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City Schools Should Focus On Direct Instruction

“For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matthew 25:29).

Referred to as the Matthew Effect in education, children who start well in reading, who have stronger word knowledge when they enter school, will continue to read well. A snowballing effect occurs for these children and they accelerate through the curriculum. Those who flounder will not catch up unless they are supplied with intensive early literacy instruction. Without this, the gap between slow starters and faster starters widens as they continue through school. A downward spiral in achievement occurs, negatively affecting language, higher cognitive skills, even memory. We’ve seen years of this in the high failure rate data for Jamestown’s students.

Researchers Hart and Risley conducted a longitudinal study to discover “what was happening in children’s early experience” that could account for serious differences in rates of vocabulary growth in four-year-old children. Starting at seven-to-nine months through age 3, they recorded everything that went on in homes of families: welfare, working class, and professional.

Astoundingly, by age 3, there was a 30 million word gap in the amount of words heard by children from welfare families compared to the amount heard by children in professional families! Welfare children had smaller vocabularies; they added words more slowly; and their parents said far fewer encouraging words to them. When children of welfare families entered preschool at age 4, they could be taught new words, but the rate of vocabulary growth could not be accelerated beyond direct teaching. By kindergarten, the boost effect of attempting to accelerate the rate of vocabulary growth had washed out.

The message to parents is: (1) put down your smart phones and talk to your young children; (2) start reading to your children from books early on; (3) limit electronics! As the researchers say, “The most important aspect of children’s language experience is its amount.”

The ever-widening gap, then, already is in operation when children enter preschool. By high school, many children from poverty lack the necessary vocabulary used in advanced textbooks, the critical precursor to succeeding in college. In colleges with open admissions policy, only 34% complete a bachelor’s degree within 6 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A viable alternative to college is trade school. This avenue offers many well-paying jobs that are essential to a community.

Hasn’t the district wasted enough years on failure? It is unconscionable to keep students in weak curricula when we have curricula with strong research support, high effect sizes on achievement, and proven results. Upgrade basic skills programs if the community is to see improved performance on state tests and increased high school graduation rates. This writer has written previously about the high success of Direct Instruction (DI), one of the most powerful curricula in the public domain. Copious amounts of research support this curriculum with all types of students: high income, disadvantaged, English Language Learners (ELL), special education children.

Internationally renown researcher John Hattie wrote that “early intervention [preschool] programs are more effective if they are structured, intense, include about 15 or more children, and the children are in the program for up to 13 hours a week.” He further stated, “The more effective programs are more highly structured, and run by well trained staff.” Parents are not involved as they have not proven effective. Direct Instruction’s oral “Language for Learning” program is used in preschool and kindergarten as part of an intense literacy program.

Full-day kindergarten is mandatory. Systematic, structured curricular programs must continue through the grades to prevent washout of skills. Children enter DI’s “Reading Mastery” in kindergarten, a very structured reading program where they learn phonemic analysis–learning letter sounds and how to blend them into words, sentences, and stories.

The district hired an Hispanic community navigator bilingual individual to serve as a “bridge” between schools and Hispanic students and their families. Hispanic parents are concerned about their children’s low graduation rates. The pastors cite parental language differences and inadequate engagement by Hispanic parents as reasons for the low student graduation rates (P-J, Mar. 25, 2021). Are these factors really the cause of low Hispanic graduation rates? Doubtful.

Admittedly, parents are concerned about “requirements” and “readiness for college.” The problem lies at a much more foundational level–for both ELL and disadvantaged children. As we see, both groups enter school (preschool or kindergarten) with typical developed language skills but already behind in terms of word use and knowledge.

Older ELL children (grades 4-12) enter school not only deficit in speaking and reading English, but they also have deficits in reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and writing in their native language–all skills that must be learned in English.

I used many of DI’s programs in my tutoring center for children with learning problems. Contracting with the National Institute for Direct Instruction would put the district on solid footing. Teachers are taught how to teach the various programs for maximum success. Students’ performance on basic skills will improve as well as teachers’ skill in providing instruction. The community never will see improvement unless there is concerted effort to implement curricula that address these now deficit areas.

When placed in fast-paced “Direct Instruction: Spoken English,” an explicit, systematic instructional program, older ELL students acquire a functional mastery of spoken English. All teaching is done in English in one year or less. Next, they enter DI’s “Corrective Reading” to improve reading skills. This program is far superior to other programs for ELL students. In a study, grade 5 students demonstrated gains of 18 months growth over a 13-week period, whereas ELL students in another program demonstrated 5-month gains in a one-year period, a significant difference! The same positive gains were found for grade 7 students.

Does the community navigator position really need to be full-time, since the problem is an academic issue? It appears that the district will obtain additional funding. Every effort should be made to contract with the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) to help Jamestown’s children break the failure cycle. The community has seen enough incompetence. All necessary information about contracting with NIFDI was provided to Superintendent Whitaker last November. To see Direct Instruction’s use in the grades, view the excellent video, “Direct Instruction: A Thales Academy Short Film.

Deann Nelson is a Jamestown resident.

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