“SEMple” Teaching Practices That Create Meaningful Literacy Instruction

By Pat Sekel, Ph.D.

Much research has been published recently focusing on best teaching practices, in particular those supporting literacy. What is the underlying theme in all this rigorous investigation on thousands of different kinds of learners? Research has found three key elements that, when combined, will engage 100 percent of learners, with zero downtime, achieving better than a 98 percent success rate. How can this be accomplished? It’s “SEMple.” Let me explain …

Studies have found that teachers who teach in a Structured, Explicit, Multisensory manner—or teach “SEMply”—will produce these types of results with students (Archer & Hughes, 2011; McIntyre & Pickering, 1995). But, what does this actually look like in the classroom? For this high level of success to take place, the teacher must take responsibility for student learning, not make excuses if students fail to master new material.

The S in SEMply represents Structured. Structured teaching involves presenting material methodically and teaching information in a sequential manner. Students practice applying procedures  and routines until they can be used unconsciously when reading or spelling an unknown word.  For example, if students are taught to identify syllable types or to quickly ‘scoop’ words into syllables when they encounter an unfamiliar word, working memory can be spent on decoding the word rather than   panicking over how to first attack it.

English is a highly structured language, with spelling at least 86 percent regular when one knows the rules and patterns (Cox & Waites, 1986). Teaching students the most regularly used sounds and spelling patterns in a systematic manner, rather than relying on  “teachable moments,” will enable students to read more words more quickly. Teachers who study the English language understand the importance of teaching the six syllable types as well as how etymology plays a role in reading. Instruction should be delivered “in order” from easier to more complex skills: single sounds to digraphs, short vowels to vowel teams, single-syllable to multisyllabic words.

In the primary grades, students begin reading single-syllable words whose etymology are primarily Anglo-Saxon (e.g., cow, green, milk, arm, me, sit, why). By the time students transition to the intermediate grades, the words are longer and more abstract, reflecting their Latin and French heritage (e.g., ingredient, fascinate, magazine, critique, direct). Additional Greek combining forms (e.g., television, chemistry, theme, gymnastics) can further tax intermediate readers’ decoding and comprehension ability, if they didn’t secure their decoding skills in the primary grades. These words are not only longer, but also more abstract in nature.

E is for Explicit instruction, which is absolutely necessary in teaching content that students could not otherwise discover (Archer & Hughes, 2011).Students are guided through the new learning that is broken down into incremental steps; they are provided with clear explanations and scaffolds  to support their learning. As a new concept is presented, the teacher builds on previous learning and knowledge, taking students from the known to the unknown. “Teach, don’t test,” must be teachers’ call to action for more active learning to occur.

One technique is to incorporate “pregnant pauses” in presentations, allowing time for students to fill in answers in teachers’ statements, rather than expecting students to know the answer after a single presentation of information. An example could be, “Yesterday, we discovered the alphabet had how many letters? It has (pregnant pause) 26!” As the teacher reminds students of their previous learning and students are encouraged to fill in the answer with her, she is simultaneously writing “26” on the board.

During the direct teaching phase, the teacher provides demonstrations and explanations, with enough independent practice for students to achieve mastery. When students demonstrate success, less teacher guidance is required, and task difficulty can increase. Teachers must use precise terms in explaining a concept to students. Demonstrations for students that include examples as well as nonexamples help to sharpen the parameters of concepts (e.g., Brophy & Good, 1986).

Distributed practice over time cements learning rather than cramming in a concept within a short window of time and not resurfacing the learning again for another semester or so. Tie points together and remind students of what they know to “warm up their brains” before presenting new learning. This resurfacing of information helps remind students of what they have learned, and helps them feel secure that the teacher will organize and connect the new information coming in for them.

M is the final letter in the acronym. Multisensory instruction by definition involves engaging at least two senses simultaneously. The key word is simultaneously. Teachers may think that rotating senses during a presentation of new information is multisensory, when in fact this is directing instruction toward one sense. To more fully engage students for longer periods and to create more successful learners, students must see and do, hear and see—or multiple combinations thereof—to deepen understanding of new learning. Some examples in the classroom could be teachers who value writing on the board simultaneously while providing directions, naming letters of words as they write them on the board, displaying a completed project while discussing the parts necessary for completion, or explaining how to work a math problem on the board while the students complete the same problem at their desks. When students have a weaker learning modality, teaching in a multisensory fashion ensures that at least one of the student’s learning senses will be targeted.

Teaching in a Systematic, Explicit, and Multisensory manner will ensure 100 percent student engagement with zero downtime and, most importantly, 98 percent student success in learning. It’s really that SEMple.

Pat Sekel, Ph.D., CALT, QI, has more than 30 years of experience in public and private schools. She has worked as a qualified instructor, certified academic language therapist, special educator, and speech pathologist. Sekel is twice past president of the Austin branch of The International Dyslexia Association and has served in other capacities at the national level of IDA. She is a national LETRS trainer and coauthor of The New Herman Method, an Orton-Gillingham-based, multisensory intervention for reading, handwriting, and spelling.

About Pat Sekel

Books by Pat Sekel: The New Herman Method

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