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Elements Comprising the Colorado Literacy Framework:

IV. Purposeful, Direct, Explicit, and Systematic Instruction

Purposeful, direct, explicit, and systematic instruction is valuable for continuous literacy achievement.

What and Why?

Implications for Best Practice

Exemplary Practices in Action

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What is Direct, Explicit, Systematic Instruction and Why is it important?

In contrast to listening and speaking, which develop naturally, the intricacies of written language must be explicitly taught. Direct, explicit, systematic instruction has been recognized as an important strategy for this purpose. The Florida Center for Reading Research provides definitions of direct, explicit and systematic instruction:

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: A carefully planned sequence for instruction, similar to a builder’s blueprint for a house characterizes systematic instruction. A blueprint is carefully thought out and designed before building materials are gathered and construction begins.
As stated by Adams (2001, p. 74)
The goal of systematic instruction is one of maximizing the likelihood that whenever children are asked to learn something new, they already possess the appropriate prior knowledge and understandings 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. Instruction is across the five components (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension).

Explicit Instruction: Explicit instruction involves direct explanation. Concepts are clearly explained and skills are clearly modeled, without vagueness or ambiguity (Carnine, 2006). 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 following is an example an explicit instruction routine from Colorado Reading First:

Lesson Components

Set Purpose

  • Today we are going to learn…
  • The reason we are learning this is …

State Objective

  • At the end of this lesson you will be able to …

Connect To And Review Previous Learning

  • Yesterday, you…

Teach New Concept/Skill (I Do)

  • Watch me or listen to me as I …

Guide Practice (We Do)

  • Now, let’s try this together.

Assess Student Application (You Do)

  • Now, let’s see you try this on your own.

Return To Purpose

  • Tell your partner what you learned and practiced today.

Provide Opportunity For Independent Practice

  • I want to give you a chance now to show that you can do this independently.
  • When you’re working independently today, I would like you to …


Researchers Laine, Bullock, and Ford (1998) charted the types of reading and instruction that took place in middle school classrooms. The findings were consistent with the time spent within a 45-minute period.


Results from two studies of high school freshman and sophomores looked at the effectiveness of combining strategic instruction with direct explanation and modeling. The studies found that students taught with explicit instruction improved in teacher-created quizzes, standardized reading tests, and even implicit questions (Alfassi, 2004).

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Implications for Best Practice

The concept of direct instruction is not new to education. Its effectiveness for teaching literacy is well-supported by research, as demonstrated by the Follow-Through project, the largest and longest educational research study conducted to date, carried out over 28 years and involving more than 20,000 students. Adams & Engelmann’s (1996) comprehensive review and meta-analysis of 30+ studies on the effectiveness of direct instruction revealed findings consistent with those in Follow Through; they concluded that across diverse learning populations, direct instruction consistently resulted in considerable advances in literacy achievement.

The "Report of the National Reading Panel" (NICHD, 2000) provides equally compelling evidence for explicit, systematic instruction for each of the five essential components of literacy (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). “Explicit instruction in reading makes a difference in student outcomes, especially for those who are low achieving.” (Denton et al., 2003, p. 202) “Explicitness has been a component of instruction in studies documenting improved outcomes in phonological awareness, decoding, and the application of comprehension strategies for the understanding of text.” (Denton et al., 2003, p. 202)

Preventing reading difficulties requires skill development in the components of reading by “targeting such skills explicitly and directly” (Walpole et al., 2004, p. 265). Explicit teaching means that nothing is left to chance. Wong (1998) identifies the three characteristics of successful teachers, all of which include elements of explicit and systematic instruction resulting in effective teaching, which results in increased student achievement.

  1. Positive expectations for student success
    Students tend to learn as little or as much as their teachers expect. Teachers who set and communicate high expectations to all of their students obtain greater academic performance from these students than do teachers who set low expectations (U.S. Department of Education, 1986).
  2. Effective classroom management
    “Students want a well-managed classroom more than the teachers do because a well-managed classroom gives students SECURITY. There are no surprises, no yelling in a classroom where everyone, teacher and students, know what is happening. It comes from installing procedures and routines.”(Wong, 1998, p. 85)

    Wong’s four characteristics of a well-managed classroom are: 1) high level of student involvement with work; 2) clear student expectations; 3) relatively little wasted time, confusion, or disruption; 4) work oriented but relaxed and pleasant climate (Wong, 1998).
Characteristics of a Well Managed Classroom

Effective Teaching

Ineffective Teaching

  1. High level of student involvement with work

Students are working

Teacher is working

  1. Clear student expectations

Students know that the assignments are based on objectives and have a purpose.
Students know that assessments are based on objectives.

Teacher says, “Read Chapter 3 and answer the questions at the end.” I’ll be giving you a text covering the material in Chapter 3.”

  1. Relatively little wasted time, confusion, or disruption

Teacher has a management plan.

Teacher starts class immediately.

Teacher has assignments and objectives posted.

Teacher makes up rules and punishes according to his or her mood.

Teacher takes roll and time is wasted during transitions.

Students ask questions about objectives and clarification of assignments.

  1. Work-oriented but relaxed and pleasant climate


Teacher has invested time in practicing procedures until they become routines. Explain, Rehearse, Reinforce.

Teacher knows how to bring class to attention.

Teacher knows how to praise the deed and encourage the student.

Teacher tells but does not rehearse and reinforce procedures. There is just telling and no explaining, rehearsing, or reinforcing.

Teacher yells and flicks light switch.

Teacher uses generalized praise or none at all.

Adapted from Wong, 1998, p. 87.

3. Designs lessons for student mastery

Students are not made to infer what is being taught, which confuses struggling readers (Denton et al.). Instead, students are given a direct explanation of what they are learning. Teachers include a model so that students can see and hear the task that they are being asked to complete. Often, the model comes in the form of a think aloud, “providing cognitive modeling for students” (Pressley et al., 2006, p. 288). Explicit teaching may come from a script in some programs, but is not necessarily the case in all classrooms (Denton et al.; Tivnan & Hemphill, 2005). See resource section for read aloud lesson examples that include explicit and systematic instruction.


All of the effective characteristics listed above include procedures and routines that must incorporate explaining, rehearsing, and reinforcing; all elements of explicit and systematic instruction.

  • Explaining
    • Define the procedure or routine in very clear terms.
    • Demonstrate the procedure or routine in very clear terms and don’t just tell students what to do.
    • Demonstrate the procedure or routine step by step. The more complex the process, the more explicit steps are necessary.
  • Rehearsing
    • Have students practice the procedure or routine, step by step, with teacher guidance and feedback. Teachers need to make sure every step is performed correctly.
    • Have students continue practicing the procedure as long as needed until they can perform it without constant teacher supervision.
  • Reinforcing
    • Determine if students have learned the procedure through formative assessment (monitoring) and whether they need additional explanation, modeling, or guided practice.
    • Reteach the procedure if the rehearsal part is unacceptable and continue to give corrective feedback.
    • Provide positive reinforcement when the rehearsal is acceptable.
      (Based on The First Days of School, Wong, 1998)

Explicit instruction of strategies and skills “consistently produces greater effects than implicit or embedded instruction in which students needed to infer strategies or instruction in which skills were left to natural development” (Coyne et al., 2001, p.66). Even through extensive research clearly demonstrates that all students reach higher level of achievement at a much faster pace with explicit and systematic instruction, this type of instruction is still not always used (Gill & Kozloff 2004). The only hope for improving the literacy levels of struggling adolescent learners is to provide, “direct instruction in the processes, knowledge, and skills students have not yet had the opportunity to acquire (Curtis and Longo, 1999).”

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Exemplary Practices in Action

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