Direct instruction works, says 50 years of research

Highly structured teaching has a consistently positive effect on learning, finds analysis of hundreds of studies

Helen Ward

behaviour, governors, tom bennett, supply teachers, supply agencies

All teachers should embrace direct instruction, according to an analysis of half a century of research.

Direct instruction (DI) was developed in the US in the 1960s and involves teachers using fast-paced, highly structured lessons.

The principles of DI have since been applied to a number of formal programmes used in US and UK schools, such as DISTAR (Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading).

An analysis by academics at the University of Oregon, US, looked at 328 studies on DI programmes carried out between 1966 and 2016.

It found that students who were taught using DI methods performed better in reading, maths and spelling than those who were not.

The authors conclude: “The estimated effects were consistently positive…only 1 in 20 of the estimates, although positive, might be seen as educationally insignificant.”

Students who were taught using DI in kindergarten performed especially highly in reading, maths and spelling, they add. And there were also particularly strong results for maths students who had daily lessons using the method.

The academics recommend that the use of student-led and enquiry-based approaches should be reconsidered in light of the evidence.

The research paper has been embraced by schools minister Nick Gibb:

Direct Instruction 'not widely embraced'

The authors of the research paper state that despite a “very large body of research supporting its effectiveness, DI has not been widely embraced or implemented".

And they say this reluctance to use DI may be partly fuelled by “a belief that teachers will not like it or that it stifles teachers’ ability to bring their own personalities to their teaching”.

They argue that the proper implementation of DI does not “disguise or erase a teacher’s unique style.

"In fact, the carefully tested presentations in the programs free teachers from worries about the wording of their examples or the order in which they present ideas and allow them to focus more fully on their students’ responses and ensure their understanding.

The use of scripted, sequenced lessons, which can be a feature of DI, has been taken up by an increasing number of UK schools as multi-academy trusts seek standardisation.

But critics argue that the approach can be inflexible and undermine the professionalism of teachers.

The paper’s authors studied programmes that used DI as it was originally conceived in the 1960s, including DISTAR, Reading Mastery, Horizons, Corrective Reading, Connecting Math Concepts and others.

They excluded what they called “lower case” direct instruction, meaning programmes that featured elements of “systematic or explicit instruction”.

“Direct instruction builds on the assumption that all students can learn with well-designed instruction,” the paper states.

“When a student does not learn, it does not mean that something is wrong with the student but, instead, that something is wrong with the instruction.”

It is, the authors say, the opposite of approaches which assume that students’ ability to learn depends on their developmental stage, their ability to derive understandings or their own unique approach to learning.

The study, "The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: a meta-analysis of a half century of research", was published in the Review of Educational Research and written by Jean Stockard and Timothy W Wood, both of the University of Oregon, Cristy Coughlin, research director at behaviour management consultants Safe and Civil Schools in Oregon and Caitlin Rasplica Khoury, psychologist at the Children’s Clinic, Portland, Oregon.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

Latest stories

Covid: Nearly half of teachers have considered leaving this year, according to new research revealing the impact of the pandemic on teacher wellbeing and mental health

Wellbeing and international schools: The research view

Academics studying wellbeing in the international school sector offer insights on what the research tells us matters to the global education community
Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge 17 Apr 2021