Effective teachers provide a gradual release of responsibility. First, the teacher provides clear demonstrations of the work she wants children to do. Then, the students share the work with the teacher. Eventually, the students do the work independently. Pearson and Gallagher (1983) coined this the “Gradual Release of Responsibility”.
A few weekends ago, we had a surprise March snowstorm. My boys could not wait to get outside and play. My husband, Greg, and I were eager to send them out as well. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the boys to burn some energy. As I watched my boys move through the process of learning how to shovel snow, I became increasingly aware of the need for a gradual release of responsibility model in their learning processes.
At 8 and 9 years old, my boys still think shoveling the driveway is a treat. Greg and I bundled them up and sent them outside with shovels. We made coffee and sunk into our spots on the couch, keeping an eye on the boys out the front window. As I was sipping my coffee and catching up on some writing, I heard Greg ask, “Why are the boys piling the snow at the end of the drive?” He opened the front door and gave the boys directions to push the snow to one side. The boys listened to his directions, but they started pushing snow into an area that would still make it difficult for us to get out of the drive. Again, Greg opened the door, letting cold air blow in, and yelled out another set of directions. We settled back to our Sunday afternoon activities. A few minutes later, I heard my husband start laughing. The boys were pushing the snow to the end of the driveway, and then carrying the heavy shovel to the side where they should dump it. The job was unsuccessful because the boys began their work without a demonstration. In the gradual release of responsibility model, they jumped straight to independent practice.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model in Literacy
As I returned to my writing, my mind began to connect the learning opportunity that the boys had when shoveling snow to the learning opportunities that children have in the classroom. In reflecting on my teaching, I observe myself prompting a child to take action, when the child needs a demonstration first. I notice a child who is not reading independently, and I realize haven’t used enough read alouds and think alouds with his reading group.
Gradual Release of Responsibility begins with Teacher Modeling
As the inefficient shoveling continued, Greg suddenly threw on a pair of snow boots, and walked out to the driveway. He picked up a shovel and shoved it across, gathering snow as he went and dumping it as he reached the side. He returned to get another load.
He did not give any directions. He simply provided a demonstration.
Demonstrations in Literacy
The balanced literacy framework provides many opportunities for teachers to provide a demonstration of the work students will do independently. Demonstrations can take place during read alouds or shared writing, and added to any minilesson, small group, or individual conference.
Read Aloud– the teacher carries the cognitive load of decoding the text and demonstrates her thinking to students. The teacher carefully chooses a text that will allow her to demonstrate her thinking about the text. In their book, Who’s Doing the Work: How to Say Less so Readers can do More , Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (2016) remind teachers to keep the end in mind. The end goal is, “readers with smoothly operating, balanced reading processes who feel empowered and motivated to take charge of their reading lives” (Burkins & Yaris, 2016). The teacher demonstrates the kind of thinking and problem solving she expects the students to do when they reach independent reading.
Shared Writing– the teacher controls the work of thinking about the text, composing orally, and encoding the words. She models the kind of thinking and the type of writing that she expects students to do independently.
Minilessons and Strategy Group Demonstrations– In reading and writing workshop, the teacher carves out time for explicit demonstrations of strategies in both a whole class and small group setting. The teacher connects the work that is demonstrated in read alouds and shared writing to the work the students will do in independent practice.
Gradual Release of Responsibility Continues with Guided Practice
As Greg silently continued his shoveling demonstration, my oldest son grabbed the other shovel and followed behind him. He mimicked his dad’s actions. Without a word, the shoveling moved from a slow, laborious, inefficient practice to a quick and efficient activity.
Guided Practice in Literacy
Again, balanced literacy provides opportunities for teachers to provide students with time for guided practice. Teachers and students can share the work in shared reading, interactive writing, and throughout guided reading and strategy groups.
Shared Reading– the teacher carefully chooses a text that will allow her to demonstrate the work she wants students to do. The text is not a text that students can access independently, but it is a text that students can access with support. The teacher provides opportunities for students to think about the text. The teacher may stop to discuss print work or meaning making opportunities. The teacher may create or use a shared anchor chart to anchor the students’ learning to the reading strategies they are learning in class.
Interactive Writing– the teacher and the students share the work of composing a text. Together, they orally construct a text and work to encode the text. Interactive writing involves the students and the teacher sharing the pen. The teacher writes on large chart paper that everyone can see. Individual children contribute to the writing as they can. The teacher supports the individual students’ literacy development.
Guided Reading and Strategy Groups– Teachers provide guided reading groups for guided practice. Students are placed in small groups of 3-6 students. The teacher choose a text that the students in the group can read with 90-95% accuracy. The teacher provides a brief introduction to the text. The teacher supports the work of the students by providing prompts and quick demonstrations to the students. The teacher reinforces the work that students are doing and encourages students to transfer that work to independent reading time.
Teachers also provide strategy group instruction. It can be efficient to provide strategy instruction within a guided reading group. Sometimes teachers may have students on a variety of text levels that need to work on the same strategy. For this, the teacher may choose to group students together based on that need, not based on text level. The teacher provides a brief demonstration of the strategy or the students investigate the strategy with the teacher. The students then practice the strategy within the group before returning to use that strategy in independent reading.
Gradual Release of Responsibility Finishes with Time for Independent Practice
The boys gradually picked up the rhythm of shoveling snow and piling it on the side of the driveway. Greg slipped back inside and made them hot cocoa as they finished the work independently. They threw a few snowballs, made a snowman, and returned inside. As they sipped their cocoa while gazing out the window, my youngest son remarked, “We’re the only house on the street with a shoveled driveway!” They felt joy and pride when they surveyed their work.
Independent Practice in Literacy
Through the gradual release of responsibility model, teachers empower students to reach the most important step of independent and proficient reading. It is imperative that students have time to read and enjoy books.
Independent Reading-Students need time to read engaging books. They need books that they can access independently. Students need to talk about their thinking with adults and peers. Additionally, they need opportunities to share books and celebrate their accomplishments.
Independent Writing– Students need time to write about topics that are engaging. Independent writing should include uninterrupted time to write books that mimic the kinds of books they are reading. Students should talk about their writing with adults and peers. They should share their writing and celebrate their accomplishments.
In a literate classroom, teachers can support children as they become independent and proficient readers. Teachers can use the framework of the balanced literacy model to support students through a gradual release of responsibility. In the end, a literate classroom will be filled with joyful, independent, proficient readers.