Explicit Teaching From a Distance


As we embark on distance learning in our digital/virtual classrooms, it is now more important than ever to be sure our teaching is clear and concise. Distance learning needs to be more than a place where we post assignments, activities, and questions to respond to. We have the responsibility to teach while we are socially distanced, and what we decide to teach needs to be prioritized and explicit. Without students having their teachers and peers for support, they need to receive short chunks of instruction with a clear learning target and opportunities to be shown how to do that strategy or skill of the teaching target.

Smiling woman works on a laptop

When planning digital mini lessons, make sure to:
1) Name your teaching target;
2) Teach how to do it; and
3) Keep it brief.

Prioritize and Name Your Teaching Target

With online learning, less is often more. As you set out to decide what you will be teaching students, prioritize the most essentials skills so that students can be most successful in their application. What skills will give the most bang for their buck in student growth – identify these and rank. As you prioritize and rank, also think about what teaching seems most relevant to students in this current time period. Making choices about teaching what is most important is not always easy but it is necessary if we want to have the biggest impact on our students’ growth and progress.

Once the teaching priorities are decided, gather (from my unit resources) or create the teaching points to match. Naming what is being taught is essential for making teaching as concrete as possible. Following the TCRWP’s framing, I often name the teaching with phrases like, “Today I want to teach you…” or “Today I want to remind you…”


Believe it or not, teaching is something that is easy to leave out of distance learning! The distance itself and the digital platforms we are using lend themselves to assigning learning tasks and activities, rather than teaching students how to utilize strategies or execute a skill. What NOT to do: Things like – 1) read this part of the text and respond with your thoughts; 2) write a journal entry about how you are feeling; 3) watch this video and then pick a side – are all examples of assignments. It’s important that after we decide on the prioritized teaching targets and name them we show how to do the strategy or skill for students! I often transition from the naming of the teaching point to the actual teaching with phrases like: “Let me show you how this might look” or “Let me show you an example of this work”. Then, as I demonstrate and/or talk to examples, I refer back to the teaching point by saying things like, “Did you see how I (name teaching point)”.

Keep It Brief

Interacting in the digital classroom has a much different feel than interacting in the face-to-face classroom. Whether you are teaching synchronously or asynchronously, you want to be sure that you are structuring your teaching to include short chunks of instruction, followed by interaction and practice, to keep students focused and engaged. Mini lessons should be around 4-8 minutes and should link students off to attempt the strategy/skills you’ve taught. The mini lesson will include your connection, the naming of the teaching point, and your demonstration/example. Referring back to the teaching point prior to linking off gives students one more chance to hear the teaching before going off to try it.

In asynchronous sessions, you may ask students to pause the video and come back after they’ve practiced. Or alternatively, you may end the video and refer students to a place they can try this work and share (Google Classroom, SeeSaw, FlipGrid).

In synchronous sessions, you may choose to stay connected for a certain period of time after the mini lesson while students work independently, side-by-side, as they would in the classroom. This helps with accountability and ensures supports as students need them. Brevity and chunks of instruction, followed by chunks of practice, is essential to keeping students engaged in their learning from a distance.

Here is an example video mini-lesson I created for 4th graders I work with. The session is an adaptation from TCRWP’s Poetry Unit for 2nd grade. As you view, listen for the explicit teaching in the naming of the teaching, the demonstration, and the overall brevity:

View the mini-lesson video here.

Thanks to the tips and tools Kristen Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris are putting out there for teachers!  Check out their site for more distance learning support and ideas.

Thank you to Teachers College Reading and Writing Project I(TCRWP) and their Units of Study for Teaching Reading.

Thanks, also, to Maggie Beattie Roberts for the brainstorming and conversation around distance learning! Learn more from Maggie at Kate and Maggie.

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