Skill-Based Instruction

Explicitly teaching reading, speaking, and writing skills is the best way to prepare students for state and local exams, college, and careers. Skill-based instruction ensures that a good amount of instructional time is dedicated to teaching students how to read, think, write, and speak in all subject areas. Through explicit teaching, students develop the ability to read complex texts and express sophisticated ideas on their own. Skill-based instruction will move students toward independence and teach them how to think at high levels, solve problems, and perform on various academic tasks with great success.


Throughout elementary and secondary education, courses are designed around content--that is, classes are developed based on the information we want students to know. What our students learn in U.S. History, for example, is quite different from what they learn in a life science class. The content is different. Each class has its own set of facts, vocabulary, and concepts that students must learn in a short period of time. But what skills are students learning in these classes? They are expected to know a wealth of information, but what are they able to do as a result of taking the class? Skill-based instruction moves students toward independence as they learn how to make meaning on their own.

Skill-based instruction is about planning, implementing, and assessing literacy skills. In a skill-based classroom, a good amount of instructional time is dedicated to practicing, assessing, and reflecting on skills. As students practice skills, they are reading non-fiction texts, discussing ideas, and summarizing essential information. They are learning how to think critically, analyze ideas, and speak and write with insight and sophistication. The focus in the classroom is on developing students’ into independent readers and thinkers so that they are prepared for the rigors of college and careers. Content knowledge is critical, and using reading, writing, and speaking skills to access that knowledge helps students learn it and retain it.

An Educator’s role in skill-based instruction is simple: set high expectations, facilitate skill practice, and support all students so they can be successful. In essence, teachers become more like coaches leading a team. They introduce a skill, model it, and ask students to practice. After a few weeks of running drills, students perform and the teacher evaluates their performance. Then, they come together as a team to go over the results and use that information to draw up a new game plan for the following week.

If we teach literacy skills and truly focus our efforts on helping students read, write, and think in all subject areas, then our students will learn the content and be able to make new meaning through original analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and application. Strong skill-based instruction relies on four main elements.

  1. explicit teaching
  2. high expectations
  3. strategic scaffolds for learning
  4. skill practice, practice, practice
Content-Based Instruction
Skill-Based Instruction
The central focus is on acquiring content knowledge through gathering and organizing facts, dates, and names. The central focus is on learning transferable literacy skills that help students independently make meaning from new information.
Students are engaged in classroom activities that help them study and memorize information. Learning is dependent on the teacher. Students reach mastery of literacy skills and critical content knowledge through a process of rehearsal and relearning of ideas (Walqui). Responsibility for learning transfers to the student over time.
Assessments are used to measure what students have memorized. Little to no reteaching occurs. Assessments are used to measure growth and to identify supports to help students meet standard.
Reading, writing, and speaking tasks are assigned for points and may not teach students what it means to read and write in a particular discipline. Reading, writing, and speaking in the content area is explicitly taught and practiced every day.
Information is given to students through worksheets or PowerPoint. Ideas are copied from a screen and onto notepaper. Information is learned through a process of analysis, evaluation, application, and synthesis. Higher level thinking as defined by Bloom, Costa, and Webb is the focus of daily academic work.
The classroom teacher does most of the thinking and presents solutions. Students are taught how to think critically and are expected to solve problems on their own.
Students are asked to take notes on what they read and answer comprehension questions as a way to assess understanding of the reading. Students engage in authentic reading experiences. They practice various reading skills and explore written and spoken texts as readers and writers. Students seek to understand how meaning is constructed in texts.
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