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Ministry of Education.

Deliberate acts of teaching

Instructional strategies are the tools of effective practice. They are the deliberate acts of teaching that focus learning in order to meet a particular purpose. Instructional strategies are effective only when they impact positively on students’ learning.

Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8, p. 78

Teachers need to be able to use a range of deliberate acts of teaching in flexible and integrated ways within literacy-learning activities to meet the diverse literacy learning needs of our students.

These deliberate acts include modelling, prompting, questioning, giving feedback, telling, explaining, and directing.


Modelling, or “showing how”, is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive form of instruction. Almost everything the teacher does and says in the course of the school day provides a potential model to the students in the classroom. Much of this modelling is implicit and occurs without either teacher or students being conscious of it. However, deliberate, goal-directed modelling is an essential teaching tool.

By articulating how they arrived at a solution – thinking aloud as they go through the process – the teacher provides a model of how a good reader or writer works. This sort of modelling makes the thinking “visible”. It is a strategy used to great effect in shared reading and writing, where students are learning to use the sources of information in print along with their own prior knowledge. Modelling often involves providing the language that the learner needs. This may be language for encoding or decoding text, for making meaning, or for discussing texts and thinking analytically about them.

In these examples, teachers are modelling how good readers and writers work (and are also using strategies such as questioning, prompting, and giving feedback).

“This is a new sentence. I start with a … yes, a capital letter. My first word is ‘on’. What sounds can you hear? What is the first letter I write? … Let’s read this sentence. Is it finished – does it make sense? Can I put in the full stop?”

“Is this how we thought Mum would feel? I’m going to read the first paragraph again. Let’s list on the chart some words that might describe how Mum is feeling.”

“We need some help here. We can look at the list on the wall … let’s look down this list. Yes, here it tells you what to do when …”

“What word would make sense here? In the picture, we can see … Let’s look at the word. It begins with a … yes, a ‘t’. And I can see a chunk in it …”

“That’s a new word for us! We can add it to our word tree. Let’s read the sentence again to see if we can find out what it means.”

Sometimes modelling alone is not enough. A combination of modelling and directing (or explaining) may be necessary at times. Using modelling along with other instructional strategies to convey a teaching point is especially useful for those students who are not yet fully familiar with the literacy practices of the school and for any who are experiencing difficulties in reading or writing.


Prompting means encouraging the learner to use what they already know and can do. It is an effective strategy to focus students’ attention and to build their metacognitive awareness and their confidence. In order to prompt effectively, the teacher needs a detailed knowledge of the learner. Prompting may take the form of a strong hint, a clue, or a gentle “nudge” to help students use their existing knowledge and literacy strategies to make connections and reach a solution. A prompt often takes the form of a question and involves allowing “wait time” to give students the opportunity to develop and express their own ideas.

These are examples of teachers using prompting strategically. Other deliberate acts of teaching can easily be identified.

Teacher I think you could work out how to write the word “tooth”.

Student I could write down all the sounds I can hear.

Teacher Good! Then how could you check whether you were right?

“You might need to check your conclusion again – if you look at the success criteria you may see that there’s something more you need to do.”

“Josh, you said ‘shop’, then you changed it to ‘stop’. You knew something was wrong …”

“I know you know the sound for ___. Let me see you write it.”

“I wonder why Dad thought Jack wasn’t telling the truth. There could be a clue on this page that you just read.”

“You could make those words stand out. Remember the story in guided reading yesterday. What did the words look like in the part where the farmer shouted?”


Questioning is perhaps the instructional tool used most commonly by teachers. Strategic and purposeful questioning is crucial to students’ literacy learning.

Questions may be directed towards building a particular aspect of students’ knowledge, such as a strategy for encoding or decoding. At a metacognitive level, questions can help to build students’ awareness. Questioning can be an ideal way to generate thoughtful discussion and help students to develop the habit of being critically reflective, for example, “How do you think …?” “I wonder why …?” “What have you noticed …?” “How will your audience feel …?” One or two well-thoughtout questions can be powerful in helping students to get beyond the surface features of a text they are reading or writing. It is important that teachers ask a range of questions and know why they are asking them.

Questions become effective teaching tools when:

  • they are directed towards helping students to meet a learning goal;
  • they are centred on and draw out students’ knowledge;
  • there is adequate “wait time” for students to think through their responses;
  • students’ responses are valued and not transformed by evaluative comments that
  • suggest the responses were inadequate;
  • appropriate follow-up questions are used to extend students’ thinking.

Such questions are a highly productive way of bringing out what students know and can do, so that they can apply their expertise to their tasks. Effective teachers extend questioning well beyond the kinds of questions that only require students to feed back factual content or to make predictions that are purely speculative.

Patterns of “teacher question, student answer, and teacher reaction” can inhibit learning. For example, if the students become more occupied with finding out what is in the teacher’s head than with their own learning, they are much less likely to show creativity in composing texts or to explore deeper features of texts.

Attending to the answers that students give is as important as planning and asking the questions. Students’ responses yield valuable information that can be used to evaluate their learning and to identify their next learning steps.

Teachers often categorise the kinds of questions to be used. For example, they describe questions as literal, inferential, or interpretive, as open or closed, or as questions for clarification, justification, and so on. The kinds of question and the forms they take will depend on the teacher’s objective and the learning goal of the task. Sometimes closed questions will achieve the purpose, for example, when the goal is to measure students’ ability to recall facts in a text, describe a process in the correct sequence, or identify a letter of the alphabet. It’s not necessary or even useful to plan activities based on categories of questions. The aim is to ask questions that reveal the students’ thinking, including any misconceptions or inappropriate assumptions that they may have.

Like prompting, questioning may unlock the understanding of a student who is struggling with an aspect of their reading or writing by giving them clear guidance towards what they need to do.

A teacher who uses questions effectively provides a good model to students and shows them how to develop their own questioning strategies. This helps them to bring a critical perspective to texts by asking purposeful questions of themselves as they engage with a reading or writing task. In a classroom environment of critical reflection, thought-provoking questions are not seen as threatening, they are welcomed as a highly valued part of learning.

This example shows strategic questioning to support a year 4 student in meeting the goal of a task. The context is an activity after a year 4 guided reading session using Whale Tales, by Kim Westerskov. The shared goals are (1) to locate specific information and (2) to infer from the text and write their conclusions in their own words.

Teacher What information have you located?

Student (reads) “Humpbacks swim slowly, and they are the most interesting of all whales to watch.”

Teacher OK. Do we need to take any notes there? Did you learn anything about the population or the habitat?

Student Yeah. They have huge flippers.

Teacher OK. So will that help us with our question?

Student Yeah … (uncertainly) maybe.

Teacher (drawing student’s attention to questions on whiteboard) Will that information help you to answer the question about where humpback whales live or the question on why there are only a few thousand humpbacks now?

Student No …

Teacher Well, let’s read the text in this box. You read it.

Student (reading from the text) “Once, there were over 100 000 humpbacks in the southern seas alone. But the humpback was a favourite of the whalers – now there are only a few thousand humpbacks left.” … Oh. I’ve learned something. It says “But the humpback was a favourite of the whalers”. That means that they, like, killed them, and … that’s why there aren’t many living any more.

Teacher OK. So do you think that’s important information?

Student Yes.

Teacher Now are you going to copy that straight from the book? What are you going to do?

Student Um, I’m going to put it in my own words.

Teacher Good! Let me see you begin.

Giving feedback

The impact of effective feedback on student outcomes has been established through a number of studies (for example, Hattie, 1999, and Crooks, 1988). Hattie, on the basis of extensive research, describes feedback as the most powerful single factor that enhances achievement. Like modelling, feedback pervades the school day: most interactions between teachers and students involve some element of feedback.

The purposes of feedback are:

  • to affirm;
  • to inform;
  • to guide future learning.

Feedback can be defined as “… providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve” (Hattie, 1999, page 9). Like all the teaching strategies, feedback is most effective when it relates to specific learning goals and to the ultimate goal of enabling students to monitor and regulate their own learning.

Effective feedback motivates students to learn. The way that students feel about and perceive themselves affects their expectations and consequently their performance. A simple comment can have a major impact – positive or negative – on a student’s motivation. It is important to consider cultural appropriateness when giving feedback (and when using any other teaching strategy).

Feedback may be thought of as either evaluative or descriptive. Evaluative feedback involves making a judgment about what the learner is doing or has done and carries the idea of approval or disapproval. Descriptive feedback means describing or explaining what has or has not been achieved and why. It also involves giving information on how to learn further or what to do next in order to succeed. Interactions involving feedback can yield valuable knowledge of learners as well as enabling them to move forward.

The primary purpose of feedback is not to indicate whether learners are right or wrong but to enable them to reflect on their use of strategies for reading and writing and on their learning. Feedback involves conveying information to learners about where and when to use their knowledge and strategies. Effective feedback can provide a model of how good readers and writers think. Feedback should be honest and specific so that learners know how they are doing. An important message for teachers to convey to students is that using effective strategies in their reading and writing is what caused their success; this is crucial to building students’ metacognition. It’s especially useful to encourage students themselves to suggest what they could do. This is a great way to build their awareness of how they can take control of their learning.

Feedback may be verbal or non-verbal, spoken or written. The quality of the teacher’s written feedback on a student’s writing is especially important, both for providing further guidance and for the student’s confidence.

The teacher should not allow their feedback to take over the ownership of the learning task. For example, a teacher may be tempted to “improve” a student’s piece of writing, with the result that the student’s voice or sense of ownership may be lost (even though the teacher may feel that the work is better crafted).

Success criteria that arise from shared goals give valuable focus to teachers’ conversations with students and to the feedback that they provide. It is essential to ensure that the students understand the information conveyed through feedback and to provide time and opportunity for them to act on it.

These examples show effective use of feedback in several literacy contexts. In giving such feedback, teachers are also providing good models to the students.

“Well done. You have seen that from another point of view. What reasons can you give to back up your opinion?”

“I like the way you’ve started your sentences in different ways – it makes it more interesting for the reader. I can imagine what your grandma is like by reading your story.”

“That was good thinking. I could see you used the pictures and the title to help you make that prediction.”

“I noticed that you went to our reference texts to help you find the information. That’s good use of research skills. Next time, you could try the websites listed for our topic study.”

“You looked at the end of the word carefully – you fixed it yourself.”

Teacher What else could you tell us about the big storm? You’ve told us where you were and how you felt.

Jane I could say how it sounded.

Teacher That’s a great idea – storms are always noisy. What words can you think of?

Jane Roaring … howling …?

Teacher Oh, I can hear it! You need to think about where to put this new information in.


At its simplest level, telling means supplying what the student needs, such as an unknown word or a topic for a literacy-learning task. The idea is to fill a gap at that moment to enable the student to move on.

A strategic use of telling may involve providing the language needed to participate in an activity. The teacher tells the students how to spell the word they need for a piece of writing or, at the beginning of a reading task, tells them the theme of the text. This may be the most effective way to work with some students who do not have the background knowledge on which to base productive prediction. Simply providing a label or definition may be the most efficient way to move a student’s learning on.

Telling can also mean providing information about when to use a particular literacy strategy in a given task – making explicit the fact that the students can apply their existing knowledge at this point and so building their awareness of when to apply that knowledge in future situations. Telling students when to apply their expertise is particularly useful for students who are experiencing difficulties in reading or writing.

Examples of a teacher making a strategic decision to supply what the students need at
that moment may be:

“Today we’re going to focus on …”

“That word is________. It means_______. Now read on.”

“This book that we are going to read tells us about all the ...”

“When you write ‘stopping’, you need two p’s.”

“This is a new idea. You need to start a new paragraph.”


Explaining can be thought of as an extension of telling. Teachers may explain the task itself, or they may explain the content of a text or learning activity. For example, the teacher may explain:

  • what they want the students to do while reading a particular text;
  • how a certain task will help the students to achieve a particular goal;
  • how procedural text is set out;
  • the background to a topic (for example, as an introduction to a writing activity).

Teachers also use explanations in the context of classroom management (for example, when they explain what is involved in an activity such as paired reading) so that all the students can participate confidently.

The following examples show explanation in relation to text content and a text feature.

In a shared reading session, the teacher and children read together until the word “thistles”, which the teacher reads.

Ethan What are thistles?

Sally Flowers?

Teacher Thistles are like prickles. They have a pretty flower on the top, but if you touch thistles, they feel like prickles. They are a problem for farmers. But goats are great on farms because goats will eat anything. Even prickles.

“Look at the text in the blue box. It tells you what equipment the men needed to help move the building. This information is not part of the main story, so it is shown in a different way so that the reader can see that it’s something separate.”

A characteristic of explanations is that they are verbally explicit. Careful explanations enable students to develop their own understandings. Throughout the many interactions that occur during the school day, the teacher needs to be alert and ready to explain things, picking up cues from the students and adapting their use of this teaching strategy to supply what each learner needs. Sometimes a direct approach is best (“Let me explain this to you”), especially for students who are not yet familiar with the established classroom literacy activities.


Directing is simply giving a specific instruction. Like all these instructional strategies, it is used deliberately, for a purpose.

Everyday classroom examples of directing are:

“Put your finger on …”

“Write the letter for that sound.”

“Find the part in your piece of writing that …”

“Turn to your buddy and discuss why …”

“Look at the checklist on the wall if you’re stuck.”

Published on: 18 Mar 2016