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

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (21) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Christy Chamberlain's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly enjoyed reading your post and found it to be very aligned with the philosophy my district adopted. As teachers we are usually so versed in the vocabulary that we are teaching that we forget how foreign it is to our students. Without understanding vocabulary, as you stated, students are really just hearing us talk in a foreign language. I loved how you compared it to Charlie Brown and the "Whawa wa waah wawahhh wa." As comical as that sounds, it really as a wonderful comparison as to what our students are hearing from us when they are not taught vocabulary. How long will it be if we continue not teaching vocabulary before our students have completely tuned us out? The result will surely be poor academic performance and behavioral problems. In order to combat this problem my district adopted a vocabulary initiative. Following many of Marzano's steps to vocabulary instruction, they adopted "vocabulary web." ( I have found this to be an invaluable website! I wanted to share it so that other's can see the many different approaches that we can take to expanding students vocabulary. It gives templates for teaching vocabulary through many different taxonomic levels such as, compare and contrast, word maps, comparing terms, vocabulary notebooks, and flashcards. Through this approach we can bring our students from just the knowledge level of vocabulary up to much higher levels of thinking. I hope you do!

Tina Hoefs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for sharing your insights. I am a fourth grade teacher and too believe that teaching vocabulary can be especially important to aide in student understanding, however it is important that it is in context. In the school district in which I work, we recently adopted new reading curriculum, which is loaded with vocabulary words to learn each week. Sometimes there are up to 10 words a week, often very complex words that even I do not use. Although there some words that I feel are appropriate for students to learn, 10 words a week seems a bit extreme to me. I feel if the words are in context and will be used, then it makes sense, however I do not believe to teach vocabulary in isolation is beneficial. My colleagues and I have chosen to pick and choose words we think our students could use in their writing and will encounter most frequently in their reading, and then attempt to make references to these. To me, I find it most beneficial when a student finds a word in his or her own reading that they do not know and then use that as a word to build on. In other subjects, such as math, science, social studies where there are more content related vocabulary words it makes sense to teach those words, but otherwise, I think it is important for students to find words within their own reading. What do you think about this?

Sara Clemenson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am always searching for ways for my students to become more engaged in learning. I had been taking for granted that my children were processing every word that came out of my mouth during my lessons. I had a wake up call a few years ago when I had taken a class on activating prior knowledge. By doing this warm-up activity the students give me purpose and direction for my lessons. I know what I need to teach, what research I can bring to the table that will help answer their questions, and what vocabulary terms will enhance my lessons. I cannot stress the importance of activating prior knowledge. You will truly gain insight on the life experiences your children have had.

Thank you,
First Grade Teacher
South Jersey

Chaunte Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Hi, I agree with everything you said. I have a friend who has a daughter in 3rd grade and listening to him try to explain things to her is miserable. I usually intervene and she gets it. For example, she was doing a problem with money and it asked something like, if Joe went to the fair with $2.20 cent and rode a ride that costs 25 cent. How much does he have remaining? Well I turned the problem into, if you went to the store and bought chips for a quarter, how much would you have left. After doing this, she was able to understand. I figured out that she was stuck on thinking, "what is a fair," and "what does remaining mean?" I have always said that it is not that a student does not always know how to complete a problem or answer a question, it may just be one word that is throwing them off. So, again I completely agree with you. Even in my class I throw in more mature voacbulary, as means to informally expand students' vocabulary. For instance, I said , "enough of the babbling... babbling means nonsense talking." When I first said it, my students looked confused, like what is babbling but now they get it.

Chaunte Robinson
2nd grade teacher
Chicago, Il

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


You are right on the money when you stated that sometimes it is words that trip the students. Robert Marzano's Building Background Knowledge emphasizes the importance of vocabulary and experience. Young students can handle adult vocabulary if you give them a chance. If we never give them the chance then, then they end up never learning it.

Keep up the good work.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Carolyn Baughman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea that using ESL teaching strategies for all studens works. A few years ago I was fortunate to attend an ESL academy from which I took home a new understanding of how to teach ALL children. A slower teaching pace, speaking slower, lots of visuals, and interactive learning activities are all very effective tools for reaching all kinds of learners. My motto has been ...Teach Them All The ESL Way... ever since that academy.

Alesia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved reading your post. I teach in a title one school and it is very hard sometimes to reach the ESL and refugee kids. I have come to greatly value the use of effective vocabulary strategies. If the kids don't know what you are talking about there is no way they can learn the material. Thanks for sharing.

Marie Travers's picture

I was the student who knew the vocabulary and the background "stuff." Which is the main reason I was so successful (grades-wise)in school. Looking back, though, I don't know if I always understood everything, but I got an "A" on most assignments. I think we do the students a disservice when/if we fail to take the step-by-step approach and teach to different modalities of learning. A good student should be defined not only by grades but by their understanding measured in transference to other problems.

Beatriz Falcon's picture

I have witnessed that blank look on students' faces when you finish explaining something that you feel was in plain english, yet for them it was somewhat of a foreign language. As teachers we believe that we are usually very clear in our explanations and discussions, yet unfurtunately many times we take for granted the background knowledge that students may have on the subject. Many times I have asked my students if they know what such and such means, or have any experiences with the subject, only to find out that they have no clue. This has taught me to always begin lessons by exploring student background knowledge, and building some if necessary. Also to make sure that they understand essential vocabulary needed to comprehend the lesson. Without these two securely anchored, lessons could end up being wasted time.

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