The adage, ‘everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere’ can result in teachers dismissing effective practices because they don’t realize the principles that lie behind those practices. Understanding these principles helps teachers to select the most effective – and efficient – options in a teaching and learning interaction. In this series of posts, we’ll be looking at some specific teaching procedures: the principles behind them, when they are helpful, how to use them, and how not to use them.

Teachers use prompts to help the student to pay attention to the correct features of new learning, to recall information, or to respond to a stimulus (e.g. exam question, instruction, or event).

For example, I might prompt students by saying:

“In this poem, notice how many syllables are in each line.” Even before reading the poem, this tells students what the teacher wants them to pay attention to, and can result in more efficient use of learning time as a result. It’s the opposite of an open-ended question such as: “how does the writer use form to emphasise a main idea?”, which can leave students either confused by a range of possibilities, or stumped because they don’t know what to look for. Note that both kinds of questions are appropriate, depending on what your objectives are for that part of the lesson. But only the first question is a prompt, because it directs attention to the salient features you want students to notice.

It’s important to be very clear when to use this type of prompt. When we first want students to make a discrimination between similar items, or to identify the distinctive features of a new concept, it can be helpful. But once students have acquired this learning, we need to fade out the prompts and focus them on combining the new learning with previously acquired knowledge. We also need to ensure that they have opportunities to retrieve this knowledge so that repeated practice helps them to embed it in long-term memory.

This leads to the second use of prompts, to help students recall previous learning. As a very basic example, I might want my students to retrieve previously studied information about countries and capital cities. Providing a worksheet with the first letter of the capital city of each country is giving students a prompt to jog their memories. At a more advanced level, I  might want students to recall information about the reign of King Henry VII by asking them: “Who was the lawyer who engineered the King’s marriage to Ann Boleyn?” (Note this is a question, not a prompt.) I might then prompt them by saying, “The surname sounds the same, but there’s no relation to Oliver.” Teachers use this type of prompting frequently, referring to knowledge students are likely to recall easily to help them remember something less obvious.

However, such prompting needs to be handled carefully or it can inadvertently undermine students’ learning. A common example is the use of ‘literacy desk planners’, laminated sheets which sit on students’ desks and have reminders about spellings, punctuation rules and key grammatical terms. The problem with such prompts is that the student has no incentive to remember the learning for themselves; it’s always present on the prompt sheet, so they can simply look it up whenever they decide they need the information. It is the laminated equivalent of ‘just Google it’. The same applies to the myriad of literacy or key word prompts that adorn many classrooms: students simply refer to the information when they think they need it – which, unfortunately, may not be as often as they should.

A related problem with providing prompts on permanent display is that students are not discerning when they are relevant. Because the prompts are present all the time, after a few weeks they effectively become wallpaper – invisible because they are in plain sight all the time.

A third way that prompts are used in classrooms is to guide students’ response to a stimulus correctly. A common example is the ‘writing frame’, which is essentially a series of prompts reminding the students how to structure their response to a question, often an exam-type question. For example, the stimulus question might be: “Describe the stages of the water cycle and explain how water supplies can be contaminated”. The writing frame might look like this:

The first stage of the water cycle is . . . .

The second stage involves . . .

The third stage of the cycle is . . .

The fourth stage of the water cycle is . . .

Water is most at risk of contamination at the stages . . .

We can see here that the writing frame has not provided the student with the answers; it has simply guided them to structure their response in a logical and efficient order.

So, why are many teachers uncomfortable with providing this kind of ‘scaffold’ (another name for prompts, usually a series of prompts)? The usual response is that some students have difficulty in structuring their answers, and the writing frame supports them to respond to the question. But does this help students to learn how to structure their answers independently? And if they can’t do it independently, how much have we helped them?

Many teachers feel that they have little option but to use such prompts in order to help students succeed in tests and exams, but are also concerned that they are undermining students’ independence by doing so. This problem is in fact a function of not having the time required to teach these complex thinking skills when students don’t pick them up relatively quickly. In which case, the writing frame solution is actually helping the teacher to improve test results, but not helping the students to improve their learning.

To summarise, prompts are useful for:

  • Directing students’ attention to the features of a stimulus that we want them to recognise and learn from;
  • Helping students recall relevant previous learning;
  • Structuring their responses to a stimulus such as an exam question.

Problems that can arise with prompts are:

  • They can narrow students’ focus, so use them to direct attention only at the early stages of learning new knowledge.
  • They can weaken recall by making them reliant on clues, so fade them out while using retrieval practice frequently to build independent recall.
  • They can make students reliant on prompts to produce written work, especially with respect to organising responses. In order to avoid this, we need to build fluency in each step in a procedure and then combine the steps. (Fluency building, especially with respect to integrating skills, will be the subject of a later post in this series.)

When it comes to teaching reading, the same principles apply. We can use prompts to direct students’ attention to the salient details of a word that they need to decode: ‘The ‘igh’ is a spelling for the /ai/ sound. So, what is this word?’

On the other hand, prompts can and have been used to inadvertently misdirect students’ attention, e.g. “Look at what’s happening in the picture. What word would make sense here?” This kind of prompt is directing the student away from the information that they need to attend to (the sequence of letters and the sounds that they represent) and as a result they learn ineffective strategies that do not improve their reading accuracy.

When we want students to accurately recognise a word that they have learned previously, we have to be very careful not to give into the temptation to prompt them by, for example sounding out the beginning of the word. Instead, it is very important to give the student ‘thinking time’ and if they are stuck, direct them to use the decoding strategies that they have been previously taught, i.e reading through the word by directing their attention to the sequence of letters and the sounds that they represent. This ensures that the student is embedding effective strategies, and the increased attention helps to improve the likelihood of accurate retrieval in the future. This lays the foundation for the student to develop ‘orthographic mapping’.

When students are writing or spelling, we need to provide minimal prompting, and to fade these prompts out at an early stage so that they internalise the learning and move towards independent execution. This can be challenging and requires determination and patience on the part of the teacher; however, it is much more likely to produce not only independence but also confidence. Unsurprisingly, students who know that they can confidently recognise, recall and execute what they have learned are much more confident than students who are reliant on teachers’ support, or prompts provided by the teacher.

We are much more likely to see heavy prompting being used in classrooms with ‘lower ability’ students. For these students to make more rapid progress, prompting needs to be reduced judiciously. Instead, other approaches need to be applied such as frequent retrieval practice, fluency building in small steps, and high rates of immediate feedback. This combination of approaches is much more likely to build confidence and independence.

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