By Doug Buehl
Growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm meant a childhood where work and
home were interchangeable. As a youngster, much of my time was spent
alongside my parents as they engaged in the varied tasks of farming:
bumping along on a dusty hay rack as bales of fragrant alfalfa were
piled higher and higher, trailing pails of frothy milk being carried
down the barn driveway to the milkhouse, tagging along on the daily
circuit of chores and managing the livestock.
As a farm kid, I was expected to eventually assume responsibility
for many of these tasks I had been witnessing since an early age. Gradually,
I became trusted at the steering wheel of the Allis Chalmers tractor,
first under the supervision of my father, and then more and more out
on my own until I was regarded as a capable, independent operator who
could hitch up machinery and reliably accomplish field work while my
parents toiled elsewhere.
Essentially, I was treated as an apprentice learner during those years.
I was accorded ample opportunities to experience firsthand the work
of the farm being properly executed. I was encouraged to ask questions
– why things were done a certain way and what would perhaps happen
if they weren’t. I was granted the benefit of my parents’
thinking, as they mused about their actions while they worked. I was
given guidance and supervision as I began to try my hand at a range
of important jobs. I was treated like someone who was capable of handling
responsibility and doing the work, and it was also clear that I was
transitioning into the role of peer, someone who would be expected to
take over a slice of the daily farm routine, a person who could be “on
This apprentice learning model also has important implications for
the classroom. In their classic treatise on reading comprehension, Pearson
and Gallagher (1983) coined the phrase “gradual release of responsibility”
to describe this dynamic in the classroom. Basing their model on the
ideas of the great Russian educational theorist Lev Vygotsky, Pearson
and Gallagher envisioned instruction that moved from explicit modeling
and instruction to guided practice and then to activities that incrementally
positioned students into becoming independent learners.
Step 1: The Gradual Release Model (see illustration
below) begins with a focus on teacher modeling. Students need plenty
of opportunities to see an expert – the teacher – at work,
as you interact with texts and showcase the thinking that undergirds
doing a task well.
Consider the students in your classroom who may be confused about
how to perform a specific activity or who are definitely novice learners
in a topic area. The first stage of the Gradual Release model assumes
that many students will currently not be able to handle the task that
is the focus of the lesson. Several of these Reading Room columns in
the past have dealt with the “think-aloud” as a particularly
powerful method for modeling what you are thinking as you make sense
of a text.
A think-aloud provides students with a window into the wisdom and
strategy employed by an accomplished thinker during reading. These short
sharing sessions become a means for modeling the thinking you will be
expecting your students to try when they are confronted with a similar
Step 2: Much of classroom instruction takes place
in the central area of the Gradual Release Model – The Zone of
Proximal Development. During this stage students experiment with what
you have modeled, as they converse with you and with other classmates
to clarify their thinking and practice their new routines.
“Teaching in the zone” relies on scaffolding, support
that is integrated into a lesson that guides student learning and prompts
effective thinking. Many of the classroom strategies that have been
highlighted over the years in this column represent instruction that
scaffolds reading and learning.
A scaffold is a temporary structure that is constructed to help someone
complete a task that would otherwise be very difficult. We use scaffolds
frequently in real-life. We see scaffolds that are assembled to facilitate
erecting or repairing a building; we see scaffolds used by painters
to reach areas inaccessible without them; we see scaffolds dangling
from high-rise offices that allow window washers to undertake a task
unimaginable without such a device. But when the job is completed, scaffolds
are dismantled; they are temporary structures.
Likewise, classroom lessons that represent scaffolding are temporary
lessons, constructed to help students as they embark into unfamiliar
thinking, but designed to be faded away as students become gradually
comfortable with the learning and are able to work without this type
of teacher guidance.
A critical aspect of scaffolding in the classroom is teacher feedback.
Students need continuous dialogue with a knowledgeable mentor to help
focus their efforts and problem-solve through difficulties. Students
will fail at times during scaffolded lessons, but they need to realize
that failure during new learning is a normal phenomenon. Helping students
digest what went wrong and why, and what needs to be done the next time,
is an essential component of “teaching in the zone.”
The Gradual Release model assumes that students will need a lot of
work that is scaffolded before they become independent. A number of
educational observers argue that this dynamic of instruction –
scaffolding – is not always adequately achieved in the classroom.
Students may be expected to demonstrate independent thinking and learning
before they have had enough practice and feedback to really get good
at it. Struggling readers in particular need scaffolded lessons that
remind them what effective thinkers do during learning and guiding them
through texts that are challenging.
Step 3: The rationale of the Gradual Release model
is the constant attention to ceding increasing responsibility to the
students for directing their own learning. Students need regular reminders
that the focal point of instruction is to empower them to be able to
accomplish important and sophisticated tasks without the support of
the teacher and their classmates.
The Gradual Release model emphasizes instruction that mentors students
into becoming capable thinkers and learners when handling the tasks
with which they have not yet developed expertise.
- Students are exposed to repeated modelings of expert behavior through
teacher think-alouds and discussions of effective strategies for learning.
- Students are provided with ongoing guided practice before they are
asked to be independent learners
- Students are encouraged to use each other in the context of cooperative
classroom activities as they experiment with the thinking necessary
to succeed in a variety of learning tasks.
Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. (1983) “The Instruction of
Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology,
Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge: MIT
Doug Buehl, teacher, Madison East High School
Wisconsin State Reading Association
Parts of this graphic were adapted from Wilhelm, J., Baker, T.,
and Dube, J. (2001)Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy
6-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton Cook Publishers.
Posted September 27, 2005