Insights from Direct Instruction: part 4

This is the fourth post looking at how ideas from Engelmann’s DI can be applied to the everyday classroom. The first three can be found here: one; two; threeDI book cover

Elements of well-designed programs for teaching to mastery (p.35)

1) They teach everything students will need for later applications

In DI programmes, the meticulous track system of planning means many activities happen each lesson, the intention being that these strands of knowledge weave together to help students succeed at a more complex skill like extended writing. Engelmann says ‘conceive of the program as being like a stairway that transports students to increasingly complex performance.’ p.13. For example, Expressive Writing lessons have activities that focus on comma splicing, run-on sentences, punctuating speech, writing complex sentences and avoiding pronoun ambiguity. The ‘later application’ in this scheme is writing a mini-story and each of the aforementioned areas of knowledge are crucial if students are to succeed. The idea is that if students master the parts, they will master the whole.

Writing sophisticated analytical responses to texts is complex: paragraphs and essays are made up of multiple strands of knowledge, all playing a vital role and each conspicuous in their absence. As a literate adult, it is easy to forget that these ‘applications’ are made up of so many individual yet interconnected parts. Our expertise not only blinds us to the fact that these parts exist, but also to the fact that we most likely achieved our expertise through extended, deliberate and purposive practice. While I used to think that endless extended writing practice was the best way for students to improve their analytical writing, I now think the opposite and favour a deliberate practice model, a framework that Daisy Christodoulou explains in her book Making Good Progress. Rosenshine makes a similar point, advising teachers to ‘present new material in small steps with student practice after each step, only present small amounts of new material at any time, and then assist students as they practice this material.’ His point about ‘student practice after each step’ is so important. We often underestimate just how much practice a student needs before even the tiniest concept is mastered. If a complex skill is made up of multiple tiny parts, then if one or many have not been mastered, the cumulative effect is a magnification of these separate deficiencies, resulting in catastrophic misunderstanding for the student and frustration for both student and teacher.

If you have ever been involved with sports training, you will recognise the notion that drills, repetitive practice of isolated techniques and mini-game scenarios also revolve around this idea of mastering parts before whole. Not only do they allow teachers to give more precise and effective feedback-we have all ‘marked’ extended writing that has so many errors that feedback seems futile-but they motivate students as, instead of writing loads of rubbish essays that contribute to feelings of inadequacy and fuel the notion that successful writing is somehow mystical and out of reach, they experience regular success in manageable practice activities. If these activities are sequenced well, they will build slowly towards the complex skill of extended analytical writing. Two overriding principles apply to the sequencing of these practice activities: firstly, they should move along a continuum from inflexible to flexible knowledge; secondly teacher support should be gradually faded out.

I will show you a worked example from a year 10 Jekyll and Hyde unit, answering the question ‘How is Utterson presented at the start of the novella?’

Before you see the example, here is a list of some of the constituent parts that require explicit teaching and practice before a student can attempt something similar. Each one of these should have been taught, retrieved and practiced in focussed activities until students are competent and able to use them successfully in ‘applications’.

1) Vocabulary words: reputation, decorum, obsessed, exemplifies, secrecy, frivolity, impeccable, propriety, social conformity, disdaining, conveys, paranoia, repressing, repression, social inhibitions.

All of these words are initially presented via vocabulary tables and will be practiced using because, but, so or other focussed drills. Although some of these words will have been taught in previous units, having been chosen due to their high-utility nature, others will have been taught for the first time in this unit. Not only do I want student to use these words in the lesson that sees them writing an answer to the question above, I also want them to remember and apply these words across units and years: for this to happen, regular retrieval practice is important.

2) Context information: Fear of Blackmail and scandal, Repressive Victorian Social Mores, Upper Class

We generally deliver context information through non-fiction articles that complement the main text that we are studying, following Lemov’s advice in Reading Reconsidered. We then use retrieval practice to ensure that this information is retained as well as challenging students to apply the information through very specific success criteria.

3) Quotations: ‘was never lighted by a smile’, ‘austere’, ‘cold’, ‘embarrassed in discourse’ ,‘drank gin…to mortify a taste for vintages’, ‘when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye’, ‘never found its way into his talk’

Crucially, I ask students to explore, manipulate and apply the quotations that I want them to memorise and use in the exam. Although we look at extracts and other quotations, the core exam list forms the main focus when writing paragraphs or analysing. Memorising and mastering 40 quotations from the novella is infinitely preferable to being exposed to hundreds, the latter approach being condemned by Engelmann as he says ‘the expectations for student performance are low because the teachers understand that students will not actually master the material. They will simply be exposed.’

While the first three categories of knowledge that I covered are about the content of the analysis-some of which is text specific-the next three are about the form and structure of analytical writing. This knowledge has even higher utility as students can use, adapt and apply these concepts across units, texts, years and key stages.

4) Grammatical constructions: noun appositive phrases, past participle phrases, present participle phrases

Once students have mastered the concept of a sentence (subject+verb), and can parse sentences fairly well, naming nouns, verbs and other word classes, we teach and practice these more advanced constructions, building on KS2 and attempting to follow Engelmann’s comment that ‘For mastery teaching to be possible, programs must be thoroughly coordinated from level to level’. p.34 One of his criticisms of traditional programs is that different levels of traditional programs present the same topics and the same examples.’ p.34. We don’t want to merely repeat the grammar that they are taught in KS2; we want to take them a step further.

5) Embedded evidence

This is a threshold concept, without which students are effectively locked out of sophisticated analytical writing, and so should be explicitly taught and practised from the beginning of year 7. One of the unintended limitations of PEE and other formulaic analytical frameworks is that students do not have to learn how to manipulate or embed quotations, instead following the predictable and clunky framework: My evidence for this is ‘……….’ In our curriculum, students see models of embedded quotations from the beginning of year 7 and examples of embedded quotations are threaded throughout vocabulary tables and worked examples. Although many student intuit this skill-perhaps as a result of the high frequency of examples, many do not and require explicit teaching until they can master it. Teaching Expressive Writing has made me more methodical in the actual teaching of this skill-it is hard for weaker students!

7) 4 out of the 6 Analytical Skills: 3 part explanation, multiple interpretations, tentative language, evidence in explanation

Although I will explain this analytical framework in a future post, each of these constituent concepts should be practiced in isolation, again building up to applying them in paragraphs and essays.

Here is the model that exemplifies these constituent parts:

The archetypal Victorian gentleman, Utterson cares deeply about his reputation and attempts to act with the upmost decorum at all times. His face ‘was never lighted by a smile’, a description that exemplifies his serious nature and desire to be respected by his peers. Obsessed with secrecy and the opinions of others, Utterson is ‘austere’ and ‘cold.’, avoiding all forms of frivolity in order to project an image of impeccable propriety. Like other upper class gentlemen, he was expected to display social conformity at all times because Victorian social mores were incredibly restrictive. He was ‘embarrassed in discourse’, disdaining gossip, conversation and small talk. Perhaps he does this in order to remain secretive and private; it is as if his reputation is the most important aspect of his life and he doesn’t want people to judge him. The Upper Class, concerned as they were with their reputations, greatly feared blackmail and scandal and Utterson’s behaviour conveys this fear and lack of trust. He ‘drank gin…to mortify a taste for vintages’, repressing his desire for pleasure. However, this repression and mask of seriousness occasionally slips as ‘when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye’, meaning that he sometimes loses his social inhibitions. Interestingly though, this lack of inhibitions ‘never found its way into his talk’, suggesting he is guarded, paranoid and incredibly secretive.

A typical English lesson will involve multiple activities that attempt to practise many of the constituent parts listed above.

Here is an example plan:

1) Cumulative retrieval practice of vocabulary, quotations to be memorised (KS4) and context information.

a) Some questions will be closed, rote style factual recall, perhaps with clues:

What adjective means flawless or perfect:  imp_cc_ble   ANSWER: impeccable

b) Some will be more open, the assumption being less clues are needed for successful recall:

What noun means good behaviour?  ANSWER: propriety

c) Some will involve students making links, hopefully developing schemas and connections in their minds:

Name three terms that refer to standards of behaviour ANSWER: decorum, social conformity, propriety

d) Some will involve even wider links:

Complete the quotation: ‘embarassed in……………….’ Write down another two quotations that describe Utterson’s secrecy. What context information is relevant here? Write down three adjectives to describe Utterson’s behaviour

ANSWER: Quotations:’embarrassed in discourse’ ‘cold’ ‘never found his way into his talk’ Context: Fear of Blackmail and scandal, Repressive Victorian Social Mores. Adjectives: secretive, paranoid, obsessed.

This final answer is essentially the bare bones of an analytical paragraph and asking these freer retrieval questions help students to build mental plans of what to write. You could then ask them to use it to write a paragraph at speed.

2) Sentence Practice, using because but so or practising phrases and other relevant structures that you want students to use in their applications. These sentences will frequently require embedded evidence as success criteria, providing practice of this vital skill.

3) Line annotation, applying vocabulary that has been taught and using rapid sequences of questions in order to maximise student participation and recall.

4) Worked example annotation. The model answer contains all of the constituent elements mentioned above, exemplifying their usage within ‘applications’.

5) Focussed paragraph writing, allowing students to apply the constituent concepts.

Next post: Insights from Direct Instruction part 5



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