Does "Modeling" Have a Place in High Quality Literacy Teaching?

  • 04 January, 2020

Blast from the Past: First published on January 4, 2020. Usually my Blasts from the Past are older than this one. However, it seems worthwhile to reissue this now for two reasons. First, Schutz & Rainey, 2020 published a wonderful analysis of modeling (Reading Teacher) about the same time this blog first appeared. They emphasized showing, situating, and abstracting -- with a strong focus on the "invisible parts" of reading (what we do inside our heads). Nice piece of work. Second, and, perhaps, more urgent is the fact that with so much distance teaching going on modeling appears to be more in fashion than ever before. In a classroom the teacher might just tell kids to do something without a demonstration -- figuring that they'll be able to fix any problems with careful observation of the students' attempts. That is a less plausible approach at a distance. That makes modeling more important today than it was last January. To model well, we need to show students how (including the invisible parts), situate these demonstrations in familiar contexts (so kids know when to use the model), and abstract the models (pulling the processes apart into steps with clear labels). Whether your focus at the moment is on decoding or comprehension, modeling is a valuable aspect of quality teaching. Good luck.

Teacher question:

What do you think about “modeling” in literacy instruction?

Shanahan’s reply:

Tyler’s mom sent me the video. It was riveting.

Like many 21st century parents she had a camera going in the nursery at naptime. And, the camera revealed something pretty cool during an afternoon nap.

Tyler was a toddler. He had started day care recently, the youngest kid there.

Now he was in his crib and supposed to be sleeping. But Tyler had his book and was jabbering away.

He wasn’t pretending to read so much as he was pretending to read to a group of kids. He’d hold up the book with the pictures facing out and, unmistakably, with the rhythm and cadences of an adult reading a picture book to children, he’d babble for each page.

Back in the 1960s, social psychologist, Albert Bandura, pioneered the study of observational learning. He figured out that a great deal of human behavior was learned from… well, from watching what other humans did.

That might seem obvious, but it appears to be anything but when one views classroom literacy teaching. One study (Ros, 2009) conducted 170 hours of observation of 20 teachers and found only one example of a teacher modeling her thinking during reading.

Of course, when children observe adults, they do what Tyler did, they imitate or re-create the visible physical behaviors. That’s why it’s so easy for my grand-daughter, Olivia, to brandish her light sword like Princess Leia or move like a ballerina after the Nutcracker. Golfing, batting, vacuuming, fighting and so on all entail lots of imitable physical behaviors.

Reading and writing do, too, but external behaviors aren’t the important part of what we teach about literacy. That’s where mental modeling or metacognitive modeling comes in. Research (e.g., Palincsar, 1986) has supported the idea of using think alouds to reveal to learners what is going on cognitively during reading and writing – an idea long incorporated in direct or explicit instruction (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983; Reutzel, et al., 2013; Rupley & Blair, 2009).

Such cognitive modeling has a place to play in developing print awareness and book reading behaviors (the things Tyler focused on), but it can help with decoding, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension strategies, and writing processes, too. Which is why it’s troubling that modeling is used so rarely and so poorly in literacy teaching.

One ubiquitous example of teachers thinking they are providing a powerful model for student imitation is what is often referred to in lesson plans as “model reading.” You know, a teacher read aloud. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t oppose teachers reading to kids, but if the idea is to improve kids’ reading fluency – as many teachers claim – then it’s poor modeling.

Let’s first quibble over the terms, “models” or “modeling.” Personally, for teaching, I prefer to talk about “demonstrations,” not models. “Model” seems less intentional or insistent than demonstration. Models seem passive to me – you may or may not imitate them. But demos are more about trying to put an idea across to someone – like teaching.   

When I was learning ballroom dancing, my inability to observe and interpret sequential movement was an embarrassment. My teacher would show me what to do, and I’d respond with bizarre moves. She’d then stand next to me, facing the same direction so I’d not need to reverse her movements in my head, and we’d try again, often as clumsily as before. Sometimes it was so bad that she literally got down on hands and knees and moved my feet herself. She wasn’t passively hoping I’d see her movements as a model and try to ape them. No, she was trying to teach me to dance, and demonstration was an important tool in her toolbelt.

Researchers have found that students with dyslexia often have trouble learning sequential actions because of their own difficulties with observation (Menghini, et al., 2011). That suggests the possibility that some kids might struggle to follow your literacy demonstrations as much as I did with the foxtrot.

How can we use demonstrations most effectively to teach reading?

One valuable insight is to tip kids off as to what they are to notice prior to a demonstration (Andrieux & Proteau, 2016). Whether I’m to learn how the letters get connected in handwriting, or how to choose which of my brainstormed topics is the best one to use for my composition, or what happens to the reader’s voice when the sentence ends with a question mark, the demo is likely to be most effective when the observers know what to watch or listen for. (And, general attention matters, too. Don’t get so involved in your demonstration that you don’t notice that the kids are looking out the window. Make sure eyes and ears are focused on the demonstration… it’s called observational learning for a reason).

Another thing that can help is to segment the demonstration into smaller steps. Observational learning can be blocked by cognitive overload. If there is too much information coming in, then there will be too little learning. That’s why so-called “model reading” doesn’t improve student fluency, there is simply too much information for students to be able to remember and transferring such a demonstration to different text will be a bridge too far for many kids.

When I’m showing kids how to read fluently, I limit my demonstrations to a single sentence, and then have the students try to read that same sentence. More than that overburdens their memories. Perhaps you may want to provide an overall model, “Boys and girls, I’m going to read this page or this chapter to you, and I want you to notice how I read it. What do I sound like?” and so on. But, if you want kids to actually try to read like that, now you need to work with smaller segments that the students are going to try themselves, and memory plays a big part in that kind of performance.

The teaching sequence is demonstration, prompt, practice. You demonstrate the process or action that you want students to duplicate, then you put them in a situation in which they can try to do that, and then you provide guidance and support as they practice the behavior. Thus, when a youngster is trying to read the text fluently, and he or she goes chopping through a sentence disfluently, I’ll stop them, demonstrate what that sentence should sound like, and then have them try it themselves.

Many teachers have gotten the idea demonstrations aren’t that important, that it is better for kids to learn by doing. Even when teachers do model for their students, it is often a one-time affair. When teaching comprehension strategies, the teacher may show students how to predict or self-question on day one, but that will be the last demo of that information those kids are going to see. However, a study with ninth graders found that when it came to writing, observation was more effective than learning-by-doing (Couzijn, 1999). Deliberate practice matters, but students often don’t know what to practice and that’s where demonstrations come in.

In my fluency example, it sounded so simple. The student reads a sentence badly, I show him how it should be done, and then he can do it himself. That happens sometimes, but other times, the youngster’s second reading is more like my dancing. I may have to show him again, perhaps telling him what to pay attention to this time or reading only the first clause instead of the whole sentence. Demonstrations and re-demonstrations should be a usual part of your teaching.

Some teachers and parents fear that if kids see or hear something that isn’t correct that the errant info will be permanently imprinted in their brains. That, for instance, puts some off the idea of “invented spelling,” in which kids try to write as well as they can without looking up words in the dictionary or asking others how they are spelled.

However, when it comes to observational learning, research has shown repeatedly that expert models aren’t as powerful as the opportunity to contrast expert and flawed models (Rohbanfard & Proeau, 2011). Thus, having kids comparing their spelling attempts with the correct spellings can help, as can having them compare audiotapes of their oral reading with an expert model. When I demonstrate oral reading fluency, I sometimes give flawed examples myself, reading too fast or too slow, skipping words, mispronouncing, droning on in a monotone and the like. The kids will tell me what’s wrong with my demonstration… “It’s too bumpy,” they point out when I pause too long between words.

Research is clear that observational learning is valuable and that there are ways teachers can use demonstration more effectively than others. Coaching can improve modeling (Davis, et al., 2018), unfortunately, not all teachers have expert coaches available to help them improve their teaching quality.

If you want to get good at demonstrations, rehearse! I know demonstrating can appear easy, but practicing can really help. Rehearsal will help you to reduce unnecessary information, prevent confusion, and divide the task up sensibly. It can help identify what students should be told to watch for.

Demonstration fits into reading instruction in lots of places. I’ve already given several oral reading fluency examples. But demonstrations are appropriate for other aspects of literacy instruction, too. For example, 

1.     Print awareness and concepts of print

When teachers read aloud big books, they can demonstrate directionality, return sweeps at the ends of lines, or what happens at the end of a page. Pointing to the words may give kids a clue as to what is being read and can helps kids develop concept of word.

2.     Decoding

Often, we teach phonemes and spelling patterns, but without sufficient guided application in sounding out words. Studies have shown that teaching kids to “blend” improves the effectiveness of phonics teaching (Pflaum, 1980), and I suspect at least part of this benefit is from the decoding demo it provides. Demonstrations can show children what good readers do when stuck on an unknown word (and, no, it isn’t look at the picture and guess).

3.     Comprehension strategies

Research shows that teaching students to summarize, self-question, bring prior knowledge to bear, visualize, and so on are beneficial. Studies also show that “gradual release of responsibility” is a particularly effective way to teach (Shanahan, et al., 2010). In this approach, a teacher demonstrates the mental moves she is going to make during reading, then gradually has the students imitate these moves; the “I do it, we do it, you do it” approach.

4.     Writing processes

Teacher demonstrations can play a big role in teaching kids how to plan their writing, how to draft, revise, and edit.

Demonstrations should be a regular occurrence in your teaching. Try to make those demonstrations as powerful and effective as you can.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Susan Jan 04, 2020 06:52 PM

Yes, Tim, makes perfect sense!

It’s another example of being more explicit in our choice of words, “modeling”, demonstrating what we mean when we advise teachers to “model”. Model modeling through demonstration!

Heidi Graci Jan 04, 2020 11:31 PM

Great article! Over 18 years of teaching, I feel very comfortable with my ability to model and demonstrate as I read to my K students. It is rewarding to have parents share with me comments that their kids make as they read together. “Mom, that’s an ellipsis. We need to pause and turn the page because there is a surprise coming.”

Audry Hawkins Jan 04, 2020 11:39 PM

Thank you. A thought occurred to me,when modeling for a classroom teacher regarding an instructional strategy, do teachers get a cognitive overload as well?

Tim Shanahan Jan 05, 2020 03:23 AM


I know of no studies of that but self reflection tells me that this teacher does.


Tan K Huynh Jan 05, 2020 01:49 PM

Thank you for this article, Tim. I appreciate how you explained the difference between modeling and demonstrating. In a world of 280 tweets, I find myself happy as I read along your blog! Keep on posting! We'll keep reading!

Debbie Meyer Jan 05, 2020 02:43 PM

Well trained master teachers can model for new teachers!

Tricia M. Jan 05, 2020 09:09 PM

Once again, I'm grateful for your insight into validating instructional practices and reminding us - with your wonderful analogy - that demonstration is key to learning. This is one reason I vow to regularly learn something new and be reminded of what it is like to be a student.

Julie Dinan Jan 05, 2020 11:09 PM

I appreciate the insight into cognitive overload. It reminds me of the Charlie Brown classroom teacher!

Lynn Atkinson Smolen Jan 06, 2020 03:04 AM

Thank you, Tim, for your excellent ideas for how to make demonstrations as powerful and effective as possible. I am involved in a project focused on exploring the effects of literacy coaching of teachers on the reading achievement of English learners. Your article gave me some good ideas for how to help teachers be more effective with demonstrations. I plan to use your ideas in my coaching.

Mary Jan 06, 2020 02:10 PM

For comprehension demonstrations/modeling, what do you suggest when it comes to coaching teachers to model the right things. Demonstrations/models are obviously beneficial for students, but when we've coached teachers around this, the pendulum oftentimes swings to where there is so much modeling - and not enough time in text.

Tim Shanahan Jan 06, 2020 03:01 PM

If you keep demonstrations brief and to the point it won’t overwhelm the other parts of the lesson. But research is clear that to much do it yourself is not what’s best for most kids’ learning,


Phillip Jan 06, 2020 03:44 PM

Thanks for sharing such a thorough post, Tim. Really good stuff.

I’m interested in how the modeling of a literacy teacher “fits” the in the moment literacy needs of students. How many of the twenty-five 8th graders in a history class need their teacher to model how to source the audio clip from Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech? Or, do they understand how to source and need lesser scaffolding from the teacher and time to collaboratively source, closely read, and corroborate Dr King’s words with those of Bobby Seal and Huey Newton? If we assume teacher modeling or guided practice represent “heavier” scaffolds for students, not every student in class may need this level of scaffolding. Therefore, teachers who give this modeling to all students (or those who don’t need it) might be giving students the opposite of what they need.

Formative assessment and flexible grouping become essential teaching practices to marry with modeling, but I wonder how often we, as teachers, misinterpret formative assessment data and thus give students unresponsive modeling/scaffolding resulting in confusion, disengagement, and ultimately the message that their teacher isn’t listening to what they need. And, especially with adolescents, this potential misalignment of scaffolding/modeling with student literacy needs can produce disengagement and youth deciding not to put their best thinking foot forward during classroom disciplinary literacy tasks. It would be quite possible for the teacher to then assume students “can’t” source...which...produces more unneeded modeling. Transparent negotiation of scaffolding with students seems to be critical.

Thanks for your thoughtful post and for the space to think out loud.

Carrie Andalman Jan 07, 2020 03:00 AM

I love this article. I like the idea of pinpointing exactly what your students to look at when you are modeling something. Small tweaks in teaching can make a world of difference. I also like that the article addressed the power of doing what is being modeled. Nothing can replace that hands-on experience.

Cheri McManus Jan 08, 2020 04:09 AM

Demonstrating how we think about text as we read is very powerful. A colleague of mine used to host "recess reading" and "book club reading" (for struggling readers). She fashioned a camp fire in her room, a circle of real rocks with paper flames in the middle. Students sat in bean bags or camp chairs around the fire. With the lights off and only the light of a battery operated Coleman lantern she read aloud to the group. Next to her was a large thought bubble, cut from a large piece of foam core and attached to 2 paint stirrers. As she read she would pause and hold the thought bubble up to the side of her head and make an inference, prediction, or she would share her visualization of the characters, setting and events as they occurred or talk herself through the use of context clues to figure out an unfamiliar word, or use her knowledge about word study to decode an unknown word. She also employed fix up strategies when her inferences, predictions, visualizations, vocabulary knowledge or pronunciation were incorrect, (which were done intentionally). Over time she made individual thought bubbles for each "camper" (smaller with tongue depressors attached as handles) and added a flashlight to the mix. She would read, stop periodically or when she noticed a bubble up, shine her flash light to see who had their thought bubbles aside of their heads and would ask them to share their thinking. Just as she had shifted from first starting with "I-do" demonstration, to "we-do" she eventually moved to "you-do". This even translated to independent silent reading, later leading to checks ins and quick book talks as she roamed the room. This example of demonstrating, making an internal process external and concrete was of huge benefit for these students and me as well, to have been so fortunate to have worked with such a skilled teacher.

Tamosin Jan 11, 2020 07:50 PM

I realized I've been reading your blog posts for years and haven't ever thanked you.
So Thank You!

Tamosin Jan 11, 2020 07:50 PM

I realized I've been reading your blog posts for years and haven't ever thanked you.
So Thank You!

Dona Carhart Jan 13, 2020 10:51 PM

"Deliberate practice matters, but students often don’t know what to practice and that’s where demonstrations come in" reminds me of those teachable moments. Brief snd concise demos to create a relevant learning experience that has real-life application.

B Nazila Ramja Jan 21, 2020 03:36 AM

I love modeling. I model “Making Thinking Visible.” I model how I annotate, what I am thinking as I read, and very often, how to retell, summarize, and analyze each paragraph of a text. I call it chunking the text. Students do reciprocal reading and practice these
Skills. They capture their notes on a graphic organizer, then they figure out themes and central ideas.
Modeling is especially important in literacy instruction.

Amber Jan 30, 2020 12:04 AM

Agree!! I will shift my “model“ to demonstrating as it has a clear purpose. Being a visual learner this is how I learned myself it has always been a big part of my instruction.

Shyla Kinhal Feb 06, 2020 04:16 AM


Can you clarify the difference between the comprehension strategies you describe here and the skills you refer to in the ACT study that do not lead to stronger readers? And what is the balance between demonstrations and using text dependent questions to support students in reading complex texts? Thank you!

Dawn Wilson Feb 11, 2020 04:25 AM

As I reflected over your post, I continued to rehearse your teaching sequence: demonstration, prompt, and practice. It reminds me a great deal of the gradual release process used in our district. I do believe in the power of modeling; especially during the writing and language block. I know that when teaching the reading standards, modeling is essential. I really like the way you model for your students during your reading fluency demonstration. I have not used this tactic with my students. I'm am certain this would benefit my struggling readers most. When I teach writing, I model during each lesson. I use this opportunity to show my students how to make correct sentences and heck over their work, all while infusing the grammar skills that are currently being taught. My students are also very fond of individual writing conferences held with me. Here, I take the opportunity to use anchor charts that remind students of what a good writing piece needs. When writing narrative pieces, we use this opportunity to review those comprehension strategies that have been introduced during reading. Students can write a summary piece of a favorite book. They can also add illustrations to support visualization. I am learning that as we teach other subjects, we can still teach and/or review skills related to reading.

Jolynn Apr 23, 2020 03:52 PM

I liked what you had to say about "modeling" being more like demonstrating. I thought your information about memory overload was spot on. I think with students who are struggling readers , those who have dyslexia or processing disorders, need more explicit instruction in smaller chunks so that they have time to process it. I also like what you said about "tipping kids off" to what you are asking them to look for. So often we just need someone to point out what we are needing to look for. I think it helps us pay more "attention" to the text being read.
The teaching sequence, demonstration, prompt, practice, where you demonstrate the process or action that you want students to duplicate, then you put them in a situation in which they can try to do that, and then you provide guidance and support as they practice the behavior, is so useful in any educational setting. I work in a computer lab teaching students how to use technology. Demonstrating, prompting and then practicing is a useful and important skill with that application as well. I plan to use it more in my teaching. Thanks for your insights! Do you have any ideas about how to use technology with teaching reading skills to struggling students? Thanks!

Amy Jul 21, 2020 08:12 PM

So much of what you mentally think is not picked up by the student learner. I honestly, never really gave thought to alot of the demonstrations and thinking out loud until I began teaching in CyFair and watching some of the kindergarten teachers! It makes sense to model or demonstrate those skills and to break lessons down into small chunks for students to learn and absord.

Gail Brown Nov 21, 2020 10:10 PM

The "model/demonstrate", "guide", scaffold and "independent practice" is very old (originally Rosenshine & Stevens, 1984, I think?) - it was re-worded as "gradual release" - and the teaching sequence for effective instruction is exactly the same... So, for those of us who read this original paper, which I think wasn't truly evidence-based (Happy to be corrected?) - the importance of modelling and demonstrating, along with deliberate practice with feedback (Ericsson) has, and always will be the most effective way to support student learning... Now, this may include online versions of this, which are more difficult than doing it in person - believe me, I know! The benefit is that such online versions can impact across many more students - the negative is that to create something that is personalised, for individual students - that teachers provide face-to-face - is even more difficult! Hopefully, a balance between teacher interaction and online interaction will be our next challenge for learning, esp in the context of COVID? Hope this helps? From Australia, I am wishing you all every success, as if you made a comment, you are truly a passionate teacher and learner! We are relatively free from COVID right now, like you were in your summer, so my wishes extend to you all to stay safe, and well through your winter!

Peta Nov 22, 2020 04:02 PM

"Observational learning can be blocked by cognitive overload. If there is too much information coming in, then there will be too little learning".
This is so timely! Trying to "hit all the standards" is self-defeating. I have narrowed my read-aloud/think-aloud focus to ONE laser-focused strategy only, and explained the assessment task (objective/end-game) before beginning; my students' assessments showed excellent transfer of the skill! Recording my Distance and Hybrid lessons and re-watching/ reflecting on them post-lesson is bearing fruit, as is subscribing to this BLOG series; thank you!

Laura Townsend Nov 23, 2020 02:37 PM

Amen to demonstrations, Tim!

Beth Vincent Jun 27, 2021 10:16 PM

For me, this is a great reminder to be more intentional myself with passages I select for students. Reading this is indeed timely for me as I prepare for another year of Zoom educational therapy with two early readers. Thank you!

Tracy Vorel Jun 28, 2021 12:44 AM

Thank you for the insightful article and reminder of the importance in "how" we teach and not just "what" we teach. Thought provoking article and reinforcement of good teaching techniques.

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Does "Modeling" Have a Place in High Quality Literacy Teaching?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.