Insights from DI Part 5: Teaching Generalisable, High-utility Content

This is the fifth post looking at how ideas from Engelmann’s DI can be applied to the everyday classroom. The first four can be found here: one, two, three, four.

While the last four posts have primarily taken ideas from Successful and Confident Students with Direct Instruction, a recent book where Engelmann explains an overview of his approach, this post will examine The Components of Direct Instruction by Cathy L. Watkins and Timothy A. Slocum, an article from The Journal Of Direct Instruction and an extract from Introduction to Direct Instruction. The paper can be found here.

1) ‘The goal of Direct Instruction is to teach generalised skills: thus the first step in developing a Direct Instruction program is analysis of the content and identification of concepts, rules, strategies, and ‘big ideas’ (i.e. those concepts that provide strategies that students can use to further develop their expertise in a subject matter)…to enable them to exhibit generalised performance to the widest possible range of examples and situations. p.76

Lesson time is finite and one of the most important decisions when designing curricula is to consider the utility and importance of what is being taught. According to DI theory, we should design curricula by ‘identifying central organizing ideas and generalizable strategies that enable student to learn more in less time’. Although a wide curriculum that exposes students to myriad ideas, concepts and knowledge may seem optimal, if students merely experience the content at the expense of any real attempt to master or retain it, is it worthwhile? If a concept takes a long time to teach, yet its utility is limited to one specific unit or section of a curriculum, is it worth teaching and could the curriculum time be used for something that is more ‘generalizable’? If students are regularly taught concepts that they will never be expected to use in later lessons or applications, is this a good use of lesson time?

While all bits of knowledge are useful, some bits of knowledge are more useful than others.

Here are some things that I would consider to be high utility ‘concepts, rules, strategies, and ‘big ideas’ in English. These ideas, skills and concepts can be applied across units, years, and key stages, as well as helping students to ‘further develop their expertise in a subject.’

Specific sentence constructions

Explicitly teaching specific sentence styles and grammatical constructions to students can help them to broaden their range of expression, moving them from functional and simplistic written communication to sophisticated, nuanced and complex writing. Teaching phrases (participles, appositives and absolutes) is one high utility strategy because they can be used with all of ‘The Big Three’ genres of writing that we focus on (analysis, rhetoric and description). If you teach the component parts of a sentence, then they can be combined, manipulated and generalised by students into an immense number of combinations. To draw an analogy, Spelling Through Morphographs-one of the DI spelling programmes-teaches 750 morphographs that can be combined into 12,000 to 15,000 different words. This is far more efficient that teaching spelling through lists of individual words. This table illustrates the efficiency of teaching morphographs to students:

morphographs table



When teaching vocabulary we use vocabulary tables and deliberately list all relevant forms of the words, allowing students to explore morphology and affixes. As a result of this, students are beginning to make generalisations.

While morphographs are the building blocks of words, phrases are some of the building blocks of sentences and can be combined in lots of different ways when writing. Here are a few examples of how these sub components can be combined:

phrases combine table

Choosing sentence styles that are high-utility is important and if students are to master them, they will need extended, distributed and varied practice, ideally spread across texts, units and years. Students begin to learn these structures in year 7, deconstructing worked examples that exemplify how they are applied within analytical paragraphs as well as practicing creating the structures themselves.

Here is a possible overview of a sequence for teaching present participle phrases, moving along a continuum from inflexible to flexible knowledge  and gradually fading out teacher support. This sequence would span many lessons and perhaps weeks of school time:

  1. Students identify the specific structures within examples of isolated sentences. Following Engelmann’s theory, students should be presented with examples that demonstrate the full scope of the concept. Crucially, they should also see examples that are minimally different and, by treating them differently, be made aware of the limits of the concept. These non-examples will often elucidate common misconceptions. Engelmann’s theory behind sequencing and ordering examples in order to induce student understanding is fascinating and I am slowly working on creating sequences to teach specific sentence styles.
  2. Students finish half-completed sentences or combine sentences. See this post for an overview of sentence combining.
  3.  Students create sentences in response to a specific task:


Write three present participle sentences about Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger soliloquy’ 

Write three present participle sentences that describe the picture.

4. You could then ask them to attempt smaller pieces of writing, perhaps just a paragraph, where they can apply the structure in a freer context, perhaps combining it with other concepts and skills.


London: How is the omnipresence of suffering presented in the poem?

  • Participial phrase
  • 3 quotations
  • ‘denounce’ ‘indignant’ ‘marginalised’


5. After students have become proficient at the specific structures in isolated, scaffolded contexts, they should then be expected to apply these component skills in wider writing. This can be achieved by regularly drawing attention to the specific structures within worked examples as well as including the structures within the success criteria for a piece of writing.

Vocabulary to be used in analysis

Instead of only teaching the vocabulary that you encounter within a text, teach the vocabulary required when responding to a text. Although it will be useful to teach some of the words within a text as they will be integral to comprehension and analysis, other words may be so recondite, anachronistic or genre specific that their utility is limited. Focussing on Tier 2 words-vocabulary that spans contexts and domains-is one way of promoting generalisations. See this post for more information.

A generalised analytical framework:

We have developed an analytical framework that can be used across texts and different tasks. Tentatively called ‘The 6 Skills’ (I am still unsure if these 6 are sufficiently distinct or whether they comprehensively encapsulate analysis!), our intention is to promote a generalizable strategy when responding to texts. Unlike vocabulary, contextual information, interpretation, authorial intention and explaining the effect of techniques (all potential examples of declarative knowledge in English), it is an attempt to formalise the procedural knowledge required when writing analytically. We are heavily indebted to the great work of many other teachers here!

PEE/PEEL and other similar frameworks were problematic and restrictive, resulting in clunky, predictable and overly formulaic paragraphs. Invariably, iterations of these abbreviations and acronyms also have fixed orders, placing evidence in the middle, one of the problematic inferences being that each train of thought contains only one quotation. Interesting analytical writing does not follow a predictable, sequential order. Finally, PEE also precludes embedded quotations, due to the unnatural scaffolding of sentence stems like ‘My evidence for this is….’.

Here is an annotated worked example that exemplifies our generalizable framework:

6 skills

As well as exemplifying the 6 skills, the screen shot also demonstrates the utility of teaching phrases and how they can be used to create dense and linguistically sophisticated analysis.

Unlike PEE/PEEL, there is no fixed, consecutive order for how these skills are deployed and applied, meaning that student responses are not as formulaic and rigid. Although students will study worked examples that contain most if not all of these skills from the beginning of year 7, they will practice the skills individually and cumulatively, slowly building students up to being able to use all 6. See this post  for an outline of how to create focussed and cumulative practice activities.

A future post will look at this framework in more detail, explaining how it can be broken into constituent parts and deliberately practiced. I am aware that there are multiple potential flaws with this framework, not least regarding the amorphous nature of some of the skills, particularly those regarding the use of evidence.

Next Post: Insights from DI part 6– Five principles for sequencing and ordering examples


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