3 Ways to Teach Sequencing and Processing Skills to Close the Achievement Gap

Find out how to teach sequencing and processing skills to help close the achievement gap for students in poverty

As educators, we are all aware that an achievement gap exists and that this gap needs to be narrowed and ultimately closed. I’m a fan of Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in Mind. I have read and re-read the book several times, and each time I gain more insights into how poverty affects learning.

We know that some students, particularly those living in poverty, are oftentimes less or significantly less successful in academics than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Most educators are aware of the effects of poverty, but they might not be aware of practical ways to address the problem. According to Jensen, one thing that can help is to teach necessary cognitive skills such as sequencing, processing, and problem-solving,  that might be weak spots for students in poverty.

Sequencing and processing skills can help struggling students catch up to peers

When it comes to cognitive skills, a weak spot for some students in poverty is sequencing and processing, which students need in order to survive in the social studies classroom. The difference between knowing and not knowing how to sequence and process make a difference in a student’s ability to assess problems, make judgments, and even function as an  adult.

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What are sequencing and processing skills?

Sequencing and processing skills are two of the major cognitive skills necessary for learning and memory.

Sequencing skills refers to the ability to arrange information in the brain in an order that makes sense. Students need to understand sequencing in terms of which sentences fit where in a paragraph. Without sequencing skills, students will have difficulty following multi-step processes, and even simple instructions.

Processing skills refers to the ability to assign meaning to information. Students without good processing skills might show a difficulty in listening, reading, or readily understanding images. They take longer to figure out what is meant when you give directions, and have difficulty staying on task. 

Identify and name the skills you want students to learn help them develop skills to close the achievement gap

Let’s consider some possible solutions for developing sequencing and processing skills in students.

1. Identify and name the skill you want students to learn

Identifying and naming the skills we want students to learn helps them understand our goals for them. Tell them that you want to see their processing skills when assigning an activity involving interpreting visuals or text, and define what those skills are and how they are measured. Let students know you want to see them use their sequencing skills when assigning them multi-step projects, so they know to pay attention to the directions and the order of the directions.

Otherwise, the focus for students might just be on getting the assignment done—the goal rather than the journey.  In trying to help close the achievement gap, sequencing and processing skills are valuable parts of the journey.  Students need to understand the connection between what teachers assign and what our goal is for them. Identifying and naming these goals makes the invisible thinking visible.


Learn about more skills you can teach to help students in poverty:


2. Make your own processing skills visible to students

Provide students with a model of the skills you are teaching. For instance, in teaching students to “read” an image, explain what they need to do in terms of steps. You might create a generic step-by-step process that can be repeated with any image. Providing them with the process sets them up for future success as they learn to apply that skill in other settings. Not all students from poverty have models for these skills at home.


3. Provide students with opportunities to refine their work

Providing students the opportunity to revise their work allows for personal growth without negative consequences. Think about yourself—do you get everything right the first time, or do you try something, make revisions, and try it again? Are we allowing students the same growth opportunities before we grade them? Again, this is something every student deserves to have a model for.

Sequencing and processing are skills we use every day, but low income students don’t always have opportunities to build these skills: they must learn them in the classroom. By teaching skills and embedding them in our social studies content, we are preparing students to be successful in more than social studies, and we can help close the achievement gap.

Now that you’ve learned about sequencing and processing skills, read about how to teach problem-solving skills to close the achievement gap.

Let’s talk about this in the comments. Do you have students who you know are suffering from the achievement gap? Consider the methods you use—what are some ways you teach sequencing and processing skills? Don’t be afraid to say you don’t teach these skills, reflection is part of growth!

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Pam Gothart is the director of professional learning at Social Studies School Service. She has been in education for 22 years including teaching high school social studies, and spent 12 years as a history director. Pam’s Ed.S. is from Samford University, where she focused her study on professional learning. She is passionate about education and helping teachers to be unique and effective leaders.

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