Direct Instruction at Davenport School in Genoa, IL
Direct Instruction at Davenport School in Genoa, IL
by David Ziffer
It is a gray but pleasant November day as I pull up and briefly enjoy the colors in the many trees surrounding Davenport Elementary School in Genoa, Illinois. There is nothing ostentatious about this school, a small one story brick building with a flat roof. Looking at it from the front I have to wonder how many students it could possibly hold. I enter the school and am immediately flooded with memories of my own childhood. With its 1960s-style pale yellow cinder block walls and resilient tile floors, it could have been built in time for me to attend it during my own elementary school career.
Not being a professional educator I feel odd being in the presence of people who barely came up to my waist, so it is reassuring when I meet the adult I had come to see. George Ziders is one of the instructors who uses Direct Instruction to teach the low-performing students at Davenport how to read. I had already spoken with George and the school's principal (Gary Gathman) by phone, and I had gotten the impression that they were very anxious to discuss their methods with me, as if they had stumbled onto something incredible but couldn't get anyone else, including others in their profession, to believe it.
George works in a large room with several tables where teachers work one-on-one with children who suffer from the most severe reading disorders. The boy at George's table is reading some text from a code-based reader that is obviously a part of the SRA Reading Mastery program. I can tell because of the distinctive "Distar"-style type face. The boy seems to be doing quite well, although this could not always have been the case because George sees only the most disabled of students. George points out a child working at another table with another instructor. He says that upon entry the child had been tested with an IQ of 60, and that George had been advised to attempt nothing more than to teach the child how to recognize basic safety words, like the "EXIT" on an exit sign. Not satisfied with this recommendation, George and his colleagues had somehow gotten this child to read at a third grade level with full comprehension.
But to really see Direct Instruction at work, George says, I will need to visit Alicia Ryley. Alicia handles the "Title I" children who are not seriously impaired but who nonetheless are the poorest readers in their classes. So he walks me down the hall and deposits me into Alicia's second grade remedial reading class.
Alicia sits in a small room. Surrounding her are several small tables arranged in a semicircle so that the natural focus of each child's attention is Alicia. Beside her is a music stand upon which sits a "Reading Mastery" presentation book with its large, unique type. Her second graders are obviously taking a test. Each student's work area is enclosed in a large three-panel manilla folder that looks like a modern cardboard voting booth. Obviously the intent is to keep them from copying each other's work. Alicia prompts them to keep working and finish up. The test is only one page long and so it is over quickly. She removes the folders and collects the tests.
It's time for some instruction. Alicia moves over to the presentation book and points to some words and word fragments.
"My turn," she says. She points to individual letters and makes their sounds.
Now she chooses another word or set of letters and the process repeats. The pace is furious. The only letup comes when Alicia senses that one or more children are behind the others, and are repeating others' responses rather than formulating their own. She then determines whether they are having trouble or are simply distracted. In the former case she will single out an individual or a subgroup and work with them briefly. In the latter case she will simply instruct the entire class to work together and get their timing right.
After watching this for awhile I come to realize why principals report having no discipline problems when their teachers are using this program. There is just no way to become distracted for very long. The teacher is in total control and it is simply impossible not to be "on task". I cannot recall ever having seen a classroom where every student was so totally engaged.
"My turn", says Alicia. We are apparently going to sound out the word "is".
Apparently Reading Mastery teaches the anomalies right alongside the phonetically regular words. I pause to wonder why this should work, but then I remember the documented results that this program produces and satisfy myself that there must be some merit to this approach. The pace continues and Alicia is already on the next word. It is almost exhausting. The repetition, alternation, and sheer speed of the stimuli and responses sets up an almost tangible atmosphere in the room, drawing everyone irresistibly into a whirlpool surrounding the teacher.
To break things up, Alicia arbitrarily divides the children into two groups. Then she prompts one group at a time, challenging each group to out-perform the other. Then it's the kids on the left against the kids on the right. Next it's boys against girls. The grouping games heighten the alertness and reduce the possibility of boredom.
Now it's time for another game. Alicia pulls out a sheet of paper and a pencil. She's going to beat them this time, she admonishes. She explains to the kids that when they say it right they get a point, and when they say it wrong she gets a point. Once again she is firing away and the children are responding. Most of the time the kids do quite well and they get the points. Every once in a while they miss and Alicia gets a point. After a minute it is clear that Alicia is losing and she complains that they won't give her a chance. The children are apparently in no mood to display any mercy and they hammer away for another couple of minutes until it is clear that the teacher has lost. "You won!", she admits grudgingly.
Now the children open their readers, which contain only words that the children know how to decode. The rest of this brief class will consist of having the children read aloud individually from their books. Each child begins reading where the previous one left off. The children read with significantly different levels of confidence and some make significantly more errors than others. Alicia corrects every single error. She counts the errors and times each child with a stopwatch. Apparently she records the timing and error information on every student, presumably to determine how to help the slower ones. Despite the disparities it is clear that every child can read the text fairly reasonably.
Suddenly the door opens and more children pile into the small room. Alicia finishes with the second graders and has them stand and recite a silly limerick and then they're off. The new group consists of third graders and they're busy checking in some of their "library" books. (Alicia maintains a small library of "authentic" children's books that she has classified according to skill level.) She uses the brief interlude to explain the differences in the reading skills of the children in the previous group. The children have different confidence levels because Alicia cannot do true skill grouping - the other teachers simply bring her their low-skilled readers on a class by class basis. For example, most of the readers in the previous group had entered the class with some reading ability, but one girl had come from a Spanish speaking family and could not read a single English word on her first day.
By now the third graders have piled into the chairs. This class is quite different: the kids spend most of their time reading from a blue third-level reader. Their book contains ordinary type (not the special Distar orthography) and consists mostly of stories. Here it is clearly assumed that the children have already mastered their decoding skills, and so the focus is on comprehension. Each child reads a paragraph or so as in the previous class, but this time Alicia stops and asks questions. Today's story is a non-fiction piece about American Indians and the types of canoes they built. It describes the making of both dugout and frame canoes and compares their advantages. Alicia asks the children questions about the just-read section, ensuring that each child (including the reader) has grasped the meaning of the text. Once again, despite the differences in the children's incoming ability levels, all are able to follow the material.
Although the focus has changed, there is no letup in the pace of the instruction or the engagement of the children. This is another half hour of purely focused, teacher-directed activity. The objective is clear: every child should strive to meet the high performance goals of the teacher, and each child should be pressed to excel to whatever level he or she might be capable of achieving. At the end of this class, I was beginning to wonder how Alicia does this. She sees ten groups of children throughout the day. That's five solid hours of this incredible pace and intensity. Even with training, I'm not sure I could handle it.
In no time another thirty minutes have elapsed and the next group is walking in. The third graders stand up, Alicia gives them a saying to think about (whose content escapes me at the moment) and the kids exchange places. Now it's time for the first graders and we are back to decoding. "My turn," then "Your turn, get ready." The sub-groups. The point game. By now I am familiar with the routine and can spend some time in contemplation. I thumb through the readers and listen to the children as they read. One thought pervades: this is hard work. These kids are not fooling around. Each one is being pushed to his or her limit. Even with this incredible assistance, learning to read is probably the most difficult thing these kids have ever done.
Would these kids have just "picked up" reading without such instruction? Would they, suddenly one day when they're ready, just have picked up a book and figured it all out? After seeing their slow, difficult, step-by-step climb to success I'd have to say, "no way". These kids would almost certainly have joined the hard core illiterates who now comprise twenty percent of our adult population (almost all of whom, incidentally, attended school through the fourth grade). In another school, indeed in most schools, these children would be in the hands of people with nothing more to offer than the vague hope that someday, maybe, they'd catch on.
Another thought emerges: these kids can't lose. The program is incremental; new concepts are introduced only when the kids are ready. It's thorough, so they won't miss anything. The review is intense, so they won't forget. Their reading is carefully designed for success - no child has to do anything that he hasn't already been taught to do. This class is nothing less than an expression of the teacher's determination that not one single student will slip through the cracks.
At the end of yet another half-hour I am exhausted just watching. I say something like, "It's been wonderful, but I have to leave now," before returning to the calmer company of my first contact, George. I ask him whether the other schools in his district are doing this, and he says that no, Davenport is the only one. I ask what would happen to these kids at another school and he rolls his eyes. There'd be no chance, he concludes. With the statewide elimination of programs like this over the past decade, these kids would be heading for society's scrap heap.
I pause to reflect. What would today's mainstream teachers, fresh out of teacher's college, think about this class that I had just witnessed? Well, I would guess that they'd be horrified. I can imagine the comments now. "Too mechanical", "no creativity", "it's like an assembly line". The question of whether it works or not would probably not be raised. The implicit, unquestioned assumption that the appeal of the process is the only factor worth considering would certainly rule the discussion.
Is it an assembly line? Of course it is. We have one skill (reading), one research-supported method of attacking it (phonics), and one research-supported method of delivering the instruction (direct instruction). We have hundreds of children attending every school. If we are egalitarians then we should want them all to have the same opportunity to master this skill. Why would we cheat them by applying anything less than our best approach? How could we afford to teach them individually or use anything other than a uniform, consistent format? And when it comes to basic skills, don't we want the same sort of uniform results that we get from an assembly line?
Does this program inspire creativity in the student? Not today, it doesn't. But there will be plenty of opportunities for creativity tomorrow, when the child can read effortlessly and can devote all of his attention to the content rather than to the task of figuring out what the words are. The child from this program will enjoy far more fun and creativity than most of his peers, who will never read the book or who will give up because the task is just too difficult.
The conflict between Direct Instruction and today's prevailing methods has its roots in the work ethic. In previous, more deprived generations it was inherently understood that one must work today in order to profit tomorrow. Direct Instruction largely dispenses with the fun and games and gets the job done. Of course you would not use DI all day. You'd use it during the part of the day when you want the children to learn something that doesn't come naturally, with the expectation that the rest of the day might be even more fun because the children have actually learned something. But I'm not holding my breath until the idea catches on. Among today's ed school graduates, the twenty-something parishioners of the Church of Instant Gratification, the concepts behind this curriculum are not likely to become popular any time soon.