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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.


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]

DI is often contrasted with constructivist approaches to reading and mathematics common in standards-based education reform which de-emphasize instruction of basic skills in favor of exploration and other methods.

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.

Another popular direct instruction approach is the Success for All program which uses scripted teaching to instruct elementary children in phonics intensive reading instruction program. What the teacher says is carefully scripted in the program. The program was designed by Johns Hopkins University professor Robert Slavin in the mid 1980s for failing inner city schools in Baltimore. The program requires a dedicated 90 minutes of reading instruction each day in which the teacher must follow a pre-ordained lesson plan that has every minute filled with scripted instruction and specific activities designed to teach reading to every child in the class.

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."

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 consonant with the findings of more than twenty other studies. 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).

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.[3] 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 Dec 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).

Philosophical critiquesEdit

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.[4] DI has been criticized for being so inflexible that it "handcuffs" teachers.[5] 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Some proponents see DI as a means to promote social justice.[6] 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. As a compensatory program, DI has a strong empirical base.

Social skillsEdit

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of social-skills development in DISTAR programs. Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner (1986) conducted a follow-up study of socio-economically disadvantaged preschool students, each of whom had gone through one of three different "high-quality" preschool programs, including a DISTAR program. Through age 15, students in each of the programs tested with IQs and academic abilities superior to similar students who had not attended preschool. The DISTAR students did not score significantly higher than the other groups. However, by self-report, the DISTAR students had by far the highest levels of delinquent behavior, including statistically significant differences in acts of property damage, theft, drug abuse, and status offenses. As the authors note, however, these findings are based on a very small sample (54 students), and these high levels of delinquency may not differentiate DISTAR students from similarly disadvantaged students who had not attended preschool at all.[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Mills, Cole, Jenkins, and Dale say that the Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner (1986) DISTAR study was also flawed because the DI group had many more boys, and the results failed to be replicated with a larger sample.[7] They caution against the use of a study with non-significant results and small sample sizes. Wilson & Lipsey (2005) conducted a meta-analysis to determine if programs fared better or worse for prevention of delinquency (i.e., behavioral, cognitive, counseling, or social skills). They found a universal effect in general for longer programs; no programs had a negative effect (which would indicate a negative impact on social skills or social motivation). One of the studies included in the meta-analysis was Schweinharts's study.[8]


  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. 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
  4. 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)
  5. Hoover Institution Policy Review
  6. Kim, T. & Axelrod, S. (2005). Direct Instruction: An Educators’ Guide and a Plea for Action. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6.(2), Page 111-123BAO
  7. Mills, P.E., Cole, K.N., Jenkins, J.R., & Dale, P.S. (2002). Early exposure to Direct Instruction and subsequent juvenile delinquency: a prospective examination. Exceptional Children, 69, 85-97.
  8. Wilson & Lipsey, 2005, The Effectiveness of School-Based Violence Prevention Programs for Reducing Disruptive and Aggressive Behavior
  • 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, 12/15/2004.
  • Rebar, M. (2007). Academic acceleration in first grade using the Direct Instruction model. (Report No. 2007-1). Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University.

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