Delivering Scripted Instruction: A ‘Sort-Of’ Guide…

My last blog considered some of the things that I have learned to whilst trying to plan Direct Instruction style scripts. This post will look to consider some of the things that I have learnt whilst trying to deliver these scripts to classes of 32 students. For added context, a broader guide to the each sub component part of a ‘DI inspired’ lessons can be found here: review, input, test, application.

Firstly, let’s address the elephant in the room. Scripted instruction is weird. Sauntering in to a school and telling people that you’re in to scripted instruction and choral response is likely to dictate a reply anywhere from a raised eyebrow to outright castigation and eternal damnation. It is not exactly standard educational practice to walk in to a classroom and see a teacher reciting from a script whilst students chant back.  As such, many teachers have a healthy degree of scepticism towards scripted instruction.

This scepticism will likely extend to some of your students. Don’t get me wrong, my pupils are fantastic and some of my classes have really bought in to what we collectively call ‘Talky Talky’ (rebrand needed). Nonetheless, it is likely that your pupils have never sat in a classroom and gone through a DI style lesson either.  As such, any scripted instruction is going to bring with it an added level of scrutiny.

From a student perspective, this scrutiny will be a probe for weaknesses in the instructional design. Thinking is hard and students are good at finding ways of not doing it. If students can get away with working less hard then, by and large, they will. In the case of scripted instruction, if a student works less hard and doesn’t pay attention or give 100% then they will fail to learn important content. They will then fail the quiz and fail to complete their work properly. Failure due to lack of attention will become associated with scripted instruction and may consign the idea to the dustbin of classroom experiments.

Consequently, alongside our instructional design, our instructional delivery needs to be organised so that at least 90% of students can learn 90% of the key content in the lesson. Delivering scripted instruction is not like teaching a normal lesson. Simply, the teacher’s own attention will be split between the script in front of them and the class. If you do not stay on top of the class, students will opt out and not gain from the scripted instruction. If you lose track of where you are in the script, the pace of the lesson or the quality of instruction may diminish. It is a balancing act. However, there are some principles that I think can help those delivering scripted instruction.

Picture the scene

Before I outline these principles, I want to emphasise what this classroom might be like. In my lessons, students have completed and self-assessed a ten question starter quiz. The register has been done, all students are sat down, and they may have their books and equipment in front of them. I will give them a short ‘think, pair, share’ activity to get them thinking about the topic we are studying in the lesson.

At this point, I am ready to start a scripted instructional sequence. Script in hand I will stand at the front of the classroom. I will then spend at least 10 minutes following a pre-designed instructional script in which students respond to questions chorally as a class. After completing this, students will move on to silent individual quizzes before applying their learning.

To create an environment of scripted instruction with fast paced questioning, focussed students and loud choral response, I try to use some of these techniques.

1. Address the elephant in the room

'Whenever I walk in a room,everyone ignores me.'

Whenever I start using scripted instruction and choral response with a class, I always introduce the activity by explaining that we are trying something new. I will tell my class that I have done lots of research and want to try something different. I want to try this new something with this class because I think they will try their very hardest and succeed. I will tell them that it might be a bit odd at first, but that I expect 100% effort and that if they give me that then I can guarantee that they will succeed.

2. Expectations, Expectations, Expectations

Students are really good at distracting themselves. Many seem to have a habit of picking up the piece of equipment nearest to them creating a gormless fascination leading to loss of focus. Others don’t need a physical distraction and will merely find themselves staring into another dimension in the throes of instruction. To make it easier to identify students that are distracted, I always emphasise that students SLANT.

Students should always sit up straight, listen, answer questions, not talk and track the speaker during scripted instruction. I will model this and get students to cross their arms as well. SLANTing may seem juvenile, especially to older classes, but its core intention is to orient 100% focus on the teacher and nothing else. Moreover, by creating a clear expectation of students’ physical behaviour, it is easy to identify when particular students have become distracted. Students that are not looking at the teacher may well be staring into space. Students fiddling with a pen are not focussing on the content they should be thinking about. Students not answering questions may be trying to slip into the grey area of opting out. SLANTing is an effective method of giving visual clues of whether a class is focussed or not. Every DI-inspired lesson, I will emphasise the expectation of SLANTing and insist on 100% cooperation. If there is not 100% cooperation either before or during the instruction, I will use either a whole class reminder or the behaviour system to ensure all students are following expectations.

3. Incentivise Cooperation 

To encourage a buy-in from all students I will reward hard work. Students are told that we will spend 10 minutes trying something new. After we do that, we will have a quiz. If they get 9/10 or 10/10 then they will earn a credit. I tell them that it is important for them to work hard, SLANT and shout out the answers when I signal, otherwise they will not get full marks and therefore won’t earn a credit.

I feel comfortable incentivising students this way because I feel that well designed DI-style scripts ensure that effort leads to outcome. Students that SLANT and work hard will get full marks, those that choose to opt-out will not get full marks. With some classes I will actively hold students to account. “Kate, last time you didn’t get full marks because you were fiddling with your pen. This time, I want to see you SLANTing and trying very hard, so you get a credit.”. This may seem harsh, but I wholeheartedly want my students to succeed.

The use of the SLANTing, emphasising expectations, incentivising performance and holding students to account are bedrocks of my use of DI style scripts. Whilst it may seem like a heavy-handed use of the stick, I often find myself giving out credits for a whole class. I cannot emphasise the importance of these things enough. Distraction is the death of attention, ensuring that students are 100% focussed and giving 100% effort is vital to ensure the success of the students taking part in the instructional sequence.

4. Practice the cue

If steps 1-3 have been followed, then all that is left before beginning the script is to give both students and teacher a chance to practice the act of call and response. In essence choral response is simple, you give some information, signal a response and then students give the expected response. In the first lessons using DI-style scripts, I always have at least one practice go with an easy piece of information. For example, I might just ask “What subject are we in?” to which the answer should be “Geography!”.

Before asking this question, it is really important that you choose a cue. A cue is an unambiguous action which tells students that they are to respond chorally. I have found the easiest thing to do is to just point at the class to signal a response. Sure, you could nod your head or raise an eyebrow when you want a response, but will it be a clear and unambiguous signal? Whatever your cue is, make it explicit and have the students practice responding to the cue.

If the students’ timing is off on the first practice, or if they are meek and mild then just practice again. Remember, you’re giving a license to students to shout out together. Many really enjoy this, but if you haven’t done it before the act of shouting out may be alien to them. Keep practicing until you are happy with the speed, volume and timing of the whole class response.

5. Don’t Move 

If I have gone through steps 1-4 and am happy that all students know what they are to do, then I am ready to read out the script. The next few steps will focus on what to do when reading the scripts so that students get the most out of it. The overriding principles when delivering scripted instruction is to orient instruction so that students are thinking about the content and nothing else.

When delivering the content, I initially had a tendency to walk around the classroom. In my head, I thought I could track the movement of the student’s eyes and this would ensure that I knew they were focussed. Whilst this idea is making some sense in theory, it falls down in practice. The main reason for this is the split attention effect. If I am moving when I am talking, the students will be tracking me, and this will place cognitive load upon them. Students should not be thinking about where I am in the room, but the content. This movement is unnecessary and instead it is easier if I just stand still when delivering instruction. If the expectations have been communicated clearly, then movement from the teacher should not be needed to ensure that students are focussed.

Movement is also bad for the teacher. When I am moving and talking it is very easy to lose track of where I am in in the script. Losing where I am in the script can be awkward. Rediscovering my position will slow down the pacing of the questions and creates an unwelcome grey area where lots of students can disengage. Instead, by standing still I can focus clearly on the delivery of instructions and evaluating the responses of my students.

I would add one caveat which is movement during student responses. Although I do not move every time student’s respond to a question, I may occasionally move toward a student that is not responding to a question in a satisfactory manner. If these students are not meeting expectations, then standing nearer to them as I deliver content issues a non-verbal cue that they are being monitored.

6. Keep the pace high

Engelmann designed material generates up to 15 learner responses per minute. That is one every four seconds! If scripts have been planned with this in mind, then communication is kept efficient with student responses limited to answers of few words. This brevity enables teachers to keep the pace of the lesson high. As a consequence, scripts should be read at a relatively quick pace with answers provided immediately from students. This pace provides engagement with students constantly shouting out answers to their learning. Moreover, if students cannot immediately answer a question it is a good indication that they do not know the required information. If students are slow in answering a question, it may indicate that either they were not focussing, or the script has not effectively communicated the right information. If I find students are struggling with a question and slowing the pace of the instructional sequence, I will repeat the communication of the relevant part of the script again and emphasise the correct answer.

7. Repeat core content again and again and again

Repeat Until Firm
Engelman using the instruction “repeat until firm”

There is one Engelmann instruction that I particularly like. In the scripts it reads as “repeat until firm”. It’s delightfully ambiguous but is very useful. Just because all of the class says the answer doesn’t mean the teacher has to accept it. If I am unsure that 100% of students have responded confidently with an answer, then I will get them to repeat it. If I am unhappy with the pace of the students’ answer, i get them to repeat it. If I am unhappy with the volume of the students’ answer, I get them to repeat it.

Repeating the answer to the question again and again means that student responses will become louder, faster and more confident. Getting students to repeat answers tells the whole class that I am holding them to account for their effort. Getting students to repeat an answer emphasises that a particular piece of content has supreme importance and that they have to remember it. Sometimes I will stop the instruction and tell the class that I do not think they are trying hard enough or remind them that they should be working hard otherwise they will not earn a credit in the quiz at the end. In Engelmann-style lessons, I think repetition is a good thing. If I just fly through the script without lingering on certain points, repeating them for emphasis, the likelihood is that students will not have learned the important information to an optimal level of fluency.

8. Keep to the script 

There is a tendency when reading the script to question the quality of your own work. Sometimes I have looked at the repetition of my own script and in the midst of an instructional sequence improvised, cut out a word or added a different one. This always goes wrong. I usually spend 45 minutes to one hour on a script, specifically designing it to ensure that it is as logically consistent as possible. As tempting as it seems, it is never a good move to try and go off script or change it. In addition, whilst off-the-cuff stories, anecdotes and facts are interesting, they may get in the way of the core instruction. More often than not I have thought of an interesting titbit of information and had to hold my tongue and get on with the script. In my experience, there will be time after delivering the script and giving a test of learning to furnish the structure of knowledge the scripted instruction provides with additional morsels of information. If you’ve spent one hour of your precious time designing a script, it is best to keep with it in the moment.

9. Dual Code 

The research on dual coding is well disseminated. A well-chosen image or diagram can be a fantastic aid to scripted instruction. As a rule, I try and keep to one large good image per explanation. If I talk about a drip tip leaf, I will display an image of it. If I talk about a liana, I will display an image of it. I avoid displaying an image of a drip tip leaf and a liana side by side. If an explanation doesn’t need an image, then I won’t display one. Dual coding is a useful aid, but I am wary not to overload students with too much information.

10. Relax, it’s just an experiment

Ultimately, the most important thing is to be relaxed and responsive. Yes, scripted instruction is a gamble and it could go wrong. It is a daunting proposition to stand in front of 32 students and encourage them to respond in unison to information. However, it can also be a fantastic experience. Done properly, students display genuine engagement and excitement shouting out answers and gaining clear feedback that they are learning. Why not give it a go, what’s the worst that could happen?

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