Feb 2019

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Article also available at http://tinyurl.com/y65hhgpb

Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann, the co-developer of the educational model known as Direct Instruction (DI), died at his home on February 15, 2019 aged 87 years, after some months of illness. Zig’s career in education was both extended and productive. He received 9 funded research grants, and wrote 18 books, 27 book chapters and monographs, and 47 articles. In conjunction with colleagues, he was primarily responsible for an array of educational programs, including 20 in reading, eight in spelling, 18 in mathematics, 10 in language, and three in writing. Probably the most well-known of these are Reading Mastery, Spelling Mastery, and Corrective Reading. In recognition of his contribution to education, he was awarded a Professorship in Education at the University of Oregon. Engelmann was also the director of the non-profit National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI).

What is Zig’s contribution to education?

Zig had an unusual pathway into education. He was working in advertising, and interested in how an advertising message might be structured so that it was more likely to be remembered by children. Following this slightly chilling start, he became fascinated with the broader implications of this work, and moved into the education field.

Without denying the influence of genetics, he asked what are the limits on instruction to alter the learning trajectory of students - whether young, struggling students, second language learners, gifted, or average students? So, a major step was a shift in emphasis from the quality of the learner to the quality of instruction as a modifiable element in the learning process. For more than 50 years Engelmann productively addressed the conundrum of why some students learn following typical classroom instruction and some don’t. In avoiding the learner-at-fault explanation for the latter event, he began analyses of stimuli, communication, and behaviour as the important addressable variables. He developed a logical technique for designing curriculum with an emphasis on avoiding ambiguities that might distract students. He also considered the gulf between a given curriculum and the resultant student outcomes. His approach focusses upon what processes are necessary when a teacher, working from a curriculum, attempts to ensure students master the concepts/knowledge/tasks/routines that the curriculum contains. Thus instructional quality becomes a necessary component of interventions. That the philosophy and principles of instruction have been able to be translated into so many instructional programs is further testimony to their validity. The wide range of curriculum domains addressed by DI programs includes reading, writing, language, spelling, maths, and spoken English.

For those interested in detail about his programs, there are many journal and web articles. See the NIFDI pages (https://www.nifdi.org/) and Zig’s own site (http://www.zigsite.com) for a start. See also the reference list at the end.

What is the background to his message?

Empathy for students who suffer the indignity of sustained educational failure clearly drove Engelmann’s endeavours. This is reflected in his shifting of the focus from student responsibility to an instructional focus. This empathy was not simply a saddening recognition (a hollow bemoaning) of a supposedly inevitable reality but a determination to do something productive about it. His capacity to show how this can be achieved has changed the life trajectory of many of these students.

Following his death, there will be much written about the substance of his work. I decided to largely let Zig’s words carry his message about Direct Instruction and its development.

“If we are humanists, we begin with the obvious fact that the children we work with are perfectly capable of learning anything that we have to teach. We further recognize that we should be able to engineer the learning so that it is reinforcing—perhaps not “fun,” but challenging and engaging. We then proceed to do it— not to continue talking about it. We try to control these variables that are potentially within our control so that they facilitate learning. We train the teacher, design the program, work out a reasonable daily schedule, and leave NOTHING TO CHANCE. We monitor and we respond quickly to problems. We respond quickly and effectively because we consider the problems moral and we conceive of ourselves as providing a uniquely important function-particularly for those children who would most certainly fail without our concerted help. We function as advocates for the children, with the understanding that if we fail, the children will be seriously pre-empted from doing things with their lives, such as having important career options and achieving some potential values for society. We should respond to inadequate teaching as we would to problems of physical abuse. Just as our sense of humanity would not permit us to allow child abuse in the physical sense, we should not tolerate it in the cognitive setting. We should be intolerant because we know what can be achieved if children are taught appropriately. We know that the intellectual crippling of children is caused overwhelmingly by faulty instruction-not by faulty children.

Because of these convictions, we have little tolerance for traditional educational establishments. We feel that they must be changed so they achieve the goals of actually helping all children. This call for humanity can be expressed on two levels. On that of society: Let’s stop wasting incredible human potential through unenlightened practices and theories. On the level of children: Let’s recognize the incredible potential for being intelligent and creative possessed by even the least impressive children, and with unyielding passion. Let’s pursue the goal of assuring that this potential becomes reality.” (p.725)

Engelmann, Z., & Carnine, D. (2016). Theory of instruction: Principles and applications (Revised edition). Eugene, OR: NIFDI Press. Available here

What is the message?

“The philosophy behind the program is basically simple. We say in effect; “Kid, it doesn’t matter how miserably your environment has failed to teach you the basic concepts that the average five-year-old has long since mastered. We’re not going to fail you. We’re not going to discriminate against you, or give up on you, regardless of how unready you may be according to traditional standards. We are not going to label you with a handle, such as dyslexic or brain-damaged, and feel that we have now exonerated ourselves from the responsibility of teaching you. We’re not going to punish you by requiring you to do things you can’t do. We’re not going to talk about your difficulties to learn. Rather, we will take you where you are, and we’ll teach you. And the extent to which we fail is our failure, not yours. We will not cop out by saying, “He can’t learn.” Rather, we will say, “I failed to teach him. So I better take a good look at what I did and try to figure out a better way.” (Zig Engelmann, unpublished)

DI and Explicit Instruction

It is of interest that many of the long standing elements of DI are now recognisable in those expressions evidence-based practice and systematic explicit instruction that have increasing currency in the world of education. Engelmann employed the term explicit in his writings, as a component of DI because it was represented in the means of instruction, but as his programs also incorporated the curriculum, the term explicit was not an overarching description of DI. Another term direct instruction (lower case) has also been used to refer to a broad set of educational programs that incorporate elements of systematic or explicit instruction. An explicit approach can be content free, and could be applied to any efforts to teach that employ explicit means of instruction. So, just because a program is described as explicit or direct instruction doesn’t necessarily mean it is effective. The quality of the content is as important as the explicit delivery method, and is a prerequisite for success.

Explicit instruction and direct instruction overlap greatly, and some might argue that they are basically the same thing. So when and why did much of the field move from “direct” to “explicit?” (p.143-4)

Hughes, C.A., Morris, J.R. Therrien, W.J., & Benson, S.K. (2017). Explicit instruction: Historical and contemporary contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32(3), 140–148.

DI is best known for its reading programs, and from early on (i.e., 1969) it incorporated phonology in its approach to beginning reading:

“The difference between the Direct Instruction orientation to phonological skills and that of other early programs that presented children with phonological manipulations is the precise articulation of how the various skills served as necessary preskills for a beginning reading program in which children were to sound out and blend words. For Direct Instruction the needs were very precise and were based on analyses of the various reading tasks presented to the beginning reader. … The single purpose of these [phonological] tasks for DISTAR was to prepare children for specific decoding tasks they would soon encounter. The basic argument that Engelmann used for the necessity of phonological manipulations was that they were components of corresponding decoding manipulations. Component tasks are analytically “easier” to learn than tasks that incorporate the component (because these tasks involve the components plus additional components that must be coordinated). Therefore the components should be mastered before the more complex operations are introduced. The components involve less learning and less coordination. A similar argument would hold that the child should learn the “sounds” for the various letters that appear in the word to be decoded before being required to decode the word. Decoding each individual sound is a component of decoding the entire word. Therefore, the sounds for the various letters should be pretaught. … Another way of viewing the instructional-design question is to consider the possible causes of failure. When a child attempts to decode a word like ran (by sounding it out and then identifying it) the child could fail if the child did not know the sound for any component letter; similarly, if the child could not blend the various sounds, the child could fail. If the child has been pretaught various components (verbal blending, the sounds for the various letters, the orientation of ordering the sounds from left to right) the likelihood of failure is greatly reduced. Also, the ease of correcting the child who makes a mistake is greatly increased.” (p.43)

Engelmann, S. (1999, Winter). Phonemic awareness in Reading Mastery. Effective School Practices, 17(3), 43-49. Retrieved from https://www.nifdi.org/research/esp-archive/volume-17/377-effective-school-practices-vol-17-no-3-winter-1999/file.html

It’s not enough to simply write a curriculum. The orchestration of the detail of instruction is critical, and is a separate variable to the curriculum content.

Zig may downplay DI’s complexity; however, anyone reading of Theory of instruction: Principles and applications will quickly be dissuaded from the belief that instructional design is a simple matter, and that instructional issues are easily handled by most teachers.

“There is no big thing. It’s all pick, pick, picky details. Direct Instruction is just attention to a lot of tiny details” (Engelmann, 1977)

Hempenstall, K. (2014). Review of T. W. Wood (Ed.), Engelmann's Direct Instruction: Selected writings from the past half century. Eugene, OR: NIFDI Press.


“The field has to recognize that because highly effective educational programs are inventions, there is no intellectually honest way to describe their structure or why they are highly successful without presenting a myriad of criteria. These would not paint in brush strokes the size of a bulldog, but in picky details of how the tasks are formulated, how the example sets are designed, how the details of lessons are organized and sequenced from lesson to the next so that only about 10-15% of each lesson presents brand new material, how exercises are designed so they are unambiguous about details of the content, and therefore, how the analysis of the content permits the progressive and systematic transmission of the content to the average and low-performing students. If you think about it, you see that the program has to be an orchestration of detail. If it weren't the moment-to-moment performance of the students would not be smooth and successful but lumpy, with no control of tiny details that could make it smooth.”

Engelmann, S. (2004). Prologue to the Dalmatian and its spots: Why research-based recommendations fail Logic 101. Retrieved from http://www.zigsite.com/DalmatianPro.htm

Is their evidence that these details have a beneficial effect on instruction?

“Engelmann did not formulate these principles from books or from abstract speculation about the way children learn. He formulated them through a painstaking process of trial and error in the classroom, then applied them to create a series of unique programs that outperform others in their power to teach many different subjects, to all kinds of children. His ideas have shown great predictive power: of the 55 studies conducted to test the validity of different assertions in Theory of Instruction, 54 confirmed the hypothesis tested.” (p.11)

Barbash, S. (2012). Clear teaching. Education Consumers Foundation. Retrieved from http://education-consumers.org/pdf/CT_111811.pdf

Beyond attention to details is field trialling of all programs.

How many program designers field test every one of their programs, and modify elements based on student responses in classrooms to their tasks and routines? And this is done prior to publication.

“If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught—that’s not a slogan, it’s an operating principle,” he says. “You cannot fall in love with your own judgment. Every program we’ve ever done was significantly revised after field testing. The kids teach us how to do it. We let their mistakes show us where we stepped off the wrong side of the boat (Engelmann)” (Barbash, 2012, p.32)

Barbash, S. (2012). Clear teaching. Education Consumers Foundation. Retrieved from http://education-consumers.org/pdf/CT_111811.pdf

Zig’s rationale for field trials?

“After we lay out a series of activities for teaching the subject, we have a choice. We can either say, “We’re done. The program is completed, and it will work,” or we can try out our rough-draft product in the classroom. We’ll choose the latter alternative because we have some concern for the kids, and we’re not arrogant enough to assume that the sequence we created in the sterile confines of our office will automatically translate into lively, effective instruction in the classroom.” (Zig Engelmann, unpublished)

Project Follow Through

As part of President Johnson's War on Poverty, this huge study pitted various educational models against each other to discover which would have the strongest impact on the educational performance of disadvantaged children. Over 700,000 children in 170 disadvantaged communities across the United States participated in this 1 billion-dollar study. Data on a variety of standardized achievement measures were collected by Stanford Research Institute and analyzed by Abt Associates. Broadly, the models were those emphasising the development of self-esteem, others aimed to stimulate higher order cognitive processes, and the third category comprised basic skills instruction. Engelmann's Direct Instruction was first in reading, math, spelling, language, and self-esteem - raising participating children's average scores in the basic skill areas to near the national average. However, there was little change in educational circles regarding the unpopularity of DI, much to Zig’s chagrin:

“It was pretty devastating. From the beginning of Project Follow Through, there was the promise that the models of instruction that performed best would be disseminated by the feds. We won every category, but the feds changed the rules and even denied that there were any winners. That was after we worked with our schools for ten years. … We lost at every turn. We have not been able to influence decision-makers to treat instruction of kids and training of teachers as technical enterprises that feed on data.”

Deitrick Price, B. (2018). Interview with Siegfried Engelmann: One of America’s great educators. EducationViews.org. Retrieved from http://www.educationviews.org/interview-with-siegfried-engelmann-one-of-americas-great-educators/

Evidence of program effectiveness?

“Our results support earlier reviews of the DI effectiveness literature. The estimated effects were consistently positive. Most estimates would be considered medium to large using the criteria generally used in the psychological literature and substantially larger than the criterion of .25 typically used in education research (Tallmadge, 1977). Using the criteria recently suggested by Lipsey et al. (2012), 6 of the 10 baseline estimates and 8 of the 10 adjusted estimates in the reduced models would be considered huge. All but one of the remaining six estimates would be considered large. Only 1 of the 20 estimates, although positive, might be seen as educationally insignificant. … The strong positive results were similar across the 50 years of data; in articles, dissertations, and gray literature; across different types of research designs, assessments, outcome measures, and methods of calculating effects; across different types of samples and locales, student poverty status, race-ethnicity, at-risk status, and grade; across subjects and programs; after the intervention ceased; with researchers or teachers delivering the intervention; with experimental or usual comparison programs; and when other analytic methods, a broader sample, or other control variables were used.” (p. 500)

“Many current curriculum recommendations, such as those included within the Common Core, promote student-led and inquiry-based approaches with substantial ambiguity in instructional practices. The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations (see also Engelmann, 2014a; Morgan, Farkas, & Maczuga, 2015; Zhang, 2016). It is clear that students make sense of and interpret the information that they are given—but their learning is enhanced only when the information presented is explicit, logically organized, and clearly sequenced. To do anything less shirks the responsibility of effective instruction.” (p.502)

Stockard, J., Wood, T.W., Coughlin, C., & Khoury, C.R. (2018). The effectiveness of Direct Instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half century of research. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 479–507. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322332768_The_Effectiveness_of_Direct_Instruction_Curricula_A_Meta-Analysis_of_a_Half_Century_of_Research


“One of the common criticisms is that Direct Instruction works with very low-level or specific skills, and with lower ability and the youngest students. These are not the findings from the meta-analyses. The effects of Direct Instruction are similar for regular (d=0.99), and special education and lower ability students (d=0.86), higher for reading (d=0.89) than for mathematics (d=0.50), similar for the more low-level word attack (d=0.64) and also for high-level comprehension (d=0.54), and similar for elementary and high school students .The messages of these meta-analyses on Direct Instruction underline the power of stating the learning intentions and success criteria, and then engaging students in moving towards these. The teacher needs to invite the students to learn, provide much deliberative practice and modeling, and provide appropriate feedback and multiple opportunities to learn. Students need opportunities for independent practice, and then there need to be opportunities to learn the skill or knowledge implicit in the learning intention in contexts other than those directly taught” (pp. 206-7).

Hattie, J. A.C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London and New York: Routledge.

Popularity? Nada!

“So why isn’t DI more popular? Critics—most of them outside the classroom— have a litany of complaints, all duly noted and refuted in this report. Their overriding reservation, however, is that DI contradicts much of what educators are taught to believe about “good” teaching. DI is old-school. It uses teaching practices that were scorned by Progressive Era reformers but widely used until education was swept up in the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies. These include teacher-led exercises, skill grouping, choral responding, and repetition. DI also provides a carefully designed and tested script, not just a content outline or lesson plan from which the teacher endeavors to create an effective lesson.”

Barbash, S. (2012). Clear teaching. Education Consumers Foundation. Retrieved from http://education-consumers.org/pdf/CT_111811.pdf

“Direct Instruction has been the subject of empirical research since its inception in the 1960s and has garnered a strong research base to support it. Despite its proven efficacy, Direct Instruction is not widely implemented and draws much criticism from some educators. This literature review details the components of Direct Instruction, research to support it and reported attitudes towards it. The aspects of Direct Instruction that attract the most criticism are broken down to determine just what it is that educators do not like about it. In addition, this review attempts to outline possible ways to improve the landscape for Direct Instruction by reviewing research on how best to achieve a shift in beliefs when adopting change in schools. This includes pre-service teacher education and professional development and support for practising teachers as a means of improving rates of implementation of Direct Instruction.” (p.137)

McMullen, F., & Madelaine, A. (2014) Why is there so much resistance to Direct Instruction? Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), 137-151.

See also: Why does Direct Instruction evoke such rancour? In reference list.

Zig’s commitment to student success saw him impatient with education systems that did not match his determination to teach every child. Thus, his writings could be acerbic.

Colleges of education: The product of nearly all colleges of education is a hopelessly ill-trained person with very few technical skills. Although the basic requirement of teachers in most districts is to "appropriately adapt instruction to the individual needs of the children," the graduates know little about corrections, firming, cumulative reviews, and procedures for teaching new discriminations and operations. Colleges are typically based on the "lecture model," with instructors who know very little about the technical side of instruction.

Anyone who has worked much in colleges knows that there is very little hope of achieving a "cooperative" effort from the faculty—the kind of effort necessary to introduce a good training program—because faculty members do pretty much what they want to do. They are not supervised, coordinated, or ordered to teach a certain way. The college, in other words, is the quintessence of laissez faire, operating on the assumption that if the faculty is permitted to be diverse and do their own thing, a reasonable product will emerge. Empirical data suggests that no such evolution has occurred, and the colleges remain as tributes to incompetence.”

Local school districts: The greatest shortcoming of the districts is their failure to recognize that they must be responsible for the training and monitoring of teachers. Nearly every school district suggests that any new teacher must be able to "adjust instruction so that it is appropriate for individual students." Yet, this ability is never tested, and the district has virtually no capacity to induce it in the teachers who can't do it (which would include the vast majority of teachers). We have analyzed the skill level of teachers in typical school districts, and the results are appalling. The teachers typically know very little about the instructional programs that they use, have a very vague understanding of students' skill level or ability to perform on the topics that are "taught," and teach in a way that is not well designed to transmit information to the average student. Despite their skill deficiencies, however, the teachers are not monitored or trained.”

"Educational publishers: Nearly all instructional material published by major publishers is not written by people who are experienced and effective teachers, is not actually "field tested," and is not designed in a way that will make instruction manageable. … Publishers of methods textbooks promulgate the party line of an armchair approach to instruction, rather than a scientific one. The teacher is presented as an omniscient assimilator of information and mediator of appropriate solutions; however, the texts avoid discussing the gritty detail that a teacher must deal with in teaching any topic. In summary, the publishers provide no relief from the incompetence created by the law, the colleges of education, and the local school districts. Instead, the publishers provide a compatible interface that tends to cement these components together.”

Engelmann, S. (1982). Advocacy for children. Retrieved from http://www.zigsite.com/AdvocacyChildren.html


“We should respond to inadequate teaching as we would to problems of physical abuse. Just as our sense of humanity would not permit us to allow child-abuse in the physical sense, we should not tolerate it in the cognitive setting. We should be intolerant because we know what can be achieved if children are taught appropriately. We know that the intellectual crippling of children is caused overwhelmingly by faulty instruction—not by faulty children.”

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (1991). Theory of Instruction: Principles and applications. Eugene, OR: ADI Press.


“The educational system fails because it has a disregard for data. This disregard is nearly universal, even among those who cite data. The field's nonscientific stance pre-empts it from shaping educational practices by using the techniques that characterize scientific or systematic endeavors. The solution is implied by the problem: Install people who respect and understand data. In other words, put the kids first and use data on their performance as the ultimate yardstick of what actually works.”

Engelmann, S. (2004). Chapter one, data be damned. Retrieved from http://www.zigsite.com/AtRisk.htm

When he wasn’t excoriating education systems, Zig found satisfaction in painting in watercolours, a number of which can be viewed at http://www.zigsite.com/pic_o_month1.htm.

It is perhaps too early to make firm judgements about Zig’s legacy. One hopes that the general acceptance in education that eluded him during his lifetime will eventually be bestowed as the movement towards evidence-based practice gathers momentum.

On a personal note:

I was first introduced to DI in 1980, when the Australian Psychological Society invited Zig’s colleague, Wes Becker, to its national conference in Melbourne. At the time I was a young educational psychologist consulting in primary and secondary schools with the Victorian education department, and becoming aware of how little practical knowledge I had to offer schools with their day-to-day student learning and behaviour issues. I had obtained very few useful resources, either from my teacher training or my post-graduate studies.

Wes’s vibrant presentation on DI was a revelation to me, and he also spoke of its strong results in the huge national US experiment on effective teaching models known as Project Follow Through. The notion of selecting methods of instruction based upon demonstrable student outcomes resonated strongly, and offered a pathway to a workable and productive style of educational practice.

I subsequently employed DI in local schools successfully, and was drawn to further study. I resigned from the Victorian education department in 1992 for RMIT University as a lecturer, and completed a PhD with a study using the Corrective Reading program with mid-primary school students who were low progress readers. I subsequently taught DI to masters and doctoral students engaged in training parents to deliver DI programs.

Meeting Zig in 2004 at the DI Conference in Oregon was a personal highlight in my career, despite my being over-whelmed and unable to express all I wished to say. I have some continued involvement with NIFDI in that I was invited to write a blog for them. However, I have no financial involvement with NIFDI.

A few of the many references available:

Parsons, J.A., & Polson, D. (2017). Siegfried Engelmann and Direct Instruction. Psychology Learning Resources, Athabasca University. Retrieved from https://psych.athabascau.ca/open/engelmann/index.php

Hempenstall, K. (2013). Why does Direct Instruction evoke such rancour? Retrieved from https://www.nifdi.org/resources/hempenstall-blog/389-why-does-direct-instruction-evoke-such-rancour.html

Hempenstall, K. (2018). Reviews supporting Direct Instruction program effectiveness. Retrieved from https://www.nifdi.org/resources/hempenstall-blog/403-reviews-supporting-direct-instruction-program-effectiveness.html

Stockard, J. (Ed.). (2014). The Science and Success of Engelmann's Direct Instruction. NIFDI Press. Retrieved from: https://www.nifdi.org/hikashop-menu-for-categories-listing/product/29-the-science-and-success-of-engelmann-s-direct-instruction

Stockard, J. (Ed.). (2014). The science and success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. NIFDI Press. Retrieved from

Stockard, J. (Ed.). (2014). The science and success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. NIFDI Press. Retrieved from Stockard, J. (Ed.). (2014). The science and success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. NIFDI Press. Retrieved from Stockard, J. (Ed.). (2014). The science and success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. NIFDI Press. Retrieved from

Stockard, J. (2015). A brief summary of research on Direct Instruction. Retrieved from https://www.nifdi.org/research/recent-research/whitepapers/1352-a-brief-summary-of-research-on-direct-instruction-january-2015/file

Engelmann, S. (1993). The curriculum as the cause of failure. Oregon Conference Monograph Journal, 5, 3-8. University of Oregon. Retrieved from http://www.zigsite.com/PDFs/CurriculumCauseFailure.pdf

Education Consumers.Org (2015). Supplement: A summary of the results of Project Follow Through. Retrieved from http://education-consumers.org/pdf/PFT_page.pdf

Engelmann, S., Becker, W. C., Carnine, D., & Gersten, R. (1988). The Direct Instruction Follow Through model: Design and outcomes. Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), 303-317.

Gersten, R.M., Keating, T., & Becker, W. (1988). The continued impact of the Direct Instruction Model: Longitudinal studies of Follow Through students. Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), 318-327.

Cathy Watkin's Book: https://www.amazon.com/Project-Follow-Through-Contingencies-Instructional/dp/1881317048

Project Follow Through Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Follow_Through_(project)

Bonnie Grossen on Project Follow Through: https://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adiep/ft/grossen.htm

Project Follow Through on NIFDI site: https://www.nifdi.org/what-is-di/project-follow-through

Follow Through

This major study was federally funded in the USA in the late 1960's, arising because of a concern about the poor educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. Entitled Follow Through (Engelmann, Becker, Carnine, & Gersten, 1988), it was aimed at the primary school stage, and was designed to determine which methods of teaching would be most effective for disadvantaged students throughout their primary school career. It followed an early-intervention project called Head Start that had as its goal the overcoming of educational disadvantage prior to school entry (i.e., at the pre-school level). The results of Head Start interventions unfortunately were not durable, and it failed to achieve its ambitious objectives.

The impact of the unfulfilled promise of Head Start was felt by Follow Through. Though initially intended as a massive intervention, it was reduced in scope to that of a study to assess how best to maintain and build on Head Start's fragile gains. It remained, however, a huge study - involving 75,000 children in 180 communities over the first three years of their school life. It has been the largest educational experiment ever undertaken, extending from 1967 to 1995, at a cost of almost a billion dollars. There were comparisons across 20 competing sponsors covering a broad range of educational philosophies. They included child-directed learning, individualised instruction, language experience, learning styles, self-esteem development, cognitive emphasis, parent-based teaching, Direct Instruction, and behavioural teaching. Each of the 20 sponsors was required to: provide a well-defined, theoretically consistent and coherent approach that could be adapted to local conditions; provide continuous technical assistance, training, and guidance, and consistently monitor the progress of program implementation, retain a consistent focus on the objectives and requirements of the approach rather than responding in an ad hoc manner to the daily pressures of project operations; insure implementation of a total program, rather than a small fragment, such as reading, and provide a foundation for comprehending and describing results of evaluation efforts (Egbert, 1973).

The models can be reduced to three distinct themes - those emphasising basic academic outcomes, cognitive development, or affective development. The targeted basic skills included reading, language, spelling, writing, and maths. The models that emphasised the systematic teaching of basic skills (Direct Instruction, and Behaviour Analysis) performed by far the best across the skill areas; however, most of the other models failed to produce results better than those of the control groups, comprising students receiving traditional education. 


Image from Education Consumers.Org


In reading, the Direct Instruction model, which also has a strong phonic emphasis, had the most impressive results in both academic and affective areas. Later follow up studies of the DI students showed "strong consistent long term benefits in reading" three, six, and nine years after the DI students completed Follow Through (Gersten, Keating, & Becker, 1988, p. 326). The effects were evident in higher achievement, fewer grade retentions, and more university acceptances than in comparison groups that had traditional education in the same communities.


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