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Monday / October 23

Four Rungs on the Ladder of Teacher Clarity

We’re big fans of teacher clarity. In fact, “Clarity” is the theme for this school year at the middle and high school where we both work. During Welcome Week, as the first days of school are known, the word clarity populated many of the activities students engaged in. One activity really stood out, though. Students constructed aspirational ladders that started with their intention as the top rung. Each rung below represented the steps they would need to take in order to reach it. They needed clarity to understand their goal. Most of all, they needed clarity to realize the actions and dispositions they would need in order to achieve their goal.

The parallels between teacher clarity and student clarity are striking. Fendick (1990, p. 10) elegantly defined it as “a measure of the clarity of communication between teachers and students—in both directions,” reminding us of the reciprocity that is necessary for learning to occur. Both teacher and student are engaged in communication about the lesson and the learning that (should) accompany it. Hattie (2012) notes that teacher clarity exercises a strong influence on learning, with an effect size of 0.75. When the teacher and the student possess a shared understanding of where they are headed in a lesson, a unit, a course—you name it—learning happens, and goals are achieved. And like our students, we have aspirations for our lessons. And effective teachers deeply understand the rungs on the ladder that are necessary to reach our learning goals. The four dimensions of teacher clarity are (Fendick, 1990):

  • Clarity of organization
  • Clarity of explanation
  • Clarity of examples and guided practice
  • Clarity of assessment of student learning

The First Rung: Clarity of Organization

Learning tasks should align to learning intentions. However, developing this skill is more challenging than might first appear. Most of us (including ourselves) look back on some of our early teaching efforts ruefully because we realize that we were more often activities directors than teachers. Keep ‘em busy, right? Clarity of organization is demonstrated through a logical sequencing of tasks that align with learning intentions and success criteria. To do so requires understanding how acquisition and consolidation of skills and concepts looks from the learner’s vantage point. To do so means avoiding the expert blind spot, a phenomenon that occurs when the teacher’s subject matter expertise eclipses one’s ability to recall what it was like to learn as a novice (Nathan & Petrosino, 2003). The tasks we create for students need to serve as stepping stones that advance them on a learning path.

The Second Rung: Clarity of Explanation

We’ve all found ourselves in situations when an explanation is muddled and confusing. At times, we’ve been the ones doing the muddling, especially when we see our students look back at us with puzzlement. Clarity of explanation is signified by cohesiveness and accuracy. It is crisp and precise, which means the teacher needs to have a thorough command of the subject being taught. However, the teacher’s knowledge of the content isn’t sufficient (recall the expert blind spot). The explanations need to be developmentally appropriate, and highlight difficult concepts. Pacing is essential. Too much too soon can result in information overload for the learner. Clarity of explanation is filled with lots of checks for understanding. We don’t mean simply asking, “Does that make sense?” which usually results in silent nods of naïve agreement, but rather active opportunities to try out their understanding. Ask students to explain a concept you’re teaching to a partner, and then listen. The gaps or misconceptions you’re hearing are feedback to you about what needs to happen next. That leads us to the next step on the teacher clarity ladder.

The Third Rung: Clarity of Examples and Guided Practice

Students need illustrative examples in order to link concepts to application. They also need non-examples to contrast when a concept or skill does not apply. Take vocabulary, for instance. A tried and true method in vocabulary instruction is a Frayer card (e.g., Frayer, Frederick, & Klausmeier, 1969), which students construct in four parts. We’ve included one below, developed by an 11th grade English student at our school. The top left quadrant is the target vocabulary: sonnet. The top right quadrant is the definition in her own words: A poem with 14 lines. It’s a “little song.” The bottom left is an illustration she devised to help her recall the term. And the bottom right is her contrastive—what a sonnet is not. In her case, she wrote open verse poem that doesn’t rhyme.

Guided practice further moves students toward increasing levels of independence. The questions, prompts, and cues we offer students scaffold their understanding and deepen their knowledge. When we hear those gaps or misconceptions, we ask robust questions that hopefully spur their thinking. “How might you find out if you’re correct?”  If they need further prompting, we ask, “How does [a previously learned concept] relate to your explanation?” Questions and prompts don’t always advance their thinking, so that’s when guided instruction gets a bit more overt. We shift their attention to an information source. “Take a look at the diagram on page 32, and see if that lines up with your explanation.” Of course, we can always furnish them with the answer, but only after we’ve given them the opportunity to explore their own thinking.

The Fourth Rung:  Clarity of Assessment of Student Learning  

Formative evaluation is key to teacher clarity. It’s how we are able to be responsive to learning needs, and it truth it is woven throughout the other dimensions of teacher clarity. We listen, we adjust instruction, we check for understanding, we guide our students’ thinking. Many teachers use exit slips as a means to formatively evaluate student learning. This is valuable feedback to be sure, but doesn’t tap into students’ reflective thinking. One teacher at the school where we work developed a system that has caught on in many other classrooms. Students in her class complete exit slips based on the learning intentions for the lesson, then place it in one of four labeled bins, based on their own analysis of their understanding:

  1. I’m just learning (I need more help)
  2. I’m almost there (I need more practice)
  3. I own it! (I can work independently)
  4. I’m a pro! (I can teach others)

Using this system, the teacher knows where and how to concentrate resources the following day because she now has data on who she needs to meet with the following day for needs-based, teacher guided small group instruction (Level 1), and who can serve as peer tutors (Level 4), for these who need more practice (Level 2). She often pairs Level 4 peer tutors with Level 3 students, in order to stretch/challenge their skills, too.

What Are Your Aspirations?

The dimensions of teacher clarity outlined here result in student learning. When we communicate the learning intentions and organize tasks such that they align with our goals for them, we shine a light on their learning path. When we thread cohesive and precise explanations, examples, and non-examples into our teaching, we build schema and deepen learning. Guided instruction advances them toward increasingly independent learning and mastery, and is hinged on the formative evaluation practices we utilize to gain feedback about progress toward goals.

But teacher clarity, like other aspirations in life, doesn’t just happen. It requires being able to see the steps that are needed in order to reach the highest rung of the ladder. So we’ll ask you the same question we ask ourselves every year: “How will I be a more effective teacher this year than I was last year?” The dimensions of teacher clarity are a great place to begin.

Fendick, F. (1990). The correlation between teacher clarity of communication and student achievement gain: A meta-analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Frayer, D. A., Frederick, W. C., & Klausmeier, H. J. (1969). A schema for testing the level of concept mastery (Working paper No. 16). Madison, WI: Wisconsin Research and Development Center for Cognitive Learning.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Nathan, M. J., & Petrosino, A. (2003). Expert blind spot among preservice teachers. American Educational Research Journal40(4), 905-928.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.


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