Engelmann’s Direct Instruction: I’m a Convert

Conversion Caravaggio

The Conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Writing is not a natural activity, and most pupils don’t just ‘pick it up’. A few will, because they are gifted, have articulate parents, read a lot and just generally belong to the top two percent of academic achievers. I am one of those few. Because I am good at writing, but received very little explicit instruction, it has been easy for me to believe that others will also achieve mastery in the same way.

Here we see a clear illustration of why many very clever and articulate people are taken in by progressive ideas. In fact, one might almost argue that they make the most sense to those who have learned most easily, with little apparent effort, all through their school and university career. For those who have slogged hard and had few advantages, the nonsense of naturalistic methods is much more immediately apparent.

In March, I began reading books like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths and E D Hirsch’s The Schools We Need, and I renounced naturalistic educational ideas once and for all. It was a logical next step that in September I began using Siegfried Engelmann’s Expressive Writing 2 at key stage three (ages 11-14).

When using Engelmann’s scripted lessons, with their call and response whole-class approach and their minute attention to detail, I feel like I am really learning to teach at last. I’ve never seen anyone teach like this in the flesh, only through Youtube and Teach Like a Champion videos. It’s vigorous, pacy, efficient and totally focused. It’s wonderful. Someone has finally provided me with a script, and I can perform it with all my heart. It is not constraining; it’s liberating.

It’s not only the delivery of the lessons which is a revelation. The intricate sequencing of material, with spacing and interleaving, and huge amounts of repetition to build mastery, is also a fascinating lesson in what really works. And there is no doubt that these methods do work: that has been amply proven, as Joe Kirby points out here.

I could not design a teaching sequence as good as this. I do not have the expertise or the resources. I am not good at judging how much repetition is needed. In fact, teachers generally vastly underestimate how much repetition is required, because they are teaching a subject which they have mastered, and probably one which they found quite easy at school. Some of the best teachers I have come across have been those who struggled more at school, because they have a better notion of just how hard it is for the average person to master skills and knowledge thoroughly.

But I have to try to design these kinds of teaching sequences, and apply these methods, elsewhere in the English curriculum, because there is no Direct Instruction material available for them. It’s a huge task to come up with a properly sequenced, incremental programme that truly builds mastery, and it’s not a task that we classroom teachers should be expected to do alone.

So I slog away, but I look forward to the coming of the direct instruction millennium, when truly effective teaching resources are available across the curriculum. I hear the folk at Michaela are working on it . . .


17 thoughts on “Engelmann’s Direct Instruction: I’m a Convert

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Although much written in this post is correct, do note – just to be clear – that again there is no silver bullet. For learning new stuff direct instruction can be indeed very effective and efficient and much of the more naturalistic approaches do fail, but variation in approaches is also much needed. True professionalism is finding the right approach for the specific goals in the given context, while knowing “thy impact”.


  2. Welcome to the club! DI completely changed my teaching practice when I encountered it on a post-grad course in 1997. You may be interested to know that there is a DI conference in Eugene each year: http://www.nifdi.org/training-events/national-di-conference-eugene There is always an opening and a closing speech from Zig that is well worth hearing (they are available online). We had the privilege of attending in 2012 and are looking forward to attending again. If you want to delve deeper there is Theory of Instruction by Zig and Doug Carnine but if you want something a little more accessible: Kame’enui and Simmons – Designing Instructional Strategies http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Instructional-Strategies-Prevention-Academic/dp/0675210046 You may find some helpful links here, too: http://www.thinkingreading.net/professional-reading-1/methodology/direct-i


  3. Your comments regarding the potential ‘difficulties’ with teaching English to secondary school students resonates with my epiphany in understanding the process of learning to read and spell.

    I learnt to read and spell, with great accomplishment, but very little explicit teaching. I unconsciously made the analogous links between phonemes and graphemes through a various appetite for reading and a rich spoken language home environment. However if I had been taught by a profession that hadn’t been corrupted by ridiculous ‘whole word’ methods who knows what I might have achieved. Despite this unfortunate, but I know widespread experience, I have gone on, in my own time, to extensively read about our unique English writing system, its evolution and the history of teaching it in the English ‘speaking’ world.

    I know from the experience of over twenty years in primary school education, and from raising my own teenagers, that ‘progressive’ methods have left generations of readers and writers in the dark. Their achievements have suffered because of a lack of whole school ( Primary and Secondary) systematic synthetic phonics programmes. English students’ anxiety and uncertainty around our complex alphabet code ( and its continued evolution) affects their confidence in choosing adventurous vocabulary. Moreover, the increased effort of trying to spell correctly, but without secure foundation skills, is pursued at the detriment of higher level writing skills.

    As professionals it is imperative, as you eloquently write, that we understand the progression of knowledge, skills and understanding. This understanding should not be viewed as prescriptive and endangering autonomy. We are accountable to our students for the opportunities that we provide for them to learn. Our understanding of fundamentals such as phonics means we can empower their learning beyond the classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • I have a friend who is using Expressive Writing 2 in year six with great success. It’s just one part of the curriculum, of course. The bigger challenge is applying the principles of Direct Instruction to areas where there is no specific resource available.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. The teacher copy of Expressive Writing is very expensive! I’m nervous about buying it sight unseen. Are there sample pages onliine somewhere?


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