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What is explicit instruction?

By Kim Greene, MA

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

At a Glance

  • Explicit instruction makes learning crystal clear.

  • It gives kids lots of opportunities to practice skills and get feedback.

  • It can be especially helpful for kids who learn and think differently.

Explicit instruction is a way to teach in a direct, structured way. When teachers use explicit instruction, they make lessons crystal clear. They show kids how to start and succeed on a task. They also give kids plenty of feedback and chances to practice.

Think about a time when you tried to follow a new recipe, only to find that a step is missing or unclear. You may have been able to guess what to do next. But without explicit instructions, you may have added the wrong ingredient or stopped cooking the dish altogether.

The same thing can happen when kids learn something new. Some can make inferences to figure out the next steps or to work through the unknown. But for kids who learn and think differently, one unclear direction or having too many things to remember can be a deal-breaker.

That’s where explicit instruction comes in. It can be used with students of all ages. And it can be taught with a whole class, a small group of students, or one student at a time.

Dive deeper

Who explicit instruction helps

Explicit instruction can help all students. But it can be especially beneficial for the following students:

Students who learn and think differently. Without explicit instruction, students who struggle with attention or working memory may not focus on the most crucial ideas in a lesson. With explicit instruction, you cue students in to the most essential information.

English language learners. When you use consistent and clear language in each step of instruction, English language learners (ELLs) aren’t overwhelmed with new language demands. Research has shown that explicit instruction can lead to achievement gains among ELLs. 

Educators: Learn more ways to support English language learners .

For educators: Why to use explicit instruction

There are many reasons to use explicit instruction. Here are some of the most important.

1. Students get opportunities to practice. Explicit instruction helps students who need intensive intervention, including those with learning disabilities. In your school, you may call this support “Tier 3 intervention.” 

These students usually need to practice a skill 10 to 30 more times than their peers. Explicit instruction can give them those opportunities to practice. It also gives you a structure to make sure those learners are capable and successful as they practice.

2. It uses data collection and analysis. Each time students practice a skill, you have a chance to collect data. You can use that data to plan your next lesson, like re-teaching or moving on to the next progression of the skill. This data helps you meet the needs of each student.

3. It lightens the “cognitive load.” Students who learn and think differently often have trouble with working memory. That makes it hard to make sense of a long series of directions. 

Explicit instruction breaks up learning into smaller parts. This lightens the “cognitive load,” or how much brain resources a student needs to process information. A lighter cognitive load frees up working memory. That’s important because learning new skills requires a lot of working memory.

Read more about working memory and how attention is different from working memory.  

For educators: How to teach using explicit instruction

Explicit instruction follows a sequence of steps:

  • Identify a clear, specific objective.

  • Break the information into chunks.

  • Model with clear explanations.

  • Verbalize the thinking process.

  • Provide opportunities to practice.

  • Give feedback.

Learn more about how to teach using explicit instruction and how to use it during distance learning

For educators: Explicit instruction and inquiry-based learning

It’s a myth that explicit instruction limits students from engaging in inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and higher-order thinking. In fact, it’s the opposite. Explicit instruction gives students who are typically left out of these opportunities the information and skills they need to engage. 

Explicit instruction uses some of the same processes used for inquiry-based learning and project-based learning, including modeling, practice, and feedback. Students can transfer the processes they learn in explicit instruction to other types of learning.

Also, remember that explicit instruction isn’t just for basic academic skills. Students often need explicit modeling and feedback on higher-order skills, like decision making and social skills.

Find out how one school engages students who learn and think differently in project-based learning .

For families: How to support explicit instruction at home

You may not be familiar with the term explicit instruction. It’s not something you would commonly use at home. 

But there are ways you can practice some parts of explicit instruction at home. The next time you tell your child to clean their room, try breaking down the task into very clear steps. You can model what it looks like to organize a closet. You can also give feedback after your child is done.

Get more tips for helping your child follow instructions

Related topics

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What it’s like

“Elijah came with me to his IEP meetings. At first, he would just sit there quietly, taking things in. But by middle school, he began to be more vocal about his needs.”

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom