How to Implement a Gradual Release of Responsibility

Kathryn Starke
Kathryn Starke
Professional development expert and National Urban Literacy Consultant; M.A. in Literacy and Culture
High school students working at their desks while a teacher walks and observes.

What is a Gradual Release of Responsibility?

A gradual release of responsibility is evident in classrooms when students are provided the best learning opportunities to work toward independence. Teachers execute the process of gradual release through the art of scaffolding lessons and learning experiences that support a student’s independent success. This academic cycle is implemented in the classroom whenever a new standard or objective is introduced by the teacher. This instructional practice, once mastered by both teachers and students, will make a significant difference in student achievement at grade level in any content area. The name clearly explains the process. The teacher is gradually letting go of directly leading the students toward understanding by giving them more ownership and autonomy of their learning in a sequential educational model. While the gradual release of responsibility always begins with the teacher leading a lesson, it always ends with the student’s independent comprehension of the subject matter or task at hand.

Gradual Release of Responsibility: Basic Sequence

There is a basic sequence that is always followed while using the gradual release of responsibility model or framework. While the planning timeframe may differ according to grade level or subject matter, the order of the process remains the same. The gradual release of responsibility always begins with direct instruction, which leads to guided instruction followed by collaborative learning and ending with independent practice. This sequence is repeated each time a new objective, learning target, or standard is introduced in a new subject matter. At the beginning of a new unit or standard of learning, teachers must provide direct instruction to set the stage for learning and both explain and model the new objective and material. After direct instruction, guided instruction takes place for teachers to guide the student’s thinking and learning process to clarify any misunderstandings and answering questions to avoid confusion of content.

Once the teacher believes that basic comprehension for students exists with the material and objective, students can work with partners or in a group to show their understanding of the content. In this instance, teachers become the facilitators in a collaborative learning setting to determine which students may need further direct instruction or guided instruction. This process is solely based on a child’s full understanding of a learning target. If a teacher observes that students need more support, it may be time to return to guided instruction or even more direct instruction. This reteaching can take place in whole group, small group, or one-on-one instruction depending on student need. The fluidity of this model also allows students to move from one phase to the next phase or even back and forth as needed. The ultimate goal of the gradual release of responsibility is to provide the students with the absolute best chance to show their knowledge and competency in assigned independent practice, exit ticket, or assessment. This is the best indicator that the gradual release of responsibility has successfully worked in the teaching and learning process. This final piece of the process again informs the teacher if more direct instruction, guided instruction, or collaborative learning is needed. The process can be implemented in multiple grade levels and in a variety of subject matters.

When is it Appropriate to Use a Release of Responsibility?

While a gradual release of responsibility is considered among the best practices for all students in any grade level or any subject matter, it is most often and most effectively used during reading and math instruction, especially at the elementary school level. When we understand that the gradual release of responsibility is created to help students become more independent readers and thinkers, we can appropriately plan to use the model in a variety of educational settings. We can use this targeted release of responsibility in whole group reading or math lessons, small group reading or math lessons, or during independent math centers or literacy stations. The instruction may need to be retaught in a different manner to the entire class or remediated for particular groups of students.

The ultimate goal of this educational model is to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and strategies to be competent in a subject matter. When students can accurately and effectively teach their classmates specific learning targets in reading or match objectives, it becomes evident that the gradual release of responsibility is working. Tasks to determine such competency may involve asking pairs of students to read a nonfiction text and identify a main idea or asking groups of children to illustrate certain fraction values. Students may also be asked to complete a main idea graphic organizer with a partner or complete a fraction practice sheet individually. Each child has his or her own individual reading and math journey. The implementation of a release of responsibility in the classroom allows teachers to meet the needs of each child on their path to student achievement.

Steps for Implementation

Teachers must strategically and specifically plan lessons to implement this instructional process in their classroom. The unit from initial stage of direct instruction to the final stage of independent practice will vary from one objective to the next. It could be anywhere from a three- day instructional plan to a two-week instructional plan. An easy format for teachers to consider when planning is to the use the I Do, We Do, You Do Model. In the I Do section, teachers model thinking, explain information, and demonstrate tasks during direct instruction. The We Do section should be planned for guided instruction and collaborative learning. Lastly, the You Do section indicates what tools will be used for student independent practice. 

In elementary school reading lessons, the I Do, We Do, You Model is implemented daily while focusing on the weekly language arts objectives. If we continue with the concept of understanding an objective such as main idea in a nonfiction text, here is what the lesson plan would look like. On the first day of the unit, the teacher would explain what main idea means and create an anchor chart to illustrate the vocabulary term. Then, the teacher could read the first few paragraphs of a new text modeling how to identify the main idea in each paragraph or section. The teacher should show the students how to transfer their knowledge on a graphic organizer. Teachers should then put students in pairs to continue reading paragraphs together and continuing to show their thinking on the graphic organizer. Finally, the students should finish reading the rest of the text and complete the graphic organizer independently. This model can be implemented three to five days during whole group reading instruction. The same objective can also be implemented in small group reading instruction. Teachers should review the independent work daily to determine which students may need reteaching or remediation before an independent assessment is assigned. This model can be used throughout the school year in math as well to support learning. The gradual release of responsibility gives students the support they need as they work toward independence and full comprehension of a brand new learning target at any grade level in any subject matter any time of the year.

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