20th 2009
John McWhorter: Why Don’t More Schools Use Direct Instruction?

Posted under Education Politics & Private Schools & Public Charter Schools & reading & Research & Urban Schools

In a recent article in The New Republic, John McWhorter from the Manhattan Institute wants to know why the Direct Instruction method for teaching reading that has proven so effective is so little used to help correct the achievement gap for poor minority students:

Yet a solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago. Starting in the late 1960s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation, Project Follow Through, that compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results in more than 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones. DI isn’t exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation.

In a half-day preschool in Champaign-Urbana they founded, Engelmann and associates found that DI teaches four-year-olds to understand sounds, syllables, and rhyming. Its students went on to kindergarten reading at a second-grade level, with their mean IQ having jumped 25 points. In the 70s and 80s, similar results came from nine other sites nationwide, and since then, the evidence of DI’s effectiveness has been overwhelming, raising students’ reading scores in schools in Baltimore, Houston, Milwaukee, and other districts. A search for an occasion where DI was instituted and failed to improve students’ reading performance would be distinctly frustrating.

It’s hard to argue with the research that shows the direct instruction method works to boost the ability of most disadvantaged kids to read. Some schools – including private schools and public charter schools – use DI as part of their core program. Why isn’t it more widely used? You’d have to ask the bureaucrats and union officials who oversee the vast government school system.

(H/T Joanne Jacobs)


3 Responses to “John McWhorter: Why Don’t More Schools Use Direct Instruction?”

  1. DI Guy on 21 Jan 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    I’ve only been working with DI for a few years now, but there are a few big reasons why it is not more widely used as an instructional method:

    - Skills-based (DI) vs Discovery/Inquiry-based learning approaches is a heated educational topic that breaches into politics. Far too often educators back one side or the other – as opposed to working toward accepting multiple approaches to meet varied student needs.

    - *Scripted lessons limit teacher creativity – which is really a misconception about DI programs in general. Once working with the scripted lessons becomes natural to a teacher, they can inject all the creativity they want to (and many do). However, some organizations train “to the letter of the law,” so to speak.

    Because of these main factors Direct Instruction programs seem to have something of a stigma of being uncreative and popular in economically disadvantaged areas (where they are used regularly because they are easy to train and relatively inexpensive).

    Most school materials purchase decisions are politically-driven anyway these days, so sometimes the impact of teaching programs on the actual students becomes a secondary concern.

  2. Ben on 21 Jan 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    DI Guy, thanks for sharing the informative comment. I especially liked your conclusion: “Most school materials purchase decisions are politically-driven anyway these days, so sometimes the impact of teaching programs on the actual students becomes a secondary concern.”

    How far can we begin to address problems like the one manifested in the unwillingness to adopt DI on any wide scale by promoting school choice and other ideas of parental empowerment?

  3. BThinks on 22 Jul 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    So what strategies can assist students who are between grades 6 and 8 who have trouble reading. I under the impression that DI may not have been implemented duriing previous years. My school is consistantly performing low. What can i do?

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