Many districts require spiral review for math or language arts. In fact, I worked in one of these districts for over a decade. For twenty minutes of our math block, we were expected to engage students in spiral review based on topics outlined in our district scope & sequence.
I'm sure you're not surprised to know that there was no additional guidance on HOW this should be done, so the outcomes hit all ends of the spectrum. Some teachers thought this meant they needed a separate mini-lesson on the assigned topic. Others threw up their hands and did what they'd always done. The one thing they had in common was that no one thought it was working for them.
The Four Ways Spiral Review Goes Wrong
1. Your spiral review is not data-driven.
District mandated topics for spiral review can be helpful, but there needs to be some wiggle room. The goal of a spiral review is to help students master skills. Therefore, as we collect data, it should become more clear where our students are struggling and what skills need more practice.
A pre-set plan for a year's worth of spiral review is the exact opposite. Instead, we should spiral in more opportunities to practice skills that data indicates are still a struggle with the occasional opportunity to practice those skills students have shown repeated mastery of.
2. You are spending too long on it.
Brain research says the average attention span is between 8-10 minutes. Yes, just 8-10!
Spending twenty minutes on spiral review means we lost our students about halfway through. Instead, break this time into two smaller chunks to make sure your students are truly focused and getting the skills they need.
3. You haven't made your spiral review quick & predictable.
Knowing that the research says 8-10 minutes is ideal, it is important that students are able to get right into the practice. This requires them to know what they are doing and having the tools to get started right away.
Without a clear routine, it is difficult to ensure that the students are spending those minutes on-task. Research has shown time-on-task is highly correlated to academic outcomes. This means we cannot afford to spend time transitioning or giving directions for routine activities.
Instead, find a spiral format that you can keep consistent each day. Spend time upfront teaching students the routine, knowing this will help them be able to independently get started and get more from your time.
4. You're really engaging in spiraled instruction.
Spiral review and spiraled instruction are often used interchangably when they are NOT the same thing.
Spiraled instruction is when skills or units are broken up and taught across several different points in the year. The students are being introduced to new components of the concept during each of these times.
Spiral review, or spiraled practice, means your students are having a repeated opportunity to practice skills you've already finished teaching to help them keep their skills fresh and build automaticity.
Research supports the use of spiral review. In fact, this method (sometimes referred to as distributed practice), has such a strong research-base of support that it is recommended by the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES). Spiraled instruction, on the other hand, has not been shown to improve learning outcomes.
Therefore, instead of planning 1-2 week units and teaching pieces of the same unit five different times in the name of spiral review, design spiral review as a repeated practice of essential standards you've already covered.
A summary of the findings
You might be wondering if you should throw out your spiral review, and the answer to that is most definitely NO!
Instead, work to implement these three research-based best practices to get the best learning outcomes for students.
- Focus on distributed practice vs. instruction.
- Keep your spiral review short and focused.
- Have a routine and use data to adjust as needed
With those small changes, you can reclaim the effectiveness of this research-based technique.
Find out what spiral review looks like in my classroom.
Learn more about how I applied the principles of quality spiral review to math and language arts. Check out these articles and grab a free version below.