S2 E4 - High Engagement in Low Variance Instruction

Teacher with Lots of Students at Desk, Posing


Subscribe to the Podcast

Hi there. Welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast, coming to you from Pataway Burnie here in gorgeous Tasmania. I'm Jocelyn Seamer, and I'm so pleased that you've decided to join me for today's episode. Before we begin, I'd like to ask a favour of you. If you find value in the Structured Literacy podcast, can you please do the usual rating and subscribing, and then can you hop on your socials and share your favourite episode? Our purpose in producing this podcast is to support as many teachers and leaders as possible to get great results for their students. So if you can give us a shout-out, it would be amazing.

Benefits of Low Variance Instruction
But let's get to today's episode. You may have heard the phrase, low variance in relation to literacy instruction. Low variance refers to instruction that has the following features. Firstly, it usually has a scope and sequence or a clear outline of specific content that is to be taught. People know what they're going to teach, the order that they're going to teach it in and how.

Now it's common for teachers to be told exactly when to teach particular concepts and skills, and in different subject areas, the level of specificity this needs to take, I think, is a little different. I think when it comes to things that have to be mastered before we move on, that enabling teachers to make the decision about when to move on is a good thing, but in others, perhaps we're going to keep things a little more consistent. In episode two of season two of this podcast, I discuss the need to be responsive to student uptake in learning when deciding on when to move to the new content. If you haven't already listened to that episode, I encourage you to do so either on the podcast app that you're listening on now or through our website, jocelynseamereducation.com

The second element of low-variance instruction is consistent, predictable routines that are used from day to day or week to week. The use of consistent, predictable routines has many benefits, both for students and teachers alike. For teachers, it means that your focus and mental energy can go into maximizing student engagement. You know what the next steps are, you've done it many times before, and the nuts and bolts of the lesson steps become reasonably automatic for you. The other benefit of these low-variance routines for teachers is that they almost get a dose of professional learning when they use them. Well-designed low-variance routines teach us techniques that we can transfer to other subject areas.

For students. Low variance routines equal safety. Every day that they come into the classroom, they know what is going to happen. The result of this is that they can spend their cognitive energy focusing on learning instead of thinking, "Hang on, what am I supposed to be doing here?" For students with trauma, autism, anxiety, ADHD, or just a personality that doesn't respond well to change, low variance brings emotional safety too. Enabling them to engage with learning in a way that they just can't otherwise.

This low variance needs to extend across classrooms, and this brings me to the final aspect of low-variance instruction, in that the same routines are used across cohorts of children. And I'm not using the term whole school here because upper primary is unlikely to be teaching phonics, and the early years aren't really going to be teaching morphology-based spelling as a core routine. But what I don't mean is that foundation teachers teach phonics in one way, year one in another, and year two have their own version of instruction. The continuity of practice between grades means that instruction can pick up where it left off each year, and children don't have to spend six or eight weeks getting comfortable with the instruction they're receiving. This also ties into assessment and tracking growth across grades, which is really important if you're going to build collective efficacy.

The other benefit of consistency across classrooms and years is that in those unfortunate circumstances that we know happen where a class needs to be split because we simply can't find a relief teacher. The student is familiar enough with what's happening in the room they're going to that they will be able to not be a disruption in their destination classroom. So there's a whole bunch of benefits.

Not everyone is a fan of Low Variance Instruction
I've sold the benefits of low variance pretty hard, but not everyone is a fan, and we need to recognize that. Some people feel that a low variance approach is a breach of teachers' professionalism and shows a lack of respect for the teaching profession. They argue that teachers should have autonomy over their teaching, and asking teachers to adopt structured literacy is placing undue pressure on them. But here's the thing, when you teach in a low-variance way, you actually cut your planning and preparation time. Low variance means low prep. You reduce your cognitive load and increase student outcomes at the same time. It sounds like magic, but it's not.

What Others have to say
I simply don't understand the objections of professionals and representative bodies to this work. And I'm about to say something about the AEU, the Australian Education Union, that could be seen as controversial. I want to preface it by saying that when I worked in schools, I was always an active member of the education union. I participated, I did all the things, and that happened whether I was working in a government or a non-government school. On the matter of low-variance structured literacy instruction, they just didn't represent me and the people who were moving in this direction and I'm going to give you a very current example of how this is not happening.

The South Australian branch of the AEU has recently released a publication called Fix the Crisis. In this document, members are given a list of so-called initiatives that they can choose to stop doing until an enterprise agreement is negotiated. Amongst them are (and these are things off the actual list):

  • The science of reading, 
  • Dibels, 
  • baseline testing in letter id, digraphs and irregular words, 
  • phonological awareness skills tracking
  • specific literacy programs have actually been named
  • the big six of literacy.

Now don't get me wrong, there are suggestions in this document that I think are reasonable and sensible, and I would absolutely support, but listing these elements of low-variance instruction as initiatives that can just be dropped is simply nonsense. Suggesting that these elements of low variance teaching are government-led initiatives, and those are the words used; government-led initiatives that are motivated by political objectives confuses people doing their darnedest to shift practice to become effective and inclusive and frankly, it gives ammunition to people who have a vested interest in blowing up the structured literacy bus.

I simply don't understand how an organization that says it's committed to equity can be so opposed to methods of instruction that are proven to get the best results for the largest number of children, not just through stories people tell but through actual research. And these children include those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have seen structured literacy and low-variance instruction completely transform children's trajectories. I just don't get it. You can access the Fix the Crisis document here. I want to say again, I am not anti-union. I think that the union does a brilliant job at shining a spotlight on things that need a spotlight shone on it. But in this instance, I really think they've got it wrong. So, It's clear that despite the many benefits of low-variance instruction, not everyone is a fan,

How can we ensure maximum engagement?
But today's episode isn't about other people's opposition to structured literacy. It's about how we can ensure maximum engagement and learning in our low-variance lessons. Some of the criticisms of structured teaching is that it's boring, dry, and disengages the children. So let's address this and then get into the ways that we can make sure that this isn't your students' classroom experience. ''Structured literacy is boring''. ''Structured literacy turns the kids off learning''. I see this in Facebook groups all the time, and my internal response is, "Well, yes. If you deliver it in a boring, dry way, it will be." The success of any teaching is in the delivery. So how can we deliver instruction in a way that keeps students engaged with their focus on learning?

Top 10 suggestions for High Engagement in Low Variance Instruction.

No. 1 - Is to make sure that the lesson you are teaching is actually pitched at the student's point of need. In his book 'How We Learn', Stanislas Dehaene talks about a mechanism that our brain has that switches off our attention. If the learning in front of us is too easy or too hard, our brain assesses whether we are likely to learn anything, and if the answer is "no", it just switches off our focus. This isn't a matter of motivation or student attitude; it's biology.

No. 2 - Ensure that the actual lesson structure is at an appropriate level of complexity for the students in front of you. If the low variance routines are overly complicated, if there are too many things to think about at once, if students are sitting on the floor for too long, and if there isn't enough opportunity for student interaction, they may not be able to maintain their engagement.

No. 3 - Sort out your tone and attitude to instruction. If your approach to lessons comes with an internal dialogue of, "I hate this so much; it's boring, I don't want to do it", then that's going to be communicated to your students loud and clear. Students take their cues from us. However, if you model enthusiasm, if you inject personality, if you vary your voice and bring energy to the lesson, your students will be right there with you. So if your low variance lessons are not engaging students, assuming that they're pitched at the student's point of need, then I'm afraid you may need to address your own emotions and response first and foremost.

No. 4 - My fourth tip for you is to inject affirmation and celebration into your lessons. Learning should feel fun. When students respond well, give them a little chant to repeat. When I'm in a classroom, I ask students to turn to a partner and say, "You are an amazing learner!" or put their hands in the air and say, "Whoop whoop, we are awesome!" Now, this might sound cringey, but kids really respond to being told they are great and don't we all? I think we do.

No. 5 -  Is about pace. Anita Archer, our favourite expert on explicit teaching, uses the phrase 'perky pace', which I really like. A class example of a non-perky pace is when students are viewing phoneme-grapheme correspondence cards, and it sounds like this, "aaaaa, eeeee, iiiiii, ooooo." I just can't even do that anymore. It turns me right off. But if it sounds like this, "a, e, i, o", the energy is completely different. So if we want to help children be engaged and have learning actually feel a bit fun, we need to pick up the pace and lift the energy.

No. 6 -  Is minimize disruptions. Disruption is the enemy of focus and pace. If students are calling out, if they're chatting, if they're tapping pencils, if they're getting up unnecessarily to go to the bin, and they're generally providing a distraction, lessons will drag on, and it will be really difficult for everyone to focus. We also need to look to ourselves as a point of distraction. If we are going off on tangents and talking about things that aren't relevant to the lesson, if we don't have our materials prepared and we are fumbling through cards or books, or whatever it is we are doing, that's going to disrupt the learning too. But disruptions also come from outside the classroom. People knocking on the door, announcements over the PA system, other students being noisy outside the classroom. All of these things distract students from their main learning focus and constitute extraneous load, and if you know about cognitive load theory, you'll know that we need to minimize extraneous load, that is, load that distracts from learning at every opportunity.

No. 7 -  is a hard habit to break, and it's about not using hands up to elicit student responses. Saying, "Hands up if you..." is the most common thing we'll hear in classrooms. When we ask students to raise their hands to answer, we're actually doing a few things, and they're not good. Firstly, we're encouraging the same children to answer all the time (and you know the students in your class who always have the right answer when they put their hand up) other students get to sit back and tune out. Another thing that happens is that we then feel pressured to call on students. So while we might want to move on, there's going to be that little person looking at us with their puppy dog eyes, desperate to give an answer, and then we feel really bad saying no. So let's not put ourselves in that position at all. Finally, hands up means that we are only engaging one or two students in the thinking. And this is the case whether we use hands up or we're using pop sticks to call on non-volunteers. Now, there are times when we want to do that; we want to use our pop sticks. We want to call on individual students to respond, but during a lesson that we're trying to maintain a fast pace is potentially not the time.

An alternative during fast pace, low-variance lessons is to hold up your hand and have all the students answer together when you click your fingers. You control the answering. You are able to provide the appropriate amount of wait time that you think the students need in order for everyone to come along on the journey, and you prevent the caller outers. Not a real word, but you know what I mean. When we do this, when we hold up our hand, and we click, and that's the signal for everyone to answer, we can hear everyone and every student is involved, and things will move on quickly. But we need to insist that students answer with one voice, not all over the place. And this can take a while to establish. You will need to be persistent, consistent, and insistent in your expectations of this. But once you get there, once children feel how good that feels to all be answering together, you'll have it done, and then you can move on.

No. 8 - we need to inject reasonable novelty. Now, any strength overused becomes a weakness and low variance that has no variance at all becomes boring. It's just a fact. But novelty doesn't have to mean detracting from the core of your lessons. You can inject novelty by asking students to vote on the colour whiteboard marker you use in the lesson. You can orient the students in a different direction on the mat. This is way easier if you use cards and physical resources than teach from a screen. You can change up the celebratory chants you use during the lessons and even have students use different voices to repeat key information, but use this one sparingly. So, for example, you could ask your students to repeat you in saying, "A digraph is two letters used for one sound" or whatever the explanation is you have in your school. So you say, "A digraph is two letters used for one sound" and you point to the students, and they repeat you. You do this a couple more times. That brings everyone along on the journey, and everyone's involved. Then you say, okay, now say that again in a fun, high voice. "A digraph is two letters that make one sound", and then the students say it.

I know that my number one rule is 'no having fun in the classroom. No, having fun at school.' That's Miss Jocelyn's number one rule. And I do actually tell the students that, and then I say, "uh, just kidding." But it's okay to have a little bit of fun. When we have low variance, when we have the lines of expectation firmly established, we can go there and make kids enjoy learning. That's what it's supposed to be about.

No. 9 - is about time. Students, particularly younger students, have no idea of how long things take. So when you say we have 10 minutes to complete this part of the lesson, that probably means nothing to them. If you use a visual timer (preferably something that has a visual countdown, as in an hourglass or something that disappears rather than just numbers), you can create a real sense of urgency that promotes engagement. In the beginning, you'll need to set the timer for longer than you want it to take so that you stack the deck so the kids win. So you set it for two minutes longer than you wanted to spend on that part of the lesson, and then you challenge the students to beat the clock. You can also link some sort of group reward to this challenge if you need to, like an episode of Bluey while we eat lunch or two extra minutes on the playground.

Now, I'm not a fan of rewards for behaviour. In my classroom, you don't get a sticker for sitting up straight. But these sorts of group-focused positive consequences can work well in the short term for group things that are focused on promoting learning behaviours. But they disappear when they're no longer needed. They serve a purpose, and they go away. Other aspects of time to consider is using a lesson visual that has the steps of the lesson laid out very clearly. As each step is completed, you move a magnet across one space to show the students how long there is to go in the lesson. This works a treat for keeping students engaged and also helps you stay on track and not skip things in your routine. You can see an example of these visuals in my book Reading Success in the Early Primary Years. There's one on page 86 and one on page 100.

No.10 - Finally, we come to the last way that you can build student engagement In low variance lessons. That is, ensure that there is plenty for the students to do. In her clip on explicit teaching that you can find on YouTube, Anita Archer talks about "I do something, you do something, I do something, you do something." Kids need to have something to look at, something to do, something to listen to, and something to think about. Multisensory learning doesn't mean shaving cream and sand in every instance. One of the reasons that students switch off in learning is that they have become passive and simply tuned out. Giving them plenty to do, including repeating things you say to make sure that they've got it. Talking with a partner, writing a response in a book or on a board, and moving between the floor and the desks and back again throughout the lesson all help to maintain student engagement.

You can read more about low-variance instruction and explicit teaching in my book Reading Success in the Early Primary Years, which was released through Routledge last year. You can buy it wherever you buy good books. If you live in Adelaide and you're looking to have a thumb through a copy before you purchase, go and visit the Seelect educational supplies. They're our friends there. We love them a lot. Or you can get a signed copy from our website, jocelynseamereducation.com

Get your FREE 10 tips for higher student engagement poster.
Whenever you spend time with me, I like to share an action that you can take away to help you get great results in your classroom. This week your action is to print off the 10 tips for higher student engagement poster below and review it with your team in a staff meeting and PLC time or just on your own. You can then identify one thing from the list that everyone is going to put into place and focus on together and have each teacher choose their own individual item for their classroom. In this way, you'll be rising the tide and lifting all the ships together while enabling everyone to have their own decision-making for their classroom.

I hope that you have a wonderful week ahead and that you are able to engage your students in some really amazing, wonderful, fun, low-variance teaching. I'll see you in the next episode. Until then, happy teaching everyone. Bye.

On the look out for instructional resources to embed low-variance teaching in your literacy block? Look no further than the Resource Room. Click HERE to join today. 


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!

Leave a comment