Direct Instruction: The Great Equaliser

SnowflakeClever people are good at identifying patterns. That’s why aptitude tests always include exercises in pattern spotting. Whatever the pattern might be, the sharper people are more likely to spot it with less need to have it explained to them.

But whatever someone’s aptitude, they can grasp a pattern if it is clearly explained to them and they practise sufficiently.

That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics. A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics. But someone who is less good at identifying patterns will only know how to read the whole words that they have seen, or very similar ones. Because they have not been systematically trained in phonics, and they do not have the ability to teach themselves to decode, they are crippled by their ignorance of the alphabetic code, and unable to read unfamiliar words.

In the middle of the twentieth century, after several decades of look and say dominance, many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. They had been using methods which denied effective reading skills to many, while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite. This, of course, suited the requirements of big business and big government — the bureaucrats and corporations who had pushed this approach — as it created easily managed and manipulated employees and consumers for business, and easily led clients for the swollen state apparatus.

But many parents weren’t happy with it. It had been foisted upon their children without their say. Reactionary fools that they were, they didn’t like to be told that their children were ‘non-literate’, and, in opposition to the stifling hegemony of the progressive pedagogical experts, they still wanted their children to learn their ABCs.

This battle has been going on for a century. It’s still going on, on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Jeanne Chall’s research and Project Follow Through, because of progressive repugnance for the principles of direct instruction: whole class teaching, careful sequencing, repetitive drill, and large amounts of practice. If you think children should go at their own pace, and that learning should be fun, you just won’t want to teach like this. Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?

The issues at stake in the reading wars apply across the curriculum. Will we use thorough, explicit and carefully sequenced methods that allow everyone to make progress, or will we continue with an incoherent curriculum in which only the highly intelligent can spot the patterns?

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8 thoughts on “Direct Instruction: The Great Equaliser

  1. LOL. If only it were true.

    “Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?”

    I would like to see the evidence for that one…

    “A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print”

    I would love to see the evidence for this one also.

    “That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics.”

    An incisive comparison.

    “many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. ”

    When you say that they were “saying”, do you mean they were guessing the cause, they were suggesting a possible cause or they were just making the cause up?

    “while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite. ”

    At least this is a different argument to the “leaving the poor behind” argument, unless of course you are suggesting that the cognitive elite were alo the rich. Maybe there is a link between being cognitively elite and being rich. Maybe not.

    For many “traditionalists” things are very black and white, there is a right answer and they present a narrative around romanticism and Rousseau etc etc etc etc.

    Your posts invite analysis from a different perspective often which is nice. Whether you are “right” or whether you are “wrong” matters not to me but your ideas are always worth thinking about.

    ps…I have read a good deal about follow through and I am unable to use the resulting wisdom to make the same assertions as you are. Maybe I am not one of the cognitively elite. Having said that, I am a bit (small bit) of a mindset sort of a person and I think almost all of us are cognitively elite. There are a few at the end of the cognitive processing spectrum who may benmefit from slightly different approaches if they are to achieve our level of cognitive eliteness but as soon as one starts to see some people as clever and others as not so clever I feel systematic synthetic phonics or not is the least of our worries.

    Great post thank you.

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    • There is a distribution of intelligence. That is well established. Not all are equally intelligent.

      The progressive educators were claiming that large numbers of people were simply born non-literate. So the cause would be genetic. This kind of belief aligned with their advocating intelligence testing and denying large numbers of people a liberal education based on the results of the tests.

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  2. I agree with every word you have written. Reading should not be an exclusive accomplishment.

    The best ‘thing’ that ever happened in education was the Rose report’s recommendation that systematic synthetic phonics be taught rather than the useless Searchlight model. The naysayers love to dismiss the Y1 (and subsequent checks for those who fail first time around ) phonics check as a crude measure of the success of children learning phonemic knowledge and skills. Unfortunately surveys have shown that, despite Letters and Sounds and other programmes being around since 2007, some misinformed whole word advocates are still denying all children to access written words.

    Many children in KS2 still need phonics based structured lessons, with the associated analogy, etymology and morphology, rather than a list of words to learn by memory. For this to work well, the teachers need to accurately assess the gaps in learning and then plan and teach so that children do not leave primary school without their needs being met or, worse still, being inaccurately labelled as dyslexic.

    Diane McGuinness’ books should be compulsory texts for all those training to teach, across all settings and age groups. A quick Google search of one of her books, ‘Why our children can’t read and what we can do about it’ , brings up an Amazon summary: ‘with invaluable information on remedial reading programs that can correct various ineffective reading …. Diane McGuinness has given us the blueprint for a reading revolution — one that offers real hope …

    I hope that just as mathematics now has a mastery focus, which drives home the need for solid number understanding, English might too have mastery of decoding as a minimum expectation .

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  3. I would love to know more about: ‘A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics.’ Can you recommend some material I should read or provide any links that might assist? Thank you

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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