Direct Instruction

Direct Instruction

Direct Instruction (DI) is an instructional method that is focused on systematic curriculum design and skillful implementation of a prescribed behavioral script.

On the premise that all students can learn and all teachers successfully teach if given effective training in specific techniques, teachers may be evaluated based on measurable student learning. A frequent statement in discussions of the methodology is "If the student doesn't learn, the teacher hasn't taught." (Tarver, 1999)

Direct Instruction was originally developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann and the late Wesley C. Becker of the University of Oregon, and it was the subject of an extensive federally-funded research and implementation program called Project Follow Through.

It is sometimes used in resource room programs in schools.



Although they came from different backgrounds–Engelmann was a preschool teacher and Becker was a trained researcher from the University of Illinois–both sought to identify teaching methods that would accelerate the progress of historically disadvantaged elementary school students. DI was an attempt to merge rule learning with the principles of applied behavior analysis.[1] In this light, it can be considered a highly successful combination[2]

The DISTAR (Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading) program gained prominence during Project Follow Through (1967–1995), the largest federally funded experiment in public education.

Features of DI include:

  • Explicit, systematic instruction based on scripted lesson plans.
  • Ability grouping. Students are grouped and re-grouped based on their rate of progress through the program.
  • Emphasis on pace and efficiency of instruction. DI programs are meant to accelerate student progress; therefore, lessons are designed to bring students to mastery as quickly as possible.
  • Frequent assessment. Curriculum-based assessments help place students in ability groups and identify students who require additional intervention.
  • Embedded professional development/coaching. DI programs may be implemented as stand-alone interventions or as part of a schoolwide reform effort. In both instances, the program developers recommend careful monitoring and coaching of the program in order to ensure a high fidelity of implementation.

Direct instruction has been effectively delivered through peers to students with learning disabilities.[3] Peer delivery offers teachers new ways to effectively use the curriculum.[4] The approach has also been examined as an effective model to assist students in a resource room with homework completion, bolster executive functioning skills and improve teacher efficiency.[5]

In the past decade Direct Instruction curricula, especially Language for Learning, have become popular tools for teaching language arts skills to children with developmental disabilities such as autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Knowledge of Direct Instruction methods is mandatory for any applicant aspiring to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Board certification in behavior analysis is an attempt to set quality levels for behavior analytic practice (see Professional practice of behavior analysis).


Debates about the efficacy of DI have raged since before the final results of Project Follow Through were published; however, there is substantial empirical research supporting its effectiveness. A meta-analysis published by Adams & Engelmann (1996), a chief architect of the DI program, finds a "mean effect size average per study...(as) more than .75, which confirms that the overall effect is substantial."

In some special education programs it is used in a resource room with small groups of students. Some research has shown benefit with this model.[6]

However, one three-year study of methods of teaching reading showed that highly scripted, teacher-directed methods of teaching reading were not as effective as traditional methods that allowed a more flexible approach. The study, headed by Randall Ryder, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education, also found that teachers felt the most highly scripted method, known as Direct Instruction (DI), should be used in limited situations, not as the primary method of teaching students to read. (Ryder, et al., 2006) Urban teachers in particular expressed great concern over the DI's lack of sensitivity to issues of poverty, culture and race. (Ryder et al., 2006).

The findings from Ryder's study are not constant with the findings of more than twenty other studies. (See the critique of Ryder's study noting the inherent methodological flaws.) Direct Instruction is widely and successfully used with students from every population segment (with regard to poverty, culture, and race). In Project Follow Through, the DI model was ranked first in achievement for poor students, students who were not poor, urban students, rural students, African American students, Hispanic students, and Native American students. Today, many of the Bureau of Indian Affair's highest-performing schools use Direct Instruction materials. See Chief Leschi School and Nay Ah Shing School. The Baltimore Curriculum Project has many schools with Free and Reduced Lunch Rates above 75% serving student populations that are more than 90% African American. These schools have shown strong achievement gains using Direct Instruction (Rebar, 2007).

Meta-analysis of 85 single-subject design studies comparing direct instruction to other teaching strategies found the effects to be substantial for students with learning disabilities;[7] however, when qualified by IQ and reading levels strategy instruction (SI) had better effects for the high IQ group. For the low-IQ discrepancy groups higher effect sizes were yielded for a Combined DI and SI Model when compared to all competing models. With the exception of handwriting DI's effects were all above .8 (i.e., reading and mathematics).

John Hattie's Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009) summarizes the results of four meta-analyses that examined Direct Instruction. These analyses incorporated 304 studies of over 42,000 students. Across all of these students, the average affect size was .59 and was significantly larger than those of any other curriculum Hattie studied.

Direct Instruction is recognized as one of two effective models of comprehensive school reform (see the federal government's site on Comprehensive School Reform) (See and in many cases, can be integrated into a tiered model system to address students will developing problems.[8] The findings from Project Follow Through, conducted in a variety of communities throughout the United States, conclude that Direct Instruction is the most effective model for teaching academic skills and for affective outcomes (e.g., self-esteem of children). Recent large scale studies (1997–2003), such as the Baltimore Curriculum Project, show that it is possible to help schools that are in the lowest twenty percent with respect to academic achievement steadily improve until they are performing well above average. In some cases, school achievement improved from the 16th percentile to above the 90th percentile (Rebar, 2007).

The president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), Anne Tweed, also questions whether direct instruction is the most effective science teaching strategy. In the December 15, 2004 NSTA Reports she concluded that a variety of teaching strategies, including those that are inquiry-based (see inquiry-based instruction) as well as direct instruction techniques are what is best for students (Tweed, 2004).

Currently, Direct Instruction is one of the few curriculums that have been scientifically validated to be effective for use in the Response to Intervention model, which has been proposed as an alternative method of diagnosing learning disabilities in schools.[9]

Philosophical critiques

Some critics of DI see it as a betrayal of the humanistic, egalitarian foundations of public education, or as a "canned" or "teacher proof" curriculum deliverable via unskilled teachers.[10] DI has been criticized for being so inflexible that it "handcuffs" teachers.[11] More radical critics argue that the entire history of public education in the United States has been a political one, designed primarily to domesticate lower socio-economic groups, and that DI is in keeping with this broader, historical purpose. Libertarian and traditional conservative critics see the approach as too authoritarian and susceptible to political agendas.[citation needed]

Some proponents see DI as a means to promote social justice.[12] All students—including poor and otherwise disadvantaged students—deserve to learn. Learning to read well increases the likelihood of high school graduation and the degree and quality of future employment. Similarly, it decreases the likelihood of incarceration and other socially undesirable outcomes.

See also


  1. ^ Englemann, S.E.(1968). Relating operant techniques to programming and teaching. Journal of School Psychology, 6, 89-96.
  2. ^ Kim, T. & Axelrod, S. (2005). Direct Instruction: An Educators’ Guide and a Plea for Action. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6.(2), Page 111-123.BAO
  3. ^ Marchand-Martella, & Martella (2002) An Overview and Research Summary of Peer-Delivered Corrective Reading. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3 (2), 214 -235 [1]
  4. ^ Marchand-Martella, & Martella (2002) An Overview and Research Summary of Peer-Delivered Corrective Reading. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3 (2), 214 -235 [2]
  5. ^ Effective Direct Instruction Practices in Special Education Settings CS Englert.Remedial and special education, 1984 vol. 5 no. 2 38-47.
  6. ^ Resource Room Teachers' use of Strategies that Promote the Success of Handicapped Students in Regular Classrooms Nancy K. Glomb and Daniel P. Morgan Journal of Special Education, Jan 1991; vol. 25: pp. 221 - 235
  7. ^ Swanson, H.L. & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A Meta-Analysis of Single-Subject-Design Intervention Research for Students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol. 33, No. 2, 114-136 DOI: 10.1177/002221940003300201
  8. ^ Stewart, R.M., Martella, R.C., Marchand-Martella, N.E. & Benner, G.J. (2005). Three-Tier Models of Reading and Behavior. JEIBI 2 (3), 115-123 BAO
  9. ^ Rachel M. Stewart, Ronald C. Martella, Nancy E. Marchand-Martella and Gregory J. Benner (2005): Three-Tier Models of Reading and Behavior. JEIBI 2 (3), Pg.115 - 124 BAO
  10. ^ From behaviorism to humanism: Incorporating self-direction in learning concepts into the instructional design process. In H. B. Long & Associates, New ideas about self-directed learning. Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1994 (Roger Hiemstra & Ralph Brockett)
  11. ^ Hoover Institution Policy Review
  12. ^ Kim, T. & Axelrod, S. (2005). Direct Instruction: An Educators’ Guide and a Plea for Action. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6.(2), Page 111-123 BAO
  • Adams, G. L., Slocum, T. A., Railsback, G. L., Gallagher, S. A., McCright,S. A., Uchytil, R. A.,, Conlong, W. W. & Davis, J. T. (2004). A critical review of Randall Ryder's report of Direct Instruction reading in two Wisconsin school districts. *Journal of Direct Instruction, 4*(2), 111-127.
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Schweinhart, Lawrence J., David P. Weikart, Mary B. Larner. 1986. Consequences of three preschool curriculum models through age 15. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 1, 1, 15-45.
  • Ryder, Randall J., Jennifer L. Burton, Anna Silberg. 2006. Longitudinal study of direct instruction effects from first through third grade. Journal of Educational Research, 99, 3, 179-191.
  • Tweed, Anne, NSTA President, 2004. Direct Instruction: Is It the Most Effective Science Teaching Strategy?, NSTA Web News Digest, 15 December 2004.
  • Rebar, M. (2007). Academic acceleration in first grade using the Direct Instruction model. (Report No. 2007-1). Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University.

Available for download at:

External links

See Also

Crawford, D., Engelmann, K.E., & Engelmann, S.E. (2008). Direct Instruction. In E.M. Anderman & L.H. Anderman (Eds.) Psychology of Classroom Learning: An Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan.

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