As an experienced primary English specialist I was curious to know if a formal intervention programme would benefit some of the less able students in Years 5 and 6. Having read some useful blogs and links relating to Direct Instruction, (please see the links below) I was interested to trial the Expressive Writing materials. This led to our action research project, framed by the question, “Could a Direct Instruction intervention programme help our less able students reach the expected standards of writing by the end of Year 6?”
The intervention would provide extra lessons during the week to a small group of students in Years 5 and 6 who were slightly behind their peers in relation to writing. The sessions focused on grammar instruction and aimed to enable these students to hit the ground running when they reached Senior School.
The expressive writing programme, written by Siegfried Engelmann and Jerry Silbert, is broken down into two units: Expressive Writing 1 and Expressive Writing 2. Expressive Writing 1 is designed for students who have not mastered foundational writing skills and Expressive Writing 2 is aimed at students who have a grasp of sentence structure but have problems with clarity, speech marks, punctuation and sentence variety. The programme materials provide assessments that help the teacher correctly place students in the intervention programme.
Expressive Writing 1 and Expressive Writing 2 consist of around 50 structured lessons each and cover a wide range of writing-related knowledge and skills, from developing knowledge of words with -ed” endings, through to practising multi-paragraph passages and retelling with imagination.
The trial involved six students each from Years 5 and 6 using the Expressive Writing 2 materials. My colleague ran a trial with a similar number of students from Years 3 and 4 using the Expressive Writing 1 materials.
The unusual and sometimes slightly discomforting aspect of the programme is its prescriptiveness: it requires the teacher to read faithfully from a provided script. The programme instructions are very firm on the need to follow the scripts closely and explain that the materials have been field tested and adapted specifically to ensure the success of the students.
This element of the programme was the most challenging because I was teaching a lesson that was not my own and although I was reading from a script, it was important to avoid sounding like it. The children still needed to be motivated, and my colleagues and I found that a level of skill was required to deliver the repetitive drills in a manner that still enthused the students. The rapport between the teacher and the students was still key.
The sessions initially felt repetitive in a way that seemed unnatural and awkwardly comedic:
First sentence: An old cowboy went to town.
What words name him? (Signal – at which everyone responds). An old cowboy.
What words tell more? (Signal). Went to town.
Next sentence: That cowboy rode his horse to town.
What words name him? (Signal). That cowboy.
What words tell more? (Signal). Rode his horse to town.
Next sentence: He went to town to buy food.
What words name him? (Signal). He.
What words tell more? (Signal). Went to town to buy food.
To ensure that the sessions did not become too mechanical I developed certain strategies to help build a positive experience for the students. For instance, as they arrived in the classroom I would take the time to greet them at the door and spend the first five minutes of each intervention session catching up with the individual children and finding out what they had been doing over the previous week. I also let them know they were taking part in an important project; I explained the ideas behind the programme and regularly asked them for feedback. At the end of each session we would often spend a few minutes reflecting on how they had found the lesson and talking about both the difficult aspects and their progress. I also frequently communicated with their parents and ensured they were kept informed throughout the programme.
After getting over the initial discomfort of teaching in this way, the structure of the lessons soon became familiar to the students and to me. Each lesson typically consists of some practice drills related to grammar, the introduction of a new element of writing and a structured writing session in which the children are expected to write some short paragraphs in relation to a provided prompt.
On breaking down the structure of the lessons and the overall programme it becomes easier to see why it is effective:
- The programme is extremely well put together and the skills, editing and paragraph writing elements gradually build on each other in a logical and incremental way.
- The objectives for each session and series of sessions are clear and can be shared with the students.
- The students practise grammar through regular drills before attempting to incorporate their new understanding into short paragraphs.
- The criteria for success in each drill and in each piece of writing are made explicit to the students.
- Some of the activities act as mini, low-stakes tests of the students’ understanding based on previous learning.
- The students receive constant feedback and are expected to self-assess their work in relation to the shared criteria, which the teacher checks and confirms after the session.
- The programme promotes a mastery approach in that assessments are conducted every 15 lessons and teachers are encouraged to repeat activities and drills as necessary, depending on the responses from the children.
- The students are encouraged to read their writing samples aloud and receive feedback from their peers in the group.
- The programme bumps into Graham Nuthall’s and Robert Bjork’s separate research: every new element of writing and grammar explicitly taught is repeated at interleaved intervals on more than three occasions.
We identified two factors to consider in any decision to use these materials. The first is the cost. The teacher packs for Expressive Writing 1 and Expressive Writing 2, which include all the scripts and the instructions for the programme, cost about 150 pounds each. This is a one-off expense and measured against the quality of the materials is quite economical. The more significant cost is the children’s workbooks, which run about 12 pounds each, even when buying in bulk. For large groups this expense could be restrictive.
The second consideration is that the scripts were written for American schools. Teachers in British schools will have to take differences in vocabulary into account and adapt accordingly.
I would highly recommend this intervention programme. Not only did the children react positively to the programme (despite my initial discomfort in reading from a script), but the attainment evidence suggests that although the intervention only started in January and was delivered only twice a week, the majority of students made up the difference between themselves and their peers and, in a few cases, even exceeded the attainment expectations for Years 5 and 6 by the end of the year. It is worth noting that many of the children have approached me informally and asked if they could take part in the programme again this year.
Due to the success of the programme, some of my colleagues even discussed the idea of using the materials in whole class sessions as part of regular English teaching. Having given this a lot of thought, my opinion is that this would not be advisable. The scripts that the programme uses have been put through a rigorous process of field testing by direct instruction experts and are extremely effective. It is unlikely that a teacher working in a school, with all the time constraints that the job involves, would be able to put together such a comprehensive and cohesive programme that really covered all the aspects of writing in such expert detail. However, my instinct is that the highly structured nature of the programme would be too restrictive and repetitive for those children who are already competent writers within a whole class setting.
I would suggest, however, that the individual elements that make the programme successful, as outlined in the bullet points above, should be incorporated into the looser structure of standard English lessons to reduce the need for such a programme in the first place.
Further Reading Related to Direct Instruction:
Joe Kirby, 2013, What can we learn from Direct Instruction and Siegfried Englemann?
A biography of Siegfried Engelmann (2012)
David Didau, 2016, Scripts: whose lesson is it anyway?
Anthony Radice, 2015, Engelmann’s Direct Instruction: I’m a Convert
A collection of articles and research related to direct instruction taken from the Thinking Reading website:
Michaela Community School Debate, 2015, Daisy Christodoulou vs Guy Claxton: Sir Ken is right: traditional education kills creativity
Expressive Writing 1 and 2 materials, available from McGraw Hill Education: