Explicit Instruction: Does it have to be “Chalk and Talk”?

Explicit Instruction:  Does it have to be “Chalk and Talk”?

Image result for Math Lecture chalk board


What role does explicit instruction play in Mathematics?  Sometimes we feel we are being told to avoid direct instruction, or that direct instruction is less preferred than small group instruction, PODS, technology based learning, math games, centres, journals, etc. We may  even feel that direct instruction is viewed negatively, evidenced by coined terms such as “chalk and talk”.  We know its better to be less of a “Sage on the Stage” and more of a “Guide on the Side”.  But in fact, there is still a role for direct instruction in Math.

Hattie’s research (2012) found “direct instruction” to be a useful instructional practice, with an effect size of 0.59, and rated “teacher clarity” even higher, at 0 .75.  The National Mathematics Advisory Panel recommends that struggling students need instruction that is explicit and systematic, including verbalizing the thinking process, guided practice, and feedback.

“This kind of instruction should not comprise all the mathematics instruction these students receive. However, it does seem essential for building proficiency in both computation and the translation of word problems into appropriate mathematical equations and solutions.  Some of this time should be dedicated to ensuring that students possess the foundational skills and conceptual knowledge necessary for understanding the mathematics they are learning at their grade level.” (Final Report of the Mathematics Advisory Panel, 2008, p. 49)

We may need to teach full group lesson before students are able to make meaningful use of technology or practice stations. Explicit instruction is our chance to model mathematics, and our chance to model “think-alouds” as we verbalize our thinking through the work. A large portion of our math students are predominantly visual learners: They need a chance to see the mathematics and watch the procedures in order to internalize them.  Logic and systematic work are an important component of mathematics.  We need to lay out clear, logical, sequential, neat, orderly, well-planned and well-explained lessons.  Furthermore, by middle years, students should be expected to maintain notebooks.  Of course we wouldn’t expect students to “copy notes”!…but they could be asked to keep some notes (Marzanno lists Summarizing and Note-taking as second highest effect in his list of 9 most effective instructional strategies), examples of work, explanations, instructions, and journal responses. We need to model the logical and sequential order of recording math processes, with appropriate terminology, models and symbols in order to immerse students in mathematical language, logic, and sense-making.

Does explicit instruction fly in the face of constructivist teaching? Not at all!  Appropriate explicit instruction is not “chalk and talk”. It is not “stand and deliver”.  Good direct instruction involves as much or more student talk than teacher talk!!

  • We provide opportunities to introduce the topic and engage thinking: “What are some ways we use fraction at home?”  Or, “What are some graphs we find in everyday life?”   “How do we know how many numbers we need in our phone numbers in Saskatchewan. Why does that matter?  How do we figure it out?”
  • We communicate the learning target clearly.
  • We introduce concepts, then within the lesson we offer opportunities for students to make connections:  “Do you recognize the pattern of this arithmetic sequence?  What if we graph it?”
  • We allow opportunity for conjecture and exploration: “What do you think happens we….. “, “How might we simplify…”   “Try this at your desk…”,  “Experiment with these values and see if there is a pattern.”
  • We build in opportunities for communication, because we know that learning is socially constructed.  “Check with your elbow partner”.  “Share your results”.  “Can you write a rule for this relationship?”
  • We break for moments of deliberate, guided practice with immediate feedback: “Now try this one at your desk.  Check with your partner to see if your work meets the criteria from the example”.  “Do the work on a white board and show me”.  “Share your diagram on the document camera or with your ipad”.
  • We create opportunities to share strategies and representations.
  • Good instruction allows opportunity for open questions, forming and debating opinions, and wrestling with cognitive dissonance. We choose questions carefully to challenge thinking and allow multiple points of entry.  We can direct conversation to pairs, groups, or full class discussion.
  • Direct instruction allows us to model appropriate symbols and vocabulary: “We write å  and we say ‘Find the sum of’ “.
  • We can give clear directions, we can chunk information, we can provide a solid summary of the days’ learning.
  • Direct instruction can help model learning. Students need to be explicitly taught how to learn, how to self-regulate their thinking processes (Hattie, 2012).


We know the person in the room doing the most talking is the person doing the most learning.  It mustn’t be the teacher!  A balanced approach to math means using all teaching methods where appropriate, including small group work, centres, independent practice, technology, experimentation, dialogue, debate, discovery and even direct instruction.  All things in moderation.


There is no “one” correct way to teach.  We think carefully about what methods are most likely to help lead students to deep understanding of the concept, ownership of the learning, flexible reasoning, application and transfer, and proficiency.  More importantly, to attend to all our learners, we should have students engage in learning in a variety of contexts.  But I hope we can “rebrand” quality whole-class teaching to include practices we know are effective, and to not think of it narrowly as “stand and deliver” teaching.  It has its place.



Hattie, J.  (2012).  Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Teaching and

Learning.   New York, NY: Routledge.

Marzanno, Pickering, and Pollock.  (2001).  Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-

based Practices for Improving Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (2009),    U.S. Dept of

Education, Institute of  Education Sciences

National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Foundations for Success: The

Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, U.S. Department of

Education: Washington, DC, 2008.