Barak Rosenshine’s principles of direct instruction 3

In this final posting on the teaching and learning values of Barak Rosenshine, I shall be looking at his fifth and sixth principles of direct instruction.

The fifth principle is providing enough opportunity to engage in independent practice. In regard to the teaching of literacy in the early years, I believe that many programmes, such as Letters and Sounds for example, move far too quickly through the material and fail to present it in short enough steps or to offer anything like enough practice. This means that the fifty percent of pupils who would normally be expected to succeed do; the rest are often left behind.

Independent practice enables pupils to improve their fluency and automaticity in skills, which in turn enable them to gain access quickly and directly to information stored in long-term memory. Constant practice in the context of reading also establishes more firmly the correspondences between sounds and spellings of sounds. In this way, ‘working memory is taxed minimally and students can devote more attention to comprehension and application’ (1). As Stanovich long ago pointed out, ‘Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word-recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to higher-level processes of text-integration and comprehension.’ (2)

Independent practice also assists in elaborating and fine-tuning the learning, thus adding to and making more sophisticated conceptual understanding. Teachers are also able to monitor error rates and adjust their teaching accordingly.

The final principle advocated by Rosenshine is for teachers to hold a weekly and monthly review. As is the case with daily review, this kind of longer term review and re-assessment of previous learning greatly aids in helping to ‘reinstate and elaborate prior learning’ (3), as well as reinforcing and broadening ‘connections within cognitive structure’ (4).

What this brings us back to is that expertise – and it is expertise we require to be able to read and write fluently and accurately – is acquired gradually over time through a series of carefully calibrated tasks that the learner is able to master sequentially. In every field of learning, to perform domain-specific tasks to a high level of expertise, the learner needs to spend time on activities which have been specifically designed to improve performance. This, in the language of the research, has been termed ‘deliberate and extended practice’ and has been shown to lead to ‘improvements in performance by an order of magnitude, along with a huge range of interindividual differences’ (5).

However, for all this to happen, learners need expert tuition and that only comes from proper training of teachers.

Rosenshine, B., ‘The Empirical Support for Direct Instruction’, in Tobias, S. and Duffy, T.M. (eds), (2009), Constructivist Instruction, Abingdon, Routledge (p. 207).
Stanovich, K.E. (2000), ‘Matthew Effects in Reading’, in Progress in Understanding Reading, The Guilford Press, London.
Rosenshine, B., (p.207).
4 Ibid. (p.207).
5 Hunt, E., ‘Expertise, Talent, and Social Encouragement,’ in Ericsson, K. A. et al (Eds) (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, CUP.