Direct Instruction: Yay or Nay?


Direct Instruction (DI) was developed by behaviourists Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann and Wesley Becker in 1967. DI does not address individual differences in children; it focuses on communicating concepts clearly enough for any and every child to understand. The DI method begins with letter sounds and then words; words are practiced many times before they are seen in context. The focus is on repetition, and for this reason it is seen as being quite authoritarian and inflexible. Cognitive researchers don’t like it because it was developed by a behavourist. Others favour its back-to-basics appeal; according to Principal Thaddeus Lott of Wesley Elementary in Houston, Texas, “It’s nothin’ but old-time teachin’ in a box.”

A component of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was the Reading First program, which provides money for “Scientifically Based Reading Research” (SBRR) and for hiring “coaches” to impart the latest SBRR strategies to teachers. In 2006, a government audit revealed the program was plagued with conflicts of interest and wilful mismanagement. Reading First director Chris Doherty gave preferential treatment to states that used the DI approach. Review panels were sometimes stacked with DI backers or those with professional connections to the program.

Then there’s the passages from Zig Engelmann’s book, “The Outrage of Project Follow Through: 5 Million Failed Kids Later”:

The senior reading teacher and guru in one of our schools instigated an argument with me about reading – what it was, and how best to teach it. In the best cocktail-party style, we were polite, and the small group surrounding us was intent. The teacher’s premise was that the creativeness of teachers should not be trammelled by a lockstep program, like DI. She was well read, and quoted the literature with flourish. After the discussion went on for possibly ten minutes, one of our first-year teachers from the same school interrupted and ended the argument.

She said, “Angie, you know more about reading than I’ll ever know. You know linguistics, and all those theories I don’t understand. All I know how to do is follow the program. I do what it tells me to do in black type, and I say what it tells me to say in red type. But Angie, my kids read better than your kids, and you know it.”

I’m worried I have an anti-DI bias because I don’t like NCLB and I don’t like corrupt republicans. So I feel like I need to look into it further to figure out two things:

  1. whether DI is actually in conflict with cognitive research, and
  2. whether DI is as successful as its backers claim.

So I found a book called Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Early Childhood Education. Its description: “This debate-style reader is designed to introduce students to current controversies in early childhood education. The readings, which represent the argument of leading child behaviourists and social commentators, reflect a variety of viewpoints, are presented in pro/con format.”

And then I take a look at the publisher: McGraw-Hill. Wonderful. Don’t they publish a little thing called Direct Instruction? Yeah. Yeah, maybe I won’t take their word for it.

UPDATE, 2:36pm: A HA!!! It looks like it’s exactly in parallel with most cognitive research. I believe most of the backlash to DI is from bad teachers. From what I’ve read, DI is described as being “for students who can’t learn or teachers who can’t teach.” So having DI forced on you is like being told you’re an awful teacher. Well, if it walks like a duck and reads like a duck…

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