May 26

The Benefits of Direct Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities

Of the more than 2 million students diagnosed with specific learning disabilities and receiving special education services, more than 70% experience deficits in reading. The National Center for Learning Disabilities states one in five children have learning and attention issues such as dyslexia or ADHD. Children with intellectual disabilities and special education students often fall behind their peers, with initial signs of learning struggles typically revealing themselves upon learning to read. When working with or designing activities for students with learning disabilities, special needs, or significant communication delays, research shows direct, explicit, and intensive instruction can help develop language skills and is critical for students’ academic success. Let’s explore the advantages of using direct instruction for students with learning disabilities.


One study recorded that direct and explicit cognitive instruction improved the reading comprehension skills of low-achieving high school students. Another demonstrated significant gains in first-graders’ ability to comprehend story elements and read aloud. Overall, studies repeatedly show the effectiveness of direct instruction in facilitating foundational reading and communication skills at the elementary level.

Reading Rockets, a national literacy education initiative, claims direct instruction is the most effective approach for improving word recognition skills in students with learning disabilities. Their meta-analysis of nearly 100 research studies found sequencing, segmentation, and advanced organization were the most effective components of reading strategies for students with learning disabilities.

The components all lend themselves to direct instruction techniques and activities, from informing students of specific learning objectives upfront to breaking down targeted skills into smaller components with step-by-step prompts and gradually reducing teachers’ prompting as students begin their own practice.


Students with learning disabilities or receiving special education services must often be accelerated in their learning to catch up with their peers, and Direct Instruction lessons aim to do more in less time.

In an academic paper for the Journal of Direct Instruction, co-authors Diane Kinder, Richard Kubina, and Nancy Marchand-Martella summarized, “Direct Instruction programs show clear evidence of their efficacy with students with low-incidence disabilities.” They note educators should find many studies’ results of rapid learning gains particularly appealing. “It seems that students with more severe disabilities can learn at high levels when provided with systematic, research-validated programs such as Direct Instruction.” 

Research shows explicit instruction approaches are “particularly effective in increasing the rate of learning for students with specific learning disabilities,” with evidence showing “a positive impact on a range of student academic outcomes, particularly for students who are at risk for academic difficulties.”

One reason explicit, teacher-directed instruction is effective with students with learning disabilities is it reduces their cognitive load. Focusing on critical content, chunking complex skills or information into smaller units of instruction, “show and tell” modeling and plenty of guided and independent practice are helpful teaching strategies when students may not have yet mastered previous prerequisite skills or struggle with organizing both old and new material in their minds.

Education professors and authors Daniel Hallahan, James Kauffman, and Paige Pullen conclude that direct instruction programs are among the best research-based instructional strategies for students with learning disabilities. With structured direct instruction lessons breaking down academic tasks into small chunks and component parts, teachers can segment and teach those parts individually before students put those parts together to demonstrate a skill or higher-level comprehension. 

The clarity and structure of explicit, direct instruction are incredibly helpful for students with learning disabilities, many of whom may struggle with the organizing and processing of new information. Through a step-by-step approach with more repetition, reinforcement, and then opportunities for practice and review, tasks, assignments, or complex concepts are broken down into much more manageable pieces.


Direct instruction provides a structured and predictable learning environment, which can be particularly beneficial for students with disabilities who may struggle with transitions or changes in routine. The predictable routines and clear expectations of direct instruction can help students to feel more comfortable and confident in the classroom, helping improve their behavior.

Direct instruction also encourages active student engagement through frequent opportunities for student responding, practice, and feedback. This approach promotes the active participation of students with disabilities and helps them to stay engaged and focused on the task at hand instead of disrupting the classroom.


Direct Instruction is an evidence-based teaching approach that has been shown to be effective for a wide range of students, including those with disabilities. As part of an article titled “Mega-Analysis of Meta-Analyses” for the education journal Teaching Exceptional Children, Direct Instruction programs were deemed one of just seven interventions proven effective and successful with special needs students. Kinder, Kubina, and Marchand-Martella’s research found Direct Instruction is effective with a wide range of students facing learning disabilities from preschool to high school. While many of the studies featured students with learning disabilities, Direct Instruction strategies also bring benefits to those facing developmental delays, language delays, mild cognitive disabilities, and behavioral disorders.

Bolster Your Teaching Toolkit with Direct Instruction Strategies from Avanti

Many of the tenets of the direct instruction approach—its explicit clarity and structure, repetition, and chunking of content, for example—are attributes that make it effective with students who may struggle academically due to a learning disability or other special needs.
Has a student’s particular learning struggles presented an additional challenge in your classroom this year? The Avanti library includes hundreds of videos, resources, a collaborative community, and more effective strategies for teaching students with learning disabilities. To get immediate help with your classroom challenges, start a one-week free trial of Avanti today!

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