Direct Instruction Teaching Method: Definition, Examples & Strategies

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Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Learn about direct instruction and how educators use it effectively in their classrooms. Explore strategies for using direct instruction, including what types of information and subjects it is best suited for.

We also recommend watching Direct Instruction & Discovery Instruction: Definition & Differences and Advance Organizers in the Classroom: Teaching Strategies & Advantages

What Is Direct Instruction?

Direct Instruction is the use of straightforward, explicit teaching techniques, usually to teach a specific skill. It is a teacher-directed method, meaning that the teacher stands in front of a classroom and presents the information. It might be a lesson in which the teacher very clearly outlines the order of all the planets in the solar system, or it might be a simple explanation and some examples of the double-ff-ll-ss-zz spelling rule.

A teacher standing in front of his students delivering a lecture, an example of what a classroom looks like during direct instruction.
Photo of a teacher giving a lecture to his students

You might be thinking, 'Isn't that how everything is taught in classrooms?' Yes, this used to be true, but then we found that not all students benefited from listening to a teacher talk all day and that not all lessons were best taught through direct instruction. Teachers now match the type of instruction to the task, teaching directly when it suits the skill being taught. The order of the planets is something best learned directly, while teaching what materials are magnetic is better learned, and much more engaging, through experimentation.

Constructivism: Hands-On, Collaborative and Project-Based

To understand the movement away from direct instruction, you have to learn about constructivism. Constructivism comes from the progressive education movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, when education reformers like John Dewey and Maria Montessori sought to make learners more active participants in their own education. Progressive education reformers saw direct instruction as largely ineffective and passive, through which learners are spoon-fed information instead of discovering for themselves.

A major feature of constructivism is that it is student-driven rather than teacher-driven. Students take part in hands-on, collaborative and/or project-based learning. Instead of being told explicitly that magnets attract metals that contain iron, students are given magnets and asked to find which materials they 'stick to' in the classroom. In science education, this is often called inquiry-based learning, an important part of many contemporary science curricula, in which students explore science concepts for themselves through carefully set-up experiments.

Looking at this photo, it is not hard to imagine how a hands-on lesson in a garden is a more engaging and meaningful way to teach about plants than a classroom lecture.
Photo of children and teacher in garden

Matching the Instruction to the Task

So, for several decades, we had two models of instruction, constructivist and direct instruction, and students usually had all of one or the other. This meant that the constructivist students were sometimes unclear about what exactly they were supposed to get from that activity about magnets, and the kids receiving direct instruction listened to a whole lot of classroom lectures.

Teachers now know that it is most effective to match the type of instruction to the task. This means there are times where direct instruction is the most appropriate and times when another form of instruction, like class discussions or hands-on activities, are better suited to what is being taught.

When to Use Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is best-suited for teaching small chunks of information: a spelling rule such as the -tch or -ch as an ending sound; a short math concept like the order of operations; a literary term like a simile or a metaphor. Notice how these concepts are not only small, but also very clear and straightforward? Certain subjects or content areas, like phonics, spelling and math, are often best suited to direct instruction.

Using Direct Instruction with Other Teaching Methods

Often, different teaching methods, including direct instruction, are used together to augment one another. After an inquiry-based science activity, like our example with magnets, a teacher could then directly teach that magnets are attracted to metals that contain iron and types of iron like stainless steel. The combination of teaching methods would engage students and have them work to make their own meaning from their experimentation with magnets (constructivist), but they would also receive a clear explanation of the concept being taught (direct instruction) for reinforcement.

Students engaged in a classroom discussion. Even though the conversation is facilitated by the teacher, this is not considered direct instruction.
Teacher leading a classroom discussion

There will be times when introducing a concept through experimentation or a hands-on activity does not always lead to a 'light bulb' moment for students. If assessments show that most of the class needs a review of a concept that may not have been as clearly explained as the teacher thought, direct instruction is a great strategy for a follow-up lesson. Additionally, some students need repeated, systematic, direct instruction across subjects in order to grasp a concept, particularly students with dyslexia and those who struggle with working memory.

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