To learn more about explicit instruction, visit some of the websites listed in our Resources section.

Once you understand the benefits and see the value of explicit instruction, the challenge becomes deciding which skills on which to plan your explicit instruction lessons around. Here is a four step process you can use to determine those skills.

STEP ONE: Determine the reading level of each student, and set an instructional goal for where they should be.

Reading levels can be determined by any number of assessments. Some of the most commonly known assessments include the Benchmark Assessment System (also known as BAS) developed by Fountas and Pinnell, the Developmental Reading Assessment (also known as DRA), and Lexile Levels. See our list of helpful resources for websites with information about each of these assessments. Which one you choose will most likely be dictated by your school or district. As long as you use a consistent test, and implement it with fidelity for all students, you will have accurate data from which to plan your instruction.

Most schools and/or districts will have a standardized list of expected reading levels per grade level. These are often broken down even further into beginning of the year, middle of the year, and end of year expectations. Once you know your students’ current reading levels, you can set goals for each of them based on those expectations. However, make sure your goals are realistic. For example, if you have a student at a BAS level of K and they should be reading at a level P, your first manageable goal would most likely be to have them reading at an L or M level. Goals can always be updated as they make progress!

STEP TWO:  Determine the main area of frustration for each student that keeps them from reading at the next level. The typical areas of frustration to consider are accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.

  • Accuracy is the skill of decoding words correctly, and recognizing sight words. Accuracy begins with basic phonetic skills in kindergarten and as students progress in grade levels and reading levels, they will be able to decode more challenging words. Accuracy is usually stated as a percentage of words read correctly. To determine a reader’s accuracy rate, you need to take a running record while they read aloud. Mark each word incorrectly called, and then total up the number of errors. Subtract the number of errors from total words in the passage to determine the number of words they read accurately. Divide the number of words read correctly by the total number of words in the passage, and you will have their accuracy rate. For example, in a passage of 252 words, a student with 7 errors would have an accuracy rate of 97% (245 / 252 = .9722222).
  • Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. Fluency is usually measured in a words per minute rate, and the expected fluency rates increase at each grade level. The chart below is based on research from Rasinski, T. & Padak, N. (2005). 3-Minute Reading Assessments. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc and gives you an idea of what you should expect in fluency rates at each elementary grade level.
Grade Level Fall Winter Spring
K 0-10 10-50 30-90
1st 30-80 50-100 70-130
2nd 50-110 70-120 80-140
3rd 70-120 80-130 90-140
4th 80-130 90-140 100-150
5th 90-140 100-150 110-160
  • Comprehension is the actual understanding of the meaning of the text. If a student can read both accurately and fluently, but they are not able to discuss what they read, then they are missing the most critical of all reading skills. Reading without meaning is not effective reading. Comprehension can be assessed informally through a student and teacher conversation, or more formally through a written test.

STEP THREE:  Once you know if a students’ biggest reading obstacle is accuracy, fluency, or comprehension, you should take a look at the curriculum standards for those skills. Choose one to three particular standards on which to focus your instruction. Anything more than that would be overwhelming for both you and the students. Remember, once they master those skills, you can always reevaluate your goals for the students and choose new standards.

Once you know if a students’ biggest reading obstacle is accuracy, fluency, or comprehension, you should take a look at the curriculum standards for those skills. Choose one to three particular standards on which to focus your instruction. Anything more than that would be overwhelming for both you and the students. Remember, once they master those skills, you can always reevaluate your goals for the students and choose new standards.

STEP FOUR:  Form small groups (2-6 students) based on common needs and plan targeted lessons for each of the skills you previously identified as the most critical.

Once you have chosen a few skills for each student, look to see if there any common skill needs among students. Begin to form small groups of two to six students based on these common needs. From these groupings, you will be able to plan targeted lessons for the critical skills they may be lacking.

In conclusion, there are certainly times when your entire class will benefit from whole-class instruction. However, the better you get to know your students and their abilities, the more you will see how some of them will benefit from the individualized attention that explicit instruction offers. Try not to be overwhelmed with all we have on our plates as teachers, but find the time to step back and look at the big picture goal…moving your students along the reading skills continuum. By asking yourself “Where is this student and where do they need to be?” you will be able to offer him/her the targeted lessons they need to move forward.

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Common Reading Behaviors Checklist

This resource lists common reading behaviors by grade level, K-5 and provides a tool to track students. Teachers will be able to use it to determine what skills they want to focus their explicit instruction on.

Reading Skill Analysis Table

This resource will allow a teacher to compare the reading levels and skill deficits in each student in order to determine a small group on which to focus. It will contain the following fields: student name, current reading level, goal level by end of term, area of frustration, and particular skill deficits.

Reading Skill Analysis Table-SAMPLE

This pre-filled out sample of the Reading Skills Analysis Table, will help you see how to use the resource with your students.


Before you plan your next reading unit of instruction, takes some time to analyze your own students with our four step process. Use our resource, the Reading Skills Analysis Table available for download above, to help you track the first three steps. Once you have determined particular skills that each student needs to work on, choose a small group of 2-6 students that would benefit from the same targeted skill, and plan a lesson around that need.

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