What is DIRECT, SYSTEMATIC and EXPLICIT Instruction?

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

Direct, explicit, and systematic instruction has been recognized as an essential strategy for teaching reading and writing. The Florida Center for Reading Research defines these terms as follows:

  • Direct Instruction: The teacher defines and teaches a concept, models the learning process, guides students through its application, and arranges for extended guided practice until mastery is achieved.
  • Systematic Instruction: The goal of systematic instruction is one of maximizing the likelihood that whenever students are asked to learn something new, they already possess the appropriate prior knowledge and understanding to see its value and to learn it efficiently. The plan for instruction that is systematic is carefully thought out, builds upon prior learning, is strategic building from simple to complex, and is designed before activities and lessons are planned.
  • Explicit Instruction: Explicit instruction involves direct explanation. Concepts are clearly explained and skills are clearly modeled, without vagueness or ambiguity. The teacher’s language is concise, specific, and related to the objective. Another characteristic of explicit instruction is a visible instructional approach which includes a high level of teacher/student interaction. Explicit instruction means that the actions of the teacher are clear, unambiguous, direct, and visible. This makes it clear what the students are to do and learn. Nothing is left to guess work.

The Meadows Center at the University of Texas identifies the following as making an effective literacy lesson:

  • Explicit Instruction: Overtly teaching each step through teacher modeling and many examples
  • Systematic Instruction: Breaking lessons and activities into sequential, manageable steps that progress from simple to more complex concepts and skills
  • Ample Practice Opportunities: Providing many opportunities for students to respond and demonstrate what they are learning
  • Immediate Feedback: Incorporating feedback (from teachers or peers) during initial instruction and practice

The Meadows Center also provides the following examples of explicit vs implicit instruction:

Example 1: Teaching students to identify the first sound in a word:

Explicit: “The first sound in man is /mmm? Everyone, say the first sound in man, /mmm/.”

Implicit: “Man starts with the same sound as the first sound in mountain, mop, and moon. Does anyone know any other words that begin with the same sound as man?”

Example 2: Teaching a main idea lesson:

  • Explicit: Tell students the main idea of a story tells the most important part of the story. Tell them the main idea names who or what the story was about and the most important thing that happened to the who or what. Model stating the main idea for the story just read, “Dinosaurs.” Jacob is the who or what in the story. The most important thing about Jacob is he learned to cooperate. So, the main idea is, “Jacob learned to cooperate.” Let me read you a short story. Who or what is in this story (Sarah)? What is the most important thing about Sarah? What is the main idea of that story? Repeat with other short paragraphs.
  • Implicit: Tell students the main idea of a story tells the most important part of the story. Reread “Dinosaurs” together and ask students to tell the main idea of the story.

The National Center on Intensive Instruction offers a simple example of explicit instruction in the 8-minute video “Example of Explicit Instruction: Cutting an Onion.” In another helpful video, “Utilizing Explicit Instruction” offered by Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Dyslexia, Anita Archer provides the rationale and overview of explicit instruction and its benefit to students.

Direct, explicit, and systematic instruction are the hallmarks of Pearson and Gallagher’s 1983 Gradual Release of Responsibility model, often referred to as the “I do it, we do it, you do it” approach to teaching. Click here to see a previous post I wrote about this model.

The Colorado Department of Education notes that the effectiveness of direct instruction for teaching literacy is well-supported by research, as demonstrated by Adams & Englemann’s comprehensive review and meta-analysis of 30+ studies on the effectiveness of direct instruction, as well as in the findings of the National Reading Panel. The report from this panel (NICHD, 2000) notes that there is compelling evidence for explicit, systematic instruction for each of the five essential components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension): “Explicit instruction in reading makes a difference in students outcomes, especially for those who are low achieving.”

Structured literacy is a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction that research shows is effective for all students and essential for students who have difficulty with reading. This approach addresses all the foundational elements that are critical for reading comprehension. It is characterized by the provision of systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Click here to see a previous post I wrote about this topic, including Nancy Hennessey’s explanation of structured literacy in a video offered by the Center for Dyslexia at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). 

Additional Resources


  • Adams, G. L. and Engelmann, S. (1996). Research on Direct Instruction: 25 Years beyond Distar. Seattle: Educational Achievement Systems.
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Pearson, P.E., & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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