The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 1 - Page 46



This program emphasizes not only the importance of reading, but also helps develop a lifelong love of the written word. - Dr. Betty Porter Walls

The Read and Feed Program at Johnson Wabash Elementary School was the type of school day we'd love to experience each and every day when children smile at the sight of books and adults say, "Finally, a reader is born." More than fifteen hundred (1,500) trade books were given to the students. Thank you for a renewal of spirit and confirmation that teaching is indeed a noble profession. Ferguson-Florissant was a fantastic host for the Read and Feed Program and I believe we all did good work!—Dr. Betty Porter Walls

The Value of the Optimal Learning Model


Heather Johnson


Early in my teaching career I would find myself frustrated by my student’s inability to “get it.” I would look at the work that they produced and would feel disheartened. I knew something wasn’t right. During my lesson it seemed like the students were understanding, but then when I sent them to finish the work, it was not what I expected. I knew that something had to change. Instead of focusing on what the students needed to change, I decided to take a look at what I needed to change. Through much trial and error, professional development, and research, I discovered the Optimal Learning Model. This model has changed the way I teach and as a result has changed the way my students learn.

The Optimal Learning Model as described by Routman (2005) is a model that encourages teachers to begin with teacher demonstration, move to teacher-led practice, then to student-led practice, and finally to independent practice. This model is based on the Vygotskian theory of scaffolding, which suggests “that guided interactions with adults could assist children in developing higher psychological functioning” (pp.648-649). In order to fully understand the necessity of each step in the Optimal Learning Model a look at how Vygotsky’s work and the Model relate is vital.

The Optimal Learning Model and Vygotsky

Vygotsky’s theory is rooted in social interaction. He suggested that “when students are assisted by partners on tasks, they may attain a higher level within their ‘zone of proximal development’” (Tzou, 2007, p.35). The zone of proximal development and scaffolding are the main components of Vygotsky’s theory that relate to the Optimal Learning Model. The zone of proximal development is the zone where a student needs support, or scaffolding in order to reach a higher level of learning or understanding of a concept (Jacobs, 2001; Powell & Kalina, 2009).

Several researchers have defined scaffolding and its importance in the learning process. McGee and Ukrainetz (2009) described scaffolding as when “teachers determine what kind of help or information is needed for each child to respond correctly to the task and to internalize skills needed for performance later” (p. 648). Similarly, Beed, Hawkins, and Roller (1991) stated the following about scaffolding: “The gradual release of teacher responsibility that occurs as modeling, guided practice, and independent practice [that] lead to student independence” (p. 648). Scaffolding “allows the teacher to keep a task whole, while students learn to understand and manage the parts and presents the learner with just the right challenge (Clark & Graves, 2005, p. 571). The Optimal Learning Model is the epitome of scaffolding in that there are four specific steps that a teacher should move through, each step releasing some of the teacher support, until the student is performing the task independently. Although nearly every teacher has learned about Vygotsky and the need for interaction and scaffolding, it seems that some steps of the Optimal Learning Model are often skipped.

Mistakes Well-Meaning Teachers Make

“It took me years to figure out that if I did a great job teaching and scaffolding—demonstrating, explaining, giving kids time to talk, practicing, trying things out, before they wrote, the quality of the writing was automatically higher” (Routman, 2005, p. 221). This statement by Routman is one that I found to be true in my own teaching career. I spent many years making the mistake of not always allowing time for each step of the Optimal Learning Model. Through my experiences and casual conversations with colleagues, I have come up with some reasons why, although teachers are aware of and know the importance of scaffolding and meeting students in their individual zones of proximal development, less time than needed is spent on some of the steps or they are skipped altogether. From my own personal experience and from talking to other teachers casually, it seems that the reason that this happens is due to a combination of time constraints and required curriculum. Teachers are given a list of standards that they must teach, often are given a schedule as to when each item should be taught, as well as a particular curriculum they are required to teach.