An Interview...

Siegfried Engelmann: Instructional Design 101: Learn from the Learners!

Siegfried "Zig" Engelmann is Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, the Director of the National Institute for Direct Instruction, and President of Engelmann-Becker Corporation, which develops instructional materials and provides educational services for students with various educational needs.

The creator of "Direct Instruction", Professor Engelmann is also the author or co-author of more than 100 articles and chapters of professional books, and more than a dozen professional books and monographs, including: Give Your Child a Superior Mind,  Theory of InstructionWar Against Schools: Academic Child AbuseDirect InstructionTeaching Disadvantaged Children in the PreschoolConceptual Learning, and Preventing Failure in the Primary Grades and Inferred Functions of Performance and Learning, a theoretical text on the logic of learning and performance. Additional bio information

There were originally eighteen sponsors, about 500,000 kids, 180 communities, and pulled-comparison groups. It was supposed to be the definitive educational experiment...  It was a very elaborate study.  It cost, I don't know, hundreds of millions.... [the] net result was that the results of [project] "Follow Through" were suppressed.

Kids are logical, and if we provide them information, real data that they can do stuff, they'll feel that they can do it. If we don't, they will feel like failures....

...if they made mistakes, we assumed that it was not their problem, but ours.... We knew we could teach them.  We just had to start in a different place and proceed from an earlier step on the ladder.  If we do it right when we get there, they'll be able to do it....  

I think the goal is to provide kids with choices, and do so through non-spurious means that are systematic and referenced to what they have to do later. 

Special Note: Between our phone and video interviews we have over 6 hours of recorded conversations with Professor Engelmann. We tried to merge the conversations into a single publication but in our efforts to filter out the redundancies too many of the professor's thought-jewels were getting lost.  We decided instead to release two publications: the phone interview and the video interview. The following is the phone interview. The video interview is available here.

Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.

(see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

Personal Background:

David Boulton: Let’s start with fleshing out some core assumptions and establishing some shared vocabulary and then go from there into talking about Direct Instruction and your work, specifically with reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: All right.

David Boulton: What I’d like to do is start off with you telling us a little bit of your story, your biographical background, and how you came to have the passion and dedication that you’ve had in trying to champion the things that you’re championing.

Siegfried Engelmann: I initially got interested in working with kids when I was the research director for an advertising agency.  I was given a task of figuring out what kind of exposure was needed for young kids to learn slogans from TV commercials. I assembled a group of preschool kids, and I became more interested in teaching than I did in pursuing the original goals. So I ultimately quit advertising and I tried to get into education.

I had a list of about twenty-four places I might be able to enter education through and I tried all of them. I had made a tape of some of the early stuff I had done in teaching math and reading to four-year-olds. The last place on my list was Institute for Research on Exceptional Children at the University of Illinois, which at the time was one of the most prestigious places in the United States.

I finally contacted them because I struck out on all of the others. The two guys that heard my presentation were Jim Gallagher and Carl Bereiter. They hired me as a research associate and I worked with both of them for several years. Our project was called the Bereiter/Engelmann Preschool. It was for young, primarily black kids, four and five-year-olds. We taught them academic skills, reading, language, science, and ancillary skills like spelling. Did I say math? We also taught them math. They were great in math

After Carl Bereiter left to go to Toronto, Wes Becker took over the project and he and I left Illinois. We sent out notices to sixteen universities that had expressed interest in being relevant to the disadvantaged. Our requirements were simple. We wanted to be able to train teachers, which is why we left the University of Illinois. They wouldn’t permit us to have a teacher-training section.

Well, it turned out that only two universities expressed any interest.  We had over a million dollar overhead. At that time that was big bucks so you would think that some institutions would be attracted to that payroll. But the only two were Temple and the University of Oregon. After a few weeks of communicating with Temple, the negotiations faltered. We soon received a letter from the dean who had expressed interest in the first place. He said that under the circumstances he could not invite us to come to Temple. And the circumstances were that the faculty of two departments—psychology and education—voted unanimously not to have us come there.

So we ended up at the University of Oregon, where Bob Mass, an associate dean there, had assembled some high-powered mavericks like Barbara Bateman,Gerry Patterson, and Bill Walker. We kind of fit in there. Mass was a hard-nosed data oriented guy, much like Becker. It was great and we were glad to be there, except for the travel, because most of our sites were in the Midwest or the East, so to go anywhere required substantial commitments.

Project Follow Through:

Then we became engaged in Project Follow Through. There were originally eighteen sponsors, about 500,000 kids, 180 communities, and pulled-comparison groupsIt was supposed to be the definitive educational experiment. The idea was to work with kids in K-3 who had gone through Head Start.

Our students were first place in everything, but the reports were never really presented. We were first place in reading, first place in math, first in spelling, and first in language. And our kids had the most positive self image. Yet the report that APT Associates had developed, along with Stanford Research Institutewas just a summary of those reports.

David Boulton: The purpose of the study was to be able to see the effects of Head Start on education?

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

David Boulton: Why was ‘Follow Through’ linked into Head Start in that way?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, because it was originally an Office of Economic Opportunity project. And then it was taken over by the newly formed Federal Department of Education. It was designed to serve at-risk kids, disadvantaged kids, who had gone through Head Start. But that was just one of the requirements for the demography of the kids we were working with.

David Boulton: I see.

Siegfried Engelmann: A certain percentage of the students had to come from Head Start. Because Head Start was an obvious failure and they were concerned. It had no instructional component, and it was modeled after the middle-class preschool. While the middle-class preschool is probably okay for middle-class kids, the kids that we worked with were far behind in terms of language skills and…

David Boulton: So it was more concerned with creating parental freedom than it was in actually helping the children get ready for school.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, yes. Anyhow, that made it a poor model for disadvantaged students.  But fundamentally, Project Follow Through was designed to bail out Head Start. It was a horse race, the idea [of the APT reports] was to declare a winner or winners, those who produced the best results in K-3, to show that Head Start was not a total disaster.

David Boulton: How could it have done that unless it was also using a control group of kids that weren’t in Head Start to show the advantages of Head Start?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, they had that. They had a vast number of comparison groups. For each school that was involved, there was a comparison school. They weren’t perfect, because the comparison schools tended to have higher socioeconomic ratings. They were not as disadvantaged. But, in addition to that, the data from all of the individual comparison schools were pooled. Then there was a certain non-disadvantaged mix as part of the formulated average school. So you had your non-disadvantaged population, and also (I can’t remember the exact requirement) I think over 60 percent of the kids had to have gone through Head Start. But they had data on the Head Start kids and the non-Head Start kids. It was a very elaborate study. It cost, I don’t know, hundreds of millions.

David Boulton: So ‘Project Follow Through’ was a prototype – a model that would later be followed in many ways by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. The APT findings were suppressed largely for political reasons. In 1976 when Follow Through was being evaluated, Gene Glass, head of the Ford Foundation at the time, appealed to the National Institutes of Health with an incredible statement.  He said something to the effect that, “The use of quantitative data is inappropriate and what we need is case studies. We need to document various aspects of the program so that informed consumers can make intelligent decisions.”

And of course, it was total baloney. Wes Becker responded, with what I thought was an extremely succinct response, “As the problem with the disadvantaged is identified by data and scores; certainly the solutions to the problems would have to be manifested with data and scores.”

David Boulton: Certainly it all has to correlate somehow…

Siegfried Engelmann: [laughs] Yeah. They wanted to identify the problem qualitatively, and then solve it with methods that didn’t generate any data. Becker also pointed out that if we’re going to use case studies, how do we know we’re using typical case studies unless we use some kind of intelligent sampling processes?

David Boulton: Yeah, and some common system of attributes that would allow you to scale through the data.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. So, the net result was that the results of Follow Through were suppressed. The report that came out on Follow Through was that the project was a failure, which implies that all of the models were failures. And then they just rode off into the sunset with some kind of blazing saddles and that was that.

David Boulton: So buried in the dismissal of Project Follow Through as a whole, were the results it had gathered that showed the benefit of the work that you were doing, in contrast to the other systems or approaches that were compared.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. I mean, it was the biggest part. But the suppression was intentional. It was contrived. It didn’t just happen. The fact that the whole project failed, that the overall statements of the primary sponsors were true, did not necessarily mean that every one of them failed. That certainly was not the case.

David Boulton: And so the baby went out with the bath water there.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yes.

Curriculum Neutral:

David Boulton: So after that, what happened?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, actually, Follow Through went on for some years after that and we continued to work with some sites. During all this time we were involved in program development, and in training practices. We used the same format for developing all of our works, in which we would try to teach everything that was required for children to master the skills that they were supposed to master.

David Boulton: Okay. So at this point you’re putting an asterisk on “supposed to.” In other words, you’re not engaging in what is or should be in the curriculum or what should not, rather you’re starting to develop a more finely tuned systematic way to accomplish results inside the boundaries of whatever it is we consider important and already part of the curriculum.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. We generally accepted the overall parameters of what the kids should be able to do. We viewed it from the standpoint that at some point these kids are going to have to make decisions about what they want to do with the  rest of their life, whether they want to go to college, what college they should go to, and what kind of skills or areas they should go in when they enter college. We felt that our kids, or the kids we worked with, should not be pre-empted from making any intelligent decision.

Life-Decision Skills:

In other words, ideally we would prepare them so that they knew science, math, and traditional academic work, along with reading and art. Unfortunately, there’s not room and enough personnel within the schools to do all of that. But the idea was that we would make our kids as smart as possible and provide them with the maximum number of potential choices about their lives.

David Boulton: Right.  So you wanted to help them build up an internal inventory of skills and knowledge from which to choose how to proceed in their life.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. But for the inventory and the process to work, they had to have substantial skills.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: Not just fluffy choices, but choices that were based on the fact that, “Yeah, I’m good in math,” and, “Oh, yeah, I know that stuff, and I feel confident that I can learn stuff because everything teachers have ever tried to teach me I’ve learned, so I know I’m smart. I can do that, and I’m ready…

David Boulton: So in a way, to help children have a grounded sense in their own ability to learn.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. Well, see, that’s what amazed all the people who evaluated Follow Through. A lot of these models were built on establishing strong self images and they all failed. We summed up our beliefs on self image in one statement: Kids are logical, and if we provide them information, real data that they can do stuff, they’ll feel that they can do it. If we don’t, they will feel like failures. So the self image follows the instructional sequences and the mastery like the tail follows the dog.

David Boulton: That’s the same thing that raised its head in the self-esteem arguments that came afterwards – the difference between thinking you can pump up somebody’s self-esteem, or whether self-esteem is something that is following, as you said, the success the child is actually having in doing real-world things.

Siegfried Engelmann: RightAnd our belief that what kids learn is a function of what we teach and how we teach it.

David Boulton: Good. Let’s go into that for a moment. What’s the purpose of education?

The Purpose of Education:

Siegfried Engelmann: I think it probably has a couple of purposes. I mean, all the formative kind of literature on it deals with socialization and the notion that the purpose of education is to prepare kids with a lot of state legislation. Constitutions say things like, “To prepare kids for the world of work,” which I believe is really important.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: But given that the kids are not prescribed a particular area of work, we have to design education so we create generalists…

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: …who have skills in a number of areas and are able to make choices about where they prefer to place their emphasis. So I think the goal is to provide kids with choices, and do so through non-spurious means, to where it’s systematic, and it is referenced to what they have to do later.So if at some point we expect them to do calculus, when they’re in late high school or early college, for instance, we have to provide the setup so that they will not be pre-empted from it because we have taught them all the skills that they would need to do calculus.

And the same with writing; the same with all the major choices. If they want to become an engineer, fine. If they want to go in some area that’s associated with literature, fine, too, because they’ll have the vocabulary, the knowledge of writing and reading, and whatever skills are needed.

David Boulton: And this suggests that in order to take on calculus, for example, there is a kind of implicate order.  There are prerequisites — not only looked at from the education perspective—we can put that aside for a moment—but from the child’s perspective. In order to have a successful takeoff into mastery with calculus, there’s certain things they have to come to it with.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, oh, yeah.

A Labyrinth of Ladders:

David Boulton: So what we’re talking about is this labyrinth of ladders, of sorts, that identifies these steps where children need to become masterful in order to advance.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah, yeah. And they can be identified analytically by, for instance, analyzing the subject matter that they’re to approach. For example, several years back, my son and I did an analysis of calculus for the Edison Project. And the Edison Project was talking about all kids passing the AP Math Test. We pointed out that currently only about four percent of the population of kids that age pass that test, and they were going to do it with all of them? They never seriously considered that labyrinth or those ladders, or how that interacted with anything that would have to happen with the kids.

So we analyzed the AP Placement Test in math, and provided a summary of the basic pre-skills that anybody would have to have to solve that range of problems.

David Boulton: Right.

Siegfried Engelmann: One of the big implications was: You have to know how to express things in equations; you have to know how to write and rewrite the equations. You have to be able to set them up so that they progress towards the question that the problem asks. In addition to that, you have to have all of the technical and literacy skills that are necessary to carry out the problem from here to there.

David Boulton: Which includes critical self-reflection and being able to disambiguate and resolve down to an understanding of the steps involved.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And a lot of that can be articulated through a careful curriculum.

David Boulton: What I’m hearing you say is that in the case of calculus, you deconstructed the end goal to identify the implicate skills and components so that you could build a pathway through them that would leverage the learning in an optimal way.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. One of the things that are absolute prerequisite for calculus, and actually for algebra, is a thorough understanding of fractions.

David Boulton: Yes.

Working Backwards from an Exam:

Siegfried Engelmann: I’ve looked at kids in California, for instance, high school kids who are struggling to pass the (I guess now defunct) Exit Exam.  But they didn’t know fractions. They didn’t have the skills. They were supposed to have learned about fractions in the fourth grade. And what they really failed to learn was the analysis of units so that you can do the same thing with letters that you can do with numbers. What that means is you can reduce a word problem to this real neat format which generates an equation and shows you where to put the variables and how to handle it.

David Boulton: But you have to understand the idea of a variable, the idea of a place holder, before you can begin to construct that.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. And, the specific kind of teaching that’s involved in preparing them for that, the sequence of examples, and how you teach them.  I’ll give you a for instance. We’re doing an exit math program, which is a program that’s designed to teach exit math. And it’s a hell of a job, because a lot of the kids don’t have above fourth grade skills in math.

But anyhow, we try to teach things efficiently so we can cover a whole series of things in one format. But it has to apply to all of these examples we want it to apply to. So there is such a form. It took us a long time to figure this out.

David Boulton: Something that’s deep enough in its implications and general enough that it can be transferred into these various realms of application.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. It’s like this: The basic equation that, “A” times some value equals “C,” so that missing value has to be taught “C” over “A.”  Then the “A” is cancelled and “C” equals “C,” and there you have it. So if they know that, they can handle any problem that has multiplicitous relationships—ratios, rate problems, all kinds of things—I mean, a vast variety of problems, word problems, that kids have trouble with.

David Boulton: By learning that they can transform the relationship into an expression that they can work with.

Siegfried Engelmann: The way it works is they read the problem and start with the question the problem asks. If the problem asks about cups, then cups is the last term in the equation. And they write “C” and then they’re going to work backwards, “C” equals. Let’s say the other variable is apples. So then they would write “C” equals and then the parenthesis. The top term in the parenthesis is “C,” and the bottom term has to be “apple,” and the value you multiply by it at the beginning of the equation is apple. So you end up with “A” times “C” over “A” equals “C.” I just picked those names because it fits what I’ve said earlier.

David Boulton: Yeah.

Siegfried Engelmann: Now they’re set up. All they need to do is put in the variables — or the values the problem gives. If it gives some information about apples, or it gives the ratio of cups to apples, or if it gives information about the cups, you just put in…

David Boulton: Put in the data that you have to this formulaic engine, which you can translate these problems into…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …and you can solve them.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yes, you can solve a vast number of problems that teachers scratch their heads over trying to teach kids, and the kids scratch their heads trying to learn.

Distilling the Curriculum down to Stair Steps:

David Boulton: It sounds to me like what you’re able to do, then, is to distill down the core stairway steps in the development of fundamental processing skills.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And that by exercising them into getting that generally, they can go on to apply it, rather than trying to exercise them in isolated singular experiences of these things, in which case they’re not getting the general power of learning to relate to things this way.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. This shows how they’re related.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: Years ago when I was at Illinois, one of the projects we worked with was Upward Bound. These were kids in tenth through twelfth grade in East St. Louis, which was a pretty wall-to-wall ghetto at that time. (When we were working with them during those years they burned down downtown and never built it up again).  Upward Bound was designed for kids who had “college potential”.

But teaching them math was the hardest because I couldn’t get them to understand, for instance, rate problems, miles per hour. I would tell them that if you listen to the rate term, “miles per hour,” then that’s what the other terms in the equation have to be.

David Boulton: Right. So you’re trying to draw their attention to a relationship rather than a static thing, which is what they’ve so far been trained to.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Yeah, they didn’t know how to approach these problems at all. They would just try to put some numbers down.  But they couldn’t get it, because they couldn’t discriminate the rate term from anything else in the problem. So it didn’t work and it was very frustrating. I’d tell them, preach to them again and again, “Look for the right term that tells you what the other values are!”

David Boulton: So this is a missing ingredient in their conceptuary and in how they’re looking at it. They don’t understand this aspect of relatedness that we’re calling “rate.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. But it was also a deficiency in my ability to communicate with them, because some of them got it, but most of them didn’t. If I had had the model we have now, I could have asked, “Well, what does it ask about? Does it ask about the rate, does it ask about miles, or does it ask about hours?” Okay. And they’d respond. Then I’d ask, “Okay, so what is the letter for that? Okay, write the equation.” I would tell them, “Put in the values you know.” Then it’s just a question of applying the algebraic skills we have taught them to solve the problem and answer the question.

David Boulton: So in that sense, your instruction is leading them to make the critical distinctions to go on to process the problem.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. And that’s basically the same routine that we use with all the programs.

David Boulton: I can understand how that would work generally. You deconstruct the objective to identify the fundamental prerequisite concepts and skills that need to be understood in order to move forward.  Then draw out the students into making those distinctions and have them apply that knowledge and skills to working the particular problems.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. And doing a whole bunch of technical things like designing the practice so you’re getting responses from them at a high rate, designing the practice so that it is based on how fast they’re actually learning this stuff, not how fast you’d like them to learn it.

David Boulton: Or how fast you’re teaching.

Direct Instruction’s Motto:

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, yeah, from the beginning, that was our motto, and it offended a lot of traditional educators. But it wasIf the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taughtand that it’s not a question of the learner’s ability, it’s a question of the teacher’s ability. These kids are capable of learning, certainly at different rates, but learning anything we want to teach them.

David Boulton: Yes, the way I’ve always looked at it is that “any child could learn anything if we could meet them on the edge of what it is they need to stay engaged in the learning”.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So there’s an active flow that has to happen at a different granularity than education has traditionally concerned itself with.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah, like the Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

David Boulton: Yes.

Meeting Kids in the Zone:

Siegfried Engelmann: You have to be within that zone. And all we did was reduce it to an articulate analysis of the content that had to be learned, and then identified the prerequisites.

David Boulton: Clearly not. But I understand what you’re saying, in terms of us having a thought bubble for our purposes right now, so go ahead let’s take reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: Actually, beginning math is a lot easier than reading because there are precious few exceptions. There are some in terms of how you read numbers and you have to set up equations left to right.

David Boulton: But there’s an internal consistency to the structure of mathematics, which is not the same as written language. There’s also the ability to be consciously participate; you can think about what you’re doing in math, but reading has to happen faster than you can think about it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. For instance, the equation, “13 – 4 = 9,” you can’t read it backwards because of the convention of putting the minus before the 4. So if you write it backwards, it would be “9 = 4 – 13.” (game show buzzer sound)

David Boulton: Right. [laughter]

Siegfried Engelmann: That isn’t going to work. There is also the trouble of the ‘teens’, we don’t say ten–three, ten–four, ten—five, we say thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. The teens are a bitch for kids to learn, particularly lower performers, because they’re irregular.

David Boulton: Right, right. That’s a good point, yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: In a careful program, you wouldn’t teach the teens—reading them and writing them in the order that they would follow the single digit number. It would be much easier to go from the single digit number to forty-seven and eighty-six.

David Boulton: At least in terms of the symmetry between the sound of it and the meaning of it as a representation of quantity, yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: And then once they get that idea, then you can tell them, “Well, now we’re going to do the hard ones. These are the teens. They’re really funny.” But if they’re already grounded in writing forty-one and thirty-one and twenty-one, they’re not going to be as screwed up by learning about the teens.

David Boulton: Right. So you jump over the teens and come back to them.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. So it doesn’t make any difference, because the problems that we give them would not involve the teens. So the teens, for the moment, are moot. And then when we get around to dealing with them…

David Boulton: An analog in math to the ‘decodable text’ in reading.

Working with Preschool Kids:

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. That’s the beauty of working with preschool kids, everything will be in slow motion and everything will be exaggerated to show the mistakes.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: So if what you do is not successful, you will find out immediately from the performance of the kids what you did that was wrong.

David Boulton: If you orient yourself as if the classroom is a feedback auditorium for the teacher.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. When I first went to the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children, the first task I had working with James Gallagher was to teach two groups of kids, middle-class kids and disadvantaged kids, a series of abstract, or what Piaget would call “paths that involve formal operations.”

David Boulton: Right, challenges related to stages of development.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. This would be the higher stages because they would involve relative direction and the like. So we designed a series of tasks that involved all kind of analogs, such as a teeter-totter.

The kids had to draw inferences based on data that we gave them. For instance, the top of the teeter-totter is freshly painted red. When you leave the teeter-totter, it’s perfectly balanced. When you come back, the right side is down. Okay? Now, name the two ways that could have happened. A guy could have pushed down the right side or pushed up on the left side. Okay. Here’s a clue: The guy who did that does not have red paint on his hands. So how did he do it? Pushed up on the left side. There were a whole series of problems like that.

David Boulton: Deductive reasoning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Then we did relative direction—a whole bunch of symmetrical or mirror image problems—all kinds of stuff. We wanted to see the differences between the groups. By the way, none of this stuff was ever published.

David Boulton: So you’re talking about leading and guiding children into making the distinctions that will allow them to progress through what Piaget was talking about with stages of development.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: That they would develop a facility for approaching their observations with a deductive mind.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. I taught in two different places. I went to one place and taught little African American kids, then I went to another place and taught middle-class kids. The first lesson had to do with ‘same and different’, which I later found out was about twelve light years above where the disadvantaged kids could initially perform.

I taught them a rule, “Listen, if it’s not the same, it must be different. “Say that rule, say that rule. You got it.” And then I did different tasks with them where I said, “Okay, are these the same?” “No.” “Tell me about them.” “If they’re not the same, they must be different.” “Yes.” I gave them a whole bunch of examples.

The next day the difference between the middle-class group was obvious when I presented the first tasks. I presented two objects that were the same and I said, “Are these the same?” And the disadvantaged kids, in unison, said, “If they’re not the same they must be different!”

David Boulton: You gave them a handle to make an internal reference from—to make distinctions between same and different that they were able to hold onto and use.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. I was way over the heads of the disadvantaged kids. So I had to go way back in the sequence and start about twenty-eight frames before same and different. They had not a clue.

Then there were other differences between the groups that were very evident. The biggest point was that for the group of black kids, some of the lower performers in the group were really, really far behind, and they required not just a slight adjustment in the curriculum, but they needed to start on frame one.

David Boulton: Not where our gross assumptions placed them because of their age.

Siegfried Engelmann: If you told them, “Here, take this ball and put it on the table. Okay, take this ball, hold it over the table. Take this ball and hold it under the table.” They would put all three balls in the same place, on top of the table. They had idiomatic applications of some of this stuff, but they didn’t have generalized understanding of any of it. So that described the starting place for that program.

But the point was that whenever we looked at the performance of kids, if they made mistakes, we assumed that it was not their problem, but ours.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: We knew we could teach them. We just had to start in a different place and proceed from an earlier step on the ladder. If we do it right when we get there, they’ll be able to do it, if we have small steps and a pretty good ladder.

Unfolding the Ambiguity in the Code:

Siegfried Engelmann: In other words, we’ve let the kids tell us what we were doing wrong. There were a whole bunch of programs that were popular in the ’60s and we tried many of them with our kids, including the more popular ones, and they all struck out. The only one that didn’t totally strike out was ITA, which was sort of like an adaptation of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

David Boulton: Right. Which reduces the amount of ambiguity they start off with.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. With those symbols, you could teach the kids to read words.

David Boulton: But then you have a big transition problem because you’ve got them up and reading on a less ambiguous system that is not representative of the system they will have to use eventually.

Siegfried Engelmann: You nailed it. That’s exactly what happened. As soon as we switched over to the traditional orthography the change in spelling absolutely blew them away. They didn’t get the idea, or we could not teach them, because we reinforced them too long in assuming “one symbol, one sound.” When we tried to transition, they just totally fell apart.

David Boulton: Which, to some degree speaks to a major part of the problem with reading in general. This is what we’re teaching children, or at least many parents are when they first expose their kids to letters. We act as if letters have this definitive, one-to-one kind of correspondence with sounds. Sesame Street does that and books and crib mobiles and everything else, as if letters have definitive sounds.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Again, it’s just a problem of sequencing, where you start, what you do, and how you do it.

David Boulton: In terms of unfolding the ambiguity in bite sizes that they can actually deal with.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And so the programs that we develop introduce irregulars fairly early. The way the kids handle the irregulars accounts for their recognition of the various letters. The kids know only sounds, they don’t know letters, because we don’t teach letter names until later in the program. They don’t need letter names to read. For lower performing kids, letter names are just more confusion.

David Boulton: Although so many kids have already got the letter name association before we get to them in school, yes?

Siegfried Engelmann: Not the kids we worked with.

David Boulton: Okay, okay. But I mean, in terms of the general population, we’ve still got ABC books. We’re still bombarding little kids with letter names.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. For middle-class kids, that’s true, they do know letter names. And so we use a different approach. We have another program that works off letter names and derives the letter sounds or the stable consonants from the letter names.

David Boulton: But the key in both cases is to find out where they’re at foundationally and then give them manageable steps into the confusion that they can work through.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. So if you do it right, it’s not confusion.

David Boulton: Well, there is ambiguity that they have to learn how to resolve, right?

Siegfried Engelmann: We have to learn how to teach them to resolve it.

David Boulton: For sure, for sure. They’re not going to learn how to resolve it without help, but ultimately they have to learn, first-person, how to resolve the ambiguity they experience.

Siegfried Engelmann: Okay. So let me tell you how we first introduced the irregulars. This is sort of like starting in the middle of a program somewhere. But the two first irregulars that we introduce would be speech transformation irregulars. For instance, if the word is “has,” you sound it out with an “S,” then show how that works, so the kids understand that when it exists at the end of the word, it’s translated into a “Z” sound, not an “S” sound. In this program we have no problem with the traditional diphthong, and diagraphs.

David Boulton: Yeah. That’s a great way for adults who have studied the system and are on the other side of learning – the other side of getting it, to describe it, but it doesn’t have a lot of traction with helping kids learn it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well not only that— the words are from different domains. One is from graphics and the other is from phonology, or whatever, so that you can have diagraphs that are diphthongs… [laughter]

Anyhow, any sound combination that’s regular, like “th” or even “er,” we can show as joined letters, initially, kind of like taken from that International Phonetic Alphabet game. So we can deal with those.

The first real irregular combination they learn is “th” has joined letters. And so it wouldn’t be “t” and it wouldn’t be “h,” and then later on, once they’re firm in that and they know the words, it’s relatively easy to transition to separate letters.

The first true irregular words that we introduced were the words “said” and “was,” which tend to occur at a relatively high frequency. The process that they use for decoding the word takes into account the weird relationship between the arrangement of letters and the pronunciation. So we make sure that they really understand the arrangement of letters and then the transformation that’s involved for them to say the word.

So boiling all that down, here’s the task: “Everybody say the sounds in this word. Get ready.” And they say, “Sssaaaiiid.” “Okay, again, say the sound.” “Sssaaaiiid.” “What word?” Well, we tell them initially. “But that word is not ‘sssaaaiiid.’ It’s, “Said.” “How do we say the word?” “Said.” “How do we sound out the word?” “Sssaaaiiid.” Okay. And we do the same thing with “was.” “Sound it out, get ready.” “Wwwaaasss.” “Again.” “Wwwaaasss.” “But we don’t say ‘wwwaaasss. We say what?” “Was.”

David Boulton: So you’re making the distinction between how it would sound out as the training wheels to get it and how we actually say it once we got it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And the sounding out is a first cousin to spelling.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: So we get them used to the idea that there are particular arrangements of letters in English that ultimately determine how a word is pronounced, that it’s not going to be perfectly regular. As you pointed out earlier, you can’t reinforce them for treating everything as if it’s regular and then suddenly drop this bomb on them.

Siegfried Engelmann: We try to introduce these irregulars early enough and have them come in with lots of practice on each one, so that they learn these not as sight words, but as words that are composed of letters that don’t quite add up to the way they are pronounced.

David Boulton: So you’re giving them the intermediate stage, though, which I really appreciate the wisdom in, of sounding it out and recognizing that sounding it out is a rough approximation of what it is actually going to sound like.

Siegfried Engelmann: Sure.

David Boulton: But it’s a way to get to it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And if you’re going to spell it, you don’t write “s-e-d” or “w-u-z.” You write “s-a-i-d” or “w-a-s,” because when you sound it out, those are the only sounds that are permissible for that word. Basically, from the beginning, what we’ve always done is try to analyze the task carefully, then use the responses of the kids as the ultimate arbitrator of whether we’ve done it the right way. If they make a mistake, we don’t argue about it.

David Boulton: Right, their mistakes have great value in revealing what we need to know and what they need to know.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, exactly.

Miraculous Intersections:

David Boulton: I called it, in a paper I once wrote, “Miraculous Intersections” I meant by that the best possible source of information for an individual who is struggling to learn something, and for the organization that is responsible for supporting or resourcing their learning, is exactly where the learner is stuttering.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yep.

David Boulton: That’s the miraculous intersection that aligns the individual’s best possible source of inner intelligence and the external organization’s best possible source to evolve and adapt to whatever it’s doing in support of the learner.

Siegfried Engelmann: That’s absolutely right. Most all of the details of our program have been shaped through mistakes that we’ve made and from information that kids have given us about what we need to do.

David Boulton: And this conversation flows into the whole assessment conversation. I mean, that ultimately, the more granular and more frequent the feedback flow between the learners and the instructional environment, the more effective the instructional environment is going to become.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Given that the time tense is like we said earlier, on the ladder, and carefully sequenced.

David Boulton: Yes. And no matter what the feedback is, it helps us locate where the child is, relative to that.

Siegfried Engelmann: Exactly.

David Boulton: Right? So that the ground floor of assessment and the ground floor of systemic intelligence in education is feedback from the learners.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah. And what’s really sick is that most of the programs that are published are never field tested with one kid.

David Boulton: Right.

Siegfried Engelmann: They’re absolutely sans field testing.

Phonemic Awareness Instruction:

Siegfried Engelmann: Anyway, we were the first to do phonemic awareness work within the context of any kind of instructional program. And again, we did it because we thought we had a clever sequence, we thought it out very carefully. You know, one symbol, one sound, here we go, a careful introduction. And the mistakes that the kids made guided us to see that we had something missing. For instance, at first we had them sound out words traditionally. We never permitted “ch-aa-tah” for chat. Unvoiced sounds were unvoiced — “ch-a-t.” Well, they showed us through their responses that that stop sound beginning was really hard for them.

Initially we had only continuous sound beginnings, “mm-a-t.” A lot of the kids sounded out “mm-a-t,” and they’d correctly identify the symbols, “m-a-t.” You’d ask them, “What word?” and they would say, “at.” Then you would say, “Well, no, no, no. You forgot the “mm” here. Let’s do it again.” Then you’d have this elaborate correction.

So what we ended up doing, or realizing, was that a simple letter form of that task was this: “Listen to these sounds, ‘mm-a-t.’ Say it fast.”

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, and then we still had problems with some of the kids. But our purpose for identifying this was to develop a sequence. Our idea of a sequence is that if it’s done right, you can correct any kind of mistake kids make by referring to material or skills that were taught earlier in the sequence.

David Boulton: Right, right.

Siegfried Engelmann: So with this we could teach them to a strong criterion on doing the verbal responses. Then if the kids made a mistake of saying “at” for “mat”, I’d say, “Listen! ‘mm-at.’ Say it with me.” “mm-at.” “Say it fast.” “mat.” “Okay, now do it all together. Get ready.” And you could point to the letters as they said, “mm-at.”

But then we also discovered that we couldn’t reach a lot of kids sounding out words that way, they had real problems with the relationship between the individual isolated sounds, and saying it in a word. So we changed the procedure so that there were no pauses between the sounds, so the analogy between sounding it out and saying it was simply a question of rate. It went like, “Okay, I’m going to sound out, listen. “Mmmaaat.” Listen again. “Mmmaaat.” What word?” “Mat.” Okay, now we could really grab them.

Again, we learned this stuff only from the fact that the kids couldn’t do it. So now we had precise corrections that related to what they had learned earlier. We had a procedure for sounding it out that would reach virtually 100 percent of the kids. So we could teach even really low performers now to take the first step on the ladder. Then theycan follow the entire sequence and they can learn at a rate far faster than would have been anticipated.

Minimizing Extraneous Ambiguity:

David Boulton: I really appreciate where you’re coming from here. And I translate it as ‘one of the most important tasks at all times is to minimize extraneous ambiguity’.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So that they’re focused on the ambiguity implicit in the learning challenge at the step, but they’re not lost in ambiguity overwhelm about things that are outside the focal space, or the zone of proximal development, implicit in the particular objective at the moment.

Siegfried Engelmann: Exactly. We want to control the universe in which they operate. That means controlling all the variables that make a difference. And we learn about these variables, not strictly through analyses of — you know, we try to do a good job of analyzing tasks and figuring out sequences…

David Boulton: But primarily by feedback from them.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Feedback is the currency of an evolutionary process that can tune the curriculum, to meet its curricular objectives, while actually being effective for the individual student.

Siegfried Engelmann: Some of the things you say strike me as similar to things I’ve read on abductive reasoning and semiotics. Are you into that stuff?

Stewarding the Health of Learning:

David Boulton: No, no, not really. Though I appreciate the disciplines, the thing that I’ve been most interested in is might be called the ‘ecology of learning’. And, stewarding the health and ecology of learning in our children, because I think ultimately that our children’s learning is the most precious natural resource on the planet.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely. I agree 100 percent.

David Boulton: And that we’re so busy with what we should be teaching them, that the quality of their learning, how they’re participating from the inside-out in their experience in the learning, is getting lost.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh yeah, we have to respect their learning.

David Boulton: And I have the highest respect for that. So on the one hand I’m in total alignment with you about the need to reduce extraneous ambiguity…

Siegfried Engelmann: Yes.

David Boulton: …and detoxify the shame associated with learning about this particularly artificial thing called reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: I think that the most important thing is to envelop children in what I think of as a relevancy bubble, or a meaning module, that constrains their universe of action…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …so that they travel through the resources that are relevant to the objective, either their objective or the objective that’s been put before them by the education system. Inside of that, our main concern is bringing forth a learning-oriented participation from within the child.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. From the other side of the coin we need information of what’s going on in their head.

David Boulton: Exactly. My primary work before the reading work had to do with developing—in fact, one of my patents is on this — a ‘distributed dialogue system’ whose ground layer is designed to capture, with higher frequency and finer granularity, the feedback flow from anybody who’s interacting with anything.

Siegfried Engelmann: Good.

David Boulton: So feedback is the central dynamic of a learning loop that can help people in a learning constituency, as well as those people responsible for the learning constituency, to learn together in the most effective ways.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. What we add in terms of enhancing the formula simply assumes that you have qualitative detail that is both efficient and fits into the parameters of communicating.

David Boulton: Yes, yes. And the deconstruction of learning objectives to identify the critical sub modules and their order of unfoldment is absolutely essential.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And the place that we meet, and I’m just delighted to find us meeting in this place, is the participation, the inside-out participation, at the heart of learning. So, how is it that we help children become masterful in the areas of knowledge, skills and content that we think is critical for their ability to make informed choices about how to proceed in their life later.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And how do we do that in a way that’s nourishing their inside-out participation in the process, rather than treating them like coma patients.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right.

David Boulton: Because so much of education seems like that. It’s like, you know, with a coma patient, whether they’re consciously participating or not, there’s some benefit to moving their leg.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. [laughs]

David Boulton: But that’s not true when you’re talking about teaching children!

Siegfried Engelmann: [laughs] Right. Oh, yeah. Yeah, no, it’s a crazy business, I mean, the way it’s interpreted by what goes on in schools and actual practices.

So that’s fundamentally the way we try to do programs. And the result is we’ve thrown out programs in which we initially thought we had some hot stuff until we went out and tried it with kids. And depending on their responses in a couple cases, we said, “Whoa! We can’t salvage this. It would require too elaborate of an overhaul,” and we would just throw it out.

David Boulton: Right. But you learned something about how to build the next one…

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah.

David Boulton: …that may be all the more effective. And each thing we do is a scaffolding for learning better what we do next, if we look at it that way.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And yet for some folks now, phonemic awareness is a thing, an entity, where they look at like: “Well, what are the different kinds of phonemic awareness? We have segmentation, we have displacement, we have blending, we have replacement,” you know, and they list all these things. Then they think that the name of the game is to go through all of it. No, Virginia! The name of the game is to set it up so that the kids are prepared to take the next step in the curriculum that’s supposed to teach them reading.

Reading Mastery and Teacher Scripting:

David Boulton: Right. But one of the dangers, here, it seems to me, and it slides over to the other side of our conversation in a way, is that what you’re describing is a kind of teacher who doesn’t understand this implicitly themselves, first-person, but who’s running by somebody’s cue card system about what to do.

I mean, for example, my daughter had a reading problem, which is part of what inspired me to get into this. And when we went to a local school to talk about their reading program, we talked to the person who was responsible for reading at this school. And she said, “Well, we use Reading Mastery.” “Okay.” She said, “We really like it because our teachers don’t have to think about anything.”

Siegfried Engelmann: [laughs]

David Boulton: That scared the hell out of me.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, actually, though, if you work with teachers that’s a good thing, because they receive a whole bunch of information that’s expressed in general directions, like conduct a discussion, or point out xyz… But unless you control the wording, unless you control the task, and unless you have it all carefully fitting into a sequence it’s not going to make ultimate use of time. Time is the big enemy of anything we do while we’re working, particularly with kids who are behind, that every time that clock ticks, we have to teach them more than a clock tick would teach a middle-class kid, or an average performing kid.

David Boulton: Yes. Time is working against every child that falls out of the flow.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely. So if it’s not just scrupulously efficient, it needs to be shaped. We don’t want to teach things we don’t have to teach. There’s nothing wrong with the stuff we don’t teach, it’s just that within the parameters of what we’re trying to teach in this program, it’s not relevant. Therefore, we want to make sure that we are…

David Boulton: We’re efficient with time, we’re efficient with the attention span we’ve got with the children, and we’re efficient with teachers’ distribution of time and priorities with respect to their kids.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. I remember years ago—this was kind of a classic—it was in Providence, Rhode Island. The school had one of these queen bee type teachers who was really up on all of the terminology. She could talk the linguistic talk, she could deal with the phonemic vocabulary and she could cite all kinds of things. She was going on and on about problems she saw with Reading Mastery and one of them was that it was dummied down like that.

There was this first-year teacher who just came out of college. She finally interrupted this woman and she said, “Helen, you know more about the details of reading than I’ll ever know. You can expound on the research and the skill compositions and differences I don’t even understand. Because I didn’t learn much in college, all I know how to do is to say what it says in red and do what it says in black. But I’ll tell you one thing, and you know this, my kids out perform yours.” And [laughs] that kind of said it all.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: The way I like to envision it is that it’s like driving a car. To drive a car, it’s nice if you know something about the mechanism…

David Boulton: You don’t need to understand the physics of the crankshaft.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, exactly. You need to know how to operate the steering wheel and the window wipers and things like that. We did not start out that way. In fact, we started out trying to train teachers to have a good understanding of what they were trying to teach. They had to watch their wording because the words had to be consistent or the kids got very confused.

David Boulton: Sure. Again, back to extraneous ambiguity.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And the task had to be presented in a particular sequence so that we weren’t doing the hard ones before the easy ones within a set that we were going to present to them right now. Not only does the order have to be designed carefully, the task and the correction procedure had to be designed…

So the way it worked was like this: The first person I ever worked with was a woman named Valerie, who later became an author. She’d sit next to me while I’d teach this group of kids. And every now and again, I’d say, “Okay, your turn. Do that one I just did, that task.” It was so frustrating for her. She was a very smart woman, but it was so hard for her to keep all that stuff straight, she just couldn’t do it.

She was instructing the kids, and I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re leading them. You can’t lead them here.” She looked at me and burst out crying. She said, “You just did exactly the same thing I’m doing, and when you did it, it’s okay, and when I did it, it’s not okay!” I said, “I did it in a correction. You’re not correcting here.” And she said, “Oh, I’ll never get this!” And she walked out of the room.

What we did then was to make lists of problems, and I’d hand her a list of problems. Now at least she knew what to do. She didn’t have to worry about sequencing the problems and she could concentrate on the other variables that were important in the presentation.

So, it worked fine with her. Then we started training some other teachers. But we didn’t have the personnel to sit side-by-side with them for a year and do that kind of thing. It wasn’t working very well with some of them. Even with a list of problems — which is what they started out doing– they still screwed up a lot.

So, what we did next was to script the exact words they were to say, and tada! All at once now we could train teachers. There was still a lot of training, like responding to the kids, providing correction, providing reinforcement, doing the basics, and making sure to let the kids know that what they were learning was something important. So there was still a hell of a lot for the teachers to do, but it was now a way more manageable package than it was before.

David Boulton: I can totally respect your approach to getting to that. Again, it was like everything else, it’s based on feedback, what’s working and what’s not working, and the need to tighten up the scripting and take more control over the — or, inversely, you’d have to give teachers a very clear map with each of the points and steps. And then they’d have to learn to be facile with what would be acceptable variations on each of those points…

Siegfried Engelmann: Yes.

David Boulton: …that would still stay in the structure.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And that just takes about five times longer.

David Boulton: Too long, I understand. So efficiency and feedback led you to the tight scripts.

Dyslexia, Bad Strategies and Corrective Reading:

Siegfried Engelmann: And then on all levels we let the kids tell us through their responses what we need to know. For instance, we had to do a corrective reading program that deals basically with failed readers in grades four through twelve. There’s a strand that’s for decoding, and there’s another strand for comprehension.

And when we were field testing this one program, teachers working with this small group of kids that were, you know, word guessers—I mean, they just didn’t have the game at all.

David Boulton: They had developed habits and strategies that were working against them.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And they were often very complicated.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: And this one kid showed just how complicated his strategy was. He made a mistake in reading a word, and the teacher who was working with him said, “No, that’s not right. Sound it out.” And the kid looked at her and said, “Well, tell me the word, and I’ll sound it out.” And I thought what a smart ass comment. But then I thought, no, he told exactly the complexity of the strategy he was trying to apply!

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: He had to know the word before he could identify the word!

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: And then if you look back in his education from day one, it was always the same. The teacher always talked about what they would read before they read it. They learned what they were taught, period. There are no dyslexic kids. I mean, that is just a myth.

David Boulton: Well, today, my understanding from the National Center of Learning Disabilities, and Reid Lyon et all, is that less than five to six percent of the children in this country have anything innately neurobiological that underlies their processing problems. For the rest of the kids the problem is instructional confusion.

Siegfried Engelmann: I would say that it is closer to like maybe one-fourth or a fifth of one percent. No kidding. I mean, I’ve worked with a couple of kids…

David Boulton: Well, is this based on your experience or based on some research you’ve had access to?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, I’ve worked with hundreds of kids.

David Boulton: You mean hundreds of kids that were labeled as having some learning disability or dyslexia, that once you met them the right way, given the way that they had adapted to the teaching that they had had, you were able to pull them through it?

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And because they had learned a bunch of stuff — the corrective reading program is different from the initial reading program, because the goal is to set it up so that whatever strategies they have that are inappropriate will lead to them making mistakes at a very high rate.

David Boulton: Oh, it’s beautiful. I totally get that. I totally agree with that. So the intention is to intentionally bring about their error and help them connect the strategy that’s implicit in their error making and learn through that into the mode of participation that will go past the error to the correct approach.

Siegfried Engelmann: Exactly. And so in the corrective reading program, one of the problems kids have is they will be able to read words in lists but not read them in stories. Because what they’re doing is applying a version of the notion that you have to know the word before you read it, so that the word in a story is not exactly the same word that is in a list. And so what we have to teach them is, no, it is exactly the same word. And to do that we developed a couple of routines. One of them was a recurring character, a dog named Chee. And the reason we named it “Chee” was we were working with a lot of kids, and non-English speakers who confused “she” and “Chee,” or “sh” and “ch” a lot. So that was the dog’s name. The dog was a talking dog, of course. And when she got excited, she would always say things in nonsense; it would just be a string of words. And that string of words would include all of the words that these kids tended to make big time mistakes on. For instance, when Chee was excited, she might say something like, “Oh, of from to go no so this.”

And it was hard for the kids! They could read those same words in the list and when they occurred in the story, it was like they would go into a totally different mode. We would reread these stories. There were a lot of Chee stories, so they had a lot of opportunities to practice.

Another thing that we did was we set them up with phony predictability. They were so used to predictable text like, “Joe and Ted said, ‘Let’s go to the store.’” So “Joe and Ted” students know, and they don’t have to read the rest of it.

David Boulton: Right, right.

Siegfried Engelmann: So we set up sentences later, “Joe and Ted said, ‘Let’s go to the store,’ so Joe and Ted did that.” So if they guessed, they would get it wrong about four out of five times. We had a phony predictability in our sentence pattern and then they would get the idea, whoa, you cannot guess at these words.

David Boulton: I had conversations with a recent President of the International Reading Association about the code ambiguity in one interview. And she, to this day, is still advocating guessing strategies there.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yes, I know. And it’s interesting that the words kids miss are overwhelmingly the words that they should have learned in the first grade, such as “of, what, that, to, go, so, and, the, that.” But If you introduce them to a new multi-syllabic word, and give them maybe a couple of exposures to it, they never mix it up with anything. But that early stuff is so engrained with the idea of guessing.

David Boulton: Yes, totally.

Siegfried Engelmann: Or as that kid said, “Tell me the word and I’ll sound it out.” [laughter]

Children of the Code:

David Boulton: One of the things that we’re doing with our series is going back in time to the very beginning of the code and showing its historical march through time, its effect on our civilization, its effect on our consciousness – on our capacity for generalization, self reflection, critical reflection, and abstraction. We’re showing the code as it moves through Europe, the collision that happens between the Latin Roman writing system, and then the French and English languages that get stabilized in the 1500s by Henry V, and the story of the problems of literacy in the English language since then, the attempts to fix the orthography that have gone nowhere, the reading wars and their roots, and the debate about phonics, which emerges in the 1600s, and the Whole Language in the 1700s, and the arguments back and forth between all that. But our basic point is: It is code processing; there’s nothing natural about this. This is a radically unnatural confusing process…

Siegfried Engelmann: That’s right.

David Boulton: …that requires a very, very careful and systematic way to bring children through this, because their natural learning instincts can’t solve the problems involved in a confusing artificial technology.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And we’re talking about a problem whose extent involves 86 percent of African American fourth graders who are reading below proficiency. Sixty-something percent of the nation’s entire cohort of twelfth graders, if you believe the NAEP tests, are below proficiency in reading. We know that the first consequence of reading difficulties for most children is that they blame themselves; they think there’s something wrong with themselves.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah, I know.

David Boulton: And so the consequence of this is that the way that we think about this thing as a society, generally, is creating a situation where most of our children to some degree are learning to feel ashamed of their minds because of their inability to process through this artificially confusing code.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

David Boulton: It does not have to be that way. And so we want to bring a big thump about this that crosses all the different tribal barriers and engages people in this conversation towards a shift in how we think about what reading is, and how our minds — as teachers and parents, what we see when we see a child struggle to learn to read. We want to see that differently than we do now.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. What can I say? Good for you.

David Boulton: Well, thank you. We’re standing on the shoulder of a lot of different giants right now, and one of them is clearly you. I appreciate the fact that we’re able to have this conversation. I also have to say, and this is what I want to do in part two of our conversation, that there’s a lot of people out there that are good people that are caring about humanness of the child..

Avoiding Ambiguity Overwhelm:

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …but do not understand parts of this conversation you and I are having, and think that Direct Instruction is the Empire, that you’re Darth Vader.

Okay. I want to deconstruct that, and create a new path of opportunity for all of us who care about children to learn together in a different way here.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. So I have a question.

David Boulton: Go.

Siegfried Engelmann: How did your daughter do?

David Boulton: She’s doing great now. Thank you. She was diagnosed with an auditory memory processing deficit. So she would continue to have problems decoding. She’d read a word, sound out a word, and then encounter the same word a sentence later and stumble on it all over again. She could not remember that she had just previously worked it out.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, you know what that means? We’ve done experiments on them.

David Boulton: Yeah?

Siegfried Engelmann: It goes something like this: That if you design sentences so that more than say about 20 percent of the words are unfamiliar to the student, they will make mistakes on all words because they’re totally overloaded. In fact, one of the criteria that we use in placing kids is that they have to be at least 70 percent first time correct on all material.

David Boulton: That’s how you threshold the level they’re in.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And on reading material, they have to be over 80 percent first time correct on material that had been presented. They have to be 90 percent or better on material that has been presented in the past, and on new material 70 percent first time correct. And if you violate those percentages very much, what happens —

David Boulton: Then you’re facilitating ambiguity overwhelm.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And what happens is they lose confidence, they revert to their old practices, and they start screwing up on stuff that they haven’t been screwing up on.

David Boulton: While at the same time eating away at their own trust and confidence in their learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah!

David Boulton: That’s the key, to me. What we’re talking about here is radically unnatural ambiguity overwhelm that they’re having an emotionally self-negative response to.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, yeah, because they know that other kids can do this stuff, and they know they can’t. And they feel, “Well, there’s something wrong with me.” There ain’t a damn thing wrong with you.

David Boulton: Yeah. Yeah, that’s great. So my two premises in everything, so far, is one, reduce the extraneous ambiguity, decrease the ambiguity overwhelm; and two, decrease the psychological toxicity of children feeling ashamed of themselves because they’re having trouble doing this. Because the moment they go into shame, the shame itself robs them of the vital processing resources necessary to deal with it.

The Shame Factor:

Siegfried Engelmann: We used to work with incarcerated kids. These were kids who were in prison because of serious crimes, like murder. These were tough kids. They didn’t know how to read, and they all wanted to learn to read, but they wouldn’t admit it. They would always act like, “Oh, that’s bullshit, man. I don’t want to do that shit.” But they weren’t talking to you, the teacher, they were talking to their peers and saying, “If I make a mistake, it’s because I really don’t care, it’s not because I’m dumb and can’t do it.”

David Boulton: Which is shame aversion.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. You had to give them this talk, or they wouldn’t stay with you. You had to say, “Okay, I’m going to work with you, and you have to work with me. And here’s the rule: I’m not going to give up on you, and you will learn this stuff. But you can’t give up.”

So for example I’d say, “Okay, everybody put your finger under the first word. Here we go. Okay, what word?” And they would read the word correctly. They’d read the next word correctly. They’d make a mistake on the next word. And you could see their body language, their shoulders drop, their head goes down. What they’re operating from is a self-fulfilling prophesy. And that’s why you can’t support failure. You can’t promote failure, because their self-fulfilling prophesy was, “I’ve done this stuff before, and I know I can’t do it.”

Whereas the kid who has a positive attitude, who has not learned that prophesy, makes the same mistake but says, “Okay, I made a mistake. I’m not going to make it again. I remember what it is. I’m not going to do that again.”

David Boulton: But that presumes that they can recognize where they made the mistake, that the…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …mistake itself isn’t so shrouded in ambiguity that the only place they can go is to dismiss the importance of what they’re doing, or dismiss themselves as being competent.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Good students never learned that they are incompetent, because they have always been able to perform on what teachers have presented, and that’s why they have a positive self-image. But the kid who has a failure attitude is not being a weird kid, he is absolutely operating from data that he has received from frame one; he knows he can’t do this stuff. And that’s when you have to tell him, “Whoa, what’s the big rule? You’re not going to give up. You can’t give up. Now, come on. You can do this.” And then when they do it, you have to reinforce them.

And one of the things that’s really interesting about those kids is that when they first start out, I have them read passages twice. On the second reading, after you’ve given them corrections—and this relates to what you said about your daughter—they’ll make a larger number of mistakes than they made on the first reading. Typically, they will always have more errors on the second reading, after they had errors corrected, than they did on the first reading until about Lesson Five.

And you have to tell them, “Oh, that’s okay. You’re learning new stuff. Don’t worry about it. You’ll get better. It’ll happen.” And then when it happened where the second reading errors are lower than their first reading errors, then you can tell them, “See, now you can really listen to what I’m telling you, and you’re doing it. Good for you.” And then after that, the second reading errors will hover around one or zero, and the first reading errors, maybe, as high as six or seven. So it just absolutely turns around. But that’s a universal property that they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do because the context in which you’re doing it suggests that the same word always is the same word. And that’s what they frequently don’t understand.

David Boulton: Right, which comes back to the fact that they’re kind of swimming in this overwhelming ambiguity and nobody is giving them a stairway through it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. Or like that one kid said, “Tell me the word, and I’ll sound it out.” [laughter]

David Boulton: All right. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. It’s been most helpful. And I look forward to the next one, and talking about the social educational challenge that both of us are faced with.

Siegfried Engelmann: Okay. Bye.

Note: this has been the transcript of our phone conversation. A longer and more elaborate interview was conducted on camera and the transcript of that interview will be released later this year (2009).

Special thanks to volunteers Melanie Miller and Sami Moran for their help editing this interview.