Show & Tell: A Video Column / Direct Instruction in Early Reading - ASCD
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November 1, 2020

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Direct Instruction in Early Reading

Direct instruction is key to teaching reading but is often misunderstood.

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Instructional Strategies
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Teachers of young children never lose the thrill of witnessing a child's wonderment that he can read. If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing this, you know what we mean. Unlike spoken language, which is hard-wired into the brain and in almost all cases evolves naturally through quality interactions with caregivers, reading must be taught.

The act of reading has existed for only 6,000 years or so—the blink of an eye when it comes to brain evolution. Human speech, on the other hand, has had 200,000 years to evolve. Emergent reading occurs as portions of the left hemisphere of the brain that govern working memory, verbal comprehension, and visual recognition are coordinated (Wolf, 2007). The result is an increasing ability to recognize those squiggly words on the page and imbue them with meaning. (That's a two-sentence generalization of a complex process.)

Teaching the brain to read requires regular doses of direct instruction. It won't happen solely by being in an environment where reading happens. Yet direct instruction might be the most misunderstood teaching approach in early education.

Characteristics of Direct Instruction

Direct instruction relies on explanation by the teacher of the skill or strategy to be used, followed by, initially, breaking that skill down into smaller steps and linking the increments into a larger whole. A common misconception is that direct instruction is didactic and focuses solely on the teacher's actions, with little student participation. But direct instruction, done well, requires periodic checks for understanding, students practicing in the company of the teacher, and scaffolding. Rosenshine's review of research on direct instruction yielded a summary of its major components (2008, p. 2):

  • Reduce the difficulty of the task during initial practice by stating lesson goals and dividing the task into smaller components.

  • Use scaffolds and guidance to support students during initial practice. The teacher models approaching a problem or question, thinks aloud as he or she selects strategies and makes key choices, anticipates errors, checks for student understanding, obtains responses from all students, and gradually combines the components into a whole.

  • Provide supportive feedback including systematic corrections, checklists, models of the completed task, and fix-up strategies.

These characteristics aren't exclusive to early reading instruction; direct instruction is widely used in every subject and for learners of all ages. The use of direct instruction, done properly, has the potential to accelerate learning. Education researcher John Hattie (2020) has documented the "effect size" that 250-plus influences (specific conditions in a teaching environment, like class size, style of teacher feedback, etc.) have on student achievement. He found the average effect size of any "influence" on achievement is 0.40; but the effect size for using direct instruction is 0.59, well above the average.

Of course, it's best to not use direct instruction exclusively, without considering and trying other teaching approaches. In particular, dialogic instruction, guided instruction, and collaborative learning among peers round out a well-conceived instructional program.

Carefully Cultivated Skills

An emergent reader's journey to becoming a skilled reader takes several years and involves coordinating two essential components: word recognition and language comprehension. Children who fail to acquire either of these cognitive capacities will have reading difficulties, and each component must be carefully cultivated (Hoover & Tunmer, 2018). Word-recognition skills are the result of initially discrete processes that become increasingly interrelated through practice.

These skills make it possible for emergent readers to read with increasing automaticity, which allows the brain to allot more bandwidth to comprehension. Without word recognition skills, meaning making is compromised. Word recognition is developed through mastery of three strands of spoken and written language:

  • Phonological awareness of the sounds of the language. This includes awareness of the specific phonemes (the individual sounds of the language), and the ability to manipulate these combinations of sounds to rhyme and to hear the pauses between spoken words and the syllables within words.

  • Decoding and encoding of written words to match the sounds of the language to letters and letter combinations and to spell them with increasing accuracy.

  • Sight recognition of high-utility words that are more difficult to decode (such as the, who, does).

Concern over how children learn the skills needed for word recognition has brought increased attention to using direct instruction to teach those skills. Direct instruction gives children initial experiences and practice with mastering these three strands of knowledge. In the video accompanying this column, 1st grade teacher Hilda Martinez at Zamorano Elementary School in San Diego provides a direct-instruction lesson on word recognition—during distance learning.

Ms. Martinez begins with a review of previous learning on the long a sound, then links that learning to practice using a book. She then introduces new learning by stating the goal of the lesson, modeling and demonstrating how the long a spelling pattern /ai/ is used, and asking her students to practice these words on their own. Ms. Martinez next starts her students off on a book they'll all read that features words with the long a sound. Her direct instruction allows students to initially experience a skill as a small unit, then link it to other skills they are developing to promote their word recognition.

On the Path to Meaning Making

Direct instruction is a useful instructional tool for introducing new information to learners in a fashion that provides for modeling, practice, and integration with previous learning. Its applicability in reading extends beyond word recognition to include comprehension instruction. Paired with a systematic phonics program, direct instruction provides children with a solid platform for utilizing word recognition on their path to reading for meaning.

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Instructional Strategies

November 2020 EL: Show and Tell

11 months ago


Hattie, J. (2020). Visible learning Metax database: Direct instruction. Retrieved at

Hoover, W. A., & Tunmer, W. E. (2018). The simple view of reading: Three assessments of its adequacy. Remedial & Special Education, 39(5), 304–312.

Rosenshine, B. (2008). Five meanings of direct instruction. Center on Innovation & Improvement.

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: HarperCollins.

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