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By Martin Smit, Educational Consultant, LDAO and Nicole LeSage, OCT, Hastings and Prince Edward DSB

As Direct Instruction reading programs become more common across Ontario school boards, teachers are asking how the principles of Direct Instruction (DI) can be applied to a regular classroom. Direct Instruction is the delivery of broken down concepts that are explicitly taught. It is a teacher-driven approach that focuses on the mastery of skills and concepts. DI reading programs are typically delivered outside of the regular classroom by teachers with specialized training. These tier 3 reading supports provide a huge benefit to the students involved, but what about those students who do not qualify for this intervention or students who only need a few specific skills to be remediated or strengthened?

DI reading programs focus on the development of decoding skills. Working to adapt the principles of DI into the regular classroom can benefit all students:

  • DI reinforces decoding concepts learned by students in a tier 3 program
  • Allows other students with specific needs to learn decoding concepts in a precise manner
  • Gives typically-developing students an opportunity to clarify and solidify an understanding of decoding concepts which will improve their literacy skills.

Paying attention to some organizational strategies will help to ensure success when applying principles of DI in a regular classroom:

  • Develop some clear routines.
  • Be well organized and commit to the daily routine.
  • Commit to daily instruction for short periods of time
  • Understand how to identify specific skills to be taught, such as decoding, comprehension, and fluency and a logical order in which to present them.
  • Focus on repetition and mastery of skills. Introduce new skills at a slow but steady pace.

Classroom teacher, Nicole Lesage, an experienced literacy coach with training and experience in Direct Instruction, shares her experience using key components of DI in a regular classroom. Nicole’s commitment to applying these principles has led to amazing results for all of her students. Her classroom routines reflect her commitment and understanding of data to determine specific and individual student needs that can be supported through precise instruction of language concepts. 

Nicole feels that reading is a significant area of need throughout Ontario schools. Too many students have gaps in too many areas of reading, impacting not only the day-to-day instruction in our classrooms, but the face of education as a whole. Direct Instruction is needed to remediate those gaps and build literate children who are equipped with a variety of strategies to decode words and comprehend ideas. In order to provide our students with the quality of reading instruction they need, we as teachers need to better understand the skills that build readers and provide consistent opportunities for practice and application.

Nicole answers a series of questions on Direct Instruction:

What led you to implement some of the principles of Direct Instruction into your classroom?

My students could not read. It didn’t matter the location (a demonstration school, in high-needs schools as a literacy coach, or as a classroom teacher), my students lacked the skills and grit necessary to persevere with a text. Through deep analysis of reading records, reading behaviours, phonics and oral language screeners, I was able to classify the trends in the data and determine the next steps — in both my own professional learning and as the one setting the course for my students.

What specific reading struggles did you observe?

Interestingly, based on my experience, I was seeing students get hung up around decoding skills (vowels, vowel combinations, segmenting and affixes), comprehension (holding on to the key vocabulary and important ideas within a text) and fluency. It became imperative that I use DI to target specific needs. Although I was determined to teach all of my students to be better readers, one boy, in particular, helped to build the urgency. “No one has been able to teach me to read,” he said. “And I’ll bet you $5.00 you can’t either.” That was a bet I knew I had to take.

How did you address the reading deficits?

Through the use of readily accessible diagnostics such as phonics screeners and reading records, weaknesses in decoding (vowels, segmenting, affixes), comprehension and fluency were revealed. Additionally, based on behaviour observations, I found that students struggled with executive functions and a growth mindset. It was clear to me that my interventions needed to be daily, precise and mindful of time (30 min max., start to finish). Targeted skills and lessons were also displayed throughout the classroom on anchor charts so that students had a reference to use to apply skills at any time and during any subject.

What did your classroom routine look like?

I developed a simple routine that included a short segment of Direct Instruction of a skill that had been targeted to promote skill mastery. Students then were given some time to apply the target skill in a carefully determined manner. During this time I looked for evidence that showed me whether or not students were grasping and using the new skills. This evidence drove my next steps for instruction and organization. Students who had not demonstrated mastery would receive additional instruction and/or practice, and the next most important need for the class would be prepared for an upcoming DI lesson.

My commitment to the students was to deliver this Direct Instruction component every day for about 30 minutes. To ensure an effective balance, I divided the week into separate literacy-based themes:

Routine  Literacy-Based Theme
Every day Independent Fluency practice began each session
Monday Words You Need To Know (Sight Words/Vocabulary)
Tuesday Comprehension (Idea Sketching)


Word Work: Vowels and Vowel Combinations, and Segmenting and Affixes
Friday Reading Feedback/Data Tracking

The skills for each of these areas came directly from analysis of reading assessments but also from the daily work of the students.

Fluency passages slightly lower than the student’s independent reading level were selected (when possible, I chose fluency passages from Reading A-Z). Each day began with students working independently on their fluency passage for 5-7 minutes. During this time I conferenced with individual students, listened to them read their passage, and focused on documenting strengths and next steps. By the end of the week, every child had read and been given specific feedback. This was documented on the top of the page and included ‘One Thing I loved’ and ‘One Thing to Work on’.

Guide to providing feedback - direct instruction reading

Click here to view and download LD@school's Guide to Providing Feedback to help staff and students provide constructive feedback.

Each Friday, selected students read their passage to the class. My goal was that every student had the opportunity to read to the class each month. This individual time helps both the teacher and students remain accountable for the work.

Tell us more about these literacy-based themes

weekly direct instruction reading schedule

Click here to view and download Nicole's Weekly Direct Instruction Schedule

Words You Need to Know (irregular words) are those words that can’t be decoded perfectly - such as THE, ONE, and SAID.  Students worked to memorize these words, which helped to promote fluency in their reading.

sight words - direct instruction reading

Click here to view and download a list of suggested Sight Words, or words you need to know.

Our Comprehension lessons were based on the understanding that when students spend most of their energy decoding text, they don't have enough energy left for comprehension. Therefore, Direct Instruction for comprehension focussed on the use of quick sketches, symbols and/or keywords to represent ideas. The ultimate goal was to have students visually represent the main ideas of a passage to aid in visualizing, summarizing, and note-taking.

Word Work consisted of Vowels and Vowel Combinations and Segmenting and Affixes. This focus took two days of the weekly routine. We began with vowels by simply saying the sound and name. We explored rule-breakers such as the “a” sound in “many” or the “ea” sound in “sea”.  Lessons moved to vowel combinations and segmenting (deconstructing words using vowels and decoding smaller words/word parts using segments). Finally, lessons in affixes were taught. All of this word work continued to build on the basic skills of decoding which was helping all of my students become better readers.

Although we did Fluency every day, Fluency Fridays were my personal favourite. Five preselected students read their passage to the whole class. These presentations focussed on implementing their students’ reading goals for the passage. The students in the audience identified strengths (using an effective readers chart) and I selected one next step. Allowing students to develop feedback helped them to become precise observers and recognize their role in assisting with the growth of their peers.  This meant each student in the class had multiple coaches they could rely on for positive and thoughtful feedback.

   Typical 30 Minute DI Block

5-7 minutes: Reading Practice/Modelling/Conferencing

5 minutes:    Direct Instruction/Learning Goal/Focus

10 minutes:   Teacher-led lesson of the concept with student participation

5 minutes:    Student application (using own passage)

2 minutes:    Consolidation (reiterate DI and connection to how it helps reading)

What did you want students to learn about their reading growth?

The overall goal of this focus on Direct Instruction was to help students understand that reading is constructed of a variety of skills and that when mastered, allows us to get to the ideas of a text more quickly. Understanding what effective readers do demystifies the whole process for students and allows us to apply strategies when it gets tough. Effective readers don’t read perfectly, they demonstrate flexibility and have multiple strategies when meaning breaks down.

effective readers chart - direct instruction reading

Click here to view and download the Effective Readers Chart. 

What did you learn that you’d like to share with teachers?

As I implemented this new routine, I learned the importance of gradual release at the beginning to establish routines. I learned how effective it could be to work with the same passage for one week but drawing out a different focus each day. I learned to be very precise as I modelled what reading looks and sounds like before transferring that responsibility to students and the importance of holding students accountable to the expectations of Direct Instruction. I also learned how much evidence could be collected to show students were understanding and applying skills and concepts when the skills and concepts are clearly taught and broken into simple steps.

What advice do you have for teachers implementing DI in their classrooms?

A commitment to applying DI to a regular classroom means following some goals:

  • Plan for uninterrupted daily lessons. Schools are full of distractions (assemblies, announcements, special days) which slow progress and move the learning back. DI becomes very powerful when it happens each day without interruption.
  • Stay focussed on mastery of small skills and taking small steps. This mastery will gather momentum and begin to turn into large steps of growth.
  • Apply concepts from DI lessons to other subject areas. Because the skills are posted around our classroom, students can access them in all subjects and recognize that good reading skills are necessary in all subjects.
  • Use data to determine needs, plan lessons, and track progress.
  • Collaborate with other teachers. Working with others can be invigorating and satisfying, and will help build your understanding of DI and reading instruction.

When we recognize that reading is an essential skill for everyone, it creates a sense of urgency in us as teachers. This urgency helps us focus on the selection, sequence, and mastery of each skill, and this adds another brush stroke to the big picture.   

Did your data surprise you?

I was expecting growth from my students, but I was surprised to find that each of them was improving their reading skills in ways I hadn’t imagined. Between September and March, each student gained specific skills and many of them moved a number of reading levels.  I was so pleased to see that the average reading level of the classroom had shifted from a Grade 1 level to a Grade 3 level with almost half of my students reading between a Grade 4 to Grade 6 level. A focus on Direct Instruction of specific reading and decoding skills was clearly the reason. We celebrated reading growth on an almost daily basis with classmates, school administration and parents. Another positive that emerged was my classroom profile began to really clarify the students that were likely to require additional supports in the future. The few students who were progressing more slowly could be given more precise and intensive instruction and support.

graph direct instruction reading

And what about that $5.00 bet?

I won the bet. I moved the student from a level D to a level L (end of K to mid. grade 2) in just seven months. I had taught him to read using Direct Instruction.  He was thrilled and insisted on making good on the bet.  We agreed that I would post a replica $5 bill on the wall as a reminder that he — and anyone else — can learn to read!

Direct Instruction is a necessary and powerful tool that can be used to leverage your regular classroom instruction. It supports the learning of students who are struggling and reinforces the understanding and skill development of all students.  I cannot imagine my classroom without my 30-minute routine focussing on specific skills, and I know my students could not have progressed as successfully without it.