Rosenshine’s seminal Principles of Instruction: a dead-end or a must-read for teachers in the early years?

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In 2012, Barack Rosenshine published the Principles of Instruction: a set of 10 research-based principles of instruction, along with suggestions for classroom practice. The principles come from three sources: (a) research in cognitive science, (b) research on master teachers, and (c) research on cognitive supports.

Principle 1: Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning: Daily review can strengthen previous learning and can lead to fluent recall.

Principle 2. Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step. Only present small amounts of new material at any time, and then assist students as they practice this material.

Principle 3. Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students: Questions help students practice new information and connect new material to their prior learning.

Principle 4. Provide models: Providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn to solve problems faster.

Principle 5. Guide student practice: Successful teachers spend more time guiding students’ practice of new material.

Principle 6. Check for student understanding: Checking for student understanding at each point can help students learn the material with fewer errors.

Principle 7. Obtain a high success rate: It is important for students to achieve a high success rate during classroom instruction.

Principle 8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks: The teacher provides students with
temporary supports and scaffolds to assist them when they learn difficult tasks.

Principle 9. Require and monitor independent practice: Students need extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automatic.

Principle 10. Engage students in weekly and monthly review: Students need to be involved in extensive practice in order to develop well-connected and automatic knowledge.

In this post, Julian Grenier, Headteacher at Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre, explores their application in early years settings.

As I begin this blog, I am thinking of all the children who have just started school for the first time. As they arrive in Nursery or Reception, some are already bright-eyed, curious and eager to explore everything. Others are more like my own daughter was at that age: a little shy and reserved. Another important group of children are finding everything difficult. They’re finding it hard to settle. Some are feeling huge anxiety about parting from their beloved parents. Others are not sure how to cope with being around so many other children, with so many different things to do.

Thinking about Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ (Rosenshine 2012) might feel counterintuitive when you’re in the early years. Children in nursery and reception classes need a great deal of support for their emotional wellbeing, and time to play. What possible value could there be in thinking about ‘instructional principles’? Shouldn’t learning in the early years be child-initiated and characterised by wondrous emotions of discovery?

On the surface, Rosenshine’s principles may appear to contradict what we consider to be sound practice in the early years. However, in this blog I want to consider how reflecting on Rosenshine can help us to reflect on our work with the youngest children in England’s schools in a useful way. Getting that right is important: large-scale research studies, like the ‘Effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project (EPPSE Project)’ (Taggert et al 2012), have clearly shown the long-term benefits of high quality early education, especially for children facing disadvantage.

But first, a health warning. Rosenshine’s did not draw his principles from research into early learning. They are generally not directly applicable to the early years. In fact, to write this blog as well as I could, I had to approach it the other way round. I thought first about some of the essential, and well-evidenced, features of high-quality early education. Then I reflected on Rosenshine in that light. 

As a general principle, that’s the best way I know of engaging with educational research. Ask yourself if what you are reading is drawn from robust studies, or whether it’s someone’s sales pitch. Use reports and toolkits from organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation (2019) to help you sift the evidence. Ask yourself whether the evidence looks relevant to the children you are working with. What works in an affluent, sunny suburb in California might not work so well in an inner-city primary school in England. If you are implementing an evidence-based approach, allow yourself plenty of time for reflection. Make sure you have colleagues to talk to, who will help you to analyse whether the approach is working for your class and your children.

We must be critical, reflective professionals when we read about research and evidence. We mustn’t be like over-eager shoppers, wanting the shiniest and newest products online or in-store. 

With all that in mind, I am going to discuss three of Rosenshine’s principles which particularly resonate with me. I’m going to approach them by thinking about how children learn language and literacy in their early years. There isn’t space to go wider and look at all the different areas of early learning, but it’s important to remember that young children need a broad early years curriculum.

Principle 1: Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning

This principle doesn’t help us to think about an important aspect of early education, play-based learning. But it is relevant when you are using direct instruction to teach children something new. If you are teaching phonics to a group, or the whole Reception class, it makes sense to begin by reviewing and practising what’s gone before. Regularly retrieving what you have learnt helps you to store the information in your long-term memory. We can store lots of information in our long-term memory, but generally only 7 or so bits of information in our working memory. 

So, when you are first learning about a letter and the sound it makes, you are reliant on your short- term working memory. That’s why we have to make sure we don’t teach young children too many things at the same time, as this overloads their working memory and causes confusion.

It’s through regular practice and retrieval that children develop their fluency. It becomes automatic to see ‘p’, know what sound it makes, and say that sound. Once you know some letters and their sounds, it gets easier to learn more. When children review and practise what they know regularly, the process becomes automatic. They are using the information they have stored in their long-term working memory, which has huge storage capacity.

If you’ve recently learnt to drive, you’ll know that at first every little step demands all of your concentration. As you focus on controlling the clutch you risk forgetting to check your mirrors as you pull out. But, pretty soon, those actions become automatic. You scarcely give them a thought. That frees up your working memory to concentrate on what matters: your position on the road, what’s coming up ahead, and so on. It’s the same with beginner readers. At first, recalling the letters and the sounds they make, and then blending them together, takes up all their working memory. They struggle along and often don’t have enough working memory free to remember the words they’ve just read. When they get to the end of the sentence, they can’t remember the beginning. They can’t tell you the meaning of what they have just read. But we need to get the foundations of reading right, to pave the way for children to become fluent readers in the future. The best evidence tells us that effective phonics teaching especially benefits children who have not always done well in the English school system, like children living in disadvantage, and children learning English as an Additional Language (Machin et al, 2012). 

Let’s return to Rosenshine’s focus on ‘previous learning’. It’s important to also consider the prior learning children need before phonics instruction. For example, children need to be able to focus on the teacher’s instruction and distinguish between different sounds. So, teachers need to put a very high priority throughout the whole early years phase on supporting children’s early communication.

In my current role, we’ve run a programme across our local neighbourhood called Manor Park Talks (Sheringham Nursery School, 2018), which is all about listening to young children and having conversations with them. The programme focuses on four strategies that are associated with positive outcomes in terms of supporting children’s early language development:

  • conversational responsiveness
  • interactive book-reading
  • using songs, rhymes and stories to support
  • expressive language
  • print referencing to support emergent literacy
  • listening for sounds
Children also need plenty of opportunities to develop their listening beyond conversation: for example, listening to rhymes and songs, and learning the words and the tune. When they listen to a piece of music regularly, they can learn to anticipate the louder and quieter passages, or how to follow a dance routine (Burke, 2018). Of course, reading is about lots more than just phonics. Children who use their phonic knowledge to decode and read a sentence aloud seem unable to tell you what they’ve just read. So, are they just ‘barking at print’ rather than reading. This leads me onto a second Rosenshine principle…
 

Principle 6: Check for student understanding

If we’re going to teach early reading well, then we need to help children develop a love of books and get a ‘feel’ for what reading is all about. Across the whole of the EYFS phase, it’s essential to have a collection of high-quality picture books and age-appropriate reference books. Whenever you look across an early years classroom, you should see children sharing books: on their own, in small groups, or with an adult (Nation, 2018). The early years day
needs to be punctuated by high-quality story-telling and book-reading by teachers and other staff.

By using the approach called ‘dialogic reading’, we can help children to engage with stories and make sense of them through purposeful questioning and dialogue.

A typical ‘dialogic’ strategy might be to pause your reading of We’re going on a bear hunt and ask – ‘who’s sploshed in a puddle?’ Two-year olds in nursery provision quickly get the hang of responding to approaches like this, as long as they’re read to individually or in a very small group. Older children in bigger groups could discuss it with their ‘talk partner’. Dialogic approaches to reading enable us to check children’s understanding and then respond in order to guide or extend their ideas as appropriate. This can help children to understand something tricky in the text.

Recently, I saw a reception teacher reading a book in which one of the characters enjoyed a ‘sleep over’. Lots of the children in the class weren’t familiar with that term, but a few were. So, she asked children who’d done ‘sleep overs’ to explain what they were. I heard children talking in pairs about the mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety they had about the idea of a sleepover. This brought the book alive. It also expanded the children’s vocabulary and their understanding of differences between family cultures. The Love My Books website provides free guidance and resources for teachers in the early years. You can share those ideas with parents, too, to encourage them to enjoy reading picture books with their children. This is just as important as listening to children practise their phonic strategies.

Providing multiple layers of support to our pupils is key if we want them to build those strong foundations to learning. I will explore these ideas further as I discuss a third and final Rosenshine principle…

Principle 8: Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks

‘Scaffolding’ is a teaching technique which is founded on research into young children’s learning in the 1970s (Wood et al, 1976). Many approaches to early education at that time emphasised children’s free exploration, with adults standing back and not interfering. Others put their emphasis on direct instruction and modelling.

To take the simple example of jigsaws, if a child found it difficult to complete a puzzle in the first type of setting, the adult might be encouraging and say ‘try again’. This might indicate that the adult’s belief is that all early learning has to be all under the child’s control. In the second type of setting, the adult might help the child by gently picking up the troublesome piece and showing the child how to fit it in.

Neither of those approaches helps a child to develop more effective ways of solving problems like that in the future.

A ‘scaffolding’ approach might involve the adult in thinking out loud: ‘hmm, you keep pushing the piece there but it won’t fit. I wonder if turning it might help?’ Sometimes children follow the verbal prompt and it helps them. Other times, the verbal prompt needs to be followed by the adult’s actual demonstration. The adult might then continue to encourage the child by scaffolding their learning: ‘ok, now this piece. It’s red. Does that help us?’

Similar approaches can be used in dialogic reading. The adult might say ‘hmm, I don’t know what a sleep-over is. I wonder how I could find out?’ Children might make suggestions and the adult might model following those suggestions through. ‘I could ask a friend…ok…can
anyone help me?’

Repeated ‘thinking out loud’ like this helps children, over time, to internalise ways of approaching and solving problems. It makes them more powerful learners over time. It’s an approach which can be developed through a practice called ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’, which occurs when ‘two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc.’ (Siraj-Blatchford et al,
2011, p. 8). The EPPSE Project found that this was a particular feature in high-quality early education.

It’s a big challenge for any teacher to make good use of the evidence to improve the quality of their work in early education, especially at the early stage of their career. It’s exciting for me to think that because you’re reading this, you’re showing that you’re up to that challenge.


References

Burke N (2018) Musical Development Matters. Available at https://www.early-education.org.uk/sites/default/files/Musical%20Development%20Matters%20ONLINE.pdf

Education Endowment Foundation (2019) Early Years Toolkit. Available at
https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/early-years-toolkit/

Machin S, McNally S and Viarengo M (2018) Changing how literacy is taught: evidence on synthetic phonics. Available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/88350/

Nation K (2018) What teachers need to know about shared reading. Available at https://www.tes.com/news/what-teachers-need-know-about-shared-reading

Rosenshine B (1997) The Case for Explicit, Teacher-led, Cognitive Strategy Instruction. Available at: http://www.formapex.com/barak-rosenshine/616-the-case-for-explicit-teacher-led-cognitive-strategy-instruction?616d13afc6835dd26137b409becc9f87=339a5ec40f56987efa4d7f134adb6e31

Rosenshine B (2012) Principles of Instruction. Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. Available at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf

Sheringham Nursery School (2018) Manor Park Talks. Available at: https://eleysp.co.uk/eleysp/arenas/websitecontent/web/3-A2-Poster-42978.pdf

Siraj-Blatchford I, Sylva K, Muttock S, Gilden R and Bell D (2011) Researching effective pedagogy in the early years. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4650/

Taggart B, Sylva K, Melhuish E, Sammons P and Siraj I (2015) Effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project (EPPSE 3-16+). Available at:
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/455670/RB455_Effective_pre-school_primary_and_secondary_education_project.pdf.pdf

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