Founder of the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI), Dr. Siegfried Engelmann wrote in Theory of Instruction, “We begin with the obvious fact that children we work with are perfectly capable of learning anything that we have to teach…” The book, first published in 1982, most fully gathers and describes Engelmann’s ideas, methods, and supporting evidence for direct instruction. Let’s explore the philosophy, its supporting research, and some direct instruction strategies.
What is direct instruction?
Dr. Engelmann began developing the direct instruction model in the early 1960s. According to the NIFDI, direct instruction is a teaching model “that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks.”
According to the NIFDI, the five fundamental philosophical principles of the direct instruction teaching model are:
- All children can be taught. “The intellectual crippling of children is caused overwhelmingly by faulty instruction—not by faulty children,” Engelmann wrote.
- All children can improve academically and in terms of their self-image. The step-by-step and guided nature of direct instruction helps students work hard toward a specific goal and achieve new milestones in their learning. As a result, they’ll naturally develop confidence in themselves and positive self-esteem. An improved self-image motivates students to keep trying and asking questions. Students learn to accept that it’s OK to fail from time to time and, ultimately, improve their academic performance.
- All teachers can succeed when provided adequate training and proper materials. While some teachers have always naturally utilized elements of direct instruction, implementing the method requires some teachers to make significant adjustments to their teaching techniques and organizational practices. Providing training and materials helps ensure teachers successfully use the method.
- Low-performing or disadvantaged students must be taught at a faster rate than what typically occurs if they are to catch up to higher-performing peers. Engelmann referred to direct instruction as affirmative action for at-risk students, identifying the preschool to first-grade window as the only chance to accelerate at-risk students academically ahead of more affluent peers. Achieving that acceleration by the time they exit kindergarten should be the goal to keep at-risk students competitive throughout their education.
- Instruction details must be controlled to minimize chances that students misinterpret information and maximize the reinforcing effect of instruction. When materials and lessons are presented clearly, there is less opportunity for the students to misunderstand. Structure and repetition are often helpful, comforting tools in helping students learn and absorb new information.
Does direct instruction work?
Students who receive direct instruction earn significantly higher academic achievement scores than those in any other program. Research, studies, and meta-analysis continue to find positive results and high effectiveness of direct instruction in classrooms.
Project Follow Through was a nearly 10-year educational study and experiment sponsored by the federal government beginning in the late 1960s. The project was tasked with determining the best ways to teach at-risk children in kindergarten and lower elementary grades. Direct instruction was the standout winner among the 22 teaching models implemented across 178 communities and more than 200,000 students.
From decades of research, the benefits of direct instruction include:
- Students are more likely to graduate high school
- Students are more likely to pursue higher education
- Students outperform their peers in reading, spelling, and mathematics
What does a teacher do in direct instruction?
Direct instruction differs from constructivism and inquiry-based or experiment-driven teaching models. As the name implies, teachers address students from the front of the classroom while directly presenting the material and information. With explicit instructions and guidance, students can effectively put new skills and concepts into practice. Concepts and information such as math formulas, vocabulary and grammar rules, or other literary devices are among the best-suited and common direct instruction examples.
Here are some direct instruction strategies to incorporate into your daily lessons. The basics of the instructional method, according to many education experts and teachers who practice direct instruction regularly, include:
- Introduction and Review – Setting the stage for learning, you should review students’ prior knowledge of the upcoming subject to build upon previous lesson plans. Gather an understanding of their comprehension and background knowledge on the subject, and help them realize what’s expected from them by providing specific lesson objectives. Group students together with others at the same level or who need to work on the same skills or concepts.
- Presenting – Using clear and guided instructions, present students with the material, definitions, formulas, or any information necessary to grasp and apply the knowledge. Create organized, engaging lectures and presentations that build upon one another in sequential or bite-sized chunks. Show helpful videos, model or demonstrate the new skill or principle, and use repetition to reinforce key points, building a strong foundation for understanding the new information.
- Guided Practice – Give students explicit, step-by-step directions and guide them through practicing the new skill or concept together. Politely correct any mistakes, reteach specific points if necessary, and ask questions to gauge students’ understanding as they begin to work independently.
- Feedback – Beginning during their guided practice, continue providing feedback that helps students further understand the lesson material and how they’ll benefit from gaining the skills and knowledge learned.
- Independent Practice – When they’re ready, give students time and space to practice what they’ve learned independently. As they apply their learning through repetition and keep practicing, new skills will become routine and automatic over time. You should continue providing necessary feedback and corrections as students master the new skills or information.
- Evaluation – Whether you issue quizzes or tests, writing assignments, or larger projects, use formative assessments to check if students know everything they need to know before moving on to new concepts that build upon what they’ve learned.
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