Eternally Burning Flame: The Legacy and Impact of Direct Instruction
For more than 50 years, Siegfried “Zig” Englemann wrote, field-tested, and researched instructional programs that would help all kids unlock their full potential for learning. His legacy on the world of education was significant and will be felt for generations to come.
On February 15, 2019, Zig passed away at his home in Eugene, Oregon. He was the lead author of the Direct Instruction programs published by SRA and McGraw-Hill for many decades. Zig impacted the lives of thousands of students from across the US to those around the world in Asia, Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.
Zig’s belief was simple…ALL students can learn. When he said all, it wasn’t “all” with an asterisk as a caveat, but ALL as in every single student.
Ask the parents of students with special needs that had given up hope of their child learning to read, only to find programs that changed the trajectory of their child’s life. Ask a principal at a failing school how using Reading Mastery or Connecting Math Concepts has turned around the achievements of their students. Ask a teacher of fragile learners how using Direct Instruction programs has altered the path of their students and led to college attendance and impressive careers. I submit that most consultants, instructors, and administrators using the Direct Instruction methodology can tell you numerous success stories they witness in their everyday work across the country.
Hundreds of hours spent working with teachers and observing students lead to Zig’s theory of instruction: Direct Instruction. From this theory, Zig and his colleagues developed DISTAR Reading and Math and eventually numerous programs including SRA Reading Mastery, SRA Corrective Reading, Language for Learning, and Connecting Math Concepts. Each program is based upon the Direct Instruction principles. He even tests his programs in the classroom and uses those results to modify and improve them. His perseverance to perfect a new instructional model has received dozens of academic reviews pointing to effectiveness and efficacy. There is more scientific evidence to validate the effectiveness of his methods than any other approach to instruction.
Zig held strongly to the idea that if a child failed to learn, it wasn’t their fault — rather, it was the instruction to blame. He understood that when children are taught to mastery, they acquire new information faster and develop more efficient strategies for learning. His life’s work became about ensuring teachers could teach to mastery with programs that were designed to support this approach.
Witnessing Direct Results
As an education major at the University of Florida, my professors introduced me to DISTAR (Reading Mastery) and I never looked back. I was amazed by significant achievement gained by even the most fragile learners.
My position in the university’s education clinic gave me a view into working with some of the most challenging students. These were students in which school districts had ‘given up’ and asked for help. In this setting, we used Direct Instruction programs and amazing things happened. This is where my love for learning and literacy originated.
Later, I moved to Pinellas County, Florida so that I could teach in a district that supported using Direct Instruction programs. My students gained the benefits of Zig’s attention to detail about teaching and learning, and his genius mind. I can clearly see each of them growing and becoming more confident each day…Richard, Jeanette, Zamreo, Vernell, Christopher, Joshua, Crystal, David, Wayne, Janice, Shanita, and so many others. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of the impact that learning to read, write, and spell had on these students, and their families. This is the ripple effect of Zig’s work and passion.
It takes but one person, one moment, one conviction, to start a ripple of change. Donna Brazile
Zig believed passionately in doing what was right for children. This conviction carried him through times of challenges and setbacks. Both Zig and his Direct Instruction programs were often criticized and scrutinized, but this never deterred him from the work at hand. Quite the contrary, Zig remained undaunted and focused on developing more programs, thus reaching more children.
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. — Robert Kennedy
I feel fortunate to have worked closely with Zig over the years. He was a mentor and a friend. His absence will be felt by educators across the globe, but now it is now our turn as Direct Instruction proponents to carry on the legacy he so courageously laid out for us.
To learn more about Zig’s accomplishments:
Mary Eisele, Ph.D. is the Director of Product Management for the Direct Instruction product line at McGraw-Hill. For almost 30 years, Dr. Eisele has partnered with schools and districts as educators implement various Direct Instruction programs. This work deepened her passion for improving student achievement through research-proven programs and embedded professional development. A move from sales/consulting to product development has enabled her to capitalize on those experiences when leading the development of new products. Dr. Eisele authored Phonemic Awareness and produced other resources including promotional videos, professional development tools, an online data management system, and additional materials to support literacy education.