An Interview...

Siegfried Engelmann 2: Improving the Quality of Learning

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

A lot of corrective reading programs try to avoid the things that give kids problems. No! The key is to teach it properly and confront it.

We're slowly moving toward the direction that there is a "dys-teach-ia”—that kids are logical and have mislearned because they have been mistaught.

You need to have coherence so that everything you do is pointing to the kid in terms of her instructional needs, not just necessarily what the student wants to do.  It's different from child-centered, it's child-referenced

It doesn't matter what your theory of learning is, all you need to do is look at the facts of what you did and the facts of what the kids are doing. 

I don't know of any other language that has more exceptions than English in reading. English seems to be a total monster

You can't blame teachers for not knowing what they don't know. 

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 Video interview. The phone 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.

David Boulton:  Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us again. When we last spoke we were exploring the ‘social-educational challenge’ that impedes our teaching and learning.  We’ve learned a lot about from neuroscience, but what we’ve learned about learning is not very well reflected in how we educate – how we teach.  Why do you think that is?  What are we missing?


With learning, you’re talking about what goes on in the organism and how it occurs. With teaching, you have an independent variable, which is whatever you’re presenting to the kids, sensory data of some kind.  Your outcome then, is their behavior; that’s the dependent variable. So, those are what you have to work with and that’s what you have to deal with. You don’t have to go into the brain and into the mind and into other things. These all exist, but they’re perfectly irrelevant to the problem of how do you get this kid to learn? How do you get it so the kid is automatic at it? How do you get it so that it’s right? And how do you get it efficiently? But nobody has really taken up on our orientation.  The field has not accepted our orientation to teaching because frankly, they don’t understand it.

David Boulton: I’m sure that many don’t understand. So how do we build a bridge between those that are more humanistic-learning-centric that helps them appreciate the benefits to their way of thinking of an instructional orientation like you’re describing?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, one of the parts of the bridge that I think is really important is that teachers have to understand the implications of kids’ behavior. For example, the kids make a mistake and they have trouble learning something. What’s the typical routine that traditionalists for the past eighty years or whatever have used? Give them more exposure, try to do it a different way without any particular logic to the new way, or introduce the subject matter in a lower grade. r example, fractions are learned in sixth grade, not fourth grade. Oh, but the kids have trouble learning it, so instead of trying to figure out how to teach it better, they begin teaching fractions at a lower grade level, to the point that fractions are being taught in kindergarten now, where kids have nothing approximating the pre-skills that they need to put in place to understand it. It’s insane.

The other thing teachers do is to use clout. They’re clumsy in terms of instructional design. Clout just means that, if kids are have trouble with fractions, the teachers keep commanding the kids more and more practice in fractions.  Come on, if you’re not teaching it, then the kids are not practicingThey’re telling you with their mistakes what you as the teacher are doing wrong. You’re doing something wrong and you need to look at their mistakes for qualitative information about what you need to change in your instruction to teach it right. Teachers don’t do that.

There are hundreds of examples, and some of them are kind of irksome. If you look from a strictly instructional standpoint, phonemic awareness is a skill that’s necessary for beginning reading. If you look at it the way teachers look at it, it’s a thing, kind of a general amorphous language thing. There’s phonemic awareness, strict phonics, explicit phonics, decodable text, where nothing is supposed to be in the text that students can’t read. But in our approach, we controlled some things that those theoretical systems hadn’t even gotten around to yet. For examples, syntax, and some of the other details like sentence structure complexity and comprehension skills.

We arrived at how to figure these out, but not from some theory of phonemic awareness, the brain, or any theory of the internal functions of language. We came to our approaches by paying attention to the mistakes the kids showed us. It went like this:  If you give kids a task with good developmental preparation while you teach them the sounds of words and you’re working with low performers and you present them a task in which they are to sound out a word, so they touch the letters and sound it out, and they go, “mmm, aaa, tt.” They even pronounce the sounds correctly. It’s not “muh, aay, tuh,” it’s “mmm, aaa, tt.” And maybe you’ll say, “Okay, what word is that? And they say, “mmm, aaa, tt.” And you say, “Well, come on, well, what word is it?” And one kid says, “my-at” or some kids will go, “mmm, at.” What is the word?  And some would answer, “At.”

Okay, so they’re telling you something! They’re telling you that you have a stinko program and that you need to go back and fix the damn thing up so you can teach what is necessary for them to understand and not make that mistake. The kids are telling you exactly what they need. They’re showing you which part of this complex task they’re having trouble with. Are they having trouble with looking at those letters and identifying the sounds for the letters? No. Are they having trouble identifying in sequence, going from left to right? No. All of that has been taught, so your program is adequate to that extent.

They are telling you that there is a verbal component you screwed up on and they don’t have it or didn’t understand it. And if they don’t have it, all you’re going to have left to use is brute force.  Because there is not a cute way you can show it. But if you use a good program, you’ll automatically say, “Wait a minute, let’s take off the complex task, let’s take out the verbal component and break it down and leave all the rest out of it for a minute.  Just take the verbal component and before they ever get to having to sound out words, we’ll teach the verbal component which goes something like, “Okay, listen, mmmat; say it with me. Get ready. Again, say it with me.” “Mm-at.” “Say it fast. Yeah, what word? Great!” And now when they read the word, they have a background that makes it far more likely to be able to identify that word without dropping the initial sound or not being able to say it fast.

Systematic Sequential Instruction:

Also, it gives the teacher a correction! That’s one of the biggest rules of any systematic sequential instruction; anything that occurs later in the program should be correctable by presenting something you taught earlier in the program. Because if the program is well designed, that’s why you taught it, so it would buttress against mistakes now. So if a kid makes a mistake or makes the same mistake again—we make no assumptions. The kid can make the mistake. Even though we’ve got the phonological component, you know, by all-that’s-holy, they shouldn’t have problems. But maybe just because of the complexity of the task, putting it all together, the kid makes some mistakes. So – “mm-at” — “What word?” “Hat!” And you say, “Okay, listen. Mm-at. Do it with me, get ready. Mm-at. What word?” “Mat.” “Okay, now do it down here. Touch the letters and say the sound. Same thing. See, you already know how to do it.” And with a couple of corrections like that, the kids don’t make the mistake.

And there’s one more example.  Some of the kids still tended to have a little trouble with blending. So what we did was, instead of doing, “mm-at,” which is the traditional way, we made the unblended word closer to the blended word by having them do it continuously, so it actually sounds more like the real word said slowly like, [almost singing] “Mmmmm-mat, say it fast.” “Mat.” “Now we got it!”

Now we have designed a program based strictly on feedback, or a component of the program based strictly on feedback. And the kids told us, they showed us in their behavior exactly what they needed. So if you don’t make assumptions, you can do that. If you make assumptions, you’re going to screw up pretty badly.

And unfortunately, a lot of stuff that’s still going on today makes horrible assumptions about kids, without having evidence of how kids respond to it, and without using that evidence to fix up the program’s sequence. Phonological awareness has become a “thing” and teachers do things which are insane for beginning reading—like phoneme segmentation, where you’ll say a word and then have the kid say the phonemes of the word.  Afterall, to a great extent, the phonemes are perfectly arbitrary. A lot of them, the vowels particularly, have multiple sounds. Like “A” does not have a uniform sound. It’s “ae, ah, ay” and like that. And “O” is always cleaner. But “E” is probably the only really good one. So breaking a word into phonemes is an arbitrary task to an extent. So if you don’t show them what the phonemes are, they’re not going to be able to do it.

All you need to do is work with the kids, low performing kids, on segmentation for instance, before they’ve learned to read or anything. And you have to ask yourself two questions: One, “Wow, what can I do to fix up this problem, because it’s really hard for these kids?” Well, what you can do is teach them a whole bunch of other things, so they will know and understand the phonemes that they’re going to use before they use them. And the second question is, given the first question, ‘What’s the application of this? Spelling?’ Right. But do we really expect them to spell before they read? No.

So, you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to first introduce them to a whole bunch of regularly spelled words so they know the game of the relationship between the sounds they say and the letters or letter combinations?’ And then at that point, give them a task that would require only a small stretch for them to recognize the word.  By learning to read the word, they’ve already learned most of the important skills that they need in order to do the spelling thing. So, they only need a little bridge of phonemic awareness or segmentation to fill in the gaps before you can introduce spelling effectively.

The point I think that hasn’t really caught on, is that you’re going to design a specific sequence and you’re going to design it so that it is slick. Which means that, everything is in there for a purpose and all complex tasks are composed of elements that have been taught earlier and modified by fine tuning it – by trying it out with kids. I mean, they’re the ultimate judges in this court.  If they make mistakes, they’re telling you, fundamentally, that you goofed up and they’re also implying exactly what they need to know.


David Boulton: One of the things that I really like about what you’re saying that’s really important, is that this is really where assessment should be. Our general approach to assessment right now is way downstream from what we’re attempting to measure.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And so the whole loop between intention, assumption, presentation, interaction and measurement, and how it all loops back to inform instruction, is way out of sync with what’s actually happening with children and learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah.

David Boulton: And this is a problem that runs across the board from day one through university, really.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: But it’s very critical in these developmentally precarious corridors that children have to go through with respect to the kinds of artificial learning challenges involved in codes such as reading, spelling, mathematics, etc…

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah, absolutely.

David Boulton: See if you can speak to ‘assessment’ in your language in a way that connects the dots…

Siegfried Engelmann: RightWell, smart assessment should be based on problems the kids have. So if they have problems learning a particular thing, or if they have problems in the process, then you should have some kind of assessment – an ongoing one – that lets you know whether they’re stumbling.

Another problem with assessment is the remedy.  If you give vague remedies or elaborate remedies, it’s unlikely that anybody is going to follow them through. But if you have them designed within the context of a well-designed program, the remedies are fairly easy because you end up with a program designed so that it’s like a stair step. Each lesson is continuous with the lesson from before.

In fact, a rule we follow is that each subsequent lesson teaches no more than ten percent new material.  The information is taught in tracks, so the kid does not do “a unit” on something. Rather, the kid works a little each day.  For instance, first on sounds, then the kid works on reading words in isolation and then works on reading a story, which is near the end because that tends to be the big reinforcer.  Then doing some workbook activities will strengthen some of the skills that need to be strengthened as well.

As every lesson follows that order or that regimen, in so that you’re able to build these tracks that just introduce a little bit, every couple of days—if that’s happening in all the tracks, then each lesson will introduce about ten percent of upcoming information. So basically, if the kid qualifies for the program and has enough skills to be able to do step one in the program, the kid will then be able to go through the whole program.

David Boulton: But that’s the big “IF”, right?  On the one hand, you could black-box the child in a way that you’re talking about, in terms of the outcome that you want and the intervention or educational system that you’re going to put them through and say, almost independent of whatever their inner variation is, that the instructional objective in itself has a structure that implies a series of progressions that the child must go through relative to that instructional objective.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right.

David Boulton: And that plus adjusting to the feedback from them, if we adjust to it, is what we need to move them down the line.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah, yeah.

David Boulton: But this comes back to how well our assessment of them lines up so that they’re on the right starting point, going into it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And how our ongoing assessment allows us to tune our responses to them so that we’re actually meeting what they need along the way in those steps.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. I agree totally. That, translated into this stair-step program idea, simply means that you can use every single lesson, every single task in every lesson as a test—if you have appropriate criteria.

The rules for how you use the program as a tool for ongoing and absolutely accurate assessment goes something like this: if you have a properly designed program, the kids have to be 70 percent correct on anything that is introduced for the first time on that lessonThe kids have to be 90 percent correct on anything introduced in the past three lessons, from the beginning of the program. At the end of the lesson, the kid has to be 100 percent firm on everything. Another rule is that you have to have the program designed so that the teacher can complete it in a reasonable period of time.

Now, if you use all of the criteria I mentioned, it doesn’t matter what mistake a kid makes. We’ve found, empirically, when we work with kids, in Special Education for instance, we have to move the kids back something like an average of eighty lessons!  In other words, for those kids the starting stair is very low because their teachers are so far from being able to teach to mastery. They’re not even in the ballpark. So, the teachers could go through that lesson three or four times and it would do nothing for their students, because teachers are not evaluating or seriously looking at the skill level of those kids.

Part of the reason is largely because of prejudice. Teachers think that you have to move them along when they’re not getting it, because they are Special Ed kids“they can’t learn this stuff!” Wrong! If you place them properly, they will progress just like anybody else. They may go a little slowly at first, because they have to learn the skills of how to learn from you, or how to learn from adults.

David Boulton: And they may have confusion brought about by a fragmentary exposure to the things that are downstream from where they really ought to be.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, absolutely. Like when you take the kids back to earlier steps in the lessons—now you’re not just dealing with virgin subjects anymore; you’re dealing with kids who have been contaminated, so they’re going to require more practice.

Relearning takes anywhere from three to fourteen or fifteen times as much exposure. So, when we design a program, we design it according to whom we’re dealing with.

David Boulton: That’s a very interesting point. Let’s deconstruct why that is so.

Deconstructing Maladaptive Strategies via Corrective Reading:

Siegfried Engelmann: Okay. Well, the first step in deconstruction would be to understand ‘evidence of performance’. I’ll give you a couple of examples of corrective readers, from our program series Corrective Reading, that shows the problems they have in learning.

For example, if you go through a simple story in which the kids can read three out of four words correctly, so it’s within their ballpark, and you give corrections for the words they miss.  “No, that’s not ‘said’, it’s ‘was’.” “What word?” “Okay. Read that sentence again.” You just go through it low-key, giving corrections like that.  Then, you have them read the story again. They will virtually always make more mistakes on the second reading than the first. Why?  Because they can’t take the information you’ve given. Why can’t they take it? Because they have a history of not being able to take information from teachers.

Teachers have told them things like, “Look at the first part of a word and guess what word that could be.” Teachers have told them, “Read the context, think of the context. What could that word be?”

The reason why kids have great excitation in their language areas, poor readers anyway, is because they’re trying to treat the reading task as a verbal task! They’re trying to figure out the meaning before they read the words!

In fact, in a field tryout of one of our programs, we had one kid tell us this: The kid made a mistake, and the teacher said, “No. Sound it out.” And the kid looked at her and he said, “Tell me the word, and I’ll sound it out.” And I thought, what a smart-ass kid, but then thought, No!  He just said it all! That’s it! That’s what he believes! He has to know the word to sound it out!

Another example is when kids read words in lists they make fewer mistakes than when they read the same words in context. Why? Because in grade one, teachers did eminently stupid stuff, like have them look at the picture, discuss the picture, and then read the words. I’m sorry, Virginia, pictures do not generate specific words! But specific words generate certain features of pictures! So the proper order is: Read the words. What are you going to see in the picture? Here’s the picture. Not the other way around!

Another thing teachers do is to always discuss, discuss, and discuss. Frame, think, then read. Wrong!  That’s what these poor readers are already trying to do. They’re trying to figure out if there’s some kind of crazy set of rules for them. And obviously, Shaywitz and a lot of others have demonstrated that this approach is inappropriate because it’s asking a kid to read the context just to find out ‘what could that word mean?’ So they’re forever making guessing mistakes and missing words. But if you have them read words in a list, they do just fine.

So, what implication does that have for a reading program? All kinds. It means that you need unpredictable sentence structures. Why? Because they’ll guess on the basis of sentence structure. “Tim and John said, ‘Let’s go to the lake.’ So, Tim and John”…everybody could complete that sentence. No. So, we would design that sentence so that if the kid said, “went to the lake,” it would be wrong. Okay? Why? So we can provide the kid with information at a high rate to change their guessing behaviors.

Related to that is how you would reconfigure in the program, what they read in text. You know that kids reading words in lists do better than reading the same words in the text. So, what we did was we had a series of stories about this dog named Chee. It’s named Chee because they had trouble discriminating “Chee” and “she”. Everything is for a reason. And it’s largely influenced by the feedback we use from a kid’s performance.

So when Chee gets upset or angry, Chee says random words: “Oh, of, come, for, to, go” — all the words that these kids have had since the first grade, and they’re forever missing when they read them in connected sentences. Talk about a hell of a time!  They would try to read those words and they would stumble on them simply because they were nonsense statements in a deceptively sensible context for what they thought. But after awhile, they would get proficient at it.

Coherent Feedback:

In reality, the kids don’t know how to incorporate the feedback of their own performance because it is never really shown to them. So, for the first few days we have the kids chart their errors in the program, so that we can start to give them data about how they are learning. Typically, often on the second reading, they’ll make more mistakes than on the first reading. Then after about seven to ten days that reverses.  The kids will make more errors on the first reading and fewer errors on the second reading. And then both percentages will drop so there are fewer errors overall. So what does that tell you? That tells you they are now able to incorporate the feedback from their performance. And because, now, they can actually chart their own progress and mistakes along with you, they see how you mean what you say and that they can rely on the things you say.

David Boulton: I really like where you were going here. And what I’m hearing you say is that when somebody has to be remediated with respect to a learning objective, you said it takes fourteen, fifteen times longer. And the reason for that is, the way that they’ve learned to relate to instruction has created confusion in them…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …and you’ve got to now design an instructional system that takes into account their confusioand bridges them into having a trusting relationship with the coherency of your instruction.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And, trusting in a logical sense, that they can believe what you say, they know that your words mean exactly what they say. Yeah, but then how much repetition do they need to be masterful? Through their behavior, they’ll show you exactly how much repetition they need.

The Shame Factor:

David Boulton: Well, I imagine that part of the reason you need so much repetition is the confusion at this level, but another significant part in this is their aversion to being wrong, to being in a relationship with a teacher and how they feel about being wrong so much of the time.

Siegfried Engelmann: YeahAnd also that, largelythey feel that they’re going to fail.

David Boulton: Right.

Siegfried Engelmann: We work with some really tough kids, sixteen, seventeen year-olds, who are incarcerated for murder and things like that, really tough kids. It was kind of interesting working with them, because here you’d see this real tough kid and you’re teaching them Frame One.  They’re learning the stuff okay, but the first thing you have to tell them is this:  “You can’t give up on me. Okay? You cannot quit. And if you’re going to quit, say it now, and we won’t even bother. I’m not going to give up on you because I know you can do this. But you cannot quit”—because that’s what they’ll let themselves do. And you can see it in their behavior.

Here’s this tough kid, he’s reading and sounding out, or he’s identifying this word. “The… man… went…,” and then you see his body language saying it all. What is he saying? He’s saying, “I knew it! I knew I couldn’t do this! I knew it would be no better this time than it’s been how many thousands of other times! How many people have tried to do this with me? I’m mean, give me a break! I can’t do it!” And you have to tell them, “Whoa, no quitting. Now, back to the first word.”

David Boulton: This is so critical. What you’re describing is this impulse that frames their learning experience in order to protect them from the shame they are used to feeling.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right.

David Boulton: It’s happening to little kids, it’s happening across the board.  This confusion is bringing about this dreaded shame that they don’t want to have and so they’re finding ways to avoid the feeling and with it the learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And you’re trying to hold them to a covenant that says, ‘It’s going to be hard, but you’ve got to agree not to try to escape.’

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Yeah, trying to get him to the point where I can show him the data of his progress and say, “Look, see what you’ve learned?” Because, what often happens later is that as the stories get harder. If a kid can read nine out of ten words correctly, and you change that text by introducing unfamiliar words so that he can only read one out of five or one out of four correctly, he will make way more mistakes on familiar words; he will make mistakes you haven’t seen that kid make in weeks. Why, because he’s reverting back to his old strategies. And those are strategies where, “I don’t know how to read this, I have to guess, I have to figure it out, I have to go through some mumbo-jumbo.”

David Boulton: As mediated by how he or she feels in the turbulence of this confusion.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, oh, it’s horrible. They feel really bad.      

David Boulton: Their feelings affect their cognitive clarity.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. Well, like with these really tough kids, sometimes they’ll start out and they’ll say stuff like, “Hey, man, you don’t expect us to do this bullshit!  We’re not doing this crap. That’s kid stuff! They do that in the first grade. Do we look like first graders?” “No.” And you just say, “Okay, guys, here we go. Everybody, touch the first word.” It’s hands on the first word—touching the first word and still talking that way. So what does that tell you? It’s not for you, it’s for their peers. They’re showing that if they make a mistake, it’s not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t know how to read, they’re saying ‘I don’t give a damn, I don’t care about this stuff’. And it’s all a posture. But they do care. You better believe they care.

There was this one place where we worked with kids, it was in a residential setting, where they could choose different things.  They could do as many as three reading periods a day and they didn’t have to do any other schoolwork because they were older kids and weren’t in school. Most of them would sign up for three reading periods a day, no kidding. They wanted to read with a passion. And if you can deliver the mail, they’ll stay with you. The reason they don’t stay with most programs is that they don’t see the evidence, that data from their own performance, that anything has, can, or will ever happen for them.

David Boulton: It’s the same old fear and avoidance of failure.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: … And here again, it reconfirms their belief that “something is wrong with me.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely.

David Boulton: And it doesn’t feel like that can go away because they don’t have any sense of traction. “I can’t get out of a hole by going into this. All I know is feeling bad.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right, and right. And, “I want to be able to do this. I really want to be able to do this.” That’s the point that a lot of people miss. You don’t know how important it is to them. It’s probably more important than it is to those of us who can do it, or more important than we can imagine, because they want to feel that they’re smart. They don’t want to feel that they’re dumb. And they know that other kids can do this. And boy, do they ever want to do it, regardless of how much they push you out.

Learning Problems and Behavioral Issues:

David Boulton: Well, one of the things we’ve found with many of the people we’ve talked to is the enormous correlation between behavioral problems, social pathologies of various kinds, and learning problems. So many behavior issues seem to have their roots in learning related issues — frustrated learning that has turned into shame in a way that they can’t handle.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. A lot of studies done by N.I.C.H.D. have shown that most teen problems are not the greatest predictor of school failure. It’s the other way around.  Behavioral pathologies in general are really highly correlated with learning related problems like in. . .

David Boulton: . . . in reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yes, particularly with problems in learning to read.

Corrective Feedback:

Siegfried Engelmann: To close the loop here, students show you through their behavior how much practice they need; that way we don’t have to do a lot of guessing about how much more it will take.  All we need to do is put them through the program and compare them with students in an initial reading program where kids are virgins to the lesson, uncontaminated, and see how many repetitions it takes to learn from a mistake, comparatively. For certain words, it would take like seven to eight correction repetitions, (virgin readers) but that doesn’t mean that they were corrected in the first place. What it does mean, is that the mistakes occurred in a context where you knew that if the kid made a mistake you could correct it.

To learn some of these words that the kids persistently make mistakes on, particularly when the text gets a little more difficult, a fourth-grader might require sixteen repetitions, and a tenth grader might require 400 repetitions! So the numbers go up astronomically in relation to how long they’ve practiced it and how embedded the bad strategies are for them using the word. It’s big.

David Boulton: I was talking to Dr. Alex Granzin, a school psychologist, a couple of days ago and he said that, as far as he was concerned, there ought to be anemergency stop button. If a kid isn’t getting it, the whole thing needs to stop until she does, because the confusion will just continue to get worse and she will be in greater danger of turning off.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, absolutely! That’s why, when we re-did the lessons in Special Ed. Classrooms, we would quickly test the kids individually and place them where they belonged in the program.  We could do it really quickly because we know what kind of mistakes to look for when placing a whole classroom of twenty kids, in an hour. But most people don’t know what to look for. So, what happens is, you may have a very carefully designed program, but it doesn’t benefit all the kids, because the kid who’s at mastery has to only learn ten percent, while the kid who’s way behind would have to learn hundreds of times more to be at mastery.

David Boulton: And to be able to overcome how she’s feeling about it, which is working against her ability to do the learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. There should be gongs all over the place so that kids never get in a position like this. This kid learns ten percent in the period, this other kid, who is historically always the slower one, has to learn 600 percent in that period. Does that make a hell of a lot of sense? Not to me! The kid you need at mastery is the lower performing kid.

Okay, another fact: You have to work differently with disadvantaged kids. Hart and Risley did this great book, Meaningful Differences, in which they counted the differences in interactions between middle-class and disadvantaged lower-class kids. In terms of vocabulary development it comes out to like, over a period of a couple of years, millions of repetitions different, millions of differences in exposure. So, because disadvantaged kids are pretty far behind, in order for them to catch up, you have to be scrupulously efficient.

But if you work with lower performing kids, and you don’t bring them to criterion today, let’s say you bring them to an 80 percent criterion, meaning if you test them the next day, they will not be above 80 percent; they’ll be below 80 percent, or at best, at 80 percent. If you do the same thing with middle-class kids who are accustomed to successful learning, who’ve done a lot of it, you bring them to or leave them at 80 percent criterion, very frequently they’ll come in the next day at 100 percent criterion.

But, if your sequence is not designed so that it addresses what the kid has to learn, it won’t work.  For example, a lot of corrective reading programs try to avoid the things that give kids problems.  No! The key is to teach it properly and confront itWhy? Well, a simple rule of reinforcement theory is, like in Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, is that…

if things occurs at a low rate, their very hard to change. If something comes up only once every three years, it’s very difficult to establish any kind of program that will make a big difference. But, if you can get that behavior at a high rate, then you’re in a much better position to give the kid information about what he’s doing and explain that every time he does it, it’s wrong for the same reason.

This implies, if you are dealing with a severe problem, a kid who repeatedly makes certain kinds of mistakes under certain conditions, you would make it happen at a high rate so that he has lots of opportunities to run off then receive feedback about it that shows him why it’s happening. That way the kid can understand, and then begin to make better choices.  So he’ll let go of it in time.

David Boulton: So generally, you want to isolate and vivify the things that are going on…

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely.

David Boulton: …in order to get feedback that is coming in timely enough to change what they are doing.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely, yeah. And you don’t hide from it. So instead of hiding from the mistakes that the corrective reader makes, we bring them all out in the forefront—but not in a way that it’s going to frustrate them. It’s so important for teachers to understand this.

It’s easier to map the individuals who haven’t yet learned because what they learn is a function of what you put in.  And so you can build the program so that it has plateaus and gives them adequate practice. Then when you go into the next phase, you’re able to see what kind of problems they have.  And the way you see it, is to design each phase in a way that it puts the next problem you’re going to confront in the spotlight, so it happens a lot and will give them a lot of practice.

After a whole bunch of Chee stories, for instance, they got pretty darn good at reading those nonsense words because you would tell them when they make a mistake, “Hey, guys, you just read those words in a list. It’s the same word.”

The corrective sequence for the ‘contaminated’ reader is nowhere as simple as it is for the beginning reader. They’re always guessing and after a while they get good at doing it.

David Boulton: So in that case, you help them learn their way through these guessing habits…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …that they’ve accumulated so that their mind isn’t busy doing self-confusing things.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And you do it at a high rate.

David Boulton: Yes.

Siegfried Engelmann: You give them lots of opportunities to guess, to make mistakes with these habits, so every time they go, “Uh-oh, that’s not the word.” “Sound it out,” or “Spell the word,” or whatever algorithm we’re using at that time. Say, “Okay, that’s what tells you what the word is. Spell it. Don’t guess at it. Here you go. Back to the beginning of the sentence, read all the words,” and away you go.

The Effect of Affect on Learning:

David Boulton: We were talking to Dr. Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist who specializes in neuroplasticity, and he was saying something that’s related to this, but on the affective side, or the emotional side, which was: “If it’s something that we’re angry about or we’re fearful about, or we’re desirous of, or we’ve got a high level of interest in it, we’ll learn it in one-tenth the time than if it’s something that we’re only mildly interested in.”(link to actual statement) In other words, that emotional intensity, that affective intensity, has an enormous effect on learning efficiency.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Well, that’s the way we are. But it ain’t just humans. It’s dogs, cats, anything.  I knew a dog that had an experience where, during a terrible thunderstorm, he tried to jump out of his yard, which had a picket fence, and he caught his collar on the picket fence.  He hung there for about three hours until his master came home. And during that time, there was a lot of thunder and lots of rain. So thunder and lightning like that occurs at a relatively low rate—he never got over it. But the dog could predict weather like you would not believe. Long before there was ever a cloud in the sky, he’d start acting nervous and start hiding under a bed or something like that. So, he’s telling you he learned to avoid the fear, in one trial, in such a way that affected his whole life. He was my dog, so I know! [laughter]

I tried to desensitize him, but it was so ingrained. I would sometimes have people over and he’d start doing that, and I’d say, “Oh, it’s going to rain,” and they would look at me funny… [laughter] Sometimes rain was not in the forecast but I’d say, “I’ll bet the bank it’s going to rain.” [laughter] He could sense changes of pressure in the air. But he was absolutely accurate and he learned that in one trial. Anyhow…

David Boulton: Back to the kids.

Siegfried Engelmann: Back to the kids. The big problem with this routine is that you get into this Sylvia Ashton-Warner kind of nonsense. She would present a word to kids and if they couldn’t learn it in one repetition, she’d throw that word away and try something else, because it didn’t have emotional significance to them. No,you have to teach the kids these words.  So what you need to do is to let them know that their role as a learner is important, that they can do it, and they’re going to get significant reinforcement from doing it, including, “You’re going to impress the daylights out of me. I am going to be impressed with your accomplishments. And I’ll let you know that I think you’re pretty darn smart when you do things that are pretty darn smart.” And we’re going to arrange it so that a lot of smart things happen.

If you get positive reinforcement for your learning, and it’s significant to you, and you see that it’s a useful tool, “Wow, I read better than Jerry, and he’s in third grade! I’m only in kindergarten! Wow, am I smart, or what?” But if you don’t give them that space for evidence, they won’t get that it’s important, and it’s not just some dumb emotional game, or intrinsic reinforcement or something like that.  You have to give that input to make it work.

There are a lot of things that you can do within a good program.  We’ve done a lot of different programs and they all have very, very good track records. In fact, unequaled track records, period. All of them are different from each other, and they’re all built along the same principles—but not along the same actual words or sequences, some not even the same conventions for prompting responses.

Computer Based Learning:

One that we’ve done, that may be the crown jewel of them all, is this CD program called Phonics.  It’s really, really neat because it has a second reading of the story. There’s a story on the screen; first they’ll read the story, like a book without pictures. Then, after they read the whole story without seeing any pictures or anything like that, the narrator says, “Now read the story again, and I’ll show you some pictures.” Sometimes there’s animation in there. In the second reading of the story, it’s more abbreviated, generally, but the words are different. We don’t use the same sentences.

David Boulton: But you tell the same story, so the story is getting richer.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: As the sequence progresses, their reading gets better.

Siegfried Engelmann: And if they try to remember lines or anything like that, *buzz!* They get that information fast, letting them know it’s not working. But then, because it’s the second reading, they generally think, “Oh, we got to read this story again.” Wrong!

The high point of it all is, these kids look forward to these programs because there will be some cute animation in there, which is in a lot of the stories. But the animations are unpredictable, so they don’t know exactly when it’s going to occur. But they do know that after they do this first reading and do a good job on it, they get to do the second reading with new cartoons. “Yes!” [laughs]

You have to work with the tools that are within your purview, or you can’t do it. You have more with the CD medium; you have so much more latitude and more control.  Because, now you can control the pacing, you can control the syntax, you can control what the kids see, and you can control what’s really important—the timing of how things happen.

David Boulton: And I would think, most importantly, you can gather feedback closer to the edge of the action.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, not really. If you’re a good teacher and you’re doing Reading Mastery, for instance, and you’ve got a group of say, ten kids who are reading these words in a list, you know, next word, next word and if you set it up right, when one kid makes a mistake you can hear it and you can correct it right there. And that’s the level on which all programs have to operate. If they can’t operate on that level, there are varying degrees particularly for the beginners.  As you go farther up and the kids have more skills to make them autonomous and able to figure things out on their own, then they don’t need these high rate support things. But you don’t want a kid to go away from that group with misrule on what this word means or what this word says.

David Boulton: Particularly in the early stage, you don’t want them making mistakes that get through and aren’t caught, and allowing them to think that they were okay about something that was fundamentally wrong.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So your CD is not using voice recognition…

Siegfried Engelmann: No, no.

David Boulton: Without tracking their voice how do get the level of feedback granularity needed?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, we’ve been working on a version of it using that.  We have someone that works with us and he’s been working on a version of speech recognition for two years. The problem is that speech recognition, unfortunately, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, particularly with kid voices.

David Boulton: There are two engines that are pretty stable and good now.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

David Boulton: The one that Soliloquy is working on, that Marilyn Adams is doing back East (subsequently acquired by Scientific Learning and called “Reading Assistant”) , and there’s another one that I’m familiar with in the Bay Area. Both are actually able to make the kind of sound level distinctions in the range of children’s voices necessary to plug them into some programs.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. See, our experience is that the mistakes that we especially want to catch happen when they’re reading connective text. If they read very much, you know, it’s not just a few words, or a list, something as simple as that.  When they read connective text, and you’ve got 150 stories and they’re going to be reading them all, it just overloads the machine. You have to get samples of the kid’s voice, get a match, and set it up. And even after that…

David Boulton: See that kind of says something about the complexity of the relationship between speech and text.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. [laughter]

Oh and in English—Get the hook! I mean, Jesus, let’s take a language, run it through Greek and Latin, screw it up, then give it to the French, and then the Germans have to have a big shot at it!

David Boulton: And then the Dutch.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah! [laughter] And then when you’re all done, go back to England again and get some Medieval stuff stuck in there, and now you’ve got it except for your neologisms and… [laughter]

David Boulton: Yeah, it’s pretty bad.

Myths and Misconceptions in Education:

David Boulton: Let’s talk about the myths and the misconceptions that abound out there.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah, the myths and misconceptions out there are legions. There are still those who believe that kids learn very general things and then the things become more specific, which is like the sight-reading approach, where you look at a general confirmation of the word and then you figure it out. Then later, discriminations occur. *buzz!* But, it doesn’t work that way!

Years ago, we worked in a lab right across from this other operation that did crazy stuff. You could see the kids inside, learning-disabled kids, tracing this big sandpaper “A”.  So I asked, “Why does the letter have to be sandpaper and so big?”  The answer I got was, “Oh, multi-sensory input – they can smell it, see it, and touch it. Because of their poor visual discrimination, these kids can’t discriminate.”

I said, “Is that right?” It was during recess, so I said to those kids, “Let’s go outside.”  There happened to be an airplane flying over in the distance.  I said, “What is that thing up there?”  The kids all looked and one of them said, “What do you mean? I said, “That little thing over there in the sky.”  And they looked at me like I was nuts.  “That’s an airplane.” Then, there was also a bird flying over there, it was a little bit bigger, I said, “Look over there, there’s another airplane.”  They all looked and said, “Oh, man, that’s a bird!” And they went right back to the big sandpaper “A”.  Give me a break! It’s not a question of visual discrimination. It’s a question of what you taught them and how they learned to discriminate it. OK, so that is one example.

Dyslexia or Dysteachia?:

Then you have, and perhaps this one bothers me the most, it is the notion of dyslexia.  We’re slowly moving toward the direction that…

there is a “dys-teach-ia”—that kids are logical and have mislearned because they have been mistaught. But it’s really, really slow for this notion to take hold.  There’s still tons of information printed on dyslexia in classrooms today. And we’ve shown for the past thirty-four years, that if kids are taught properly in kindergarten, you won’t have non-readers. There are NO non-readers. I’ve never seen a kid with an IQ in the range of 80 or above that couldn’t be taught to read in a timely fashion. And I’ve taken on various comers that said, “Oh, this kid has no visual perception” and so on.  They can all be taught to read if you start at the right level and you provide a sequence that is going to teach them systematically.

So what does it take for them to let go of these notions?  I know that it’s all tied up with funding.  Hopefully, they’re getting close to kicking specific learning disabilities out. But of all the absurd categories or labels, dyslexia has to be among the worst. Because how do you know a kid has a specific learning disability?  Because he can’t read.  Why can’t he read? Because he’s got a specific learning disability. Oh, I see. That makes a lot of sense now, perfectly circular logic!

David Boulton: And, we can add, that the biggest learning disability in the country is caused by the process of learning to read.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. Well, if they were to actually get serious about or measure, for instance dyscalculia, I guess they would find that it’s a biggie, too.  I know this is sort of off the subject, because we’re talking about reading. But we worked with this group of kids who had gone through this kind of Math program where every day the teacher would present a new problem and the kids would have to figure it out through guess and check, and make up some algorithm or something like that.

So, mid year, after working with these kids on stuff that was on their level (because they were placed properly), kids would still do this kind of guessing thing all the time.  They would raise their hand and you’d go over and say, “What’s the problem?” They’d say, “I don’t know how to work this problem.” And you would look at it and say, “Well, that is the same kind of problems we worked on yesterday. Do you remember those?” The kid would say,”Yeah.” “Do you remember how we worked and solved them yesterday?” Then, the kid would say, “Yeah. You mean you want me to work it the same way I worked it yesterday?” I am not kidding – I guess that’s why the kids don’t understand that the reason they invented math in the first place was so they could avoid all that guess and check stuff and could solve the problems systematically. The kids didn’t get that it was true, that it was universal.  It would happen today and tomorrow — same problem, same solution, same class, and same approach. Give me a break. The kids are totally crippled in math.

David Boulton: Going back to your “dysteachia” which I really like, I think that what we are both really hot about now, is that the biggest learning disabling thing happening to our culture is caused by our approach to teaching reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.  A kid can know nothing about arithmetic and you might not discover there is a problem, even after talking to them for two days. But when a kid has a reading problem, depending on the situation you’re in, you will probably find out very quickly that they have this problem as it is very handicapping for them, and they feel really bad about it.

David Boulton: And, it’s easier to get through life trying to hide an aversion to mathematics than an aversion to reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. But, the whole thing about dyslexia is that they try to make it a property of the kid.

Some years ago, Gayle Analessee did a paper in which he diagnosed diagnoses (ref?).  He would take case studies for about 1,000 kids that were diagnosed as having specific learning disabilities and he would present those who did the diagnoses with a number of questions.  For example, “Why are kids diagnosed?” And he asked about the underlying cause for the diagnosis. He had a whole bunch of options, including inappropriate teaching, school programs, and failure to identify problems in a timely manner.

Interestingly enough, it was never any of the above options, it was always the kid. The establishment was never responsible for the problem. The kid was alwaysthe problem. It’s still kind of like that with dyslexia.  I guess this is where some of the brain MRI work comes in.  It’s useful to show people that, No, Virginia, when a kid learns to read better of course his brain patterns change. He hasn’t inherited some kind of goony dyslexia.

What does it take?  We work in classrooms with kids who have IQs below 100; they’re from impoverished areas, and these schools have an enormous history of failure, of kids not learning to read.  Yet, the kids can all read by the end of the year. I mean, isn’t this a far more likely place to find dyslexia? They argue ‘not so anymore’, and they distinguish amongst the two differences: There are those who can’t read because of environmental conditions and there are those who can’t read because they have dyslexia.  Well, if this exists, it does at such a small number that it’s infinitesimal and you don’t need all of the support groups and other kinds of accoutrements that go with dyslexia.

David Boulton: Well, those are either driven by parent groups and by legislators; they figure out how they can identify and tag certain kids for certain kinds of support.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And the law says, ‘If there’s something inherently wrong with you, then we want to help you. But, if you’re a casualty of growing up, or of your environment, or our school system’s, sorry. Even though your “disability” is effectively the same, we’re not going to take any responsibility for that.’

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

Cori Stennett: Which is tied to socioeconomics as well.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah.

Cori Stennet: If you have very proactive parents or advocates, then you’re going to see more dyslexia in some of these environments, because the parents want more money flowing into establishing what they think is the root problem with their kid.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, but we need to make teachers better advocates for kids because the teachers are really the only ones who can do a lot of the central advocacy.  Nobody else, not a nutrition or health program, or lawyer, or affirmative action of any kind is going to help the kid learn to read.  A teacher has to serve that advocacy; it is a very important role, but it’s not expressed as a role, it’s expressed in terms of, if the kid does not read, well then, the kid has a problem! That’s very unfortunate.

David Boulton: Rather than — we need to have a shift in perspective that says — “Children who are struggling to read are a reflection of us.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely! Right. Well, we have had this model for years (and it’s really despised by IRA people.)  It is simply that, if the child hadn’t learned, the teacher hadn’t taughtWithin the context of instruction, that is absolutely true, because that’s what the teacher is there for. Not just for the kid to learn, but for the teacher to present whatever sensory input and whatever things are necessary to change that kid’s behavior so that the kid reads. And if the kid is not reading, the teacher did not do their end of the deal correctly, and this needs to be overhauled, scrapped, redone, and recognized right now!

Furthermore, like you said earlier, if it is not done in a timely manner, what the hell good is it? You need instant identification of problems. For example, in the schools where we work, we have weekly phone calls with the school about every classroom, every group, and every teacher. We get updates on where they all are.  If there’s some assignment the teacher had been given for any specific problems that she had, we need updates on them, right now.  We look at every kid in that damn school every week, because that’s who we’re trying to serve.  Doing any less than that would be remiss in serving as an advocate.

David Boulton: Until such a time when the schools will develop the kind of discipline and ethic that would do this more for themselves.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Well, that’s what I’ve been telling them.

Education Fundamentally Mis-Oriented:

David Boulton: What this keeps coming back to is that our orientation — the general relationship between children and education is fundamentally flawed.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: It’s not a little thing.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right.

David Boulton: We’re fundamentally off in how we’re relating to bringing children through the curriculum.  And you’re a working example of what can happen when you step out of all of the mythology and look at what the objectives are, and design the steps and design the relationship, so you can get the kind of feedback that you need at the frequency level you need, in order to adjust the instruction so it helps those kids get through.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely, yes. But the myths still prevail, big time, unfortunately.

Misconceptions about Direct Instruction:

David Boulton: And one of the myths seem to lead people who don’t understand this sort of orientation to curriculum and instruction to think: “this is the work of the Evil Empire“…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: It’s some dark controlling force that wants us all to sign up and be controlled and send in our reports every week and everything we’re doing is like we’re remote puppets of this guy and his minions”…

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah, right.  Yet, every feature of the program that we’ve designed has been dictated either by problems that kids had, or problems that teachers had.  When we first started working with teachers, we didn’t have scripts. We didn’t have things spelled out in detail. A teacher would learn to teach by sitting next to me as I taught the kids. Then every now and again I’d turn a task over to her.  This was enormously frustrating, it took a year or so for really smart people to become pretty good at this method of teaching. But, once they got over the hump, they became superstars and they got very good at teaching that way.

But learning all of the discriminations is very important and if you are working with low performers you see they make a big difference!’ If you don’t see that, you never will. But when you get to that level, then you need to have coherence so that everything you do is pointing to the kid in terms of her instructional needs, not just necessarily what the student wants to do.  It’s different from child-centered, it’s child-referenced

When we changed the programs, the first thing we did was, we gave  the teachers a list of problems, or a list of words, so they would at least get the sequence straight without doing a bad sequence.  That helped, but they would still get into all kinds of problems. Whenever they went to correct a mistake, they would get wordy or redundant.  They would start appealing to things that the kid didn’t know. They would try to be intuitive and say, “Well, look, you can see what’s different…” No, obviously the kid can’t see ‘the difference,’ or he wouldn’t have made that mistake.

Syncing Up:

David Boulton: But what makes it obvious or not obvious to the child is the degree to which the teacher’s general orientation is based on syncing up — following the flow of what the child is experiencing rather than seeing through some map full of assumptions.

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

David Boulton: So how do we create environments where the teacher is learning, first-person, not by buying into you or into me, or to anybody else’s ideas, but instead they are first-person learning and tracking with and syncing up with what’s going on inside the child?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, the only way I know how to do that, is to do it by the numbers, teach them the things they need to know first, second, third, and so on.  The teachers need to get to the point where they’re not going to just do blind experimentation or trying out crazy things that are going nowhere. I believe most teachers are far from the mark because they’ve never really been taught technical details about teaching. They’ve been taught some, and some of them have a good way with kids. But being able to put it all together so that what teachers are saying is right and has the right timing, and mistakes are easy to correct, and is following a sequence and so on is difficult.  I feel the only way you can do all of that, in any reasonable length of time (which is why we arrived at the format we arrived at) is to basically script it, so the teachers don’t have to attend to all the details of the wording. They don’t have to attend to the details of sequence, or review, any of that. All they have to do is learn how to interact better with those kids.

And there are simple interactions; giving them “feedback” is one of them.  There are a little more complicated ones involving “correction”.  Then there are “motivating” ones, where you’re using information to tell them that they’re smart, that what they’re doing is worthwhile, that they have adopted the role of a good learner, and you really appreciate that, and it’s really helping them to grow. But you have to do it by the numbers. You can’t say, “I’m going to show you how to interact with these kids,” when the teachers don’t have the skills necessary to get to the point where the interactions are significant.

David Boulton: And it seems to me that teachers are not trained to be critical first-person learners, themselves, about how they teach.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So how can they bring that transformation about in their kids, if it’s an alien practice in their own teaching process?

Teachers Know Best?:

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, I think the big problem is—people don’t want to recognize that the teacher doesn’t know best. I mean, all popular appeals are to teachers, “Oh, well, you don’t do that, you give it to the teacher, because the teacher knows best about the individual needs of the children.” Baloney, for a couple of reasons: One is, the standard distribution curve (on any trait, be it, noses, hair, or whatever) has virtually nobody out on the ends and most people in the middle. So right away, you’re saying, “That’s not true of teachers.”

With teachers, we have this skewed curve, people think they’re all up on this end and nobody is left behind. Give me a break. You could say that a few of the teachers know what’s best. But, how do you know which ones those are? Go into the classroom and watch them teach. They’re the ones that are making the smart decisions. The rest of them, most of the teachers, are in the middle somewhere.  No, they don’t know a lot of the things that would put them in the top category, and there are a whole bunch of them there in the middle. So, if we’re looking only for the adequate ones, the ones who really do know what’s best for the kids in terms of instruction, then we’re looking at a very small percentage.

Look at it from another standpoint.  Where and what have teachers demonstrated that show they are capable of creating significant programs, through collaboration, like at Phi Delta Kappa, and publications like that?  Teachers are so big on collaboration to build these programs, but I’d like to give them a real failed school in Chicago, or Baltimore, and just have them exercise some of their beliefs about collaboration in those places. We’ll see what teachers are actually capable of learning for themselves, or are interested in learning, or what they have the capacity to learn in their role.  Let’s face it, a teacher who is busy with kids all day long is not often in a position to sit down and want to talk about programs. The feds and the research I’m reading are terribly guilty of this.  They are forever including Marilyn Adams and going way beyond the evidence to the contrary that this doesn’t cut it. So, they’re always saying things like, the 2000 Report on Reading…, the panel for reading…

David Boulton: Reading Therapy

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.  They say something like, “Phonemic awareness comes in various forms, all of which are effective and a teacher is advised to design the phonemic program she uses by measuring it against measured success.” Well, come on, we’ve done a lot of programs and we think we’re pretty damn smart at putting them together. I have never seen one that we didn’t have to revise substantially on the basis of kid’s performance. We need a hell of a lot more practice at this; it’s very apparently not clear how to best go about it.

David Boulton: When deconstructing the instructional sequence, you make certain starting assumptions about how long it’s going to take the kids to move from this point ’a’ to point ‘b’. And it turns out, that the way that time distributes across the whole process depends upon where the kids really are—at what level. So, that’s what you’re actually trying to pay attention to in the instructional system.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Rather than saying, “Here’s something I can pull off the shelf and apply.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Exactly! [laughter] But with respect to teachers doing their own thing on phonemic awareness, first of all, they still need to measure success and use comparative data–they need to know how good a program should be or know how little time it should take.   A lot of these phonemic awareness programs take too much time, some of them are twenty hours! Twenty hours is way more time than we use in our program. We use only a few minutes in each different lesson.

On phonemic awareness, if the teachers had a good basis of comparison, they would say, “Why the hell am I doing this? I’m never going to get it down to where it’s only going to take 2 hours and thirty-five minutes maybe for the whole year, I’ll never get it there.” With a poor basis for comparison, then what are they doing? They’re designing a crummy program, maybe a little bit better than what they’ have, but it’s still crummy. If you had to spend a lot of time on a lot of that stuff for pre-readers, then something is wrong with what you’re doing. Much of it is discontinuous and unnecessary for the next steps these kids would need to take in the instruction.

But even if we overlook all of those, how many times would a teacher have to try out the program in order to get comparative data? Given that the teacher has one batch of kids this year and one batch next year, she could get very ambitious and do different programs with different groups. But come on, I mean, here we’ve got an instructional designer now, staying up to, what, 4:00 o’clock in the morning, in addition to doing all of the other things a teacher has to do?

I mean seriously, drop the myth of the teacher. Teachers need enormous amounts more training, even those who are quite good at what they do.  If they’re trained properly, they will benefit from a good program.

Teacher Scripting:

Cori Stennet: I went to a school and talked with a reading coordinator. They were using Reading Mastery.

Siegfried Engelmann: Uh-huh.

Cori Stennet: And we talked about it. I asked, “How is the script working?” And she says, “Oh, I love it. My teachers, they don’t even have to think.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

Cori Stennet: “I love it. They don’t even have to think about what they’re doing?”

Siegfried Engelmann: No.

Cori Stennet: So where does the use of scripts fit in for DI?  The reading coordinator might come and take a training class, right, or be exposed to some training through you?

Siegfried Engelmann: Uh-huh.

Cori Stennet: Then is it her responsibility to go back and train the teachers beyond just the script? I mean, that was a scary thing to me to hear her say, “I love it. My teachers don’t even have to think about it.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, number one, what she said can’t possibly be true because you’re not doing a solo act. It’s not a monologue. It’s teaching, even when the teacher is working from prompts or scripts. You’re presenting tasks to the kids and the key thing is that how the students respond determines the next thing that you’re going to do.  If they respond correctly, you’re going to reinforce that response, and move on. If not, you’re going to go back, and you’re going to correct it so they’re able to do that first task correctly. Teaching is not a brain dead activity, and scripts don’t change that.

Teaching requires attention. Teachers are, often times, not very good at that. They can’t hear the responses. Their pacing is wrong, so they have a group that is led by the first kid to respond. If there is ever something that really kills learning in kids, it is when a group response cannot function for the teacher and give the needed information about all the individuals. A group response becomes an individual response that is done eight times as fast if you had eight kids in the group. All right? That’s what it is and that’s how it functions from the standpoint of the feedback that the teacher gets.

But, if you have a group where the teacher’s timing with the lesson or introduction of information is bad, nobody will learn. Some kids might say, “mad!” The rest may fake it and chime in, “mad!” They could have thought ‘made,’ originally, it could be anything. Or if someone was coming in at different times, all you know is if the response is correct, that the first kid who responded did it correctly. For the rest, all bets are off, because they could have been copying the response. So, for the teachers to do it right, minimally interacting with those kids won’t cut it.  There is a heck of a lot that teachers have to learn and a heck of a lot they have to practice to change this.

David Boulton: So that they orchestrate a synchrony.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And it takes at least four days to teach the teachers how to do this from scratch, so they will have a sufficient background and be prepared. Then it requires checkouts on full lessons.  This is where the teacher does a full lesson and checks out on it.  In the schools where we work, they have to check out on this same lesson in the classroom.  This is so they can see the difference between actually teaching kids, and just practicing in mock-class groups in training sessions where they go over the script. That way, they’ll receive information about their timing, their pacing, what is stressed, how they’re presenting the task, and how they’re responding to the other teachers who are playing kids, the mock-students.

The most difficult things for people to learn are things that are not in a sequence. If it’s in a rote sequence, like a poem, then it’s easy for them to learn. But if it requires you to have to do something after that person does something, and you don’t know exactly what that person is going to do, you have to learn and be ready with a repertoire of responses. I would say that is hardly automatic or stupid responding.

The teachers are responding to the kids, they’re not on auto-pilot when they use a script. They are not making up the words, but they are delivering the words in a way that is clear to the kids. They are not making up the examples or the sequence of the examples, but they are presenting them in a way that kids will show them, through their behavior, that they’re getting it. And teachers are not making up the responses, so if the responses don’t come out as the correct response, they have to respond to that. But if the reading coordinator learned that scripts mean the teachers don’t have to think, and that’s what she passed on to the teachers, they’re probably not going to use the scripts the right way.

On the other hand, I’ll tell you a story. In Providence, Rhode Island, we had this awesome Project Follow Through site in the late ’60s and ’70s. And in this one school we working in, (we were only working with K-3, because that’s what Follow Through covered), there was a teacher who was sort of a queen bee. She was considered the reading expert for the school.  We, of course, weren’t doing it her way at all, so she hated our program.

One time at this party, she started pontificating along the lines of, “People are just robotic, following the script,” and this and that.  Now there was this first-year teacher, who after a while said, “Marilyn, I have to stop you.  You know more about reading then I’ll probably ever know. You know all that linguistic stuff, you know the phonology, and you know all those things you talk about, you’re really very learned and I respect that a lot. But, my kids perform as well as your kids do, and you know it. And your kids are a grade above mine.” Well, that kind of shut the water off right there.  The bottom line was when she said, “And all I know to do is to say what it says in red and do what it says in black. That’s all I know about teaching reading because I certainly never learned it in college.” So, no, using scripts is not a mindless activity; you still have to teach the kids.

David Boulton: The difference that I hear in all of this, as exemplified in your case here, is the difference between the teacher having some pseudo knowledge or some more complete knowledge about what reading is, and all of the things that are involved when children start reading…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …or that teachers are part of the extension of a program in which they’re gathering feedback, they’re modifying and adjusting within certain parameters, but they’re not trying to be the de novo reading experts and teachers.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right.

David Boulton: Then the difference, because I’m fine with it up to that point, is that perhaps rather than being converts in this almost religiously propagated, or knowledge-worker-sign-off model, where teachers think ‘I don’t really understand it, I’m just going to do it.’

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

David Boulton: That the place to ground this conversation is that teachers must be first-person learners that are concerned with the quality of a child’s participation, what’s going on inside the child…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …and that they’ve found a way to recognize how scripts plugs into their own first-person learning – their own first-person participation – and alongside the first-person participation of the children that they’re responsible for.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

David Boulton: That, then, kind of glues this discussion and our understandings/perspectives/concerns/goals together.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Rather than this attitude of, ‘I don’t really care about what’s going on in the children, and I don’t really care how they get it—I’m a soldier on the edge of executing my instruction.’

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. And from the teacher’s standpoint, that’s what you want them to learn. From a different standpoint, I can’t tell you how painful it is to go into a classroom and see teachers doing ineffective things, and kids not reading.  You just want to scream, you want to grab them by the neck and say, “Don’t you know that what you’re doing is stupid? Come on! You’re killing that kid. You’re preventing that kid from moving on, you’re ruining that kid! Why are you doing that? You wouldn’t beat them up on the playground! Why are you so stupid?” I mean, to see them doing these things kills me.  At least if they had a script in their hand, and you gave them four days of practice, they could at least work with that kid intelligently. They could place that kid and the kid could learn something.

David Boulton: In the absence of somebody who’s on the edge and trying to learn their way into sync with the participation errors of a student, I’d much rather have them following a good script…

Siegfried Engelmann: Oh, yeah, yeah, right.

David Boulton: …than fumbling about in the classroom…

Siegfried Engelmann: And just hoping the kids happen to learn it.

David Boulton: Yeah.

Siegfried Engelmann: We try to let our teachers know that this is a really important job they’re doing; a good teacher has a unique contribution and we really appreciate the hell out of what the teachers are doing when they teach all those kids. It’s not that they’re pleasing us, they’re changing lives for kids in ways that nobody else can.


Stewarding the Health of Learning:

David Boulton: This leads back to where we started in a way.  Just like we discussed on the phone, given any long-range view of human problems – our social problems, the many dilemmas that human beings face in the world today — there’s just nothing more important than stewarding the health of our children’s learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely.

David Boulton: I mean that is the ground of the future of everything.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right, right.

David Boulton: It’s not what they’re learning about in particular that is so important, it’s the overall health of their learning that determines their future.

Misdirected Teaching:

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And a lot of what teachers say is simply not true.  We did a study with third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers in Reading.  They used different programs and they were in different schools. But all of the schools had lower performing kids.  When we asked the teachers, during their verbal reports, “How closely do you follow your program?”  They would say, “Not all that closely.” Virtually none of them said, “To the letter.”  Yet, when we watched them teach (we taped them teaching), they had all followed the programs very closely.  We told them which lessons we were going to tape and said, “We just want to see the way you normally teach. Don’t do anything special for us.”  It was so bad, because they followed the program so closely, and they were so handicapped because they couldn’t recognize what the problems really were.

I remember there was one classroom where—and this was classic, talk about misrule—they were teaching a ‘main idea’ program.  We checked them out on main idea sequencing inference and *buzz!* they failed all of it pretty miserably.  Not just some of the teachers, they were all pretty sad.

However, this one teacher was reading this passage about the railroads going west with the kids and the first paragraph they read had a topic sentence as the first sentence in the paragraph.  So the teacher asks, “Well, what’s the main idea of that paragraph?” These were the words straight out of the text she apparently studied.  A couple of kids guessed, and then one kid read the first sentence out loud and the teacher said, “That’s it, that’s right.”

The next example was the same form, and blah, blah, blah.   More hands went up this time, than the first time.  On the second attempt a lot of hands go up and the teacher calls on the first kid, who gets it right. The third passage had the topic sentence as the last sentence in the paragraph. So, when they read that paragraph, and the teacher asked, “Okay, who knows the main idea?” Hands go up, almost as many as the last time, which was almost all of kids.  She calls on somebody, who reads the first sentence.  “No. That’s one of the things that happened, but that’s not the main idea. What’s the main idea?”  The kids try different sentences, (different answers). Finally one kid calls out the last sentence. And the teacher says, “Yes, see, that’s the main idea. It told about all the diseases,” blah blah…

Now the next paragraph didn’t have a topic sentence. When the kids read it, and they did read it, all of the hands went up.  So the teacher calls on the first kid who answers with the first sentence. The teacher said, “Well, that’s one of the things that happened, but what’s the whole main idea?.  What is the whole main idea? You’ve got part of the main idea, but what’s the main idea.”  Now, the kids got furrowed foreheads, they don’t talk, they’re scratching their heads in search of that damn whole main idea. ‘It must be here somewhere???

A second kid answers and she reads the last sentence.  The teacher says, “Well that’s another thing that happened. But what’s the whole main idea?” And this went on until they had exhausted every sentence in that paragraph.  Finally the teacher said, “Well, the whole main idea is this, and this and that.” Now, all of the kids are looking completely lost with a look that says, ‘What in the hell are you doing this for? Why do you stipulate it’s a sentence on three prior examples and then throw this hooker at us? Come on! What is this, a game?’  Not one kid in that group knew what was going on.

David Boulton: The kids were taught to look for a particular way of extracting that main idea…

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely. When we asked her about the program, we asked, “Well, what was wrong with that program? How should it have been sequenced? She couldn’t come up with any concrete way, she didn’t know that, whoa, if that’s what you want to teach, the way to do it is to design the program so that it’s a simple thing–continue teaching in the same way as in the first paragraph.  “First he took his shoe from under the bed, then he put his socks on, then he put his shoe on, then he tied his shoe. Give me a summary sentence of what he did.” “He put on his shoe.” You know? “He put on his socks and shoes.”

David Boulton: That’s a great way to unfold the challenge and minimize the extraneous ambiguity.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely. I mean, that’s what it is about.  If you don’t have that, you don’t have squat.

David Boulton: But you can get at that by just caring about how children learn.

Siegfried Engelmann: know. [laughs]

David Boulton:  You don’t have to have a PH.D in learning theory. You can either get it from first-person attention to of the flow of your own learning…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …or you can get that by observing any child…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …so, again, I think one of the big problems here is that teachers have learned not to value their own first-person learning.

What Teachers have to Learn:

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, it’s hard for them to do. I mean, we have to just face the fact that it’s hard for teachers to create corrections to mistakes. They know their kids are having trouble and they can tell you what they’re having trouble with, but teachers are not schooled in how to use inference in order to figure out how they can identify and work on the problems the kids are having.  If they knew some rules and if they had been taught how to apply them, they would be doing it. But, if they’d been taught about this, they’d throw out 98 percent of the programs they’ve got now! They’d say, “Whoa, this really stinks. Let’s revise it.”

David Boulton: This all seems a consequence of thinking that the objective of education is this specified corpus of knowledge and skills, “You have to remember this, you have to know this, you have to be able to do this,” instead of an overarching concern that trumps all the rest of it, contextualizes all the rest of it. When the most important thing that we’re trying to do is to bring forth a coherent quality of participation from the inside-out in this child so that we can hook onto that…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …and so that we can engage them and unfold challenges in this way that we’re talking about, and let that be the centerline that we’re using as a reference for all the rest of our objectives. And if we don’t have that, we’re lost.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely! But from the standpoint of someone doing it, or designing it, it is scientific, and it is abstract to the point that you’re ‘following rules’. But, really, you’re starting with this premise: “I ought to do whatever I can to make the learning of that child successful, imminently efficient, and reinforcing to them, period.”

David Boulton: Which means, going deeper—in order to do that, the priority is the quality of their participation.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Right? I’ve got to make contact with their participation.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. But that’s where it all falls down, because they think making contact means establishing rapport

David Boulton: But it’s about synchronous contact on the edge of these challenges.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely. We need to know where the kids are, so we can present stuff that is not precipitous for them, but still stretches them a little bit so they’ll be able to succeed and do so at a high enough rate for it to stick with them.  For example, if they succeed in 75 percent of what they do, (even on new learning material, it’s our responsibility to get them to be 70 percent correct the first time) they will know they’re far more likely to get it the first time than not.

David Boulton: RightAnd this connects back to the emotional piece.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

Back to Emotions:

David Boulton: About the emotional piece – earlier we went into how our concerns for children’s emotions get distorted into trying to make everything ‘feel good’…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …but it’s not the positive side of emotion which concerns me in what we’re talking about.

Siegfried Engelmann: It’s the avoidance, yeah.

David Boulton: It’s the negative side.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

David Boulton: It’s the consequences of not meeting kids in a way that’s instructionally necessary for who they are, because when we don’t they learn to develop a negative emotional response.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely.

David Boulton: That undermines everything. I think this is where you and I really meet. We have created this situation in which our children are experiencing a uniquely unnatural kind of confusion. It’s a kind of confusion that is unnatural to our organism we …

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …didn’t evolve to deal with.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: It’s a cultural, social, technological kind of confusion that’s not natural to the organism, on the one hand. On the other hand, because of how we contextualize it, and how we teach and parent them —  the whole field around children…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …when they’re experiencing this confusion, they’re learning to feel as if this confusion is a reflection of something wrong with them.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely.

David Boulton: And as they start to feel shame in relation to this confusion, they want to avoid it – avoid the feeling of being confused. This is happening pre-consciously faster than consciousness – faster than conscious thought.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So, a preconscious aversion to the feeling of confusion decapitates learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Yeah, they will escape from the situation one way or another.

David Boulton: This seems to me very centrally misperceived, not understood, in the education community.

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, it is misunderstood, I guess largely because teachers wouldn’t know what to do about it if they saw it and understood it. I mean, if they knew that’s what the kids were doing they wouldn’t know exactly how do undo it, because there are such pandemic misconceptions about what kids are and how they learn.

David Boulton: We’ve gone down that track, with the self-esteem movement, where it was popular to ‘pump up’ somebody’s positivity, independent of their actual experience of effectiveness.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right

David Boulton: What I hear you saying is, “Look, let’s discard that. That doesn’t go anywhere. Kids feel good when they know they’re able to meet the challenges that they’re actually faced with.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Right? And there’s no fooling them about that.

Kids are Lawful:

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, kids are very lawful. I mean, they’re as lawful as daylight. If you know how they respond to reinforcement and you know how they respond to failure, you can predict what they’re going to like and know how you can turn them on.  You can have a lot of fun working with them, because you don’t have to be afraid of them and you don’t have to be uncertain about things. You know what they’re going to do as a function of what you do. And if they do something wrong, you know how you can correct them in a way that’s timely and that’s not going to have serious effects on their growth or their self-image.

One of the things the Office of Education was most surprised about when we did Follow Through was that our kids had the highest scores on tests of self-image. They had the strongest self-image and the strongest sense of responsibility for their own learning. The Office of Education was amazed at this because we didn’t talk about that stuff in our programs.  We just knew, if we did our job that—of course the kids would have this strong self-image.

Kids are like databases. They are just like the dog in the rainstorm, the example I gave you earlier.  There is a basis for what they learn and if you present things that aren’t ambiguous in their sequence, structure, or the way you present them, most kids are going to learn it.

Kids will learn what is consistent with your presentation, period. That’s the overriding rule. Some of the kids will learn things that are consistent with parts of your presentation that are even unintentional. For instance, if you went into a classroom and taught non-readers to read all words that were CVC (consonant/vowel/consonant) and had them sound them out or identify them to the point where they were really learning how to read the words, and then presented a word to them that was VC or CV (vowel/consonant, or consonant/vowel) you would find that a large percentage of the kids tried to put a third sound on that word.  Why? Because that is what you taught them.

It doesn’t matter what your theory of learning is, all you need to do is look at the facts of what you did and the facts of what the kids are doing.  They’re showing you with their behavior that they’re expecting that rule to always be a three-sound word. In other words, if there are going to be words they read, other than three-sound words, why in the hell didn’t you introduce them earlier? Why didn’t you show them the range of variation, so they wouldn’t have to make this error?

Another example, and we’ve done this a lot with preschool kids, is to show how you can intend to teach one thing but end up teaching another.  If you go into a classroom and observe a teacher introducing “counting” to beginning kids, preschool kids, kindergarten kids, they always teach them to count first to a small number.  That number is usually, if not always, three. “Count to three.” “One, two, three.” “Good.” “You’ve counted to three. Again, count to three with me.” Great job.” So, they reinforce the hell out of counting to three.  But, if you then come in the next day and ask them to “Count to seven”, after they have become really firm in counting to three, a percentage of the kids, not all of them, but a lot of them will say, “One, two, seven,” because that’s what you taught them. They will generalize on the basis of the pattern.

David Boulton: They will jump to the previously determined end.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. Or in the word, “two,” “One, two, three”; “one, two, seven.” “Count to seven,” “One, two, seven.” “Count to three,” “One, two, three.” You taught it this way, and if you don’t recognize that you’re in trouble.

David Boulton: That comes back to, you’ve got to pay a different kind of attention to the correspondence between your instruction and what’s being learned, and how the children are participating, what kind of errors are consequences…

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely.

David Boulton: …of the participation you’re calling for, or in how you’re instructing.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. And you take all of their errors as information about something you did wrong. You may explore these possibilities and say, “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong.” But, then you’re stuck with it, because in most cases, you will find out you did do something wrong, and if you look at them and what you’re doing with them, you’d see it was your fault, not the fault of the kids.

David Boulton: You need to be learning-oriented in your teaching.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. But the problem is getting teachers to understand that. It would be wonderful if we had a system where the teachers really learned about teaching, where they would have the opportunities we have, which is to work with “hard to teach” kids who don’t know a lot, who have made every kind of mistake imaginable since preschool age and have never been corrected.  Then, you would learn all about mistakes, you would learn all about correcting them, and you would learn all about the cost of not correcting them in a timely fashion.

You would learn about all of the ways to buttress against mistakes, how to do it with timing, how to do it with patterns, how to do it with pacing, how to do it spuriously, and how to do it without any spurious cues.  Then, when you get to that point, you will be in a position to make some really intelligent decisions about how you are going to configure your instructions.

David Boulton: Yes, but obviously teachers are like the rest of us, they make an investment in their identity as a teacher and in their own particular way of doing things. Many feel pushed against the wall and may want to recoil from this because if they accepted it they might not feel very good about themselves.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So just like with the kids, there’s also an aversion to the shame they feel if they think they aren’t teaching well, “What do you mean, I’m wrong in how I’m teaching?”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Right? There’s one piece of it.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. But I mean, if you can’t correct it, what good does it do to tell them they are doing it wrong?

David Boulton: Another part that gives license to the kind of thinking and resistance we’re discussing is: “Well, I care about the whole child”…

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.

David Boulton: …”not just their robotic conformance to the assessments and measurements of the education system.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: But even those who are concerned for the ‘whole child’ seem to fail to understand the negative consequences to self-esteem from the way we’re doing things.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: In other words, there’s a failure to understand the enormous emotional, sociological, behavioral consequences of instruction. We’re disabling the learning in most of our children because of our ignorance and negligence in the way that we instruct.

Siegfried EngelmannYeah. I agree. Yeah, it’s a vicious cycle, because you can’t blame teachers for not knowing what they don’t know. They’ve never been taught the correct way to teach. They’ve been taught misrules, or they’ve been taught totally superficial stuff. They’ve never been brought to a hard criterion in working with kids, particularly hard-to-teach kids.  A lot of the teachers are reinforced now, because they work with higher performing kids. And if the kids do a reasonable job, (by the way, they’re not beginning level kids), they’ll get by. They already learn passively, often times very well.

David Boulton: Yeah.

Siegfried Engelmann:  I’m not saying there aren’t good teachers who are teaching the older kids. I’m saying that—one needs a certain kind of knowledge to work with the failed kid or the beginning reader who is hard to teach, or the beginning reader that shouldn’t be hard to teach but is, because he or she just happened to be one that picked up on the miscues that the teacher gave them and now has to try to follow the bad advice the teacher gave and they are very confused.

David Boulton: We have to start by saying, “Look, it’s not your fault.” I agree with what you’re saying. I don’t think it’s really the teachers’ fault at all.

Siegfried Engelmann:  Right, it’s not the teachers’ fault.

David Boulton: It’s a transmission problem.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: I mean, a multigenerational transmission problem.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And if it indicates anything, it indicates a lack of leadership in the Learning Sciences, in science in general, and in educational policy leadership.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, and most of all, in instruction.  The bottom line for instruction, instructional theory and all of the accoutrements, is strictly based on environmental variables. In other words, what did you put in there? What was your dependent variable? What is the specific behavior of the kid? Don’t give me some general glop. Don’t give me a grade level. Give me response by response, task by task. That’s the information that you really need to be a good diagnostician.

David Boulton: So on the one level, you need to ‘black box’ it; on the other level, the black box has to be grounded in an understanding of learning.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah.  Basically, what you can expect from the kid, what’s a reasonable expectation and what’s not, and what you can hope for them to achieve in a twenty-minute period.

The Intersection:

David Boulton: There is an implicit intersection between all our ways of thinking about improving education that I’d like to explore. You can come at this, as many do, with an utter disregard for the interior life and experience of the children, as if we’re harvesting crops – as if we’re creating the ‘bots’ we need for our economy and our society, and we really don’t care about what’s going on inside them.  Or, we can come at this with a compassionate loving care for who they are as human beings, and with a desire to help them learn to be authentically who they are while finding opportunities in the world that nourish who they are, and allow them to be successful and happy.  It doesn’t matter which of these is your primary concern you still end up in the same place: it’s all about how well they are learning from the inside-out.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: So. there’s a violent agreement that hasn’t been able to happen yet. I mean, there’s an implicit agreement that just hasn’t been bridged between these different factions.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.  I think a lot of it just has to do with expectation, the rhetoric is often one thing and the actual expectations are another.

Back to Reading:

Siegfried Engelmann: The educators tell us about how all kids learn to read. Remember when Whole Language was popular they had all kinds of slogans about how kids learn to read by using language—that we need to read to kids, teach them to read through literature, and all this stuff?  On one hand, they’ll say all this stuff, but on the other hand, they apparently don’t know what they’re looking at when they look at kids, or they would never say that.  Instead, they would say, “Wow, you know, literature is a real pain in the ass for beginning reading because it has such weird language sometimes.”

David Boulton: Yeah, the English language is not considerate of the startup aspects of the challenge of learning to read.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: It wasn’t written to teach reading.

Siegfried Engelmann: And it would be stupid prose even if they could decode all the words—like, what’s a tuffet?! [laughter]

David Boulton: Yeah.

Siegfried Engelmann: I mean, give me a break. “Sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.” Oh, yeah, sure, I know what all that’s about.

David Boulton: Right, “I just did that yesterday!” [laughter]

Back to the Intersection:

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. But it’s like there are two standards. One drives everything and it’s totally philosophical for some people, but they’re really not looking at the kids. Or if they do look at kids, it’s selective kids for example, maybe really smart kids who flatter the daylights out of them by doing the sort of things they say all kids should be able to do. But, they’re sure not looking at a lot of the kids that we work with.  Because if they had seriously looked at them, and they were concerned at all or had any kind of comparative idea of what these kids could achieve, they would think differently. But to be honest, I don’t really think they have a good comparative idea of what these kids can really do.

David Boulton: But let’s not talk about the experts, or leaders of these factions.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: But rather, what is it that glues people to following these, almost religions of thought? I mean the people that have bought into these alternative systems, why did they buy into them? They bought into them because it makes them feel good about what they’re doing.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And because it lines up with their sense of what it means to be responsible to a child.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: Not in the granular, not in the particulars that we’re talking about, but in the warm-fuzzies, it feels like, “Gee, that’s the right way to be responsible to stewarding this child.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: That’s a good place for us to build a different bridge into.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. Well, to do that, step one would be teacher training, absolutely.

David Boulton: Shouldn’t it be teacher orientation?

Siegfried Engelmann: I don’t know.  We’ve done a lot of different training formats.  For one of our models, we have to train instructional aides to actually do almost exactly what the teacher would be doing in the classroom.  Often, the instructional aids will teach a group and they’ll follow the same criteria for teaching that the teacher would.  So the aids have to learn the same kind of things the teacher does.  So, it’s important that we know what it takes to teach them.

The best and smartest group I ever worked with and the easiest group to teach, as well, was a group of high school students in a disadvantaged neighborhood.  These students, who were all high school seniors, except for two of them, were involved in a program where they could earn college credit for working as aides in our classroom. So, we put them through the regular teacher training.  They were flat out awesome, because they had no misrules, no misconceptions; they believed what we told them in the training.

David Boulton: When it came to how to teach, they were virgin minds.

Siegfried Engelmann: Yeah. These students weren’t corrective readers that had to unlearn a whole bunch before they could learn what we wanted to teach them. They were just, “Okay, that makes sense.”  We showed them you can have fun with the kids, darn right. You can present in a way that’s interesting. When you get your timing down and you’re doing things just right, everything goes well. Whoa, you’re having fun, the kids like it, the rhythm is good, and here we go! The students were just awesome. They learned quicker than any group I have ever worked with.

David Boulton: Well, see, I would argue that they were not yet mis-oriented.

Siegfried Engelmann: Exactly.

David Boulton: So what this comes back to is that, the challenge is to help teachers have the right orientation and alignment with: “What is my responsibility to children? What is my responsibility to the instructional system? How do I integrate those two?”

Siegfried Engelmann: But the problems come before the teacher training, it goes all the way back to when these teachers were in school preparing and studying to become teachers. There are schools we worked with, for instance, in California, where DI was forbidden from use, where the administration collected the boxes and threw it out. No, really! They monitored the classrooms to make sure that teachers were not doing that awful thing. This administration, obviously, sincerely believed that we were doing something that was dangerous and horrible to kids.

But somehow you have to have enough control over the training of teachers to let them know that, if you are providing for the needs of kids, their instructional needs, and if you’re doing it in a way that’s quite graceful, very efficient, doesn’t take a lot of time, and is quite effective, then that’s evidence of your concern. Because if it’s not done that way, you’re going to punish the kids to various degrees

David Boulton: But it comes back to the questions, ‘Does the teacher get that? Does the administration get that? Does the administration get the psychological developmental damage that’s happening by not using effective instruction?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, they don’t want to face it, because they can’t. For example, the correspondence with a truly traditional teacher would be something like this: You’d go into the classroom at the end of the year and you’d ask, “What did you teach this year?” “Oh, I taught reading.” “Okay, what evidence do you have that you taught reading?” “Jeanie, come on up here. Read to the man.” “Okay, Alex, your turn.”  And, on and on. Then I’d say, “Well, that’s pretty good evidence. What about those kids over there?” “Oh, they can’t learn. They can’t learn.”

David Boulton: Right.

Siegfried Engelmann: In other words, “Whatever I do is prima facie justification that it’s right because of the simple reason I did it!” [laughter]

David Boulton: Selecting the evidence that confirms their belief system.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. “I did it. I did that. I was teaching reading. If they didn’t learn it, those little son-of-a-bitches can’t learn, period!” And, “I don’t like to be insulted.” Which kids do teachers like best?  We’ve seen this before.

David Boulton: Yeah, but that’s where we’ve got to come in and say, ‘Okay, look, all the evidence suggests that over 95 percent,’ (and you would say 99.9 percent), ‘of the children can read if they’re met in relation to what they need during the take-off stages of learning to read.’

Siegfried Engelmann: But see, if they were to accept that, then they’d think that it means they are horrible individuals.

David Boulton: No, they would need to accept the evidence that, they are ignorant of the transmission they’re caught in about how they’re oriented to teaching.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: That makes them not responsible in a way. They have to become responsible as they learn to shift their orientation to teaching, but not at fault for the transmission that’s happened.

Siegfried Engelmann: When I work with teachers in a school, the first thing I tell them is, “You’ve got to get this straight. Three things: One, teaching is acting. You’re not doing what you feel like doing anymore than a surgeon who is doing quadruple bypass surgery can do what they feel like doing. I mean, he might prefer to play golf or to do an easier operation. What about a tonsillectomy?  The only reason he’s doing a quadruple bypass surgery is because that’s his professional responsibility. So, the first thing you have to recognize as a teacher is that you do what you do because it’s effective for the kid.”

“The second thing you have to remember, and never forget this, there are no favorites in teaching. On company time you may not play favorites. Every single kid there is equal. Every single kid in that classroom is deserving of your time.  Now, if you don’t like these kids on your own time, that’s fine, that’s your business.  But when you’re working with them in the classroom, you need to care about ALL of them. You have to interact with every kid the same way you would interact with the top kid.”

“The third rule is, we’ll show you patterns of interaction that are appropriate and those that are inappropriate, and you’ll use the former, not the latter. But, again, NO favorites. Absolutely NO favorites.” That’s the hardest thing for teachers, because they tend to like kids that flatter their teaching.

David Boulton: Sure.

Siegfried Engelmann: Kids that get it, “Oh, I like her. She’s such a nice, well-behaved young lady”…

David Boulton: And that’s what leads the children to want to butter up to the teacher, because the children do pick up on that sort of thing.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: And it’s very political.

Siegfried Engelmann:  If the teachers can learn the professional parameters of being a teacher and what it encompasses, then the second matter has to do with expectation.  Part of that is knowing all of these kids can learn if we teach them properly.  They must understand this motto, “We don’t care what your past experience as a teacher has been with the kids. We know all kids can learn if we teach them properly. They can learn math, they can learn science, and they can learn whatever reasonable disciplines we try to teach.”

One of the big things that I noticed about those who have worked with us, the trainers and the supervisors who we have taught and who have worked with us, is they seem to have a passion that is not shared by people who are trained second and third-hand. I guess for them, it’s a technique.

For instance, when you work with a school and you’re doing school-wide discipline, the first rule that teachers have to know is: Every single kid in this school is your kid. Got it? It doesn’t matter if the kid is misbehaving outside the classroom. That’s your kid as long as he’s in this school. So you have to think of that kid in that way, you need to think of every kid in that way.  Then things will go a lot smoother and you’ll have a more ecumenical perspective of what this school program is all about.

We’re all in this together; we’re all contributing to the welfare of that kid. You’re doing it in the second grade and you’re doing it in the sixth grade. But those are our kids and it doesn’t matter if we do the reading, someone else does the math, and then if that someone else is doing the math wrong, then your moral obligation is to point that out to them, or to a supervisor, or someone who can help them turn it around and begin to do it the right way because you don’t want to see your kid taught poorly.

David Boulton: Rather than this stratified, “This is your problem, not my problem.”

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, exactly. Some teachers get preoccupied and when the kid walks out of the room they might be doing crazy stuff, but the teacher won’t notice or pay attention to what this kid is doing outside the classroom.  Or they might allow an aide to be in charge of seat work and this aide will be doing something totally wrong, but the teacher will walk right by, observe it, and do nothing about it. That’s your kid!  You can’t do that — you can’t allow that to happen on your watch.

David Boulton: Let me bring us to a close with two questions of mine, and then of course allow an opportunity for you to close with anything you think we haven’t talked about.

Siegfried Engelmann: Okay.

What is Learning:

David Boulton: First thing: What is learning?

Siegfried Engelmann: That’s a good one. Learning is an acquisition of information that can direct various behaviors including, motor behaviors and operant responses. Learning is all based on knowledge, so learning is the acquisition of the knowledge you didn’t have before, but will have tomorrow and the day after, and you will be able to apply this learned knowledge to some specific situation.

David Boulton: Okay. Tell me about the heartbeat, the engine, the core dynamic of learning. What’s the inner dynamic of human learning?

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, the inner dynamic has to do with feeling, period.  The whole system has to be run by feeling, in a logical way. I’ve got to give you a short answer, so I’ll try to do my best to make this short.

The reason is that, humans are designed so that certain things cue our behaviors. For it to cue this behavior, it has to cue an operant response. For it to cue an operant response, it has to serve as something like a negative reinforcer that says, in effect, you have to do something to change the tenor or the tone of this situation. And when that happens, if the tone gets better, then that was a successful response. It has to work in this way so that the system can communicate things that are fundamentally reflexive, like, recognizing that–“Holy Christ, that’s my Uncle George!” “No it’s not, that’s someone else.” But for anything like that to happen, it has to be involuntary. The knowledge that drives you is involuntary.

We also have voluntary knowledge, where I can say, “Let’s see, when is Lou’s birthday?”  But a lot of information is absolutely involuntary and the fundamental stuff is all involuntary. So how do you run a machine on involuntary input, where by definition you can’t control the operant responses? You can only do something to elicit that.  So, that is what the system has to do, it has to elicit the response. And it does so with feeling.  Again, for example, when I felt that I recognized my Uncle George, “Holy Christ, that’s my uncle,” that response came from my guts.  “That’s Uncle George!” Uncle George is a configuration of a whole nexus of feeling. You know?

David Boulton: This is how our affective system guides whatever our attention is on.

Siegfried Engelmann: Absolutely, absolutely. And that is what guides our knowledge because if we don’t attend to certain things, we are pre-empted from learning about them.

What is Reading?:

David Boulton: So then in your view what is reading?

Siegfried Engelmann: Reading is learning to decode an orthographic code that has conformity, consistency, and form.

David Boulton: Are you talking about ‘ideally’, or are you talking about ‘English’ now? [laughs] When you’re talking about conformity and consistency, I mean…

Siegfried Engelmann: Well, some of the systems have larger generalizations than others. Italian and Spanish seem to be pretty consistent.  Of course there are double “c’s” and other letters like that, which have weird pronunciations and maybe some variation. But in English, the word “of,” for example. Even though it’s a weird word, “O-F”– “uuvv,” it’s always pronounced the same. So to that extent, English has some consistency.

The English Code:

Siegfried Engelmann: Of course, I do not know all of the languages and am certainly not fluent in them, but from what I know about the ancient languages, and some of the modern languages;

I don’t know of any other language that has more exceptions than English in reading. English seems to be a total monster

And you can see this when you try to design a program. For instance, one of the programs we designed, Horizons, which is the basics for the phonics thing (meaning it takes a letter and teaches the name of the letter’s sound).  Our Reading Mastery focuses on and just teaches the sounds. Later, we teach the letter names. But with Horizons, we teach the kids how to derive the letter’s sound from the letter’s name, because there are several discrete families of sounds.

There are families like “F” and “R” and “N” and if you say the name two parts at a time the second part is the letter sound!  Then, there’s another group, “B”, “D”, “G”, and others.  Take “B” for example, if you say b-e, a part at a time [sounds out “b”] — oh, no, there’s an exception. And “h” — oh, no, sorry.  Because of this, a lot of times you’ll see readers call “h” either the “ch” sound, or the “huh” sound, or something like this, because they’re trying to generalize.

David Boulton: You’re grouping them into classes…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …according to the spectrum of different sounds a letter can make and where to pick up distinctions about them from cues inside the letter’s name.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. In Reading Mastery, we get rid of a lot of exceptions because we can make macrons, you know, long lines for the “A’s” and “O’s” and then create the short vowel sound separately. And then, we get to deal with the exceptions.  For instance, the exceptions for the sound of the letter “O” are numerous. The letter “O” makes every sound under the sun in different words in English. For examples: otheroffofGee whiz. And then of course, the double “oo.” Gosh!

David Boulton: Yeah.

Siegfried Engelmann: But to program all of these sounds in a systematic sequence so that you are teaching it in a systematic way, not just throwing them all at once at the kids. The kids tend to think the entire English language is exceptions because there are so many exceptions.

David Boulton: YeahWe’ve got to find a structured stairway around and through those confusions that the kids can progress through.

Siegfried Engelmann: So it makes some kind of sense.

David Boulton: Right, right.

Siegfried Engelmann: And it stays consistent…

David Boulton: We’re not trying to make it have more sense than it does.  One of my problems with a lot of the current movements is that, they tend to look at this code from an adult perspective…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: … a perspective of somebody who is already literate, who already understands it, who’s used computers, and pattern analysis, and has spent years examining and thinking about this. But there’s a big gap between that person and a four or five-year-old whose brain has never encountered any of this stuff… (see Paradigm Inertia)

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …and a big gap between the kind of challenges that child’s brain is actually experiencing on the road to reading. 

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.  The little “b/d” confusion is a great example.  They say a kid has visual perceptual problems when they confuse the two. Oh, yeah? I mean, the kid grew up never knowing the difference…

he never saw an object change its name when it changed its position! For example, a “chair”, whether it’s lying down or sitting upright, it’s still a, “chair”.  The same is true for a wastebasket, or a cup, or a pretzel. And now all at once, without anybody showing this kid, that there’s “b” and there’s “d,” and explaining it’s a position game, the kid reverses it.  If you work with the kid, put the two letters on a transparency; write the letter ‘b,’ and say, “Okay, this is ‘b.”  “Is it ‘b’ now?” “No.” “Is it ‘b’ now?” “Yes.”  “Is it ‘b’ now?” “No.” “Is it ‘b’ now?” “Yes.” “Is it ‘b’ now?” “No.”  Do this to let them know it’s a stupid game. It’s only “b” when it’s in a certain position, and goodbye all of this b/d confusion, this “visual perception” problem. It wasn’t visual perception. Nobody communicated this confusion to the kid!

David Boulton: Excellent, excellent. Is there anything else you want to say as we wrap?

Siegfried Engelmann:  I can’t think of anything, except that I get really extremely frustrated with the pace at which the field is moving, because I think they’re going fundamentally in the wrong direction with their recommendations and assumptions that anybody outside of an instructional designer is going to take information on phonics, phonemic awareness, and make a good sensible program out of it.

David Boulton: Let’s just hope that the work of the “What Works Clearinghouse”  is doing in putting the database together, and what-have-you, will help. But, yeah, what they’re trying to do is avoid…

Siegfried Engelmann: Naming programs.

David Boulton: They’re trying to avoid naming programs, because of the association of the economic favoritism stigma. They’re trying to avoid the specific recommendations of commercial programs in particular.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: If these were business decisions about commercial stuff it would be easier. But ideologically they’re trying not to create a hatchet-like division in the field by creating the illusion of preference. I understand what you’re saying. And, I also understand their need to do things the way they are.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right. Hey, let’s do that in the drug business, that would be great: “Now, there’s this marvelous drug that has these qualities. Okay, and if you use it you’ll be able to tell it’s working, because it”— “Hey, what’s the name of it?” “. . .Oh, [laughs] we don’t deal with names, thank you.” Or, what about automobiles? I mean, if they would just think of teaching in the same terms of automobiles? Are these auto inventions or flying machines?  They won’t fly unless all the parts are present and built together correctly. What would happen if, when reading a car report, “Oh, this car cornered better than the others and it had better mileage and this and that,” and you asked, “What’s the name of the car?” “Oh, we don’t deal with names.” “Get the hell out of here!” I mean, that’s just flat-ass bullshit.

You don’t just have phonemic awareness, phonics, and a few other things; you’ve got to learn these tools and have them down in order to gain the little parts and they have to all work well together. But until they recognize that the game is for someone to build flying machines and for teachers to be damn good pilots, they’ll never get the game.

David Boulton: I understand.

Siegfried Engelmann: The teachers, even more so now, are using instructional programs. They’re not going to ‘make it up’. I’ve had encounters with district superintendents (some thirty years later after developing these programs) in which I talked to them and told them about the program. They’ve never heard of Follow Through, they know nothing about the program. And then when you tell them about the data we’ve collected, they respond with, “Now you expect me to believe that you’ve got this program, you’ve generated all this data, and you’re able to teach these kids all that information, and school districts like mine aren’t picking it up? I don’t think so.” But it’s true, that’s the way it is. The communication is so poor.

David Boulton: Then it comes back to orientation. We’re misoriented, fundamentally.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: The teaching community, the parents, the administration, everyone….

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. It’s not rocket science. We’re not going to go from general principles down to program construction. If anything, we’ll go like the Wright Brothers from the flying machine to general principles. But when you derive those principles, you have principles of instruction in this field, not divided principles of learning, principles of child development, principles of some things that have nothing to do with the construction of a good instructional program.

David Boulton: But remember the way you put that can be offensive to people that are about learning, philosophy, or child development.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right, right.

Improving the Quality of Learning:

David Boulton: And the interesting thing is that underlying these differences—there’s a potential for alignment.

Siegfried Engelmann: There is a potential.

David Boulton: And that’s where we have got to be working on.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right. But I think if you had to boil it down to one thing, one barrier, it would be the “specificity”, and knowledge of specificity.  When it is the other stuff, you can gloss over — you can pretend like you know what you are saying and even sound good when you’re being bad, because you never have to deal with the concrete examples and the actual consequences that occur in each situation.

David Boulton: And the “specificity” thing can translate to this inside-out participation, and the feedback loop that comes through instruction.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: That is a place where we can bring alignment, I believe.

Siegfried Engelmann: I’m willing to take at shot at it. It’s a tough nut to crack. But I think maybe…

David Boulton: But we have to put our heads in it, just like you were saying about the dog.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right!. [laughs]

David Boulton: I mean, we’ve got to live in that space to learn our way through it…

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.

David Boulton: …rather than just visit this space every three or four years, we have to live in it and make a breakthrough.

Siegfried Engelmann: Right.  I agree. Okay, well thank you.

David Boulton: Thank you.

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