Direct Instruction

Posted on May 26, 2015


Okay, it’s been years since I taught “language fundamentals” at New Community School — enough years so that in their awesome little movie about that place, the kiddo who drew *all* the definitions for vocabulary words in the context of doughnuts and policemen is, like, all grown up.

Saying that reminds me that no, we did not spend all day in Direct Instruction land.

So… how did direct instruction facilitate patterns and generalizations?

{UPDATE:   A better explanation than this is at  )

I’m not in anybody’s head so I’m not sure.

They *certainly* weren’t doing it earlier; these were kiddos who struggled mightily with reading. We built up words from phonemes to syllables to words, with all kinds of multisensory, visual-kinesthetic activity.   Spelling included chalk on the concrete (gross motor instead of fine) — and we got a laugh when we had our newly added sixth graders out there and the older kiddos demanded to do it, too.  Had we told them they had to, it would have been “baby stuff.”   (This is also a school that has recess — a.k.a. “break” — for twenty minutes after the first two classes… then two more classes and then lunch, and then two classes after lunch. Teenagers need to eat and move.)

Lots of these students tended to be “big picture” thinkers anyway. Perhaps the discipline of breaking things down and rebuilding facilitated the “aha!” moments when things would start to flow.

I think some of it was simply “I do it, we do it, you do it” modeling at work.   I was forever pointing out patterns and asking students about patterns, and yes, talking about the things to look at when looking for patterns.  (I am the queen of part to whole, myself, not the “big picture” person at all.)

There were those who struggled with working with abstract ideas but it seemed every year we’d say “well, next year’s curriculum might just be too abstract to handle” — but they worked hard and somehow kept getting a little bit better. Yes, their IQ scores improved from one triennial evaluation to the next — partly because they were more comfortable in their skin and the testing situation wasn’t quite as scary (“they might find out I’m retarded this time”) but … mainly because they got smarter.

Without the direct instruction, they didn’t have the bricks to build the infrastructure to make the cognitive connections.

I was the person who ran the numbers on the annual standardized testing and it completely annoyed me that the most methodical “no, we always do all of our review and drill” teachers got better results, every time, even with ferociously brilliant kiddos.

Critically important:   Our review and drill was not packaged. Yes, we had a sequence to follow, but it was highly individualized — by your teacher, figuring out what you needed, not by an anonymous algorithm which wouldn’t have worked for these unique individuals anyway.

I had one student at a time (two in a class; half the class you did independent practice while I worked with the other person), except for the sixth grade groups of five. We had time to meet and plan for each individual kiddo (every Wednesday was half day; we stayed in the afternoon for meetings and training and planning).     This school is expensive, but they invest in things like teachers and time and training and meetings.)   You got drilled in *your* phonemes and words. We went at *your* pace — “as fast as you can, as slow as you must.”   We also provided direct instruction in comprehension, which I had thought was impossible.. but it’s not.

I sat with a Franklin Speller (in a situation where I had to sit at a computer and do something mindlessly interruptible) and collected words for the assorted syllable types, by the way, and they are on a PDF you can get to at … I call it “Drill Bits” 🙂

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