Explicit Instructions & Fairy Wings

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Explicit Instructions & Fairy Wings

What does the research say about the best type of intervention for young children? It uses such terms as ‘explicit’ and ‘intense’ to describe successful intervention. My intervention peers and I talk incessantly about this or that instruction’s success built on its explicit structure. What does explicit instruction look like?

I have the perfect example. One of my clients is a smart mother of an adorable little girl who has struggled to learn in a traditional school setting. This relentless, brave mom who decided to home school her daughter came to me for an informal early literacy assessment and instructional recommendations.

The first time I met Abi, she popped out of her car in a black leotard, glittered fairy wings and bare feet. She is an adorable lithe girl with short brain hair and blue eyes. She came into the office, sat in her chair and eagerly began answering my questions from an interest inventory, conversing spontaneously about her surroundings. During the interest inventory, she shared that she likes the color pink, any kind of snack and she does not play sports. When asked, ‘Who is your favorite person to play with? Where do you like to go? What do you like to do with your friends’? She quickly answered, ‘We’re working on that.’ After about 5 minutes of talking, Abigail got up and asked if she could walk around while she talked. She was able to continue answering questions as she walked and talked. She likes to read and swim. She especially likes to watch movies and lay in her pink room.

After the assessment, we decided on a plan of action and mom went home to begin the instructional program. Abi quickly began making progress in the area of learning her sounds and segmenting words. However, she still had difficulty blending the sounds together. She sounded each sound out in isolation as she read the decodable words and the sound of e and i continued to be confusing to her.

Mom had completed the first step to being explicit in instruction. She had specifically identified the skills Abi was having difficulty learning. Mom explained the specific sound confusion (e and i) and the inability to blend the sounds together to make a word without having to sound out each letter first. We discussed several instructional techniques suggested in the literature for these specific difficulties.
Some children need additional information about what we call feature differences between sounds. Abi’s difficulty discriminating between the /e/ and the /i/ sound is a common confusion for young children learning to read. A helpful strategy is to alleviate this problem is to isolate the sounds the child is having trouble discriminating and point out how the sound looks in our mouth using a mirror, finding the sound in our mouths with fingers or flavored sticks, etc. After some time with this strategy, Abi’s mom wrote me the following note:


Wow – the “feel the sound in your mouth” and “where is the sound in your mouth” is Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabulous! I never would have thought of that.

We have found sounds on our tongues, in our nose (m, n,) on our lips, behind our teeth, in the front, the back, side to side – some tickle, some buzz, some vibrate and some stretch and some make us laugh!!!

So, explicitness means breaking an academic or behavioral skill down into its most rudimentary tasks, modeling and explaining. It involves observing as the child attempts the skill, giving immediate feedback and support, and repeating the sequence until the child can perform the skill independently.