Review: Rosenshine’s Principles in Action

Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (POI) is a list of research-based strategies which teachers can apply in their practice. The list of 10 principles (whittled-down over time) could be considered ‘core skills’ for teachers. They’ll no doubt be familiar to CELTA/Dip grads, although Rosenshine’s POI itself might be new for you. Here are the principles (actually the longer list of 17, from Rosenshine 2010):


I’ve just read a book by @teacherhead (Tom Sherrington) on Rosenshine’s ‘Principles in Action’ (John Catt Publications). It’s a pretty good resource, the first half is Sherrington’s take on Rosenshine’s principles and how to apply them. The second part is the original pamphlet that outlines those principles.

Where do the principles come from?

The principles were derived from cognitive science research, application of that research in the form of support/scaffolding, and backed up by evidence from classroom observations.

The POI pamphlet mediates between research and practice (see the pamphlet here). The author clearly states each principle (giving us the what), then summarises findings from research and observations (providing the why), and offers suggested reading related to each principle.

Are Rosenshine’s principles sound?

The POI seems to be a widely praised resource, although that doesn’t make it immune to critique. I think it’s fair to say that some of Rosenshine’s recommended reading is a tad dubious. For example, one paper listed in support of the principle ‘Guide student practice’ is Kirschner et al (2006). While the paper rightly supports the need for guided practice, it was critiqued for failing to understand the nature of guidance in constructivist approaches.

Nevertheless, the pamphlet is highly accessible for teachers and the principles are no doubt relatable for most teachers (I’m not sure they are necessarily common sense, as Sherrington suggests). It provides a succinct list of evidence-based core skills, and is a really useful document for CPD.

What does Tom Sherrington add?

Sherrington offers further insight into how practitioners can apply these principles. He organizes the principles into four strands, which is certainly useful…


… then offers practical examples for how to apply each principle. The resource is short but provides concise examples of each ‘principle in action’ across a range of subjects.

Sherrington notes some considerations regarding the value of the POI – they are context bound and their importance varies depending on the subject domain. Plus, they shouldn’t constitute a performative checklist of good practice. It’s reassuring this headteacher recognizes that practitioners shouldn’t take the principles as gospel. Jeez, imagine working in a school where observers are armed with a checklist of must-see skills demonstrated in the space of one hour, without much wiggle room for context, aims, etc… (readers who know my background should get that in-joke!).

Anyway, Sherrington’s practical suggestions are insightful and his style highly personable. His coverage of each principle reads a bit as a blog post. It wouldn’t surprise me if they originally were – not a criticism in any way as the author’s voice really comes through.

What could improve?

The practical suggestions the author shares are generally useful and there a couple of lists (related to questioning and reviewing) which are particularly good. There are couple of areas for development though.

Mainly, it’s the contradictions. In the conclusion the author shares some ‘improvement agendas’ which roughly focus on each strand of principles. Sherrington makes it clear that teachers and leaders should focus on one thing at a time, rather than aiming for improvements across multiple areas. This contradicts his earlier comment that there is likely crossover between the principles themselves, making it hard to focus on development in one particular area. If you are focusing on developing scaffolding techniques then you might well end up working on ways to support learners moving from guided/controlled practice to independent practice. There doesn’t seem a need to focus on developing individual strategies only, just an awareness that you can’t focus on everything at once.

Also, the author’s caveat that the POI may be more or less relevant in certain subject domains is somewhat contradicted by the way he addresses staging of practice. Sherrington stresses that ‘most subjects require a diet of activities and lesson types that varies over time’. Regardless, Sherrington then lists a ‘basic flow of many learning experiences’ in the section on independent practice which pretty much follows a PPP framework:

  • Teacher explains
  • T models
  • T checks for understanding
  • Ss engage in guided [read ‘controlled’ perhaps] practice, scaffolding as needed
  • Support gradually withdrawn
  • S engages in independent practice
  • S becomes fluent

There is a danger that by suggesting this is a ‘basic flow of many learning experiences’, the author (as an experienced teacher) is suggesting it is preferable, and it is very much taken out of subject context.

Basically, I’m just not sure Sherrington should have listed any type of staging framework here. It’s potentially misleading for less experienced teachers, it contradicts his comments on variety, and from an ELT perspective it is certainly a questionable framework to have chosen. One misleading aspect of this model might be that ‘basic’ may be seen as synonymous with ‘essential’, and very important stages that are not listed here are seen as optional add-ons. For example, there is no mention of context building or accessing prior knowledge before the presentation stage.

Slightly meaningless tangent

I found it interesting to review these principles in relation to my practice as a materials developer (rather than teacher). I won’t bore you with all the details, but I looked back at some teacher notes/supps from a project I was working on and considered whether the content and staging might be considered ‘principled’ by Rosenshine’s standards…

This framework is from a CLIL Science book. Based on my interpretation of this, along with further notes explaining the rationale behind guided/structured/open-ended inquiry techniques, and the supps I’d created, I felt there was quite a lot of principled Rosenshine-ness. It was a reminder to consider coursebooks as a package though, rather than the student book itself. You just can’t get a clear idea of the approach without taking it all in.

Really boring bit, sorry!

The book (the Sherrington one!) overall

Rosenshine’s Principles in Action is a worthwhile read. Given half of it (Rosenshine’s 2010 paper) is available online I’d say it’s overpriced (a tenner). You’re actually paying for 50 pages of Tom Sherrington’s practical tips. They’re useful though, as is his awesome blog, and if you see the book on discount I’d say snap it up. The principles themselves, as attributed to Rosenshine that is, don’t seem to be covered in many ELT courses but the pamphlet is handy, an easy read and evidence-informed.

Rating: 3.9/5

10 comments

  1. I flicked through this book at a friend’s house (he’s a history teacher) and thought it might make interesting reading. I noticed that a lot of the principles seemed to reflect what we cover on a CELTA course. Glad I didn’t buy it, but will definitely pick it up again next time I’m visiting. Thanks for the review!
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These principles are centrally concerned with the acquisition of knowledge. So, for most ELT contexts, that would mean grammar rules and initial learning of form-meaning pairings with vocabulary. My question, then, is how relevant is this to language learning? Obviously, language learning entails a lot of learning of knowledge, but we know that deliberate learning is often not the best way of going about it. No?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How would you define knowledge in this instance? Are you including skill acquisition and applied understanding as forms of knowledge, or are you referring more to facts and information?
      By language learning are you referring to some end state (like mastery), learning with an immediate goal/need to communicate, or something else?

      I didn’t read anything in the POI pamphlet that explicitly stated it was focused on acquisition of knowledge. If it did, and if by knowledge we are thinking more about vocab/grammar rules, then declarative knowledge may play a compensatory role for a learner as procedural competency continues to develop, without the suggestion that one necessitates the other.
      In a CLIL context like mine I feel less inclined to consider language learning as something separate from subject content or something that doesn’t require deliberate learning at times.

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      1. I was referring primarily to ‘facts and information’, but also lower order skills, because these seem to be what is being referred to when there is mention of reviewing, small steps, checking understanding, modelling, reviewing, etc. When I used the term ‘language learning’, I was referring to SLA research. Here, there is a huge amount of work that has been done on the relationship between explicit knowledge (of ‘facts and information’) and implicit (or procedural knowledge) and the extent to which there is any mental interface between the two. Whilst people continue to argue the toss about the degree to which explicit knowledge can be converted to procedural knowledge, the consensus would seem to be that this interface is, at best, weak. It may be the case that declarative knowledge can play a compensatory role for a lack of procedural knowledge, but it seems very unlikely that it is the primary driver of language acquisition.
        This being the case, there is also a research consensus that language acquisition is mainly driven by attempting to do communicative things with language, such as learning another subject matter in CLIL or involvement in communicative tasks in more general ELT contexts (rather than learning ‘facts and information’). It’s in that sense that I wonder about the applicability of Rosenshine’s principles to language learning in a communicative classroom. I would agree that there is a need for some deliberate learning, but we probably shouldn’t overstate the case.

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        1. Thanks for framing your response – even though I’ve followed your blog for a while and have a fair idea of your views on certain topics it’s still useful to work out where you’re coming from!
          Regarding ‘Low order skills’ I guess this is another term to clarify. If you mean lower order thinking skills (I can’t italicize in this comment but you know what I mean), personally I’m not that taken by the taxonomy. I do get why progressing towards certain skills may be considered optimal, but I feel like a lower-to-higher distinction isn’t the best way to frame things. It may be the case that ‘lower order’ skills lay groundwork for more ‘higher order’ skills and as such it’s not that helpful for me as a practitioner to suggest certain skills are more important.
          I can see why you may assume certain principles (especially reviewing) might be lower order though – although I think it’s worth considering how reviews might be undertaken in practice. My typical vocab ‘reviews’ involve a mix of concept checking, categorization, connecting with other topics, structured and free practice, pattern analysis, reflection, evaluation and so on – I really can’t say that all tasks undertaken are low order in my view.

          Re: ‘explicit to implicit’ and the connection between the two (if any)… while this may be equally refutable, I feel more aligned with Ullman’s research on this one – these are distinct memory systems that play different roles (I’m referring to declarative v procedural knowledge there). Yes, my views do tend to flit around, but the idea that declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge has always seemed a bit convenient/simplistic in all honesty. It has been a long while since I formally studied this area though so my current views are a tad bitty.
          How relevant these principles are to the language classroom might depend on your stance re: interface or your views towards direct instruction. I’d imagine that from a SLA perspective the principles might oversimplify the language learning process, perhaps reducing it merely to cognition, ignoring (the somewhat non-linear) nature of interlanguage development and discounting a large body of more humanistic focused research.

          Ultimately, I think a possible role for these principles in language learning is a matter of preference. That said, if your preference happens to be anti the type of core skills development that a teacher might encounter on an ITT course like the CELTA, then yeah, they’d be naff.

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          1. No, I most definitely didn’t mean lower order thinking skills! (I’m not a fan of the way that Bloom’s taxonomy is (mis)used in language learning / teaching contexts.) I was thinking of basic skills, like, at lower levels, being able to produce particular sounds or combinations of sounds, or, at a higher level, of using topic sentences in writing.

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    2. This is exactly what I often wonder with research/evidence based discussion. I think language works differently and in a very basic way, the fact that we can learn a language without studying it, or without being fully aware of the bits that form the whole, seems to support that and go against the idea of teaching units of knowledge *about* language. Knowledge about language doesn’t mean necessarily that you are good at speaking the language, likewise, you can speak a language well without knowing about all of its parts (like me).
      Working in an international school really makes me think about how some subjects are ‘content’ focused (facts and info), but language is something else. Sadly, this is where I can’t quite verbalise what I mean (and am not going the extra mile to study it more), so I stop talking about it! 😅

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