Chapter I: Radical Optimist
The creator of the ‘Direct Instruction’ is Sig Engelmann and it’s not for nothing that Chapter I of Barbash’s book is titled ‘Radical Optimist’. In it, he describes Englemann as believing ‘that the mind of every child, even the least impressive, is an incredible thinking machine gifted with extraordinary powers’ (p.9). Since the moment I read that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and, if we accept the proposition, it isn’t difficult to believe that every child is ‘perfectly capable of learning anything we have to teach’. The idea turns the education world and how we look at it upside down, or arsey versey, as Hugo Dewar once coined it.
Barbash goes on to cite a study which looked at over 5,000 cases of students evaluated by educational psychologists as falling behind in their studies. What the study found was that, while the children’s problems were invariably attributed to the individual student or to their family, not one connected the children’s failure to learn to the teaching methodologies being employed.
I tested an eight-year-old child only the other day. The child has a reading age of seven years and two months. Her spelling age is considerably lower and has stayed that way for a year. We know this because it’s in the educational psychologist’s report. To what would I ascribe the child’s difficulties? Unquestionably to poor teaching! Her skills of blending and segmenting are not quite perfect but they’re really quite good, certainly good enough to start learning the complexities of the alphabet code. What she is prone to is guessing and, of course, because she doesn’t know any more of the code than the one-to-ones, double consonants and the basic consonant digraphs (sh, ch, and so on), she makes errors in every sentence she reads. The result is that she no longer expects to make sense from anything she reads.
You might want to know that the educational psychologists noted in her report that, when asked to say the sounds in CCVC words, the child was separating sounds, so that in the word ‘plum’, the child said ‘p’ ‘l’ ‘u’ ‘m’. The ed. psych. seemed to believe that the correct response was ‘pl’ ‘u’ ‘m’. Is it any wonder that children experience failure when professionals within the psychology service aren’t trained to teach reading and thus misdirect parents and teachers alike?
As Engelmann is quoted as saying, ‘it’s not the teacher’s fault; it’s the theorists’ fault’ (p.9). Barbash elaborates: ‘Constructivists,’ he writes, ‘say the mind creates its own knowledge largely through its own efforts. Learning styles theorists say different minds learn the same things in physiologically different ways, requiring different teaching methods for different children. Developmentalists say the mind matures in phases we cannot change – a notion derived from the theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget…’
It’s easy to see how, when a child fails to learn, that failure is attributed to the incapacity of the child or to their unreadiness to learn. For Englemann, the corrective lies in the pedagogy. Get the curriculum right, train teachers properly and ensure good management of schools. [Engelmann appears in this regard to be just the educator for our times!]
Barbash concludes the chapter by underlining three principles Engelmann considered of paramount importance:
Do away with ambiguous language which confuses children. Talking about magic letters, hard and soft sounds, letters saying their own names, short sounds and long sounds, letters that ‘make’ and ‘say’ sounds is enough to confuse the sharpest mind.
Teach children the necessary knowledge. When it comes to reading and spelling, teach them essential skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation; teach them conceptual understanding of how the writing system works; and teach them how the sounds of the language are spelt. And do all of this from simple to complex.
Lastly, give children the requisite practice, the amount varying with the child.
As Barbash writes, ‘fix these problems and the mind will learn’ (p.11).
2 thoughts on “Clear teaching, Part II”
Engelmann's principles are right on the money, but I find that the third one is not always achievable in a public school situation. Early on, in a study co-published with other authors, Engelmann found that some learners needed as many as 11 000 repetitions to master a single correspondence. The average was something like 50, with faster learners requiring 5 or fewer. This is an enormous range of capability (not correlated closely with IQ, BTW).
I had seen some students over the years who required hundreds of repetitions to master a few correspondences (and even more repetitions to grasp blending sounds into words), but never one who approached the 11 000 mark — for the simple reason we would never have had the instructional time available to pursue 11 000 repetitions of /m/ = "m" for instance.
However, in the last few years I have seen a number of such cases, including one with an IQ over 160 who yet was unable to learn SATPIN (or letter names) even with months — then years — of individual instruction, multiple types and occasions of practice, and first-rate teachers for at least part of the time. In four years of school he still knew only a few letters and fewer correspondences. We tried everything we could think of, provided massed and distributed practice, used materials that had reliably worked before (including Reading Mastery, a linguistic phonics program, Lindsley-style precision teaching practice, and more). The student was never able to retain any correspondences from one day to the next. At age 8 he moved to another district, still unable to read or write, or identify the letters in his first name.
That experience was troubling but eye-opening. This student may have been one of those who, like the worst-case subjects in Engelmann's early experiment, required 11 000 repetitions. How are we to accommodate such a need in the school day? In a public school this is normally impossible, due to requirements for other subjects and activities to be taught. I'm sure Engelmann would find a way (the schools with whole-school DI models provide three reading periods daily, for up to 180 minutes, for their lowest performers. We would never be permitted to do this).
Tutors or parents can sometimes supplement available school instructional time, but this case — and a number of similar ones since — have made me aware of the limitations of ordinary schools to successfully teach children with this extensive a need for repetition and practice. Private schools can, and do, organize the whole day around the students' learning needs as needed. There ought to be some way regular schools could do the same in such circumstances.
I don't want to sound facetious, Palisadesk, but I'm learning Spanish and, as I'm now at intermediate to upper intermediate level, I'm bombarded with new vocab. Frankly, I'm finding it very, very hard to remember it all and it sometimes seems as if I need a huge number of repetitions.
Retaining new information is very hard unless you have the opportunity to use it constantly, first in a certain context, seeing/hearing/speaking and listening to the new item before using it in other contexts.
As we've been rolling out the Sounds-Write programme, I've become very much aware of the range of ability within a class to internalise what is being taught. The children who take things in quickly are away. The ridiculous thing is that (probably somewhere around) 50% don't, unless they are given more more extensive practice. Even then, there are likely to be a very small percentage who need even more. What happens to them is that the teachers say that what is being done doesn't work so they put them on another completely different programme and we all go round again. This why we're stuck with the 50% tail of persistent underachievment for year after year.
I don't know whether three times a day for prolonged periods of time would work in the most difficult cases. I'm sure that in most, it would. Here, in the UK, you'd also have a problem in persuading the teachers that the methodology is acceptable.
Having said all that, there must be a very small number of children, such as the pupil you mention, for whom virtually nothing works. Maybe Reuven Feuerstein has the answer?
Comments are closed.