What Can We Learn from DI About Data and Assessment?

The best way to understand proper use of data and assessment is to look at an intricately designed course that makes use of it faultlessly. In other words, look at a Direct Instruction course. Within Expressive Writing, for example, there is a lot of data generated within each lesson, but it is not the teacher who makes use of it; it is the students. In other words, the students get the chance to self-correct when they find out during the ‘Check Your Work’ section of an activity that they have got some of it wrong. But there is no action for the teacher here, other than circulating and checking that the students are in fact self-correcting. There is no instruction in the DI script for the teacher to gather data about how many mistakes students have made and re-do the activity if there are too many. Evidently, the authors of the programme have judged that this is not a useful time for gathering that sort of data. The focus here is not on data-gathering but on repeated practice with rapid feedback.

The authors of Expressive Writing have judged that the time for gathering data about mastery and reteaching where necessary is not lesson by lesson, but at regular, well-spaced intervals. It is done through the mastery tests, which are every 10-15 lessons or so. It is at this point that the teacher makes decisions about what to reteach based on specifically identified gaps in student knowledge. These are the interim assessments of the programme. But they are not designed to look like any final assessment, such as American AP exams or English GCSEs. They don’t even look like the final mastery test at the end of Expressive Writing. Instead, these interim assessments are precisely designed to test the components of writing that the programme has taught up to that point.

What we have here is a highly effective programme for improving the accuracy and effectiveness of students’ writing that looks nothing like an English Language GCSE or an American AP exam. But there is no doubt that it will help students do better in such exams, because it will mean that they are able to punctuate correctly and write clearly, keeping control of their tense. It will mean that they are able to lay out speech correctly. It will mean that they are able to structure their writing effectively into paragraphs. It is courses like this which are the best antidote to the tedious and ineffective method that has become so common in England and America, whereby teachers believe that the best way to improve performance in summative tests is by repeatedly doing mocked-up versions of such tests.

DI courses are also an excellent remedy for the idea that teachers have to be continually gathering data and acting on it in every lesson. When a course is well designed with repeated practice of multiple strands built into it, there is no need for this sort of frenetic data gathering. It may well be that some students are getting some things wrong some of the time, but instead of trying to act on that in the moment by adjusting our lesson plan on the fly, we should have a robustly designed programme of instruction which takes this into account by building in lots of practice along with rapid feedback and opportunities for student self-correction.

And even when all students are getting everything right, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to move on, because a well-designed programme of instruction will continue practice beyond this point in order to make things really stick through overlearning.

There are no DI programmes available for much of what we need to teach. For example, there is no DI English literature course. But we should be looking to DI as the gold standard for how to design our own programmes of instruction. Whatever question we have about designing instructional sequences — whether it is how often to assess, or how to design assessments, or how to analyse assessments, or how much practice students need — we will find answers if we carefully study the masters at work by considering how these things are done by the authors of DI programmes.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.


British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]