Is it time we went back to ‘traditional’ teaching?

In his recent speech, Gavin Williamson said that “traditional” teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes”.

There will always be ‘new’ ways to educate our children. There are those that prefer the more formal style of teaching and those that prefer a freer style. Debate about which method or pedagogy is most beneficial for our young people will be constant and has been since the beginning of formal education.

The Education Secretary’s quote is pertinent as many schools have already taken on some of these ideas with the adoption of new schemes and resources that are taught in a similar way. Approaches such as Read Write Inc, Destination Reader, and Success for All.

The Americans call this teaching ‘direct instruction’ and it has been popular across the pond for many years. According to the National Institute for Direct Teaching in their 2015 research paper direct instruction (see further down for more) is one of the effective teaching strategies. The report acknowledges that the method is often misunderstood, but states that students who are taught using the method perform better in reading, maths and spelling than those who are not.

In direct instruction the teacher stands at the front of the class and presents the lesson content. They give the students explicit, guided instructions. The method is based on two key principles:

  • All students can learn if taught correctly, regardless of ability, history and background.
  • All teachers can be successful if they are supported with effective materials and resources.

The method works best for when facts need to be remembered such as when to use a question mark or learning the planets in the solar system. There will always be topics that may be better taught in practical or more experimental ways such as finding the best growth conditions for a plant or whether a material is waterproof or not.     

Direct instruction lessons

The lessons tend to follow a step-by-step process and the schemes mentioned above have most or all the 6 steps within their lesson structure.

  1. Introduction: In this section, the student’s attention is gained and their prior knowledge is activated. In this part, the teacher may build upon a previous lesson or discover if the students have any knowledge on the new subject being introduced. This is often the time when objectives are given to the students so they know exactly what they will be learning and what is expected of them.
  2. New material: The teacher will begin imparting the new material (this may be practical or more of a lecture-style) to the students making sure to give them clear and guided instructions. The lesson is built step-by-step so that each new piece of information builds on the previous. Generally, this part needs an introduction explaining the main points of the lesson and the lesson theme with the use of examples to illustrate each point. This part of the lesson uses lots of reinforcement and repetition to help the students remember their learning. Finally, it includes a summary of the learning.
  3. Guided Practice: Here the teacher and students work together to practice the concept. This allows the students to have a go at the new skill but with the support of the teacher and their peers. The teacher leads the practice, guides the students, corrects any mistakes or misunderstandings, and reteaches if necessary. This part also helps to give the students the confidence to work independently.
  4. Partner Practice: The first step to independent work- often the teacher will ask students to complete one or two examples with their learning partners before asking them to complete the independent activity. This gives the students extra practice and confidence and allows the teacher to check their understanding more closely.
  5. Independent Practice: The students work on their own using all the information and feedback from the teacher. The activities help the new information ‘sink in’ and for new skills to become more automatic.
  6. Evaluation/Review: Used to check the student’s confidence and ability using the new skill- this could include marking activities together, discussing some of the more tricky activities, or posing a problem or puzzle.

Read Write Inc: Developed by Ruth Miskin this programme has grown over the years to include:

  1. Phonics: Whole teaching program to teach phonics to children in Reception to Year 2 the materials include phonics cards with pictures and rhymes. A large collection of phonetically decodable texts including ditty sheets, ditty books, story and non-fiction books. Alongside these are the Get Writing materials with writing activities linked to each storybook from Green to Grey. The children are taught in reading ability groups. The program covers phonics, comprehension skills, writing, grammar, vocabulary, and handwriting. It also provides lots of opportunities for partner work, role-play, and drama.
  2. Comprehension: Primarily for year 2 this is a 14-week program that helps transition the children from the Phonics to the Literacy and Language Programme. It is taught in a similar fashion to phonics so is familiar to the children and develops their reading and comprehension skills.
  3. Fresh start: This is for children in years 5-8 (9-13 year olds), and is a catch-up and intervention program. It is taught by a phonics-based approach and provides support with reading and comprehension skills.
  4. Literacy and Language: For children in Years 2-6 it concentrates on reading comprehension, writing skills, and spoken language. Each year group has an anthology of texts and through the shared reading of these and the related activities children are taught reading and comprehension skills as well as grammar in context
  5. Spelling: Year 2-6- designed as a 15-minute quick session all linked to the National Curriculum spelling appendix. Each year group has a workbook, except year 2 which has 2, full of different activities to help children learn the spelling patterns presented. There is also an online planet with helpful spelling aliens to explain spelling rules.
  6. Phonics for Nursery: Primarily for nurseries and pre-schools this introduces phonics to young children through the use of poems, songs, and nursery rhymes. The children also get their first sight of the phoneme cards and rhymes.

Destination Reader: Developed by Hackney Learning Trust

This is an approach, not a scheme. It is designed to be able to fit into any school day. It is an approach that emphasises the use of daily reading sessions, whole-class modeling, partner reading, and independent work. Although this is not a scheme like the other two programs it encourages a similar style of a guided, partner, and modeled learning and teaching.

Success for All: Developed in five inner-city schools in Baltimore, USA (1987-88). The scheme involves the children being split into reading ability groups for their lessons. The scheme includes:

  1. Curiosity Corner: This is the program for nursery-aged children. It comprises 36 weekly themes that cover the whole day. All themes are planned and most resources are given including ideas for continuous provision. The program teaches the children maths concepts, phonemic awareness alongside a wide variety of explicitly taught concepts. Throughout the children have lots of opportunities for exploratory learning.
  2. Kinder Corner: The Reception program comprising 16 fortnightly themes that again cover the whole day. The program covers all the EYFS curriculum areas and provides planning and resources. The program also introduces the children to co-operative learning styles helping them learn from and with their peers. It also provides a wide variety of learning opportunities for continuous provision, known as Learning Labs.
  3. Roots: A program for grades 1-3 (Years 1 and 2). It is a systematic reading program that is supported by 45 phonic storybooks. The program emphasises storytelling and retelling. It is taught in a 90-minute session which includes a phonic session, a shared reading session, and a guided reading session followed by a writing activity.
  4. Wings: This is very similar to the Roots program but this teaches KS2 children writing, reading, spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills.
  5. Quest: This program is for KS2/3. It can be used as a 60-minute challenge session for children in year5/6 or as a catch-up session for children in year 6/7. Within the program there are 6 ability levels,

The beginnings of direct instruction

It was in 1976 when the term ‘direct instruction’ was first introduced into the vocabulary of educators by Barak Rosenshine. In 1982 and then again in 1986 (with Robert Stevens), Rosenshine introduced six ‘instructional functions’.

These were determined from prior research of successful teacher training and student achievement programs. The six functions were:

  1. Review, checking previous day’s work (and reteaching if necessary).
  2. Presenting new content/skills.
  3. Initial student practice (and check­ing for understanding).
  4. Feedback and correctives (and re-teaching if necessary).
  5. Student independent practice.
  6. Weekly and monthly reviews.

In 2012 Rosenshine wrote a 9-page paper which explains his thinking in more detail.

The principles of instruction identified by Rosenshine were taken from three areas of research:

All three of the areas supported his principles which meant they were more inclined to be accepted. Like all great science, his ideas have been modified as new understandings have become apparent.

In his 2110 paper ‘Principles of Instruction’ Rosenshine expands on his original list of 6 ideas and increases the list to 17, these additions all came from the three research areas mentioned above. Two years later he reduced this list from 17 to 10 principles in the revised edition of the paper ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-based Strategies that Teachers should Know’

  1. Begin the lesson with a review of previous learning. 5-8 minute review of previous learning- this could be by questioning, challenging misconceptions and peer or self-marking work. This will strengthen the student’s understanding and the connections between ideas.
  2. Present new material in small steps. This is important because too much information at once leads to overload. All new information should be introduced in manageable chunks. Smaller chunks give the students time to think about how they are thinking about the task.
  3. Ask a large number of questions (and to all students). It is important that the children know that any of them could be asked, and this can be the case with methods such as choral answers (where children all answer at once) or popcorning (where the children answer in turn, one after the other). Questioning helps to keep a lesson flowing, challenges children’s thinking and helps to strengthen and deepen their understanding and memory.
  4. Provide models and worked examples. Using images, models and/or diagrams helps students to process new information more quickly and it also leads to them being able to retain the information more successfully.
  5. Practise using the new material. The more the students practice the more progress they will make. Practice can be physical, mental, vocal or written; in groups pairs or individually.
  6. Check for understanding frequently and correct errors. The use of direct questions helps to check a class’ understanding and allows the teacher to correct misconceptions and know if anything needs reteaching.
  7. Obtain a high success rate. The constant questioning earlier should lead to all the children being ready to move on together. It should also lead to far fewer misunderstandings being taken into future lessons and learning.
  8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks. Scaffolds are still encouraged and important because it is one way to build students confidence in their ability. These scaffolds can then be removed as their competency grows. Scaffolds can include: cue cards, writing frames, checklists, word banks, working in a group or with a partner etc
  9. Independent practice. Following the scaffolding tasks, the students should be more competent and therefore will be ready to have a go at the task on their own. This repetition throughout the lesson allows for overlearning and leads to deeper fluency.
  10. Monthly and weekly reviews. Reviews will aid the recall of information and processes learned.

Today one of the go-to experts on Rosenshine’s Principles is Tom Sherrington of the blog teacherhead.com. He has written many articles on Rosenshine and more recently he has written a book ‘Rosenshines Principles in Action’.

Sherrington points out that Rosenshines principles are not a checklist but more of a tool kit from which the teacher chooses the appropriate tool(s) for the job. He also proposes Rosenshine’s 10 principles can be grouped into 4 areas that combine the connecting principles:

  1. Sequencing, Concepts and Modelling: this includes providing new materials using small steps, the provision of models and scaffolds. (Principles 2, 4 and 8)
  2. Questioning: including asking questions and checking the understanding of the students. (Principles 3 and 6)
  3. Reviewing material: including reviewing material, weekly and monthly reviews. (Principles 1 and 10)
  4. Stages of Practice: including guided student practice, obtaining a high success rate and independent practice. (Principles 5, 7 and 9)

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