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Direct Instruction Not Best Way to Teach Reading

Susan Notes: Teachers can--and should--use this to speak out against the prescriptive restraints and damaging methodology of scripted reading.

MILWAUKEE – A three-year study of methods of teaching reading shows that highly scripted, teacher-directed methods of teaching reading were not as effective as traditional methods that allowed a more flexible approach. The study, headed by Randall Ryder, professor of curriculum and instruction in the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s School of Education, also found that teachers felt the most highly scripted method, known as Direct Instruction (DI), should be used in limited situations, not as the primary method of teaching students to read. Urban teachers in particular expressed great concern over the DI’s lack of sensitivity to issues of poverty, culture and race.

Ryder, who is now secretary of the university as well as an education professor, conducted the research to evaluate the effectiveness of four different methods of teaching reading, including Direct Instruction (DI). DI, which breaks reading skills down into specific components and teaches them in a tightly controlled, structured and scripted sequence, has become popular with some school administrators and legislators who see it as a better way to teach reading and mathematics, particularly to disadvantaged students and special education students.

The Wisconsin General Assembly had requested the study, which was funded through the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The goal of the research was to provide school district administrators and teachers with information to help guide them in making decisions about reading instruction programs.

“There have been ebbs and flows in teaching reading since the early 1900s,” says Ryder. “You can find evidence for any approach, but one of the most potent factors is always the teacher.”

Ryder’s research included first-, second- and third-grade students in urban and suburban schools in southeast Wisconsin. One part of the study followed three successive groups of students in first grade. The other part followed a group of students from first through third grades.

Ryder’s study looked at a range of approaches, from the very scripted DI approach to more traditional, holistic approaches that balanced systematic instruction with more open-ended classroom experiences. The study looked at four methods in a range from most to least scripted.

Ryder’s study, completed in the summer of 2003, showed that:

Students who received direct instruction in the first three grades scored significantly lower on overall reading achievement than students receiving the more traditional forms of instruction. They also scored significantly lower on measures of comprehension.
First graders in the urban school district who received Direct Instruction scored significantly lower on decoding and comprehension than students receiving more traditional forms of reading instruction. These results were consistent across three consecutive school years.
Overall, students who received more traditional forms of reading instruction scored significantly greater gains than students receiving Direct Instruction.
Ryder’s research also included interviews and observations that summarized teachers’ views of the different methods. Results of those interviews and observations showed that:

The majority of teachers felt DI should be limited to certain situations, and not used as the primary method of teaching reading.
Both DI and non-DI teachers who used gentle encouragement, mild control and encouraged student independence had classes that performed better in reading than teachers who didn’t use such practices.
Teachers who used Direct Instruction saw it as a classroom management tool to help control student behavior, and were likely to use DI practices in other aspects of their teaching.
Urban teachers believed that DI texts disregarded their students’ lack of exposure to certain life experiences that were more common among middle-class, suburban students.

Says Ryder: “Many of the teachers felt the DI readings didn’t allow students to celebrate diversity...they felt the scripted approach didn’t work in all contexts.”

Suburban teachers saw DI as worthwhile for students who needed corrective and supplementary reading programs. Although some teachers in the study liked some elements of DI, most teachers preferred to augment and supplement their reading instruction with a variety of approaches, Ryder said.

Ryder’s research bears out other findings, summarized in the 1997 Reading Panel Report, he says. “Most approaches work for some children...no single approach works for all children. Which method is the best method for teaching reading varies for any student at any given time.”

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— University of Wisconsin Madison Press Release
Study: Direct Instruction Not Best Way to Teach Reading



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