Early Childhood Education

Direct Instruction Model


Direct Instruction is both a theory and a model of teaching practice that proposes to accelerate learning through explicitly teaching young children basic skills which then can be generalized to higher-order processes. The model of direct instruction was first developed by Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter in 1966 through their work on intensive instruction for economically disadvantaged preschoolers; and is based on principles of behaviorism. In 1969, Engelmann (and coauthors) contracted with Science Research Associates (SRA) to publish an arithmetic and reading curriculum based on the theories under the brand name DISTAR (Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation). Further dissemination of the model occurred when Engelmann partnered with Wesley Becker and together they created the Engelmann Becker Corporation (also known as the Association of Direct Instruction [ADI]) and the National Institute of Direct Instruction (NIFDI). These organizations continue to research and publish Direct Instruction (DI) materials as well as provide schools with training and program support. Direct Instruction curriculum materials continue to be developed and are marketed through SRA, although the brand name of DISTAR is being used less and less in favor of the simpler Direct Instruction title.

Direct instruction is a teaching model currently designed for use with preschoolers through eighth graders. Curricula have been published for reading, language arts, and mathematics, and typically include a sequence of carefully scripted lessons which teachers work through with children in small, ability- based groups. Instruction is generally fast-paced including nine to twelve questions per minute that the children answer in unison. Each lesson lasts about a half hour, and 80 percent of the time is used to review old material with the remaining 20 percent dedicated to introducing new concepts. Information that is under study is constantly tested through oral questioning by the teacher to identify student understandings and repeated to increase the retention of the material.

The approach is based on the assumption that, if explicitly taught specific basic skills, children will generalize these to new learning experiences. For example, instead of teaching the spelling of every word, “children who learned 600 word parts called ‘morphographs’ and three rules for connecting them could spell 12,000 words. Children rehearse the 600-word parts and three rules to a level of automaticity that allows them to spell the 12,000 words with ease” (Grossen, 2005). The theory also postulates that these skills must be clearly, simply and directly taught in a carefully sequenced manner that breaks bigger skills into smaller component tasks that children can master more quickly. Direct Instruction also holds curriculum constant so as to elucidate what difficulties the student brings and then specifically teaches the missing skills. Lastly the model advocates using scientifically tested curriculums that are designed to anticipate common errors and provide support for a wide range of children.

The program was evaluated as part of the massive federal Follow Through Project that analyzed multiple educational programs for the ability to teach basic skills, cognitive skills, and affective skills. Direct Instruction was the only model in this project to achieve consistently positive results in all three categories. However, the model faces strenuous critique from the teaching community and is often criticized for being too rigid and focusing solely on academic skills. Most recently, current trends toward accountability and high-stakes testing are making the model more attractive for some schools.

Further Readings: Adams, Gary L., and Siegfried Engelmann (1996). Research on direct instruction: 25 years beyond DISTAR. Seattle: Educational Achievement Systems; Grossen, Bonnie, University of Oregon (2005). What is direct instruction? See University of Oregon, Direct Instruction Model for Middle School Web site: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/%7Ebgrossen/aftdi.htm; Slocum, Timothy A. (2004). Direct instruction. In Daniel J. Moran and Richard W. Malott, eds. Evidence-based educational methods. San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press.

Web Sites: Association for Direct Instruction. Available online at http://www.adihome.org/phpshop/faq/category.php?subject=General&username; National Institute for Direct Instruction. Available online at http://www.nifdi.org/.

Lindsay Barton