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by Michael Fairbrother and Dr. Jessica Whitley

Teacher helping students learn to read

What is Direct Instruction?

In general, direct instruction is an active, reflective approach to instruction that breaks learning into smaller steps with scaffolding, leading towards students’ independence and mastery (Rosenshine, 2008; Rupley, 2009). Direct instruction, compared to other approaches to instruction, has been shown to be extremely beneficial for students with exceptionalities (Marchand-Martella, Kinder & Kubina, n.d.). Though direct instruction approaches are effective for all students, they are particularly effective in increasing the rate of learning for students with specific learning disabilities (Somerville & Leach, 1988).

Baker et al. (2013) describe the “compelling evidence indicat[ing] that explicit [direct] instruction has a positive impact on a range of student academic outcomes, particularly for students who are at risk for academic difficulties” (p. 334).

Barak Rosenshine, a long-time direct instruction researcher, breaks down the different kinds of direct instruction into the following approaches in his short 2008 synthesis:

  • the teacher effects pattern,
  • cognitive strategies meaning, and
  • Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR).

Though differences among the approaches exist, Rosenshine emphasized the following main underlying characteristics:

  • guided practice,
  • active student participation,
  • scaffolding and
  • gradual release of responsibility towards student independence.

This summary presents a short description of the three main evidence-based types of direct instruction synthesized by Rosenshine (2008), some of the reading programs most associated with them and examples of research showing how direct instruction has helped struggling readers improve their reading skills. The research discussed in this summary is focused on elementary reading instruction, with examples presenting ways direct instruction has shown to be effective and inclusive in classrooms by developing the foundational reading skills of all readers. To conclude, some of the main challenges to implementation will be presented as well as a section on where further information can be found.


The Teacher Effects Pattern

The teacher effects pattern is characterized by identifying highly effective teachers and then conducting research to determine which instructional strategies the teachers are using and how they are being utilized. In order to conduct this type of research, a pre-test would first be administered in a given subject to a number of classes of students. Teacher behaviours, including the number and type of questions asked, frequency of feedback, and time spent in guided practice, would then be observed and recorded, and a post-test would be administered.

This research is also referred to as ‘process-product’. By comparing the instructional elements of the classrooms with the largest and smallest gains, a list of effective characteristics of direct instruction can be determined. More rigorous experimental studies can then be conducted with teachers trained in these assumedly effective instructional procedures in order to confirm the gains made by students.

Rosenshine (2008) and counterparts believe that the empirical results arising from this research represent a pattern of effective teaching practices and he summarizes the patterns effective teachers used when they taught well-structured topics such as math computation and alphabetics:

  1. Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.
  2. Begin a lesson with a short statement of goals.
  3. Present new material in small steps, providing for students practice after each step.
  4. Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  5. Provide a high level of active practice for all students.
  6. Ask a large number of questions, check for student understanding, and obtain responses from all students.
  7. Guide students during initial practice.
  8. Provide explicit instruction and practice for seatwork exercises and monitor students during seatwork.

Successful published instructional reading programs embracing this direct instruction approach are Open Court Reading, Enhancing Core Reading Instruction (ECRI), and Cooperative Integrated Reading and Comprehension (CIRC), and a school wide approach shown to have overall positive effects in reading and mathematics titled Success for All.

Cognitive Strategies

This type of direct instruction began around 1968 and refers to instructional procedures used for teaching higher-level cognitive tasks, such as:

  • reading comprehension,
  • test-taking and
  • reflective thinking strategies.

This direct instruction approach has been used quite effectively for teaching strategies in reading comprehension such as (Rosenshine, 2008):

  • predicting,
  • clarifying,
  • question-generating and
  • summarizing.

Scaffolding, or temporary supports, is the predominant instructional procedure for teaching cognitive strategies, which provides support for initial learning. Below is a general list of instructional procedures of scaffolds.

  1.  Modelling of the use of strategy by the teacher.
  2. Thinking aloud by the teacher as choices were made.
  3. Providing cue cards of specific prompts to help students carry out the strategy.
  4. Dividing the task into smaller components, teaching each component separately, and gradually combining the components into a whole process.
  5. Anticipating student errors.
  6. Encouraging student thinking aloud during strategy use.
  7. Providing reciprocal teaching by teacher and students.
  8. Providing checklists.
  9. Providing models of completed work.

Whereas the teacher effects pattern style of direct instruction has less focus on scaffolding (e.g., props such as cue-cards), both cognitive strategies and teacher effects patterns do the following:

  • state the lesson goals,
  • break tasks into smaller components and
  • gradually work from modelling, with regular checks for understanding towards extensive student independent practice.

Open Court Reading, the ECRI Reading Program and Success for All incorporate cognitive strategies using scaffolds within their instructional procedures (Rosenshine, 2008).


In a study by Coyne et al. (2009), direct instruction was focused on developing grade one students’ listening comprehension strategies. Results showed that following the intervention, the students demonstrated significant gains in their ability to understand elements of stories read aloud to them.

In a second study, Fagella-Luby, Schumaker, and Deshler (2007) used direct and explicit cognitive instruction, Embedded Story Structure (ESS), to improve the reading comprehension skills of low-achieving high school students. Strategies included: student self-questioning of story grammar elements[2]; story-structure analysis; and summarizing.

Results showed that students with and without learning disabilities benefited from ESS techniques. Students improved their reading comprehension skills, retained more information, and felt ESS’s direct and explicit cognitive strategies was beneficial approach for improving their reading skills.


DISTAR is an acronym for Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading and it developed as a whole school reform initiative that grew out of earlier reading instruction research by Engelmann and colleagues (Mac Iver & Kemper, 2002).

It is this direct instruction approach that most often corresponds to formal Direct Instruction (DI) in the literature, and its main components are:

  • An explicit step-by-step strategy.
  • Development of mastery at each step in the process.
  • Teachers are given specific correction procedures to use when students make errors.
  • Gradual fading of teacher direction as students move toward independent work.
  • Use of adequate and systematic practice through a range of examples of the task.
  • Cumulative review of newly learned concepts.

DISTAR’s instructional approaches were created to complement specific curriculum packages and, unlike the teacher effects results, were not developed as part of general procedures for teachers (Rosenshine, 2008). This direct instruction approach receives the most criticism from educators due to its regular use of student choral responses, its reliance on teacher scripts and a general perception that it is overly directed and rigid (Rosenshine).

However the DISTAR reading program was selected by the American Federation of Teachers (1998) as one of the “What Works” programs, and a report prepared by the Education Consumers Foundation (2011) presented a number of meta-analyses purporting the strengths of DISTAR.

Research Findings: Effectiveness on the Components Critical to Successful Reading

Effectiveness of Direct Instruction in Alphabetics

Much of the research on direct instruction in reading is focused on five critical areas (Rupley, 2009):

  1. phonemic awareness,
  2. phonics,
  3. fluency,
  4. vocabulary, and
  5. comprehension.

For example, Nelson-Walker et al. (2013) investigated the relationship between the quality of reading instruction and reading achievement of at-risk and not-at-risk students in 42 first-grade classrooms. One group of teachers was trained in direct instruction protocols and the other continued with their regular practice. The direct/explicit instruction group received highly specific lesson plans, strict teaching routines for supporting the implementation of instruction and materials for intervention.

Results showed that classes whose teachers received the extra direct instruction coaching scored higher on tests of phonemic awareness, alphabetical principles and fluency skills and that there was more group practice (scaffolding). However, significant differences were not seen in reading connected text or comprehension strategies. The authors suggest that it was difficult to change teacher behaviour for instructionally complex topics such as vocabulary and comprehension, yet this could be attributed to teachers needing more instruction and practice time for developing the instructional skills for delivering effective cognitive strategy meaning instruction.

Kamps and Greenwood (2005) hypothesized that students would improve their reading skills through small-group instruction, focussing on phonics-based cognitive and scripted direct instruction strategies, teacher modelling, repeated practice, and reinforcement of new skills with the expectation of mastery learning. Additionally they believed that recent advances in positive behavioral support and early intervention models would favour learning opportunities for students at-risk of reading difficulties.

Demonstrating the effectiveness of explicit phonemic and phonics-based instruction, Kamps and Greenwood compared randomly selected first-grade students in four experimental groups (n=176) to randomly selected students in four comparison groups (n=164). Both groups were similar in their numbers of at-risk students (approximately 50%). Experimental groups received small-group explicit phonemic and phonics-based instruction, as well as positive behavioural support. Comparison groups were largely taught using conventional practices, which included whole group instruction, balanced literacy, and guided reading.

Experimental groups showed greater progression in nonsense word fluency and oral reading fluency at the end of first grade, revealing much greater improvements than the control groups. Kamps and Greenwood attributed the significant improvements among the experimental groups to the increased use of:

  1. small group instruction,
  2. systematic phonics instruction,
  3. time spent on active reading engagement, and
  4. teacher praise.

Critical Reading Skills for Explicit and Inclusive Reading Comprehension Instruction

Primary Reading Comprehension

In one recent study, Baker et al. (2013) researched the impact of structured read-aloud lessons for grade one students that were systematic and yet maintained an enjoyable teaching and learning atmosphere for teachers and students. Though acknowledging the value of read-aloud instruction, the authors pointed to a lack of structure in many teacher-led read-alouds, which limits the growth for acquiring essential early reading strategies.

The authors hypothesized that a more structured approach to reading instruction that was explicit and focused on comprehension and vocabulary knowledge should have a positive impact on these higher-order skills, and be particularly helpful for students with language and literacy difficulties. Listening comprehension skills were targeted with the belief that students, once taught to use these strategies to comprehend text read to them, would transfer these skills to their own reading situations as they developed their independent reading skills.

The read-aloud intervention incorporated core elements of explicit instruction. Lessons were organized around modelled teacher-led instruction moving toward independent student practice. Read-aloud lessons were sequenced to become more complex over time, building upon previous learned skills and strategies. Teachers and students engaged in frequent interactions about texts with commitment towards increasing interactions with at-risk students. Finally, extensive feedback was provided to students, with additional teacher modeling and corrective feedback for incorrect responses. Teachers in the comparison condition instructed using the read-aloud procedures they would typically use in their classrooms.

To study the impact of the read-aloud intervention on students, a randomized control trial was conducted with 12 first grade classes from 12 different schools. The study included 12 teacher participants and 225 student participants (control group, n =103; intervention group, n = 122). Students completed a test of language development to help researchers determine the number of students at-risk for language and literacy difficulties. The intervention group consisted of 43 students at-risk for literacy and language difficulties while the control group had 40 students at-risk in these categories. Students were tested on listening comprehension (measuring receptive language) and on narrative retell, expository retell, and vocabulary (the previous three measuring expressive language). Intervention was implemented over 19 weeks with students assuming greater independence as the lessons progressed. Lessons were 30 minutes long, focused on two-week units with six or seven lessons per unit: three lessons focused on expository text, and three or four lessons focused on narrative text with each lesson incorporating before, during and after text reading activities.

To measure understanding, all students were given a pre-test to be compared to a post-test. Regardless of risk-status group, students in the intervention condition performed better than those in the comparison condition on narrative retell and vocabulary outcomes for students. Students with language and literacy-risks showed significant improvements on the measures of narrative retell and vocabulary suggesting that they benefited from this systematic and explicit instruction.

However, the read-aloud intervention did not show a statistically significant effect on overall listening comprehension. What was most significant for Baker et al. (2013) was how explicit instruction showed favourable effects for young students in inclusive classrooms by developing skills from instruction that is explicit and systematic.

Considerations for Classroom Implementation

There are different interpretations of what direct instruction means. The types discussed in this summary are demonstrated evidence-based practices, repeatedly shown to be effective for improving the core reading skills of students with and without reading disabilities.

Direct instruction does require adhering to a structure and necessitates extensive practice and professional development before it can be used effectively to improve reading for students with and without reading disabilities and difficulties.

Direct instruction, as defined by DISTAR, is one of the many resources requiring schools or teachers to purchase a packaged curriculum for reading. There are many other resources and programs that are available for purchase; DISTAR is an example of one that has received attention in the research field.

There is a general impression that direct instruction is overly rigid and teacher controlled. Rosenshine (2008) attributes this perception to the DISTAR program rather than teacher effects pattern or cognitive strategy instruction. This reputation can make it hard for many to buy in to this approach.

Though Nelson-Walker et al. (2013) show the effectiveness of direct instruction in facilitating foundation reading skills in general elementary classrooms, much of the direct instruction research for students with reading difficulties is conducted outside of the classroom in more specialized settings. It is important that teachers examine the research results obtained for a specific program that they may be considering, and to choose one that best suits their context as well as the needs of their specific group of students.

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Effective Vocabulary Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Commercial Reading Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities: Examining the Evidence Base.

Click here to access the article Visual Representation in Mathematics.

Additional Resources

This short synthesis from Barak Rosenshine is an excellent resource for looking at the differences between different interpretations of direct instruction. It provides a number of tables and lists recounting the major differences and similarities between teacher effect patterns, cognitive strategies meaning and DISTAR. Click here to review the synthesis.

This current practice alert is a four page discussion of the direct instruction approach incorporated by DISTAR. For those interested in more details on DISTAR’s direct instruction this is a concise description of how it works, for whom it is intended, and how practical and effective it is. Click here to view the practice alert.


Baker, S., Santoro, L., Chard, D., Fien, H., Park, Y., & Otterstedt, J. (2013). An evaluation of an explicit read aloud intervention in whole-classroom formats in first grade. The Elementary School Journal, 113(3), 331-358.

Coyne, M., Zipoli, Jr., R., Chard, D.J., Fagella-Luby, M., Ruby, M., Santoro, L., & Baker, S. (2009). Direct instruction of comprehension: Instructional examples from intervention research on listening and reading comprehension. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25, 221-245.

Education Consumers Foundation. (2011). Direct Instruction: What the Research Says. Retrieved from http://www.education-consumers.org/DI_Research.pdf.

Fagella-Luby, M., Schumaker, J., & Deshler, D. (2007). Embedded learning strategy instruction: Story-structure pedagogy in heterogeneous secondary literature classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30, 131-147.

Kamps, D., and Greenwood, C. (2005) Formulating secondary-level reading interventions. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(6). 500-509.

Mac Iver, M.A., & Kemper, E. (2002). Guest editors’ introduction: Research on direct instruction in reading. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 7(2), 107-116.

Kinder,d., Kubina, R., & Marchand-Martella, N., Special Education and Direct Instruction: An Effective Combination. Retrieved March 28, 2016 from http://www.nifdi.org/docman/journal-of-direct-instruction-jodi/volume-5-winter-2005/469-special-education-and-direct-instruction-an-effective-combination/file

Nelson-Walker, N.J., Fien, H., Kosty, D.B., Smolkowski, K., Smith, J.L., Baker, S.K. (2013). Evaluating the effects of a systemic intervention on first-grade teachers’ explicit reading instruction. Learning Disability Quarterly, 36(4), 215-230.

Rosenshine, B. (2008). Five meanings of direct instruction. Center on Innovation & Improvement. Retrieved from http://www.centerii.org/search/Resources%5CFiveDirectInstruct.pdf April 15th, 2014.

Rupley, W.H., (2009). Introduction to direct/explicit instruction in reading for the struggling reader: Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25, 119-124.

horizontal line teal[1] Also see Coyne et al., 2009 for a discussion on how teacher directed instruction is more appropriate for developing students’ ability in understanding in comprehending text once it has been decoded.

[2] Story Grammar helps students understand the structure of a literary text. At an early elementary age a Story Grammar may include elements such as the characters, setting, and a beginning, middle, and end (retrieved from http://bcs.schoolwires.net/cms/lib5/AL01001646/Centricity/Domain/131/Story%20Grammar.pdf)

horizontal line tealMichael Fairbrother is currently in his first year of a doctoral program at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. His concentration is in Teaching, Learning and Evaluation, and his research goals are primarily focused on bridging the gap between research and practice for elementary students at-risk for learning difficulties in reading. It is Fairbrother’s hope to contribute to the creation of an effective framework involving parents, teachers and all other stakeholders directly connected to the learning experiences of young students before and upon their entry to school. Before beginning his Ph.D. at UofO, Fairbrother graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Ed. in general elementary instruction in 2006. Fairbrother completed his M.Ed. concentrating in Special Education in 2011. Fairbrother has seven years’ experience teaching grades three through seven and two years’ experience as a special education resource teacher in British Columbia public elementary schools.