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Just Plain Good Teaching, Part One: A Simple Technique That Works

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

All students need to learn. I have attended specialty training on how to help limited-English-proficiency students, or gifted students, or special education students, and it all comes down to one thing -- JPGT (just plain good teaching). One of the things I have learned about JPGT is that when you apply it, it works on all students, not just the special ones.

For example, I learned from an article called "Sheltered English Instruction" that intense vocabulary development can profoundly increase student performance and engagement in a subject. I had already discovered that this was essential for my foreign language students if they were to ever truly speak English. But if I take that thought a bit further, English math, and science might as well be a foreign language to most students. So, why can't teachers use sheltered instruction to help all of their students?

Robert J. Marzano, the famous meta-researcher, wrote a book called Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. His premise is that vocabulary and words' underlying concepts are what cause most students to stumble or get turned off by school.

What they hear is akin to what Charlie Brown heard from his teacher: "Whawa wa waah wawahhh wa." The teacher talks and believes that he or she is speaking plain English, but the only students grasping what is being said are the those who already have the vocabulary and the background knowledge to make sense of it. The rest, although they speak English, do not really understand the words and their relationships. As a result, they may stop trying to make sense out of it.

My daughter Mercedes, who is in the sixth grade, came home from school the other day and enthusiastically told me that she had gotten a perfect score on a math paper. She was so exuberant because she had guessed the right answer for a problem about how many nuts a squirrel had remaining after gathering and eating some.

That didn't sound right to me. "Do you understand it now?" I asked her. She shook her head. She had tried to understand it, but it had confused her, so she stopped trying and simply guessed. I read the problem and immediately saw the solution. It was similar to the problems that I had worked out when I was her age -- you know, the bus-driver problem, for which you have to figure out how many people are on the bus after people get on and off at five stops.

It was in plain English, so why couldn't she understand it? I walked her through the way I would solve the addition and subtraction. It didn't help. I asked her some questions I thought would trigger some insight. She still didn't get it. So, finally, I helped her go through the process and, step by step, she figured it out. To me, the solution was obvious, but she had never done that kind of problem before and did not have the background knowledge, whereas I did.

Now, if I had been really smart, I would have told her about the bus problem and helped her solve that one, and then she could have easily solved the problem about the squirrel and the nuts. I would also bet that if this problem had been couched in a science lesson about squirrel behavior, my daughter would have been less confused about why a squirrel is gathering nuts in the first place and could have focused more on the math. This sort of presentation would also help a student who is learning English or who might have other special needs. But in any case, it is JPGT.

I continue my discussion on sheltered instruction and bring up a teaching system called Total Physical Response in my next post, but please share your thoughts here.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson (Author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for sharing that valuable insight. I too have spent a lot of time observing teachers and I agree with you. Most teachers believe that we are student-centered when in fact, most of what occurs in our classrooms are teacher driven. We are surprised when we are informed about our demonstrated preferences and idiosyncracies in questioning techniques.

Providing good feedback to teachers is critical if they are serious about improving their skills. The key question in your approach is "What do you want to know about your teaching?" Only those teachers who are open-minded enough to really answer that question will obtain any benefit from it.

The other issue is that administrators need to make the time available and know how to give that sort of feedback. Sadly, most administrators are lacking in both categories. I suppose that this type of observation could be also done by teacher peers. If so, this would be a powerful data gathering tool for professional learning communities in which serious discussion could ensue regarding not only student performance but also actual lesson delivery. So, again, thank you for sharing the websites for this process so we can all learn from this.


Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Linzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great insight on teaching. Stop think about what you are planning to teach. Does the student have any cultural background or knowledge of the subject. I like what you said about JPGT will apply to all students. To JPGT you need to think of the background knowledge and build upon that.

Trica 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I have to agree with you that all of the strategies that we learn to help only specific groups actually help all of our students. It really is just plain good teaching! I have been to training that you read about in the article, "Sheltered English Instruction". Ours was called HQSI (High Quality Sheltered Instruction). The strategies that I learned in this training are strategies that I use in my instruction for all of my students and everyone benefits. Like you mentioned, intense vocabulary instruction is necessary for students to understand a concept. I had always had vocabulary included in my reading program, but now I integrate it into math, science, social studies, etc. It has really helped to increase my students' understanding. I have also learned to use TPR (Total Physical Response) in my classroom and look forward to reading your post on the subject.

3rd grade
Las Vegas, NV

Katie Wilamowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for sharing your thoughts on background knowledge and its impact on student learning. I teach first grade and I know that there are times while I teach that I think.. "before I teach this, I need to give them more information." Teaching in young grades I think we take for granted how little they may know on a subject. We all know that our students come to us at different levels and having a variety of background knowledge. I find that when I teach something as simple as an addition problem I need to use multiple different vocabulary words just so that they have exposure to all types of problems.

Edima's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that if we take the time to show the students at an earlier age to process information step by step, it could with solcing word problems.

Edima 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If we as teachers are able to start at an earlier age to help the students process word problems step by step, then it is a skill they will keep with them for a long time.

Diane Robbinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your insights into the importance of a foundation of vocabulary. I teach beginning Accounting to grades 10-12. I don't think I truly appreciated the importance of the vocabulary background in a student's mastery of accounting concepts. I try to introduce concepts using everyday examples, but am not certain that I 'get through' to all my students. At the high school level they are so afraid to ask questions in class. Any suggestions on how I can determine their understanding of the foundational vocabulary. I have tried having them compose sentences using the new vocabulary terms, but found that very ineffective. I appreciate any suggestions you have. This is my first 'blog' so I hope it isn't too long.

Diane Robbinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found the article very interesting. For those of you interested in learning more about the brain, including mental health and ADHD, bi-polor etc., there is a exciting opportunity for you. Are you familiar with the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, New York. Check out their website http://www.ciweb.org. Look at the program theme for July 13-17, 2009. It is called 'State of Mind' and concentrates on the latest research on the brain. I have been going each summer for one week for the last four years. There are many teachers who go there. It is a place to renew and refresh your spirit as well as challenge your mind. The lectures are excellent; as are the cultural performances. If you don't live near there; the lectures are available online for a small fee. Two years ago I heard Ghandi's grandson speak on his experiences of living with Ghandi. It was a speech that I will never forget. Many of us left with tears streaming down our cheeks; men included. If you have never been to the Chautauqua Institute; put it on your 'bucket list.' You won't regret it.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You asked for some advice so here is what I would do if I were teaching accounting. Now, remember you have an advantage because most of your student want to be there. They chose accounting instead of some other class.

Just as we teach vocabulary to students learning to read with sight words, we can do the same with any vocabulary. The key is to get the student recognition of the word to the sight level as soon as possible. That is when you can actually speak "Accounting" to them and they can talk back in "Accounting."

As you correctly surmised, just listening to the word or reading it and writing it is not enough for most students to be able to use it.

According to Blooms, we start with knowledge. We have to get the students to be able to say the word and associate it with a concept. Posting the words about the room and then posting the corresponding concepts in other places is a good way to help the student make the connections. Ask students to touch zero based accounting on the wall. Then ask them to touch the correct definition (they have to find it first). To bump it up a notch to comprehension and application, you can ask them in order to do zero based accounting, what tools do I need? I' guessing of course-- a ledger, spreadsheet, Total income, assets, liabilities etc... For those tools that an accountant uses all the time, I would create some sort of pantomime action that I would use every time I used those words. When I asked the students about accounting processes, I would ask them to do the pantomimed actions to describe the process as they explained. We could make a game of it and have a student just pantomime the actions and their team has to come up with the process.

I could then give them a scenario and ask them which accounting processes would apply and then show them action A, B or C. Then I could ask them similar questions but not give them choices. Voila! Now they are ready to speak "Accounting".

Have fun with this. That is the key.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Elizabeth 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this article. I think so many children need to learn things with step by step directions. I know that I was that child. During my fourth grade year, I would come home and my mom would be there waiting for me, ready to reteach the lessons I thought I had just learned. I look at that situation and try to remember those moments when I teach a new lesson for my students. We sometimes forget that not all students have the same background knowledge others have.

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