Demystifying common myths of direct instruction

Demystifying common myths of direct instruction

There are so many opinions in educational circles about direct instruction. I’d like to address some of these as well as dispel some myths about this model of instruction. There are acutally two forms of direct instruction. Let’s start by differentiating them. 

Direct instruction, specified by a lowercase or ‘little di‘ is an effective instructional approach for teachers to utilize which has been shown to have high levels of achievement (Estes & Mintz, 2016; Robinson, Lambert, Towner, & Caros, (2016). Little di includes explicit instruction which builds in ample practice opportunities and leads students to independent practice through an I do, We do, You do approach (Estes & Mintz, 2016).  The type of instruction related to the capital or ‘big DI’ relates to specific curricula such as Reading Mastery, Corrective Reading, or DISTAR (Robinson, Lambert, Towner, & Caros, 2016). 

For the purpose of this discussion, my focus is on the little di. Now, I have to admit,  if you have seen a direct instruction lesson that was so rigid and scripted that it turned you off to the idea, you’re not alone. I have seen plenty of examples of DI that left me feeling turned off. However, just as with any instructional model there are effective and ineffective ways to implement it. I’d like to share with you some of the positive elements of little di that I have experienced in my own classroom as well as observed in many classrooms across the country.


The many benefits of direct instruction:

  • It is a “generative model that can be used as a frame or template for a number of instructional models (Estes & Mintz, 2016, p. 54).
  • Instruction links to background knowledge.
  • Delivery is explicit and systematic.
  • Teachers model new learning, provide multiple opportunities to practice with support, and then release responsibility to students for independent practice. 
  • Clear signaling is provided for all students to respond in unison.
  • Appropriate pacing is maintained.
  • Sufficient wait time is ensured so all students have a chance to engage with the learning.
  • Skills are scaffolded from easier to more difficult.
  • The teacher monitors student understanding with checks for understanding. 
  • Immediate Corrective feedback to keeps students from practicing responses that are incorrect.
  • Teachers positively reinforce progress.

(Estes & Mintz, 2016; Robinson, Lambert, Towner, & Caros, 2016)

Let’s take a look at a few of the myths about direct instruction.

Myth #1: Direct instruction involves complete control by the teacher with rigid, scripted lessons.

 It is true that direct instruction is very ‘direct’ at the beginning of the lesson. This is designed to take away any ambiguity and help all students achieve success.  Di is also highly scaffolded to provide the right amount of support for student success (Estes & Mintz. 2016). Over the course of the lesson, the teacher slowly releases responsibility to students while monitoring their progress.  At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher begins with a model of what to do and why. She/he then leads the students through guided practice providing many opportunities with clear corrective feedback. This ensures that students do not repeat mistakes over and over again. Once students have had ample opportunities to practice with success, they move to the independent practice part of the lesson. These three steps are typically described as the ‘I do, We do, You do‘ approach (Estes & Mintz, 2016). 

Myth #2: Direct instruction takes away all teacher autonomy and creativity.


Little di can be thought of as a template or framework by which we can align our lesson objectives with scientifically based instruction strategies (Estes & Mintz, 2016). Teachers can instill creativity and personality into the framework. The specific components of a direct instruction lesson ensure that students achieve success which builds their confidence and motivation for continued learning (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Teachers can incorporate personality and enthusiasm for learning in many ways. Providing positive academic reinforcement is one way I’ve noticed teachers really incorporate their own style into di. 


Myth #3: Signaling and choral response turns students into robots.

.Often teachers express concern about signaling and choral response. To think about these two strategies in a different way lets imagine a scenario in an elementary classroom. I want you to think about a typical 3rd-grade classroom where the teacher asks individual students to answer questions. Let’s say we’re watching a vocabulary lesson. The teacher asks the class to define a word that they learned previously. A few hands shoot up right away and the teacher chooses one of the few students who remember the definition. Consider these questions:

  • In that scenario, who got to review the vocabulary word?
  • Did all students have a chance?
  • What were the students whose hands did not go up doing? 

Less hand raising = more active participation

I know this initially seems contradictory, but consider this.  By having students raise their hands, we are allowing students to “choose” whether or not they want to participate in the lesson. Don’t we want ALL students to participate?

If we could just incorporate a think, pair, share and then quick, choral response all students would  have the opportunity to practice.  When we call on one student, it is only that student who is getting the practice in the skill.  When we require all students to respond, all students receive the practice.

This also correlates with student engagement.  When we only call on individuals, student engagement often decreases.  However, when we hold all students accountable for responding, student engagement increases.

High levels of engagement during lessons are associated with higher levels of achievement and student motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  Furthermore, there is a significant, positive correlation between active learning environments and growth in academic skills, whereas the correlation was negative in passive learning environments (Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, & Rodriquez, 2003).

The 5-Step Questioning Method below provides a useful guide to engage all students in participating. 

5-Step Questioning Method

    1. Ask question

    2. Provide think time

    3. Frame the answer (Model for students how they will answer with a complete sentence. “The character acted that way because …..) 

    4. Students prepare (teacher monitors)

    -Think/Pair/Share, Turn & Talk

    -Think/ Write/ Share

    -Small Group Share

    5. Call on individual students randomly


    The videos included below are examples which included components of little di. If you are an elementary teacher responsible for teaching your students ‘how’ to read, I hope you’ll consider the model of direct instruction as an essential part of your toolbox. Of course, it is not the only style that should be employed in a classroom, but especially for reading, it has been shown to be highly effective (Engelmann, 1999.)


    Engelmann, S. (1999). The Benefits of Direct Instruction: Affirmative Action for At-Risk Students. Educational Leadership57(1). Retrieved from

    Estes, T.& Mintz, S. (2016). Instruction: A Models Approach 7th Edition. Boston, MA: Person. 

    Robinson, L., Lambert, M. C., Towner, J., & Caros, J. (2016). A Comparison of Direct Instruction and Balanced Literacy: An Evaluative Comparison for a Pacific Northwest Rural School District. Reading Improvement53(4), 147–164. Retrieved from:

    Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55(1).

    Taylor, B., Pearson, P. D., Peterson, D., & Rodriguez, M. (2003). Reading frowth in high-poverty classrooms: The influence of teacher practices that encourage cognitive engagement in literacy learning. The Elementary Education Journal. 104 (1).

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