1 in 6 Adults in America Won’t Be Able to Read this Post

Project Follow Through was a federally funded study in which 22 different models of instruction, including Direct Instruction (DI) and Behavior Analysis (BA) were evaluated with over 200,000 at-risk children from kindergarten to 3rd grade. The results indicated that DI was the most effective model of instruction for producing basic skills such as spelling and word identification. DI was also found to produce the most robust effects for children in the cognitive domain, which included reading.

DI is based on four main features: 1) the program starts at the students’ instructional level, 2) the program ensures mastery, 3) the program allows for individualized instruction, and 4) the programs undergo field testing and revision to ensure effectiveness. DI and behavior analysis quickly became close friends.

A number of DI curricula have been developed and evaluated over the past 40 years such as Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading that focus on reading and literacy skills. A recent meta-analysis of 50 years of research investigating the effectiveness of DI curricula (Stockard, Wood, Coughlin, & Khoury, 2018) confirms that the positive effects of DI programs have been overwhelmingly demonstrated in the literature.

Yet a recent news story focused on a nonprofit adult literacy program in Maine, reports that there are 35 million adults in the US who read below a fourth grade level.

How is it that 1 in 6 adults who live in the US read below a fourth grade level when 50 years of research suggest that that DI programs consistently produce results for recipients of the programs?

Why aren’t DI curricula more widely adopted?

Three of Heward’s (2005) reasons as to “why behavior analysis is good for education” (p. 316) and “ why those reasons have been insufficient” (p. 324) could offer us a starting point. First, Heward (2005) notes that “ABA’s data do not interest educators” and that “ABA’s data do not matter because educational decisions are seldom informed by data on student learning” (p. 324). Therefore, even if the data suggest DI is more effective than other instructional models and that students learn when DI curricula are used, these data do not inform decision makers’ curricular choices. Second, “some teachers view ABA as a threat to their creativity and independence” (Heward, 2005, p. 324) and the DI curricula are often criticized because they provide a script for each lesson that some argue is too restrictive.

What can behavior analysts do to help?

With 52% of course sequences verified by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board housed in departments of education (Shepley, Allday, & Shepley, 2018), some are shifting the culture of education to value data-based decision making as more educators are taking coursework in behavior analysis and more behavior analysts are being trained as educators. Others who wish to improve adult literacy might follow some of Sollad’s (1987) suggestions, one of which is to create and work with more programs like the Literacy Volunteers of Bangor.