The Electric Slide Effect: Explaining Why Students’ Reading Plateaus
By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
Traditionally, the gradual release of responsibility has been viewed as a process educators follow through a single lesson: teacher does, students and teacher do together, students do. However, a single lesson is often not enough. In many cases, students need varied levels of support on multiple occasions to get sufficient practice to really learn the thing they are trying to master. This means that, to avoid learning plateaus, we must hold tight to all four instructional contexts: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. As a whole, they provide students both the practice and the support they need to improve.
How Learning to Read Is Like Learning to Dance
Can you do the Electric Slide? The Electric Slide has been a dance party staple since we were teenagers, so over the years we have had multiple opportunities to learn and join in this dance. If you have ever learned the Electric Slide, or any other line dance, then you have keen insight into the gradual release of responsibility, including why each instructional context is critical for the transfer of learning.
Imagine you are somewhere with live music, the band begins to play the Electric Boogie, and the cool cats rush out to the dance floor. On cue, their feet and arms begin to sway and move synchronously. You stand along the edge of the dance floor admiring their coordination, feeling the call of the music, and wanting to be part of the fun. This watching from the side is like read-aloud, where a skilled other shows you the joy that can be yours as soon as you learn to read. This kind of reading aloud is a commercial for reading, just as watching people dance entices you to want to learn the Electric Slide.
You continue to watch carefully as the dancers move—right foot right, count to four, left foot right, cross behind the right foot—analyzing their strategies for changing direction or for keeping time. This close watching is also like read-aloud, when the more skilled other gives you a window into the strategies that will make the new task more accessible. When you are watching a dance because you want to learn to do it, you watch differently. The same is true for learning to read.
Next, you move to the dance floor where the crowd dances as one. You stand behind someone who appears to be a viable candidate for So You Think You Can Dance? and attempt to jump in. Your dancing model holds the choreography, dancing steadily even as you stumble through the steps. Noticing your struggle, she begins to support you by counting or calling out the next step. Eventually, you bumble less and dance more. This phase of learning the Electric Slide is like shared reading. The learner approximates as the lead offers guidance while maintaining a steady reading pace.
The song ends before you quite have the Electric Slide down. You, joined by a few other novices, pull your dancing friend aside to get both confirmation and guidance. Each beginning dancer works through a different sticking point, tries different movements, asks questions, makes attempts, and repeats the process until his or her Electric Slide is stabilized. The teacher celebrates your success, and you feel like John Travolta! You can’t wait to hear the Electric Boogie again! This small-group Electric Slide support is like guided reading, where the teacher watches the students work through the reading process independently as they identify tricky spots, try new strategies, and confirm or revise approximations.
Finally, driven by your vision of yourself taking command of the dance floor, you crank up the Electric Boogie at home in your bedroom. As with independent reading, you choose how much or little you practice; you choose when and where to practice; and you even choose what music to practice to, switching to Don Henley’s All She Wants to Do Is Dance after you’ve replayed the Electric Boogie for the eleventh time. As you practice more and more, you mess up less and less, your confidence and your joy rise, and you begin to plan your groovy wardrobe for the next dance party.
Becoming a Cool Cat
We must confess: neither of us has mastered the Electric Slide. Like the teacher frustrated by the student readers stuck at the same place on the reading proficiency continuum, we find ourselves frustrated by our Electric Slide plateau. Why haven’t we ever mastered this silly dance that everyone else seems to have been born knowing? We think our need for an Electric Slide intervention has to do with our instruction, and the missing instructional contexts in our experience.
Learning involves progress across the gradual release, with each stage in this release represented by a different instructional context: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. In our case, with the Electric Slide, steps along the gradual release have been omitted, as is the case with reading in many classrooms today.
Historically, we have watched the Electric Slide and then jumped in expecting to be able to do it, always a step off, always facing the wrong direction. This is the equivalent of moving from read-aloud to independent reading without having time to stabilize and consolidate our learning through shared and guided experiences. We can’t learn the Electric Slide by skipping the instructional contexts that afford us the additional practice we need to truly master the dance, any more than we can skip shared reading and/or guided reading and expect students to progress as readers.
In reading instruction, this Electric Slide pattern of skipping instructional contexts is classic, with one instructional context favored over another until there is a pendulum swing in the other direction. For example, pre-Common Core, many children received a lot of guided reading instruction, leaving very little time for read-aloud and almost no time for shared reading, which made the shift brought about by the Common Core predictable! Since the Common Core and its emphasis on text complexity, educators have shifted to doing a lot more read-aloud and shared reading, and in many cases almost no guided and/or independent reading.
If you want to avoid the Electric Slide effect in your students, if you want the reading strategies you teach students to transfer to their independent practice, then hold tight to all four instructional contexts. These four ways of supporting students’ authentic interactions with text work together as a whole and give students the varied practice they need to grow.
See you on the dance floor!
Jan & Kim