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The case for direct instruction

Written by: Marcy Stein  Kristen Rolf
6 min read

For over 50 years, the best way to educate children has been heatedly debated by those who favour what might be described as ‘teacher-directed instruction’ and those who favour ‘student-centred instruction’.  In this article, we contend that Direct Instruction (DI), a teacher-directed approach, offers educators, by several important measures, the most effective  approach to meeting the academic needs of underperforming students.

DI was developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker at the University of Illinois, and over the following decades they continued to refine the approach eventually publishing DI curricula in reading, maths, spelling, social studies and science. The purpose of this article is to present the evidence supporting the effectiveness of the DI approach and to clarify its defining and often misunderstood features. We capitalise Direct Instruction to differentiate the Engelmann-Becker approach from other more generic forms of direct instruction commonly found in the literature (Hughes et al., 2017, Rosenshine, 2008).

Evidence to support Direct Instruction

The DI approach was one of the major models evaluated in Project Follow Through (Becker, 1977; Bereiter and Kurland, 1981; Stebbins et al., 1976), the largest educational experiment ever conducted by the United States government to evaluate the effectiveness of leading instructional approaches to teach young students in underserved communities. Over 200,000 children in 178 communities were included in the study, which initially investigated 22 different models of instruction. Project Follow Through was evaluated in 1977, nine years after the project began. The results from that evaluation were strong and clear. Students who received Direct Instruction demonstrated significantly higher academic achievement than students taught by any of the other approaches. Interestingly, those students also demonstrated higher self-esteem and self-confidence, as indicated by agreed-upon affective measures. No other Follow Through model achieved results that approached the positive impact of DI on students. 

Follow Through was just the first of many subsequent investigations on the efficacy of Direct Instruction. Recently, Stockard et al. (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of 318 studies published between 1961 and 2016 focused on DI. The studies in the meta-analysis utilised 431 study designs, resulting in almost 4,000 effects. In the meta-analysis, the authors found overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness of the DI approach across different student populations and content-areas. Specifically, they found statistically significant positive effects of the DI approach in reading, mathematics, language and spelling. In All Students Can Succeed: A Half Century of Research on the Effectiveness of Direct Instruction (2020), Stockard et al. provide a more comprehensive discussion about the extensive history of research on DI.

Defining features of Direct Instruction

The DI approach has two distinct but related major components: the design of instructional content (what to teach) and the delivery of that instruction to students (how to teach). The philosophy of Direct Instruction is deceptively simple: students learn best when their teachers are provided with well-designed instructional programmes and support in implementing those programmes. This discussion of the DI approach begins with the design of instructional programmes, the least understood of the two components.

Instructional design 

All DI programmes include carefully developed design features: an incremental step structure for multiple ongoing topics within each lesson, massed practice of newly introduced material, pre-teaching of prerequisite skills, cumulative introduction and review (interleaving), and a system for placing students at their appropriate skill level and adjusting instruction to address differential progress by individual students. 

The goal of these design features is to reduce ambiguity for students and to achieve what is often referred to in the literature as faultless communication (Slocum and Rolf, 2021; Twyman and Hockman, 2021). Each DI lesson is designed so that new material accounts for only 10 to 15 per cent of the lesson; most of each lesson is focused on practice and review to ensure that students are highly successful and able to independently apply their knowledge to new examples.

Before the DI programme designers develop individual lessons, they analyse subject matter content to identify the most generalisable concepts, skills or themes, i.e. ‘big ideas’. For example, DI programme designers agree that reading instruction in second  grade (equivalent to Year 3 in UK schools) should shift emphasis from learning to read to reading to learn. As a result, the second grade DI reading programme focuses on big ideas found in non-fiction texts, such as those in science and social studies, to prepare students to read textbooks that they will encounter later in school. One such big idea included in the reading programme is refraction. After teachers introduce how light bends when it goes through a magnifying glass (initially using student-friendly language and later introducing the term ‘refraction’), they lead students in applying that knowledge of refraction to how the human eye works, and later how a camera works.

Another example of a generalisable concept (i.e. big idea) often overlooked in typical mathematics programmes but taught explicitly in DI mathematics curricula is the concept of equality. While many programmes teach the label for the equals symbol (=), students are rarely taught its conceptual meaning. Students in DI mathematics programmes (as early as kindergarten or Year 1) are introduced to an equality rule along with the equals symbol. That rule is ‘You must end up with the same number on this side of the equals and the other side’. The DI curriculum initially provides teachers with easy examples to use in teaching students ‘how to make the sides equal’. Later, the equality rule is applied to all arithmetic operations and becomes the basis for understanding equivalent fractions, algebraic equations, etc.

Once the DI programme designers analyse the instructional content and identify the big ideas, they do the following: 

  • Articulate explicit step-by-step strategies that teach students when and how to apply the important concepts and/or skills
  • Identify the prerequisite knowledge necessary to understand the steps in the strategies (e.g. new vocabulary)
  • Select appropriate examples (introductory examples for initial practice and discrimination or non-examples for practice over time)
  • Construct appropriate sequences that facilitate interleaving new content with previously taught content (i.e. cumulative introduction)
  • Provide sufficient practice and review.


The instructional design process developed by DI programme designers is far more rigorous than most educators are aware of.  However, the programme design features are a necessary but not sufficient component of the DI approach. To be successful, the DI programme designers also make specific recommendations for delivering instruction.

Instructional delivery 

Observers of teachers using DI programmes readily see that the programmes are scripted, incorporate choral responding, use positive feedback and provide recommendations for systematically correcting errors. Because DI programmes incorporate unconventional instructional delivery techniques (e.g. use of scripts and choral responding), aspects of this type of instructional delivery tend to generate the most controversy. For example, the use of choral responding misleads some to conclude that DI is nothing more than rote memorisation, rather than an effective and surprisingly enjoyable delivery technique for increasing student engagement. Moreover, a guiding principle of DI is that content is only taught by rote when it can’t be taught in any other way (e.g. letter–sound correspondences). Others criticise the use of scripts as being too confining and boring. But in reality, skilled DI teachers deliver lessons with energy and expressiveness. 

Teachers new to DI benefit from extensive professional development and instructional coaching.  Frequent in-class observations along with modeling and feedback by DI experts assists teachers in successfully implementing DI programs.

Final thoughts and challenges

One of the most significant challenges to those advocating for more widespread implementation of DI lies in the pervasive misunderstandings about the approach.  Resistance to implementing structured programs, like the DI programs, is common. Often teachers are encouraged to write their own instructional programs but without formal training in instructional design. In addition, the process of selecting instructional programs by both teachers and administrators rarely includes examining well-designed research on the effectiveness of those programs.  With respect to the debate between advocates of teacher-directed instruction and student-centred instruction, the fact is that a truly ‘student-centred’ approach to education is one in which student learning takes priority over everything else. To date, one of the best routes to achievement for all students has been shown to be DI, ironically making it a more truly student-centred approach.

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