John McWhorter recommends Direct Instruction

When something works well, why not use it?

In an opinion column on 3 September 2021 for the New York Times, John H. McWhorter clearly recommends Direct Instruction for teaching reading to young children. After a quick discussion of irregularity in the correspondence between spellings and pronunciations in English and a few words about alternative approaches to early literacy instruction, Professor McWhhorter arrives at an account of the efficacy of DI

Scientific investigators of how children learn to read have proved repeatedly that phonics works better for more children. Project Follow Through, a huge investigation in the late 1960s led by education scholar Siegfried Englemann, taught 75,000 children via the phonics-based Direct Instruction method from kindergarten through third grade at 10 sites nationwide. The results were polio-vaccine-level dramatic. At all 10 sites, 4-year-olds were reading like 8-year-olds, for example.

To be sure, Professor McWhorter has a couple of mistakes in the details (e.g., Engelmann led one of the groups that was tested in Follow Through, not all of Follow Through), but he got the big picture right. DI has a strong track record of success; in the US federal government's analysis of Follow Through, it proved to promote early literacy for huge numbers of children from impoverished environments. He argues the case that quality instruction is especially relevant for Black children.

Professor McWhorter is a reputable scholar of linguistics and the author of many books. It would be quite interesting to watch the inevitable push back that appears in the comments on his column, but the comment option is not available for it.

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