Direct Instruction

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Direct instruction, as a general approach to instruction, involves explicit explanations, small learning steps, frequent review, frequent teacher-student interactions, and choral responses. This approach described by Rosenshine and Stevens (1984) is usually referred to with lower-case letters, di. Direct Instruction (with capital DI) is generally recognized in education as referring to the specific procedures and instructional material authored by Siegfried Engelmann (1931–) and his colleagues. The instructional material is designed according to the principles presented in Engelmann and Carnine's Theory of Instruction (1982) and is supported by practices designed to control the details that affect student learning and that are under the schools' control—procedures for managing students, for placing them in the instructional sequences, for correcting errors, for scheduling instruction, and for training teachers.

The DI model was introduced in the mid-1960s at the University of Illinois and achieved impressive results with at-risk preschoolers, raising the children's IQs an average of 24 points and teaching them reading and math (Engelmann, 1970).

The DI model is guided by the basic principle that if children are not learning, the fault lies with the instruction, not the children. DI programs are repeatedly tried out and revised before being published. Because DI instructional programs are referenced to the observed performance and deficiencies of at-risk preschoolers, the programs teach skills that have traditionally not been taught—the language of instruction for example. The DI beginning language curriculum teaches prepositional concepts, actions, plurals, and parts of common objects. The program provides sufficient practice for children to learn the concepts thoroughly. The DI beginning reading program was the first to introduce phonemic-awareness skills (practice of blending and rhyming with orally presented words), completely decodable stories composed entirely of words that had been taught, and explicit instruction in comprehension skills (Engelmann & Bruner, 1969).

Each program is designed so that (a) it did uses language familiar to the children, and (b) it provides ample examples of each concept being taught. DI focuses on one concept at a time and then integrates the newly taught concept into applications that are familiar to the children. The instructional design principles of DI are based on logical analysis. One of the principles is that if what is presented to students is consistent with more than one interpretation, some students will learn the unintended interpretation. For example, if all the examples of “blue” the teacher presents are circular, some students will not learn that blue is a color, but a shape or a combination of a color and a shape. Another principle is that learners have the built-in ability to generalize from a set of examples that clearly demonstrates a concept.

Early applications of DI showed that preschoolers learned faster when the teacher used exactly the same wording in an explanation, rather than varying wording from one example to another (Carnine, 1980). DI provides a script that indicates the precise wording teachers are to say in connection with examples. The script specifies both student responses and correction procedures for more common mistakes. DI programs were the first to have scripted teacher presentations (Engelmann, 2007).

Other principles of effective instruction that emerged from the early DI efforts include the need for frequent checking of student learning, the need for adjusting the rate of new instruction according to the rate of student mastery, and the need for cumulative reviews to demonstrate to students that everything that is taught is reviewed and applied. Principles based on behavior analysis are also applied to DI teaching, including the need for students to receive plenty of reinforcement for correct responses, as well as for appropriate behavior.

DI programs are designed so that children learn only about 10% new material on each lesson. This approach assures that students who are correctly placed in an instructional sequence will learn everything taught in the sequence. The approach also assures that students will be aware of their achievements and will tend to be more motivated to learn new material.


The published DI curricula in reading, language, math, and spelling are designed for preschool level through middle-school level with remedial programs for older students. For students to succeed they must be tested and placed into the DI curriculum where they belong. Instructional groups must be homogeneous so that all students in that group will succeed starting at the same spot in the instructional sequence. Although the activities and instructional components vary according to the content and skills the program addresses, some common features emerge, such as lessons designed so that each may be completed in a period. This provision makes it easier to measure the performance of children at any time during the year. If an average group started the program on the first lesson and has been in school 84 days, the group should be close to lesson 84 in the program and should be at mastery on all skills taught by lesson 84.

Another design feature is that lesson events are arranged so that more-reinforcing activities occur late in each lesson, not near the beginning. This feature ensures that students will work hard to get through the less reinforcing parts quickly so they “earn” the more-reinforcing activities.

In the beginning levels of the DI reading program, for instance, students start each lesson with work on the sounds different letters and letter combinations make. Next they read several new words, and words or word families that have been introduced in the last one to three lessons. The next activity is story reading. This is more reinforcing to the students than working on sounds or words in lists. Finally, students do independent work. This activity is also reinforcing.

DI introduces very little homework. The program assumes that there is a sufficient amount of time in the school day for students to do everything they need to do. What little homework is assigned is governed strictly by the rule that students must be able to perform without error at school on the same kind of assignment that they are expected to do at home before they are assigned to do it as homework. DI programs are built on the understanding that parents, particularly low-income parents, cannot be expected to teach their children at home.


Prevailing educational models variously called child-centered, progressive, or constructivist focus on how to teach, leaving the content up to the individual teacher, often based on student interest. The constructivist model assumes that if learners are placed in settings that provide autonomy and developmentally appropriate practices, students will learn naturally (Bruner, 1961). For example, balanced literacy proponents feel that the motivating power of “authentic” literature will help children learn to read faster than carefully constructed “decodable” stories. The frequently dismal outcomes of these approaches are what led to the creation of DI (see American Institutes for Research, An Educator's Guide to Schoolwide Reform [1999] for a review of intervention outcomes).

The DI model has several features in common with behavior analysis. Both behavior analysis and DI focus on how to teach and how to respond to what students do, so that some behaviors are reinforced and others are extinguished. Both behavior analysis and DI analyze tasks and use the information to insure that pre-skills for these tasks are taught before the tasks are presented. But the DI analysis goes beyond tasks to concepts and families of related information. The result is that the manner in which the material is introduced and sequenced is more sophisticated in DI than it is in behavior analysis.

Mastery Learning might be considered by some to be another educational model similar to DI; however, it is not as complete as Direct Instruction's model. Mastery Learning is based on the goal of bringing students to mastery of a series of objectives in sequence. Those students who achieve mastery with less practice engage in enrichment activities until the others have caught up. Then all begin work together on the next objective.

The DI model tries to arrange groups so all children in a group perform at the same level. In this way the faster students are not slowed by those who require more practice. Slower homogeneous groups progress through the lesson sequences more slowly than students who require less practice. DI also attempts to design the sequences so that mastery is achievable. Mastery Learning does not specify details of the teaching or how to sequence objectives efficiently.



Over the years many different curricula have been developed using the DI model. Two main classes of curricular sequences have emerged: developmental and remedial. The developmental curricula are designed to begin in kindergarten or first grade, teach a broad range of objectives, provide an unbroken sequence of skills across six year-long levels, and culminate in skills necessary for middle school. The remedial curricula are designed for older students (fourth grade through high school). These programs address narrower objectives. For example, the DI corrective reading strand that focuses on decoding addresses decoding problems poor readers typically have and provides specific remedies for the various problems. One problem is that students use generically different strategies for reading words in lists than they use for reading stories. The program addresses this problem through a dog that talks but becomes flustered when excited and says strings of unrelated words, such as “of for to do from go.” This technique requires students to apply the strategy they use for reading lists to read connected sentences.

DI has developmental curricula in reading, math, language and spelling. These programs are published by SRA/McGraw-Hill. More information can be found at their website under the Direct Instruction “product family.” The most complete developmental reading program is Reading Mastery. Designed to begin in kindergarten, Reading Mastery teaches beginning reading by teaching blending and a sounding-out strategy before introducing words. Also, the program has letter combinations that are joined, macrons to mark long vowels, and words with tiny letters that are not to be sounded out. (See Figure 1.) As students become proficient at reading words written with these font conventions, the letters are progressively changed until the font has no unusual features.

Connecting Math Concepts, the DI developmental program in math, teaches a broad range of math topics. As in other DI programs, concepts and strategies are taught in a series of lessons then reviewed and used in subsequent lessons and levels. Provided students are brought to mastery, the longer they use DI programs, the easier it becomes for them as well as for the teacher. The developmental programs in language include a three-year sequence, Language for Learning, Language for Thinking, and Language for Writing, as well as a six-level program called Reasoning and Writing. Language for Learning was developed initially to respond to the language deficits seen in at-risk preschoolers and is used in kindergartens primarily. There is also a six-level spelling program entitled Spelling Mastery. It, too, represents an unbroken sequence of skills from beginning levels up through middle-school spelling skills and includes unique curricular analyses such as learning morphographs—word parts which retain meaning and spelling across words.

Funnix is a CD reading program based on the Horizons reading series that has 120 lessons for the beginning level and 100 lessons for the following level. The program is used for tutoring or small-group instruction. The remedial reading program has two strands, Corrective Reading Decoding and Corrective Reading Comprehension. Each strand presents a three-year sequence that covers skills from those that are elementary to the middle-school level. Often the corrective reading programs are appropriate for lower-performing students in regular secondary classrooms. The Corrective Math series addresses remedial needs of students in math computation by focusing on an operation at a time: Addition; Subtraction; Multiplication; Division; Basic Fractions; Fractions, Decimals and Percents; and Ratios and Equations. The remedial spelling program is entitled Spelling Through Morphographs. More information can be found at the web site supported by Funnix.


The Direct Instruction research base is extensive and thorough. As stated in An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform, “Direct Instruction has a lengthy and rich base of empirical research” (American Institutes for Research, 1999, p. 64). The Educators' Guide gave Direct Instruction its highest rating. Research has been conducted on individual Direct Instruction programs, different components of the Direct Instruction methodology, and school-wide implementations. A meta-analysis of published empirical studies is presented in Adams and Engelmann's monograph, Research on Direct Instruction: 25 Years Beyond DISTAR (1996). The analysis was based on 34 studies that met a strict set of criteria for analysis, including pretest scores, comparison group research designs, and use of appropriate statistical measures. The analysis disclosed that 32 of the 34 studies' effect-size scores were positive, with a mean effect size of 0.87 (Adams & Engelmann, 1996, p. 43). The monograph indicates that “effects of .75 and above are rare in educational research” (p. 42), which makes the results of the meta-analysis “overwhelmingly favorable” (p. 48).

Direct Instruction achieved impressive results in Project Follow Through (1968–1976), the largest educational experiment in history. Of the 22 models that participated in Follow Through, the Direct Instruction model displayed the highest impact on student learning in all academic subjects measured, including reading, mathematics, language, and spelling. DI also had the highest effect in all learning domains measured (basic skills, cognitive-conceptual skills, and affective measures). The Direct Instruction model was the only model in Follow Through in which the average student score was above the 40th percentile in all academic subjects measured (Stebbins, St. Pierre, Proper, Anderson, and Cerva, 1977).

Follow-up studies indicated a lasting positive effect of Direct Instruction. Students who were in the first cohort of students in the Direct Instruction model in Williamsburg, South Carolina, had a significantly higher school graduation rate than the comparison group (Darch, Gersten, & Taylor, 1987). Students in the Direct Instruction model in New York City had significantly higher college application and acceptance rates as well as school graduation rates than the comparison group (Meyer, Gersten, & Gutkin, 1983).

Subsequent studies continue to confirm the effectiveness of the Direct Instruction model. In a 2000–2001 study of 40 schools in Houston (with a combined student population of nearly 10,000), Carlson, Francis, and Ferguson (2001) found that those schools implementing Direct Instruction outperformed the control schools significantly. Specifically, the authors concluded that the Direct Instruction implementation accelerated students' development of pre-reading and word reading skills in kindergarten and first grade, and students maintained a large lead in terms of skill acquisition over comparison students in the second grade. Students who stayed in the program longer achieved considerably better results by the end of first grade: 60% to 74% of the students at the DI schools scored above the 50th percentile on the SAT-9 Reading tests, but only 43% to 53%of the students at the control schools scored above the 50th percentile (Carlson, Francis, & Ferguson, 2001, pp. 5–7).

Since 2001, the Association for Direct Instruction has published the Journal of Direct Instruction. Archived articles from the journal are available via the Association's web site.


Adams, G. L., & Engelmann, S. (1996). Research on direct instruction: 25 years beyond DISTAR. Seattle, WA: Educational Achievement Systems.

American Institutes for Research. (1999). An educator's guide to schoolwide reform. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Bereiter, C., & Engelmann, S. (1966). Teaching disadvantaged children in the preschool. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1), 21–32.

Carlson, C., Francis, D., & Ferguson, C. (2001). RITE Program External Evaluation 2000–2001. Houston: Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics.

Carnine, D. W. (1980). Relationships between stimulus variation and the formation of misconceptions. Journal of Educational Research, 74, 106–110.

Darch, C., Gersten, R., & Taylor, R. (1987). Evaluation of Williamsburg County Direct Instruction program: Factors leading to success in rural elementary programs. Research in Rural Education, 4, 111–118.

Engelmann, S. (2007). Teaching needy kids in our backward system: 42 years of trying. Eugene, Oregon: ADI Press.

Engelmann, S. (1970). The effectiveness of Direct Instruction on IQ performance and achievement in reading and arithmetic. In J. Hellmuth (Ed.), Disadvantaged child: Vol. 3. Compensatory education: A national debate (pp. 339–361). New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Engelmann, S., & Bruner, E. C. (1969). DISTAR Reading I: Teacher's guide, Chicago: Science Research Associates.

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (1982). Theory of instruction: Principles and applications. New York: Irvington.

Engelmann, S., & Colvin, G. (2006). Rubric for identifying authentic Direct Instruction programs. Eugene, OR: Engelmann Foundation.

Meyer, L. A., Gersten, R., & Gutkin, J. (1983). Direct Instruction: a Project Follow Through success story in an inner-city school. Elementary School Journal, 84, 241–252.

Rosenshine, B., & Stevens, R. (1984). Classroom instruction in reading. In P. D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 745–798). New York: Longman.

Stebbins, L. B., St. Pierre, R. G., Proper, E. C., Anderson, R. B., & Cerva, T. R. (1977). Education as experimentation: A planned variation model (Vol. IV-A). Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.

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