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Some schools turn to direct instruction to master basics

Stephen Krashen Comment: Sent to the Providence (RI) journal, November 15, 2007.

Direct Instruction and Heavy Phonics: No âLasting Benefitsâ for Struggling Readers

Seven schools in Providence are doing âdirect instruction,â a phonics-heavy program, because of the results of a study done in 1977, showing that direct instruction produced âlasting benefits.â (âSome schools turn to direct instruction to master basics,â November 14.)

I suggest that Providence administrators take another look at those âlasting benefits.â Direct instruction children did better on âword readingâ in grades 5 and 6, but did very poorly (15th and 16th percentile) on tests of reading comprehension. In other words, they were able to read words aloud that were presented on a list, but had serious problems on tests in which they had to understand what they read. This is identical to the pattern California State University researcher Elaine Garan found for more recent studies.

Some basic phonics instruction is helpful for beginning readers, but the groups that lag behind in reading, the âstruggling readers,â are those that are read to least and have the least access to books, not those who get the least phonics instruction.

Stephen Krashen

Becker, W. and Gersten, R. 1982. Follow-up of Follow-Through: The later effects of the direct instruction model on children in fifth and sixth grades. American Educational Research Journal 19 (1): 75-92.

Garan, E. 2001. Beyond the smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel Report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82: 500-506.

Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann and Westport: Libraries Unlimited.

Some schools turn to direct instruction to master basics

By Linda Borg

PROVIDENCE â Adam Heywood stands in front of a dozen 5- and 6-year-olds. On the wall, the sign says, âFeet on the floor. Hands in your lap. Back against the chair.â

âLetâs sound out the word maaad,â Heywood tells the class, stretching out the word.

âMaaaad,â the children repeat.

âNow say it fast.â

âMad,â the children shout.

âYes,â he said. âHere are some new sounds. Nnnnnnn.â

âGet ready,â he said. âSay it.â


âYes,â he said, snapping his fingers to keep the class moving.

âThis word rhymes with ear,â Heywood said. âGet ready. Say it.â



The tempo is very fast. The call-and-response sounds like a choral group. Without breaking stride, Heywood calls on individual students to gauge whether that child understands the question. The lesson is highly scripted and every component is broken into the smallest possible pieces.

Welcome to direct instruction, a controversial, and, some argue, highly effective way of teaching students who are struggling readers. Because the programâs goal is to accelerate student achievement as quickly as possible, the teacher spends most of the time on fast-paced, teacher-led instruction.

Direct instruction has its roots in phonics or skill-based instruction, a bottom-up approach that starts with the basic parts of words and moves toward reading as a whole. First, lessons begin with sounding out letters, followed by combinations of letters. Proponents of phonics instruction say that children are better able to decode words after learning how to decode sounds and letter groups.

This year, Providence is piloting direct instruction in seven elementary schools, most of which have failed to make adequate yearly progress for four or five years under the No Child Left Behind law.

Last year, an independent consultant hired by Supt. Donnie Evans to evaluate the districtâs reading program concluded that schools werenât providing systematic instruction. In fact, the consultants said that many teachers lacked the expertise needed to address their studentsâ limited reading skills.

The study also found that 41 percent of students in grades 4 through 10 scored below basic levels on the Stanford 10 reading test, and it reported that those numbers only got worse as students grew older.

Faced with that data, plus pressure from the state Department of Education to improve student performance in the districtâs lowest-performing schools, Evans decided to try a phonics or skill-based approach to reading â direct instruction

The majority of Providence elementary schools are still using balanced literacy, a program introduced by then-Supt. Diana Lam that emphasizes reading comprehension or deciphering the meaning of words. Although this model also uses phonics instruction, it holds to a theory that students learn best by reading real literature rather than the basal readers used in most phonics programs.

Paula Shannon, the districtâs acting elementary supervisor, said that direct instruction was chosen because it has the longest history of research supporting the programâs effectiveness.

A 1977 study, Project Follow-Through, compared the achievement of high-poverty students receiving direct instruction with students in other experimental programs. Direct instruction students outperformed students in every other program on every academic measure. Follow-up studies also showed that students taught this way in the early grades experienced lasting benefits, according to a report by the American Federation of Teachers.

Direct instruction, Shannon said, has also been proven to accelerate learning, which is especially important to urban districts like Providence, where significant numbers of students are reading one and two grades below their age level.

Finally, this program is tightly scripted, which means that a second-grade reader at Carl Lauro Elementary School is learning the same thing as a child at Kizirian. This is particularly important in a city like Providence, where children move from one school to another.

âIt leaves nothing to chance,â Shannon said. âThe teachersâ job is to practice their delivery. Itâs like being an actor.â

But the programâs inflexibility is just what critics deplore.

âTeachers are jumping through hoops,â said Roger Eldridge, interim dean of the Feinstein School of Education at Rhode Island College. âWhat teachers really need is more professional development, not all of these off-the-shelf books.â

Critics like Eldridge say that direct instruction dumbs-down reading instruction, playing to students with the weakest reading skills. By focusing so much on skill-and-drill, they also say that it takes the fun out of reading and deprives students of reading real literature.

Finally, opponents say that this approach also strips teachers of their freedom to innovate, turning them into little more than lesson-delivery systems.

Debbie Ruggieri, the principal at Kizirian Elementary School, couldnât disagree more. Providence teachers canât assume that children will enter kindergarten and first grade with the knowledge of basic sounds, something that their more affluent peers have probably mastered. In suburban districts, itâs not unusual for first graders to know how to read; most know their alphabet.

Children who fail to master the basic components of reading will continue to fall behind, Ruggieri said, adding that poor readers often wind up acting out and ultimately, dropping out of school.

âWe can always get creative later on,â she said. âFirst, we want them to be successful. What good is being creative if half the class canât read?â

The beauty of direct instruction, supporters say, is that students are grouped based by reading ability, not age, so struggling readers donât get frustrated because they canât keep up, and skilled readers arenât bored because theyâre grouped with children of similar competency.

Students are not only tested before they begin the program, but they are continuously tested during the semester to measure their progress. In fact, every 5 to 10 minutes, the teacher performs mini-tests that monitor how individual students are doing.

âI love it,â said Pat King, a second-grade teacher at Kizirian. âIâve already seen such progress. The kids really know what they are doing. Thereâs no guesswork on our part.â

âIt spells everything out,â Heywood said, pointing to a three-inch-thick binder. âBefore, Iâd be up in the book room, looking for lesson plans. With this, itâs all right here.â

Although Evans hopes to expand the practice of direct instruction next year, the district is still looking for core reading program for the majority of elementary school students who are reading at grade level. Reading Street is being tried out at Kennedy Elementary School while Imagine It is being piloted at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

âIn the next three years, we want one of these to be our core reading program,â Shannon said, adding that direct instruction will be used primarily for struggling readers.

— Linda Borg, with comment by Stephen Krashen
Providence Journal


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