Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

[W]e should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness.

“Analysis of Cliches and Abstractions,” Lou LaBrant (1949)

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

Henry David Thoreau

Let us start with two writers from the monuments of “great authors”—Chaucer and Shakespeare (like Prince and Madonna, from the land of one-name people). Both Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote with double negatives and double comparatives/superlatives. In their eras, these constructions were emphatic, not breaking some rule of grammar.

Now for context: On the Teaching and Learning Forum of the NCTE Connected Community a battle has been waged (one rivaling Beowulf versus Grendel) over the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

That’s right, while a presidential election is brewing, we teachers of English are hotly debating pronoun/antecedent agreement.

So it is here, as a 30+-year English teacher and teacher of future and current English teachers, I would like to make a stand for descriptive grammar as a compromise for the unrelenting grammar war.

How, I can feel you asking, can taking a side be a compromise? Let me try to explain.

My journey to how I teach grammar, mechanics, and usage has been profoundly informed by the history of the English language and linguists—both of which strongly support a descriptive view of language that recognizes and embraces change.

As well, I am a writer, one who uses the language in the service of my craft, and thus, one who does not work within rules, but through an awareness of conventional usage.

Two key points are worth examining more fully—conventions and awareness.

Language does not function under rules (fixed and prescriptive) but under conventions that are both situational and temporal. Again, read Chaucer or Shakespeare with a keen eye on their usages that became “incorrect,” or peruse Nathaniel Hawthorn’s writing for Olympic gold medal amounts of commas, many of which in our contemporary time would not be used with absolutely no loss of meaning.

Language conventionality, in fact, is a much healthier view of language usage than rules since those conventions are organic, growing out of actual language usage that gravitates toward effective (and even efficient) communication of ideas.

“Why are these homies dissin my girl? Why do they gotta front?” from Weezer reflects the tendency of language to clip—”dissin” for “disrespecting” and “front” for “putting on a front.” Again, Rivers Cuomo and Weezer are representing the exact manipulations of language found in Shakespeare, who is nearly the pinnacle of “authors we worship.”

Next, the key to my argument that a descriptive view of language is a compromise in the grammar war is teaching convention awareness instead of rules acquisition (see Johns for a parallel examination of genre awareness versus genre acquisition).

Taught with a descriptive approach to language (for example, noting that many if not most people use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun), convention awareness addresses both that conventions exist, and often with status marking consequences (see Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context), and that some conventions are in flux (I was taught a rigid distinction between “shall” and “will,” one now defunct with dearly departed “shall,” and contemporary students remain confronted with a similar rigid view of “who” and “whom,” whilst poor “whom” is barely breathing and Hospice surely is on the ready).

In other words, the descriptive view of language acknowledges the prescriptive view, and ultimately renders the student an agent in their use of the language (see what I did there?). However, the prescriptive rules-based approach to language necessarily ignores or marginalizes the much more historically and linguistically sound descriptive view.

I teach my students that pronoun/antecedent agreement remains a status marking usage convention for many in the academic world—highlighting that while common usage of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is increasing, many in academia or formal publishing remain committed to “they” as always plural, noting, however, that many in academia also strongly conform to gender-neutral and gender-sensitive usages of language.

Ultimately, I want my students to recognize that conventions (and especially viewing language through rules) is about power—who decides what for whom (a few short breaths and chest compressions).

For our students to be aware, then, of both descriptive and prescriptive views of language, for those students to gain a recognition that language use is about purpose and choice, bound by situation and audience, is for them to become agents in how their own credibility and authority is viewed.

As a final plea from someone who teaches first-year writing to college students, I want to note that students who have been taught a rules-based view of language are often disillusioned as soon as they see how often professional writers are not conforming to those rules. Like fragments. Those students tend to struggle with gaining their own voices and their own autonomy over language.

In other words, a rules-based view of language tends to erode a student’s appreciation of the beauty and power of language—while teaching convention awareness fosters in students both the moves for and enjoyment in investigating language usage.

Encouraging students to enthusiastically wrestle with language is a goal of our English classes worth fighting for (wink-wink, nod-nod).

So this is my modest proposal, one dedicated to a full and complex appreciation of language usage.

It is also a plea for a much healthier approach to language that understands “they” most certainly will be a gender-neutral singular pronoun soon, just as “whom” is about to join “shall” in the great archaic constructions in the sky.

All that is sure to remain is the language itself, and it is ours to treat it and our students with the kindness and dignity they deserve.

See Also

From Ken Lindblom on the Teaching and Learning Forum:

For more, please see our book, Grammar Rants (includes the introduction for free) or our freely-available English Journal article, “Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction.” 

Another great resource is Edgar Schuster’s Breaking the Rules.

 Students: Do Experts Follow the Rules You’re Taught?, Judith Landrum

Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’

Singular “they” and the many reasons why it’s correct

Here Is Why We Need Transgender Pronouns

The Washington Post will allow singular ‘they’

The Singular “They” — When Pronouns Get Personal

It’s time for gender-free pronouns, Katharine Whitehorn