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Direct Instruction (DI) Reading Intervention Program

Curriculum and Instruction

Direct Instruction (DI) Reading Intervention Program

Learn about the strengths and weaknesses of Direct Instruction, a promising reading intervention program evaluated by the American Federation of Teachers in their series “Building on the Best, Learning from What Works.”

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Why are some schools effective at educating most students, even those from disadvantaged, high poverty areas, while others struggle fruitlessly to fulfill their academic mission? How can schools replicate the successes of their more effective counterparts?

Researchers, working for years to answer these questions, have described the characteristics of successful schools — e.g., high expectations for all students; challenging curricula; clear standards and a coherent, focused academic mission; high-quality professional development aligned to the standards; small class sizes, especially in the early grades; an orderly and disciplined learning environment; a supportive and collegial atmosphere; and an intervention system designed to ensure that struggling students can meet the standards. But, while we now know a great deal about which reforms are effective, comparatively little is known about how to achieve them.

As many schools have found out the hard way, systemic reform is extremely difficult-especially when it must occur simultaneously on many fronts, and is begun without benefit of high-quality curriculum materials, appropriate professional development, or readily available technical assistance. In fact, a number of schools — especially those that are already foundering — have found that lasting improvement is impossible without concrete, step-by-step implementation support.

According to a recent study of efforts to raise academic achievement for at-risk students (Stringfield, et al., 1996), the reform strategies that achieve the greatest academic gains are those chosen and supported by faculty, as well as administrators. Success is also dependent on the existence of a challenging curriculum, and on paying “a great deal of attention to issues of initial and long-term implementation, and to institutionalizing the reforms.” This and other studies have also found that schoolwide reforms tend to be more effective than pull-out or patchwork programs, and that externally developed programs — particularly those with support networks from which schools can draw strength and tangible assistance — tend to do better than local designs.

Given these and similar research findings, we developed the criteria below to help identify promising programs for raising student achievement, especially in low-performing schools. Although each particular program has its own strengths and weaknesses, all show evidence of:

  • High Standards. The program helps all students acquire the skills and/or knowledge they need to successfully perform to high academic standards.
  • Effectiveness. The program has proven to be effective in raising the academic achievement levels of “atrisk” students in low-performing schools, based on independent evaluations.
  • Replicability. The program has been effectively implemented in multiple sites beyond the original pilot school(s).
  • Support Structures. Professional development, materials, and ongoing implementation support are available for the program, either through the program’s developer, independent contractors, or dissemination networks established by schools already in the program.

In addition to information about each program’s track record on raising student achievement, we have also attempted to gather and report details about main features and estimated costs. We hope that this information will assist members as they begin weighing the available options against student needs, school goals, and available resources. In deciding which programs warrant further investigation, we urge that you consider each program’s “fit,” as well the data on its efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

Overview of Direct Instruction (DI)

Grades CoveredPrimarily an elementary school (pre-K-6) program, but also used successfully with secondary and adult special education and remedial students.
Curriculum MaterialsDI has generally been implemented as a schoolwide, subject area, and/or remedial elementary school program. However, the reading intervention program-Corrective Reading-can be used with struggling students from grade 3 through adulthood. (Corrective Spelling is also available for grades 4 through 12).
Instructional Support/Professional DevelopmentProfessional development and implementation support of differing levels of quality can be contracted from various providers.
School Reform/Restructuring AssistanceNot applicable for remedial use. (For use as a schoolwide reform, limited assistance can be contracted from some providers as part of their implementation- support package.)
Role of ParaprofessionalsTrained classroom paraprofessionals can be fully integrated into the program, working as instructional aides, one-on-one tutors, and small group leaders under the direction of certified teachers.
Cost of ImplementationFor use as a remedial reading intervention, start-up costs for all student and teacher materials range from $25 to $40 per student. (In subsequent years, materials are approximately $10 per student.) Initial staff development costs range from $5,000 to $60,000 per school, depending on the type of implementation and the number of teachers and classrooms involved. Additional costs may include release time, depending on the implementation.
Results*/Effect SizeStudies show reading improvement ranging from +.32 to +1.11.
*To give a sense of scale, an effect size of +1.00 would be equivalent to anincrease of 100 points on the SAT scale or 15 points of IQ-enough to movea student from the 20th percentile (the normal level of performance forchildren in poverty) to above the 50th percentile (the norm for mainstreamstudents).

Direct Instruction (DI) is a highly structured instructional approach, designed to accelerate the learning of at-risk students. Curriculum materials and instructional sequences attempt to move students to mastery at the fastest possible pace. The oldest version of the program, Distar, was developed in the 1960s as part of Project Follow Through, a massive educational initiative of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Despite its success in raising student achievement levels, Distar was heavily criticized for being too rigid; concentrating too heavily on the basics; and for some vendors’ poor implementation practices, such as selling it without support as a “teacher-proof ” program.

As DI, the original Distar program has been expanded and enriched. Although the early mastery of basic skills is still a key element, the program also addresses students’ general comprehension and analytic skills. Although a number of schools have adopted DI as a schoolwide reform program, its components are more often purchased for separate implementations as language arts or remedial reading programs. Either way, adequate professional development, ensuring that practitioners understand what the program is and how it works, is essential for successful implementation.

Main features

Scripted Lesson Plans

Classroom scripts are a hallmark of Direct Instruction; the scripts are written, tested, rewritten, retested-polished in a cycle of classroom field testing and revision that ends only when trials show that 90 percent of students grasp a lesson the first time around. Without proper orientation, many teachers find this level of prescriptiveness off-putting. The idea, however, is to ensure that even beginning teachers will be successful and to allow veteran educators to fill any holes in their teaching skills. With curricular and pedagogical details presented in precise relationship to each other, the program offers a template of how to teach particular skills and content. It is a template that can be applied to other curricula or modified to better suit the needs of a particular group of students, but only after the teaching methods have been learned to precision.

Research-Tested Curriculum

In DI, skills are taught in sequence until students have fully internalized them (what cognitive researchers call “automaticity”) and are able to generalize their learning in new, untaught situations. Each lesson sequence is extensively field tested to determine the most effective and efficient way to lead students to mastery. For example, the first reading and language arts lessons focus on phonemic awareness, which are followed by increasingly complex phonics and decoding lessons, which are followed by lessons that focus on comprehension and analysis of content, etc. With each lesson building on previously mastered skills and understandings, teachers are able to dramatically accelerate the pace of learning, even for the most disadvantaged students. New material is usually introduced through teacher presentations to the whole class or small groups, followed by guided practice and frequent checks for individual student mastery. Once the skill has been learned to the point of automaticity, cognitive studies show that it is transferred from short-term to long-term memory, thus freeing children to apply their learning, attend to content and move on to progressively more difficult and higher-order skills. The regular classroom reading and language arts curriculum, particularly in the later grades, has been criticized for not containing a broad or challenging enough selection of children’s literature. The classroom and remedial programs are easily supplemented, however, especially after students have been helped to master basic decoding skills.


Another feature of the program, particularly in schoolwide and regular classroom implementations, is the use of in-class coaches. The coach periodically monitors classes and is available to assist individual teachers with any problems. (In some cases, this role has been filled by an employee of the contractor, retained to help with implementation. In some multi-school implementations within a single district, teachers are released from regular classroom duty, given special training and assigned to assist one or two schools.) Rapid pace-Because the goal of DI is to move students to mastery as quickly as possible, a large proportion of classroom time is spent on fast-paced teacher-directed instruction, punctuated by rhythmic choral-group and individual-student responses. For instructors, this means a very full work day. For example, DI teachers in a regular classroom might ask 300 or more questions in six small-group sessions each day and to perform reading checks every five or 10 lessons to ensure that all students reach 100 percent mastery. This level of interaction, which produces substantial achievement gains, is made possible by the use of the heavily researched, highly refined scripts.

Achievement Grouping

New students are given a diagnostic assessment, which is also used as a placement test. Students are then grouped by performance level, with the idea that all students will progress at the fastest possible pace and no students will be left behind. If the program is implemented well, these should not be rigid “tracks” but flexible achievement groups, with students who are progressing quickly periodically reassigned to a faster group and intensified assistance given to students who are struggling.

Frequent Assessments

Frequent assessments are also built into the program as a means to ensure that all students are reaching mastery, to detect any student whom might need extra help and to identify students who need to be re-grouped.


Although Direct Instruction has been evaluated among many populations over the years, the following only addresses the use of DI as a remedial reading intervention or as a regular education program serving a student population composed of a very large proportion of struggling readers. One study followed the effects of DI on a rural population of third-grade students from 1973 to 1980. Results showed that DI students outscored their counterparts in a comparison group by ES=+.61. Another study of mildly retarded students showed DI students outscoring control group students by ES=+.64. A third study, evaluating the effects of DI on both reading and spelling, showed DI students outperforming a control group by ES=+.75. A fourth study also showed DI students outscoring a control group in spelling and reading, this time by ES=+.32.

A summary meta-analyses of Direct Instruction showed overall large effect sizes for students in regular education (ES=+.82) and special education (ES=+.90). DI also showed large effect sizes when used with struggling middle and junior high school students (ES=+1.11).

Case study

Goethe Middle School (Sacramento, CA)

With chronically low test scores across the curriculum, Goethe Middle School recently decided to attack its academic problems at their root: Many students had never learned to read well. Beginning with the 1997-98 school year, Goethe took a radical step. It trained all instructional staff in Corrective Reading and used fourth period for a mandatory reading class for virtually every student. Although this DI implementation is still too new to judge, preliminary data are encouraging. In the fall of 1997, only 11 percent of Goethe students could read above a sixth-grade level, while 12 percent were at a “high average” level for sixth grade. In other words, fewer than one in four students had much hope of keeping up with the reading assignments usually required of middle school students. By the end of the school year, the number of students reading at least at this basic level had more than doubled: 22 percent were at the “high average” level, 26 percent were above.


This is a highly interactive, teacher-intensive approach to education. Teachers and paraprofessionals must be informed about-and prepared for-its fast pace and the structured, repetitive nature of the program.

DI also has a history of problematic implementations. When the program’s developer, former preschool teacher Siegfried Engelmann, started designing the curriculum more than 25 years ago, he included fully scripted teachers’ guides, believing that they could serve as prototype demonstrations for specific teaching skills. In other words, one design objective was to provide hands-on teacher training during class time, thus reducing start-up costs and at the same time ensuring that all teachers would have the skills necessary to reach the maximum achievement levels. Unfortunately, some marketers and administrators interpreted this to mean that no training was necessary, and that teaching skill was inconsequential to the success of the program. DI materials were sold as “teacher-proof,” leaving administrators who didn’t understand the program to impose it in a rigid, dictatorial manner. Educator horror stories and lower-than-expected achievement levels were the predictable results. In some regions, this has left DI with a tarnished reputation that will have to be clarified and overcome. For any new implementation to be successful, proper orientation and ongoing training are vital-not only for teachers and paraprofessionals but also for administrators.

Another frequent criticism is that DI provides so much structure and regimentation that it stifles student and teacher creativity. The student results- both in higher academic achievement levels and elevated measures of self-esteem-should speak for themselves. Teacher focus groups, following multiple schoolwide DI implementations in Broward County, Florida, are also instructive. Some teachers felt that the “standardized approach actually allowed more creativity, because a framework was in place within which to innovate,” and said that they could do more with content once DI had helped students acquire the necessary skills. Other teachers reported that they had initially been resistant, feeling that “even though the students thrived on it, the repetition was boring for the faculty,” but, over time, had found ways “to innovate within the repetition, so that they become drawn in as well.”

The Broward implementation also incorporated another important feature: advanced training for and assignment of teaching staff to act as full-time “coaches” (facilitators) for the new DI schools. By retaining their status within the bargaining unit, it was made clear that these educators were a resource for the benefit of the teaching staff, not administrators. There was always someone to turn to, on a confidential basis, for advice and assistance. Given the inevitable frustrations, glitches and misunderstandings that arise when implementing any new curriculum, using new instructional methods, this assistance has proven invaluable.

Selected resources

Adams, Gary L. and Engelmann, Siegfried. Research on Direct Instruction: 25 Years beyond Distar (1996). Seattle: Educational Achievement Systems. 206/820-6111.

Effective School Practices. Journal of the Associationfor Direct Instruction.

Gersten, Russell, et al. “Effectiveness of a Direct Instruction academic kindergarten for lowincome students,” The Elementary School Journal(November 1988).

Additional reading

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

American Educator, (1998) Vol. 22, Nos. 1&2: Spring/Summer.

Adams, M.J., Foorman, B.R., Lundberg, I. & Beeler, T. (1998). “The elusive phoneme.”

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., Hamilton, R.I. & Kucan, L. (1998). “Getting at the meaning”

Cunningham, A.E. & Stanovich, K.E. (1998) “What reading does for the mind.”

Greene, J.F. (1998). “Another chance.”

Moats, L.C. (1998). “Teaching decoding.”

Torgesen, J.K. (1998) “Catch them before they fall.”

American Educator, (1995) Vol. 19, No. 2: Summer.

Adams, M.J. & Bruck, M. (1995). “Resolving the ‘Great Debate’.”

Beck, I.L. & Juel, C. (1995). “The role of decoding in learning to read.”

McPike, E. (1995). “Learning to read: Schooling’s first mission.”

Moats, L.C. (1994). “The missing foundation in teacher education.”

Blachman, B.A. (1997). Foundations of Reading Acquisition and Dyslexia: Implications for Early Intervention. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gough, P. B. & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). “Learning to read: An unnatural act.” Bulletin of the Orton Society,30.

Herman, R. and Stringfield, S. (1997). Ten Promising Programs for Educating All Children: Evidence ofImpact. Arlington, Va.: Educational Research Service.

Learning First Alliance (1998). Every Child Reading: An Action Plan. Washington, D.C.: LFA.

Learning to Read, Reading to Learn (1997). Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

National Research Council (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Raising Student Achievement: A Resource Guide for Improving Low-Performing Schools (1997). Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.

Shaywitz, S.E. (Nov. 1996). “Dyslexia.” Scientific American.

Slavin, R.E. & Fashola, O.S. (1998). Show Me the Evidence! Proven and Promising Programs for America’sSchools. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Slavin, R.E., Karweit, N.L. & Wasik, B.A. [Eds.] (1994). Preventing Early School Failure: Research, Policyand Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Stanovich, K.E. (1994). “Romance and reality.” The Reading Teacher, 47.


American Federation of Teachers. (1999). Building on the Best, Learning from What Works: Five Promising Remedial Reading Intervention Programs. Washington, DC: Author.

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