At Joplin Elementary in Auburn-Gresham, teacher Carol Newton’s 1st-graders hold 1-page charts covered with rows of letters for the morning’s first phonics lesson.

“Touch the first sound,” says Newton, her own chart in hand. Then she gives the signal for the children to answer, saying “Get ready.” In unison, the class hums, making the sound of the first letter, ‘m.’ “Next sound,” Newton continues. “Get ready.”

Quickly, the class works its way flawlessly through the page of letters and letter combinations like “er” and “sh.”

That done, Newton calls out, “Group 2,” and half the class scrambles to take seats in two rows of chairs arranged in a half-circle at the back of the room. This group will have another phonics lesson, while the rest of the class settles down at their desks to write in their journals.

Newton takes her seat in front of the half-circle and begins by asking several simple questions aimed at reinforcing basic number awareness. “What lesson did we do last time?” she asks. “Thirty-two,” the children answer. “Which one will we do today?” “Thirty-three.” “What’s the first digit in thirty-three?” “Three.” “What’s the second?” “Three.”

Newton sets a timer. “Remember, you get 20 bonus points if you beat the timer and say all the sounds right the first time. Let’s count to 20 by fives.” The children respond quickly.

Next, Newton props open a large, spiral-bound book with pages of letters, letter combinations and simple words that are large enough for the children to read from their seats. “Get ready to say the sounds when I touch them,” she says. With the familiar “get ready,” she points in turn to “g,” “d,” “t” and other letters. The children first respond in unison and then individually, in turns.

Flipping to the next page, Newton continues the lesson, this time with simple words. “Mad,” “not,” “nut,” the children call out.

Shaking her head in mock dismay, Newton says, “I don’t know … I’m gonna have to give you 20 bonus points because you read them all right the first time.”

“Yes!” one youngster whispers emphatically, pumping his small fist into the air.

Similar scenes are taking place in other Joplin classrooms. In Sherri Elligan’s 3rd-grade class, half the students are participating in a phonics lesson with more complex words; the other half work on their own, either writing in journals or working on math problems.

And in Kerry Trudelle’s 5th-grade class, children are engaged in “round-robin” reading of a story about a fishing trip. Working from a script, Trudelle interrupts to ask questions that are designed to build reading comprehension; for instance, “How did they build the fire to cook the fish?”

Intensive phonics, scripts and highly structured lessons are all central to Direct Instruction, a form of teaching Joplin adopted a year ago. DI relies heavily on drills and worksheets to reinforce learning, and teachers are taught to follow verbatim the scripts that come with the curriculum. Lessons are scripted to make communication with students as clear as possible.

Teachers also learn to immediately correct mistakes, such as a mispronounced word, and to praise children frequently. Those techniques are key, says Joplin Principal James Murray. Without correction, “children commit a mistake to memory and keep doing it,” he says. “And teachers must give constant praise [and] continuous positive reinforcement.”

Newton and other teachers appear to be buying in to the idea. “It’s made me a much better teacher,” says Newton. “I was skeptical at first. I thought, ‘You’re telling me every word to say.’ But I think of learning as a chain composed of a lot of pieces, and DI has given me pieces in the chain I didn’t have before.”

Murray brought DI to Joplin after visiting Wesley Elementary in Houston. A low-income, inner-city school, Wesley was featured in a segment of the ABC-TV newsmagazine “20/20” because of the academic success it had attained by using DI. Says Murray, “The children came from the same type of background as my kids. Basically, I said to myself, ‘This is something I want to do. I want to see my kids do as well as they are.'”

For initial training, he and several teachers went to the University of Oregon. Other teachers have received training through Malcolm X College and outside consultants. Those few who are not yet using DI will undergo training and practice the techniques in an extended-day DI math program this year. Eventually, all teachers will use DI for math as well as reading instruction.

Arranging the world

“If I need to teach you to read, there are certain things I have to do as a teacher to arrange the world in certain ways so that you’ll be able to read,” says Joe Layng, a DI proponent and director of academic support services at Malcolm X College. Layng’s office runs a DI program that aims to get ill-prepared public school graduates ready for college-level work.

With DI, “arranging the world” means breaking a subject down into sequential parts and then teaching each of those parts explicitly. In reading, that means teaching children to decode words, find main ideas and details, make inferences based on those ideas and details, and so on.

Whole language advocates, in contrast, take an exploratory approach that immerses children in reading, writing and speaking activities. Letter sounds are taught in the context of these activities rather than as separate lessons. And teachers act as coaches who help children discover for themselves an understanding of how literacy works.

“The problem with [that] approach is they figure if they expose the children to a certain world, somehow they’ll learn to comprehend,” says Layng. “DI teaches them to comprehend.”

Opponents criticize DI’s rote approach, “but that’s how they teach,” Layng counters. “You have to memorize every word. They don’t teach them a strategy of sounds and blends and rules that can be applied and allow you to read thousands of words.”

Murray sees other advantages. Teachers may call on any child at any time during the lesson—so children must stay “on task.” “No one wants to be the one who messes up,” he says. Classroom behavior has improved because children are more attentive, and lower-achieving children are making significant progress.

But Joplin isn’t relying solely on DI. Daily journal writing and book reports provide what Murray terms a “complementary” approach; as a result, the vast majority of children either meet or exceed the state writing goals.

Journals must include personal entries as well as essays on assigned topics, and Murray himself looks at each child’s journal every week. One 3rd-grader’s journal shows distinct signs of progress: entries have become progressively longer, the spelling has improved and the youngster has begun to use separate paragraphs to introduce new ideas.

As for book reports, intermediate and upper-grade students must read and report on three books each month; primary students must report on two.

Still, DI provides the basic structure. “There is a script, and you do have to follow it,” Murray says. “But once you’re through with a lesson, you go on to other things, and children have learned the skills to comprehend what you’re doing.”

For more information, call Joplin Principal James Murray at (312) 535-3425 or Joe Layng at Malcolm X College, (312) 850-7139.

Alex Poinsett contributed to this article.

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