By Doug Buehl
Growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm meant a childhood where work and home were interchangeable. As a youngster, much of my time was spent alongside my parents as they engaged in the varied tasks of farming: bumping along on a dusty hay rack as bales of fragrant alfalfa were piled higher and higher, trailing pails of frothy milk being carried down the barn driveway to the milkhouse, tagging along on the daily circuit of chores and managing the livestock.

As a farm kid, I was expected to eventually assume responsibility for many of these tasks I had been witnessing since an early age. Gradually, I became trusted at the steering wheel of the Allis Chalmers tractor, first under the supervision of my father, and then more and more out on my own until I was regarded as a capable, independent operator who could hitch up machinery and reliably accomplish field work while my parents toiled elsewhere.

Essentially, I was treated as an apprentice learner during those years. I was accorded ample opportunities to experience firsthand the work of the farm being properly executed. I was encouraged to ask questions – why things were done a certain way and what would perhaps happen if they weren’t. I was granted the benefit of my parents’ thinking, as they mused about their actions while they worked. I was given guidance and supervision as I began to try my hand at a range of important jobs. I was treated like someone who was capable of handling responsibility and doing the work, and it was also clear that I was transitioning into the role of peer, someone who would be expected to take over a slice of the daily farm routine, a person who could be “on my own.”

The Strategy

This apprentice learning model also has important implications for the classroom. In their classic treatise on reading comprehension, Pearson and Gallagher (1983) coined the phrase “gradual release of responsibility” to describe this dynamic in the classroom. Basing their model on the ideas of the great Russian educational theorist Lev Vygotsky, Pearson and Gallagher envisioned instruction that moved from explicit modeling and instruction to guided practice and then to activities that incrementally positioned students into becoming independent learners.

Step 1: The Gradual Release Model (see illustration below) begins with a focus on teacher modeling. Students need plenty of opportunities to see an expert – the teacher – at work, as you interact with texts and showcase the thinking that undergirds doing a task well.

Consider the students in your classroom who may be confused about how to perform a specific activity or who are definitely novice learners in a topic area. The first stage of the Gradual Release model assumes that many students will currently not be able to handle the task that is the focus of the lesson. Several of these Reading Room columns in the past have dealt with the “think-aloud” as a particularly powerful method for modeling what you are thinking as you make sense of a text.

A think-aloud provides students with a window into the wisdom and strategy employed by an accomplished thinker during reading. These short sharing sessions become a means for modeling the thinking you will be expecting your students to try when they are confronted with a similar learning task.

Step 2: Much of classroom instruction takes place in the central area of the Gradual Release Model – The Zone of Proximal Development. During this stage students experiment with what you have modeled, as they converse with you and with other classmates to clarify their thinking and practice their new routines.

“Teaching in the zone” relies on scaffolding, support that is integrated into a lesson that guides student learning and prompts effective thinking. Many of the classroom strategies that have been highlighted over the years in this column represent instruction that scaffolds reading and learning.

A scaffold is a temporary structure that is constructed to help someone complete a task that would otherwise be very difficult. We use scaffolds frequently in real-life. We see scaffolds that are assembled to facilitate erecting or repairing a building; we see scaffolds used by painters to reach areas inaccessible without them; we see scaffolds dangling from high-rise offices that allow window washers to undertake a task unimaginable without such a device. But when the job is completed, scaffolds are dismantled; they are temporary structures.

Likewise, classroom lessons that represent scaffolding are temporary lessons, constructed to help students as they embark into unfamiliar thinking, but designed to be faded away as students become gradually comfortable with the learning and are able to work without this type of teacher guidance.

A critical aspect of scaffolding in the classroom is teacher feedback. Students need continuous dialogue with a knowledgeable mentor to help focus their efforts and problem-solve through difficulties. Students will fail at times during scaffolded lessons, but they need to realize that failure during new learning is a normal phenomenon. Helping students digest what went wrong and why, and what needs to be done the next time, is an essential component of “teaching in the zone.”

The Gradual Release model assumes that students will need a lot of work that is scaffolded before they become independent. A number of educational observers argue that this dynamic of instruction – scaffolding – is not always adequately achieved in the classroom. Students may be expected to demonstrate independent thinking and learning before they have had enough practice and feedback to really get good at it. Struggling readers in particular need scaffolded lessons that remind them what effective thinkers do during learning and guiding them through texts that are challenging.

Step 3: The rationale of the Gradual Release model is the constant attention to ceding increasing responsibility to the students for directing their own learning. Students need regular reminders that the focal point of instruction is to empower them to be able to accomplish important and sophisticated tasks without the support of the teacher and their classmates.


The Gradual Release model emphasizes instruction that mentors students into becoming capable thinkers and learners when handling the tasks with which they have not yet developed expertise.

  • Students are exposed to repeated modelings of expert behavior through teacher think-alouds and discussions of effective strategies for learning.
  • Students are provided with ongoing guided practice before they are asked to be independent learners
  • Students are encouraged to use each other in the context of cooperative classroom activities as they experiment with the thinking necessary to succeed in a variety of learning tasks.

Sources Cited:

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. (1983) “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,”Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Doug Buehl, teacher, Madison East High School
Wisconsin State Reading Association

Parts of this graphic were adapted from Wilhelm, J., Baker, T., and Dube, J. (2001)Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy 6-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton Cook Publishers.

Posted September 27, 2005