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Cue Cards: Hints to Help Your Students Succeed

Since the latest reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004), Response to Intervention (RtI) has been widely implemented to identify and support students with learning and behavioral needs (Wisniewski, 2014).  More than 40 states have adopted and successfully applied some form of a three-tiered prevention by integrating both RtI and schoolwide positive behavioral supports (SWPBS) models (Kaloi, n.d.; Sugai &; Horner, 2009). Use of the systematic screening, research-based interventions, ongoing decision-making, and progress monitoring involved in these models have broad implications for closing both the opportunity and achievement gap for students with academic and behavioral challenges (Benner, Kutash, Nelson, & Fisher, 2013).  Moreover, SWPBS’s framework of overarching social expectations (e.g., respect, responsibility, and productivity), when translated into concrete behavioral terminology, including classroom procedures for task completion, provides opportunities for teachers to identify and explicitly teach prerequisite skills students need to perform learning tasks.

Hint #1: How do I know what prerequisite skills to teach?

The essential knowledge, skills, and processes outlined in the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Curriculum Framework identify the behaviors necessary for students to access and use academic content.  For example, to be able to solve problems that involve adding and subtracting fractions with like and unlike denominators, students must be taught how to use problem solving, how to make connections, and how to create representations (Virginia Department of Education [VDOE], 2009). Students with learning and behavioral difficulties often experience weaknesses in metacognitive processes and self-regulation behaviors necessary to perform mathematical and other complex academic tasks. As a result, they frequently struggle with process skills such as:

  • Organizing and prioritizing tasks
  • Completing tasks on time
  • Connecting previous learning with new learning
  • Reflecting on and critically thinking about work and learning (National Center for Learning Disabilities, n.d.; Willis, 2014).

However, by directly teaching metacognitive strategies, educators can help students acquire the prerequisite skills that facilitate academic learning.  For example, in the above standard, students could be taught a strategy to organize and remember the steps to compute addition of unlike denominators or set and meet goals for work completion (Conderman & Hedin, 2011).

Hint #2: What strategy would assist students in learning these skills?

One strategy that helps students organize and prioritize cognitive processes is the use of cue cards.  These visual representations describe procedures and processes in a step-by-step format or graphic organizer.  Cue cards can be used for any content area, including behavior, and can be created by teachers as well as students.  When teachers carefully consider the problem or procedure, analyze the steps involved, and select a clear, efficient representation of those steps, students are more likely to learn the concept or skill (Conderman & Hedin, 2011).  For example, the cue card in Figure 1 was developed to “cue” students to the steps for how to solve problems involving addition of fractions with unlike denominators.

Figure 1.  Adding unlike denominators.addingdenJPG

To develop the cue card, the teacher first selected the sequence of steps required to solve addition of unlike denominators and then listed them in the order her students were to perform them. Vocabulary and illustrations were matched to the students’ skill levels.  The teacher simplified the steps to fewer than seven and created a mnemonic to capture her students’ interest (Conderman & Hedin, 2011).   Multiple pocket-size copies of the cue cards were made from card stock, folded in tent format, and tacked on the bulletin board.  When students used the cue card, they placed a dot on the outside flap of the card.  The teacher could then quickly assess how often students relied upon the hint and reteach the steps if necessary.

Hint #3: How do I help students learn and practice these skills?

Explicit, step-by-step instruction that integrates social and academic learning is the most efficient and effective way of teaching students how to use cue cards to approach academic tasks such as problem solving or work completion.  Examples and non-examples help to clarify when the strategy on the card can be used.  After multiple teacher-provided examples and clear explanations, students and teachers brainstorm other problems for which the cue card might be used, and then discuss how and why the process applies or does not apply.  Teachers must offer multiple opportunities for students to practice using the cue card and talking through the steps they are following, giving them immediate feedback to reinforce correct applications and to correct misconceptions. Then students practice using the cue card and applying the strategy with peers, in small groups or pairs, before expecting them to use the card and strategy independently. Actively engaging students in their learning and providing frequent feedback increases perseverance, time on task, and heightened interest and enthusiasm (Miller, 2014).

Cue cards may also be used to help develop behavioral and social skills. Figure 2 illustrates a strategy that helps students learn and apply behaviors that lead to task completion, reflect on how they used the strategy, self-monitor progress in work completion, and then earn points toward a goal.

Figure 2.  Behavior cue card and self-monitoring.behaviorcue(Adapted from Rademacher, Pemberton, & Cheever, 2006)

Educators help to ensure academic and behavioral success by identifying the support skills and processes students need to know, understand, and be able to do to learn the content they teach.  Explicitly teaching step-by-step procedures for approaching and completing learning tasks improves students’ engagement, responsibility for their own learning, and ultimately success. Cue cards provide them important hints to help them learn and remember processes critical to learning and school success.


Metacognitive Strategies:

Universal Design for Learning:


Teaching Channel:

  • Hint Cards
  • Formative Assessment and the Back-Up Plan
  • Growth Mindset – Fostering Persistence


Benner, G., Kutash, K., Nelson, J., & Fisher, M. (2013). Closing the achievement gap of youth with emotional and behavioral disorders through multi-tiered systems of support.  Education and Treatment of Children, 36, 15-29.  doi: 10.1353/etc.2013.0018

Conderman, G., & Hedin, L. (2011). Cue cards: A self-regulatory strategy for students with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46, 165-173. doi: 10.1177/1053451210378745

Kaloi, L. (n.d.). Multi-tier systems of support: aka Response to Intervention (RTI). Washington, DC: National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from

Miller, K. (2014). What the research says: What student engagement is, why it matters, and how we can influence it.  Changing Schools, 74, 3-4.

National Center for Learning Disabilities. (n.d.).  What is executive function?  Washington, DC: Author.  Retrieved from

Rademacher, J. A., Pemberton, J. G., & Cheever, G. L. (2006). Focusing together: Promoting self-management skills in the classroom. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises.

Sugai, G., & Horner, R. H. (2009). Responsiveness-to-intervention and school-wide positive behavior supports: Integration of multi-tiered system approaches. Exceptionality, 17, 223-237.

Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), (2009). Mathematics standards of learning curriculum framework. 18. Richmond, VA: Author. Retrieved from

Willis, J. (2014). Three brain-based teaching strategies to build executive function in students.   Edutopia. Retrieved from

Wisniewski, R. (2014). Systematizing student engagement through a multi-tiered system of supports. Changing Schools, 74, 7-9.

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