Engelmann's Direct Instruction and Project Follow Through

Note: Glossary links are in boldface.

The biographical sketch of Siegfried Engelmann mentioned that the past three decades have been an important period in the development and field testing of Direct Instruction. Before we explore the foundational concepts of Engelmann's theory of instruction, we will explore some of the features of Direct Instruction. Then we will examine some of the evidence that Engelmann's Direct Instruction is effective by taking a closer look at Project Follow Through.

Direct Instruction: Features

When one first observes a class being taught using Direct Instruction, one cannot help being impressed with the level of involvement of the teachers and the learners. Activity is the first thing one sees and hears. The children, grouped together for the lesson on the basis of ability, are seated in a semi-circle with one or two rows, without desks, close to and facing the teacher. Typically the teacher has a blackboard, overhead projector, or other visual aids that are used to present stimuli to the learners. An astute observer will also note that the teacher periodically refers to a script that contains carefully sequenced instruction, questions and prompts. These scripts have been field tested with other learners and have been designed to maximize learning and minimize confusion. Having prepared lessons that are optimized for teaching and learning frees the teacher to focus on motivational and extra-instructional features of the learning environment.

The pace is fast - very fast. Rather than having the teacher give drawn-out explanations of new concepts, the children are busy responding to examples and non-examples presented at a high rate. In the early stages of a lesson the learners are asked to respond as a group, giving their responses in unison at the signal of the teacher. Periodically the teacher will ask individual students to respond, especially if the teacher suspects that the learner is having a problem. Overall, the learners have a rate of 10 to 14 responses per minute. As Becker (1992) put it: "Underlying the visible features is a procedural structure built around the rule, 'Teach more in less time.' Procedures are favored which reduce wasted time and hasten the teaching of given objectives" (p. 72).

In 1980 the author visited Dr. Paul Weisberg's Direct Instruction pre-school at the University of Alabama. The two of us entered the classroom during a reading lesson. The lesson continued without the slightest interruption. As we stood near the group Dr. Weisberg spoke to me in a normal voice, but the children were not distracted. I was surprised that our intrusion did not totally disrupt the reading lesson. The children remained on task and learning until the lesson was over.

Consistent with other behavioral methods, positive reinforcement for correct responses is conspicuous, and errors are corrected immediately. The high response rate of the learners makes the feedback mutual, alerting the teacher to difficulties that a learner is having immediately, and providing natural reinforcement for the teacher's activities. Compared with traditional one-way teaching, Direct Instruction provides maximal opportunities for the learning of student and teacher.

The features of Direct Instruction can be summarized as follows:

  • Learners taught in small groups whom are constituted by ability.
  • Attention focused on the teacher.
  • Scripted presentation of carefully designed instruction.
  • Active responding as a group and individually.
  • Responding is cued by the teacher.
  • Frequent feedback and correction.
  • High pace.