Rigor in PreK Part III: 3 “Key Ingredients” to Instructionally Supportive Interactions in PreK and Beyond

In this month’s blog, we’re learning more about Instructionally Supportive Interactions, which we introduced in our first blog on Rigor in PreK. We think this topic deserves its own blog given how critically important these interactions are—and how much room we have to grow.

Let’s first review 3 take-aways from research about the importance of improving Instructionally Supportive Interactions 

#1 Children learn more in classrooms when teachers provide more instructionally supportive interactions. And these same interactions are important regardless of content being taught (math, language, literacy or social-emotional). In essence, the quality of interactions denotes how well curricula are delivered by teachers in a way that supports children’s thinking and learning.

#2 Learners of all ages benefit from Instructionally Supportive Interactions. Hence the “beyond” in this month’s title! Whether PreK, K-5, or secondary, teachers engaging in instructionally supportive interactions have students that learn more.

#3 You may recall from an earlier post that most PreK-5 settings researched have relatively low levels of Instructionally Supportive Interactions (see pic below). And very few children have access to effective instruction for multiple years.

For simplicity’s sake, we’re boiling down a complex ‘recipe’ for Instructionally Supportive Interactions into 3 key ‘ingredients.’

3 Key Ingredients for Instructionally Supportive Interactions—for PreK and beyond

#1 Get children thinking deeply, by: 

Asking thought provoking questions: open-ended versus closed-ended questions (which can be answered “yes” or “no” or by a single word) and  “how,” “why” or “what makes you think…” types of questions as opposed to recall-type questions with one right answer (e.g., What color is this?, What is that thing called?).

Helping children make connections between new information and things they already know and understand. Teachers need to make efforts to understand what children already know about a topic before they just give lots of information. And for preschoolers it is so important to make connections to their real lives – most 4-year-olds are interested in things they can see, touch, and interact with.

Supporting children in developing their own ideasActivities that prompt children to generate their own ideas and products develop their thinking skills (e.g., reasoning and executive function). Get them to brainstorm and predict what will happen!

As you watch this video (2:31), notice how the teacher asks thought-provoking questions, connects learning, and provides opportunities for children to predict.

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

This teacher got the children thinking deeply using thought-provoking questions (“What do you think the ‘thumbs up’ might mean?”), connecting a new idea to previous learning (“We’ve been talking about our 5 senses…”), and asking children to make predictions (“Can anybody guess what’s inside here?”).

#2 Teachers should promote extended serve-and-return interactions
Getting children to think deeply is just the first step. It’s the resulting back- and- forth exchanges between teachers and children that really matter. Such exchanges are sometimes called “serve and return interactions.” Think of classroom interactions like a tennis match. If you see a teacher “serve” a question, a child’s response is the “return.” Likewise, if a child “serves” a statement to the teacher, the teacher may “return” with a follow-up statement or question. Children’s “serves” may be obvious, like a question, but can also include more subtle cues, like a confused look. Note that even high-quality “serves” aren’t always returned — a teacher might ask a great question, but if the child doesn’t respond, there’s no return—and that’s a missed opportunity for interaction.

#3 Teachers should “return” children’s serves with timely and effective feedback
Learners need many opportunities to practice a skill or gain new knowledge with immediate teacher feedback. Effective feedback involves serve and return interactions that lead to children having deeper/clearer understanding of concepts. Teachers need keen observation skills, flexibility, and persistence to provide effective feedback. Children won’t necessarily ask for feedback – teachers have to “read” their cues in real time and provide just the right scaffolding to aid in learning (including hints, follow-up questions, asking children to explain their thought process, giving more information, and encouraging effort.)

Take a look at this brief video (1:16) and see if you notice two children’s “serves” and how the teacher “returns” them with effective feedback.

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

The children in this video made several “serves” (e.g., “What’s a shuttle?” and “What if you let goed of it and we blowed on it?”) and the teacher consistently “returned” these serves with feedback by encouraging effort (“that’s a good question, should we try it?”) and giving information (“a shuttle is a spaceship,” “it still fell down because we have so much gravity …”). You also may have noticed aspects of Key Ingredient #1: Getting Children Thinking—asking thought-provoking questions and giving children opportunities to predict.


What can I do?

1. Observe for Instructionally Supportive Interactions in your next classroom visits (PreK and beyond). As you observe, remember that it’s more than just the frequency of teacher strategies (like questioning), but the quality of serve-and-return interactions that matter. For instance, how frequently is the teacher asking open-ended, higher-order questions that result in child talk? How does the teacher then give feedback that leads to back-and-forth discussions? Videotaping in classrooms can allow you (and the teacher) to reflect on the nature/quality of interactions.

2. Use PD resources to support quality Instructionally Supportive Interactions with teachers (PreK and beyond). Here are three 15-minute Inservice Suites with videos, presentations, and resources. You will find resources for administrators & teachers, including observation tools, under the heading “Supporting Materials.”

1. Asking Questions
2. Fostering Children’s Thinking Skills
3. Providing Feedback

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