Teach vs Tell: The Difference Between Strong and Poor Instruction

There are some terms in the field of education that seem synonymous, but aren’t.  Two such terms:  teacher vs educator.  According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, a “teacher” is one whose occupation is to instruct.  The definition of “Educator,” on the other hand, is one skilled in teaching, a student of the theory and practice of education.  There is a huge difference.  Two other terms that seem similar but are definitely not?  Teach vs. tell. 

When we again look to Mirriam-Webster, the definition of “teach” means to cause to know something, to impart the knowledge of, and to instruct by precept, example, or experience.  “Tell,” on the other hand, means to make known, to give information to, to order or direct.  


Texas educator Martin Silverman further delineates teach vs tell on his blog, Teach Better.  He says it’s a matter of whether or not we help students understand the “why” behind what we’re teaching.

“Telling is the feeding of information without any real background of what students are doing or why. Teaching is giving context, explaining the “why” and “how” of what you want students to know.”

-Martin Silverman

So which would you rather be?  A teacher or an educator?  

Which would you rather strive for each day in the classroom?  To teach or tell?  

Me too.

What does teach vs tell look like in the classroom?

Here’s an example of tell:

The teacher stands in front of the smart board, with a slide deck on display.  The teacher reads from the slides, including entire text that says something to the effect of “today I want to teach you that…” Screenshots of classroom anchor charts that were found online have been included on some of the slides.  A found writing sample, reading passage, or download from TPT is also usually the norm. It is too small for anyone even toward the front to see, and impossible for anyone toward the back.  The teacher points things out in these examples, often using words like “see how…” and “look at this…” Then the teacher turns to the class and tells them to do that same thing.  The slide is changed to a timer or a task list, with no anchor chart visible for the remainder of the work time.  The charts and examples will not be shown again.  As students go off to work, the teacher circulates the room, monitoring student on-task behavior.

Here’s what’s problematic in this tell example:

  1. When teachers read from slides, verbatim, there’s no point in the teacher being there at all.  Often, so much information and text is on the slides that kids could really just read it on their own and get as much out of it.  In addition, kids won’t typically pay attention to the teacher–their focus is on the smart board.  
  2. Because there is SO MUCH information overload on the slides, kids don’t know where to focus…so focus is lost entirely.  
  3. This is not engaging at all.  It’s really nothing more than a business meeting.  
  4. The anchor charts are useless. If students can’t use them as reminders for their work, there’s no point. Since they also weren’t made by (or together with) the teacher, they aren’t memorable in any way.
  5. Examples need to be seen by students. If no one can read what the example says, it just becomes a random, abstract image.
  6. There’s no gradual release here.  No modeling, no thinking aloud, no student application of the lesson before they’re turned loose.  
  7. This also means no check for understanding, and the opportunity is missed for informing small group or 1:1 instruction.  The teacher will likely just move onto tomorrow’s lesson the next day without really  knowing if her students understood today’s concept at all.  
  8. Monitoring for behavior and compliance instead of checking in with students is a major missed opportunity for teaching.

Let’s use that same lesson, applying the word teach:

The teacher connects to prior learning to orient the learners and explain how today’s learning is the next step.  The goal for the day (or learning target, if you use those), written as a student-friendly phrase, is visible on the smart board, which the teacher refers to in this connection.  The teacher then says, “let me show you what I mean,” and proceeds to model, through a think aloud, how to do said strategy and why it’s important.

She’s chosen an excerpt from read aloud text, a student work example, or her own ongoing piece of writing  for the lesson.  As she works, she reveals more and more of an anchor chart that was created prior to the lesson, or creates one (or part of one, depending on this lesson’s particular place in a unit) on the spot along with the students.  This will remain visible throughout the work time and as stay up for as long as it’s needed after the lesson.

The teacher has thought carefully about how students would practice this same strategy right then and there.  There may be an additional excerpt from a text on the smart board or photocopied so students can talk through the work with a partner.  Or, students are doing this work on their own, clipboards in hand, where the teacher can see them all work.

Teacher explaining work to student.

As students are thinking, talking, and working, the teacher is moving around the group, listening in, checking in, coaching in.  The teacher is gathering vital information about next teaching steps…she can either move on, or she might back up to clear confusion or misconceptions.  

Either way, she’s making a mental note about next steps.  Then, the teacher gathers attention back to her, where she reiterates the teach point, and encourages students to take that work on for themselves.  She may have asked students to complete an exit ticket or as planned for an entry ticket tomorrow.  

This teacher keeps two kids nearby while others go off to work at their seats, because she noticed there was still some confusion when they worked with their partners on the strategy taught.  She will provide further instruction, possibly breaking the steps down even more.  As students continue to work, she’ll meet with small groups and individual students, coaching them further.  

A very big difference.  

Teaching means to unveil the why and the how behind the what. It’s the critical difference that will make a huge impact on student learning!

Yes, teaching vs telling does take a little more work.  

But it’s the right work.  

Could you use a thinking partner to help you ensure your lessons are teaching lessons vs telling lessons?  Email me to set up a coaching call!!  Or,  join my private FB group for immediate and ongoing support!

Related posts:  What’s the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?Will Robotic Mandates End Responsive Teaching?, Teach the Reader, Not Just ReadingGetting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later

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