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How Direct Instruction Supports the Science of Reading

According to the growing body of research now referred to as the Science of Reading, students need systematic, explicit instruction to become proficient, thriving readers. However, many commonly practiced instructional methodologies do not align with what we know about how students learn to read, and educators are finding that too many of their students struggle with foundational skills into middle and upper grades. School leaders must make a shift to provide educators with proven, research-driven, science-based methodologies for reading instruction.

For schools that use Direct Instruction (DI), placing a strong emphasis on explicit, systematic instruction for early reading is far from a pivot. Direct Instruction (DI) is a proven instructional methodology that has long been inherently aligned with the foundational principles of the Science of Reading. Direct Instruction supports the Science of Reading in its lesson structure, research basis, and overall pedagogical philosophy.

What is Direct Instruction?

Direct Instruction (DI) is “a model for teaching that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks.” (For more, see: DI is unique in its approach: Content is delivered via scripted and quickly paced lessons, while teachers correct errors immediately and motivate students with positive reinforcement. Skills are introduced gradually, reinforced, and continually assessed. While it can take time for teachers to get accustomed to scripted lessons, they’re a powerful tool for ensuring instruction is explicit and systematic — which, in the context of research-driven reading instruction, is a natural fit for the Science of Reading.

Direct Instruction’s Philosophy and Research Basis

The creators of Direct Instruction built the approach on a few central principles, including the notion that all children can be taught, all children can improve, and all teachers can succeed when provided the right support and materials. The recent swell in attention toward the Science of Reading is driven by a similar idea — that the nation’s troubling reading outcomes are not due to the abilities of the student or the competency of the teacher but to ineffective training and resources.

The educator-driven movement surrounding the Science of Reading is framed by an understanding of the importance of research, dedication to following empirical evidence, and careful analysis of the validity of evidence. Science of Reading advocates argue that by turning to research, we can change outcomes and give students and teachers what they need.

Direct Instruction advocates have been telling a similar story for a long time. Indeed, Direct Instruction is supported by an impressive amount of evidence. The commonly cited and historic Project Follow Through, one of the largest educational studies ever conducted, displayed strong achievement for students who received Direct Instruction as opposed to a variety of other models. With decades years of research available in support of DI, it’s clear that DI is effective.

Direct Instruction and Reading

DI provides explicit instruction for teaching skills associated with reading. Instruction for learning new skills includes clear explanations, modeling, as well as guided feedback, and support until independent mastery has been achieved.

Here’s how Reading Mastery Transformations, a K-5 ELA Direct Instruction curriculum, supports the development of foundational reading skills:

Phonemic Awareness: We know that the ease with which children learn to read often depends on their level of phonological/phonemic awareness (Shaywitz, 2003; Stanovich, 1986). In Reading Mastery Transformations, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness includes listening for and repeating word parts, combining word parts into words, rhyming, listening for and repeating sounds, and phoneme blending and segmentation, following a research-based developmental progression.

Phonics: We know that decodability is a critical characteristic of early reading as it increases the probability that students will use a decoding strategy, which is related to accuracy. In the early grades of Reading Mastery Transformations, students apply phonics skills and strategies to read controlled decodable text. They learn to apply rules used in connection with visual prompts, which provide them with clues about which sounds are irregular, which letters go together to form combinations, and which letters are silent.

Fluency: From cognitive science, we know that fluent, accurate decoding is the key indicator of proficient reading. In Reading Mastery Transformations, students read and reread passages orally as they receive guidance and feedback. Educators monitor fluency in all grades through routine fluency checks that assess rate and accuracy.

Word Analysis: While focusing on individual sounds is an efficient early reading strategy, we know that it is not effective for longer words. Reading chunks of words increases fluency. As students move beyond the basics of decoding in the early levels of Reading Mastery Transformations, the focus shifts to word analysis. Students read words with similar phonics elements in addition to words with irregularities. Decoding instruction emphasizes word parts, including prefixes and suffixes.

Spelling: Because we know that learning to spell and learning to read relies on an underlying knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds, we can design spelling instruction to help students better understand that relationship (Ehri, 2000). Instructional content and strategies for spelling in Reading Mastery Transformations evolve across grade levels, from learning how to spell words through sound and letter name relationships in Grade K to using morphemic strategies that emphasize prefixes, suffixes, and roots in Grades 3–5.

Vocabulary: From decades of research, we know that learning vocabulary is a complex and long-term process strongly related to comprehension (Lehr, Osborn and Heibert, 2004). Vocabulary instruction in Reading Mastery Transformations begins in early grades with a focus on oral language, providing direct teaching of important background information, vocabulary, and thinking skills that students need to achieve strong reading comprehension. As students progress, they engage with definitions, synonyms, context clues, and clear explanations.

Comprehension: We know that strategy instruction is most effective when strategies are explicitly taught (National Reading Panel, 2000; Duffy, (2002) in the context of actual reading. This direct style of instruction should involve explaining the strategy as well as modeling or demonstrating how and when to use it (Dewitz et al. 2009). Reading Mastery Transformations engages students in high-quality, increasingly challenging narrative and informational text. Instructional sequences are designed to prepare students to generalize reading comprehension skills into cross-curricular academic areas.

For detailed examples of how Reading Mastery Transformations aligns with the Science of Reading in each of these foundational areas, see this guide:

For more on Direct Instruction, see:


Dewitz, P., Jones, J., & Leahy, S. (2009). Comprehension strategy instruction in core reading programs. Reading Research Quarterly 44 (2), 102–126.

Duffy, G. (2002). The case for direct explanation of strategies. In C. Block & Pressley (Eds.), Comprehension instruction: research-based best practices. New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorders, 20(3), 19–36

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: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lehr, F., Osborn, J., & Heibert, E. (2004). A Focus on Vocabulary. Honolulu, HI: Regional Educational Laboratory at Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia. New York : Knopf.

Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 278–303.



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