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Explicit Instruction: What You Need to Know

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.

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Explicit instruction is a way to teach skills or concepts to students using direct, structured instruction. It helps make lessons clear by modeling for students how to start and succeed on a task and giving them ample time to practice.


Have you ever tried to follow a new recipe, only to find that a step is missing or unclear? Or maybe the directions had too much information for your brain to handle. You may have been able to guess what to do next, but maybe the confusion was enough to stop you from cooking the dish altogether.

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

That’s why it’s so important to make sure your instruction is as clear and complete as it can be. One way to do that is to use explicit instruction.

Explicit instruction is a way to deliver direct, structured instruction to students—from kindergartners to high-schoolers. It helps make lessons crystal clear and shows students how to start and succeed on a task. You can use explicit instruction with your whole class. Or you can use it to pre-teach or re-teach a skill to one student or a group of students. 

Why Use Explicit Instruction?

Explicit instruction is a well-researched, highly effective instructional strategy. It can be beneficial to both students and educators.

It makes higher-order thinking and inquiry-based learning easier. Explicit instruction gives students who are typically left out of inquiry-based learning the information and skills they need to engage. Explicit instruction can also teach students the processes needed for inquiry-based learning. Think about it: The inquiry process lends itself to modeling, practice, and feedback. Plus, 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.

There’s less load on working memory. Students who learn and think differently often have trouble with working memory. For example, they may struggle to make sense of a long series of directions. Explicit instruction breaks learning up into smaller parts, lightening the “cognitive load” (how much brain resources students need to process information). That frees up students’ working memory, which is important because learning new skills requires a lot of working memory.

Difficulty with attention is less of a barrier. Without explicit instruction, students who struggle with attention may not be able to attend to the most crucial ideas in a lesson. With explicit instruction, you cue students in to the most essential information.

It helps overcome language barriers. When you use consistent and clear language in each step of instruction, (ELLs) aren’t overwhelmed with managing new language demands. Research has shown that explicit instruction is correlated with increased achievement gains among ELLs.   

It allows for various degrees of practice. Explicit instruction is also effective for students who need intensive intervention, including those with learning disabilities. In your school, you may call this support “Tier 3 intervention.” Typically, these students need to practice a skill 10 to 30 more times than their peers. Explicit instruction can give them those opportunities. It also gives you a structure to make sure those learners are capable and successful as they practice.

It allows data collection and analysis. Each time students practice a skill, you have a chance to collect data. After the explicit instruction cycle, you can use that data to plan your next lesson, whether it’s re-teaching or moving on to the next progression of the skill. This data helps you meet the needs of each student and be nimble in your lesson planning.

The Four Parts of Explicit Instruction and How to Use Them

Before you start planning the lesson, you need to identify a clear, specific objective.

In other words, what do you expect students to do by the end of the lesson? You’ll deliver your explicit instruction to meet that objective. (An unclear objective can make it hard for you to model the skill and for your students to know what to do.)

1. Model with clear explanations.

How: Explain or demonstrate the skill in the same way students will practice it. Use language that is clear, concise, and consistent. Focus on the most critical parts of the content you are teaching. 

Why: Clear explanations take out the guesswork from learning. Plus, some students may need to see a model (or different models) several times. To decide if that’s necessary, check for understanding by asking students to help you do an example.

Planning Tips

  • Make sure the skill you choose to teach matches the learning outcome for the lesson.

  • Write a clear, concise, and correct explanation of the skill in your lesson plan.

  • Double-check that your explanation includes all the steps.

  • Plan for multiple examples (some that may be different from each other).

  • Plan to model the examples in the same way students will practice it.

  • Include a note in your plan to check for students’ understanding after each example.

2. Verbalize the thinking process.

How: As you are modeling, do a think-aloud of what’s going on in your mind. For instance, if you’re comparing fractions, you might talk through how you realized that the denominators aren’t common. For instance, you might say, “I notice these two denominators aren’t the same. In this fraction, the denominator is a 5. But in this fraction, the denominator is a 6.”

Why: Students who learn and think differently often don’t know how to begin a task or what to do when they’re stuck. Modeling self-talk can be particularly helpful for these students.

Planning Tips

  • Script how you will verbalize your thinking. You don’t need to write out everything, but it’s important to have your most important points planned out. 

  • Think of places where students might get stuck. Plan how you’ll verbalize working through those tricky spots. 

3. Provide opportunities to practice.

How: During guided practice, you might work through several problems as a class and either pre-correct or correct errors as they occur. Guided practice is your chance to make sure every step is clear to students so that they are ready to work independently. If students haven’t grasped the skill, you can model or verbalize it again. 

Once students are successful with guided practice, move on to independent practice. This is when the skill or strategy becomes fluent. Resist the urge to introduce more difficult material. Instead, focus on independent practice tasks that align with the skill you modeled. Students should master the tasks during independent practice about 90 percent of the time.

After independent practice, do a cumulative review of both old and newly learned skills. The review will help students gain and retain automaticity with the skills.

Why: Students need to practice a skill for it to “stick” in their long-term memory. Guided and independent practice, as well as cumulative review, can help that process. 

Planning Tips

  • Give yourself enough time for multiple opportunities to practice.

  • For guided practice:

    • Plan for practice that students are likely to succeed with.

    • Script your prompts, but remember that you may need to adjust your script in the moment to meet students’ needs. 

  • For independent practice:

    • Review expectations and the resources students will use before beginning. 

    • Design opportunities that you feel students will be able to work on without support.

  • Use multiple ways of getting student responses during practice to check for understanding. For instance:

    • Plan for verbal responses, like choral responses.

    • Plan for written responses, like “stop and jot” or writing a response on dry-erase boards.

    • Plan for physical responses, like nonverbal signals (fist-to-five or thumbs up/thumbs down).

  • Cumulative review:

    • Identify the set of skills needed to meet the learning objective.

    • Plan ways to review previously taught skills that ladder up to the new skills you’re teaching.

    • Plan ways to review the newly acquired skills or information.

    • Keep the cumulative review brief and focused. 

4. Give feedback.

How: As your students engage in guided and independent practice, give them immediate and actionable feedback. 

Why: A quick response will guide students to success and will reduce the chance that they’ll practice a skill or strategy with errors.

Planning Tips

  • Make note of times in the lesson when you’ll be able to move about the room to make informal observations of students. 

  • Attach a sheet of paper with your students’ names to a clipboard. That way, you’ll be ready to record your observations of their work.

  • Leave time to deliver timely, specific feedback to each student.

  • Make a note in your plan to analyze student data after the lesson. You’ll want to use the data to make decisions about what instruction a student needs next.

Use the printable checklist below to help you plan and reflect on your explicit instruction lessons.

Explicit Instruction Checklist

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What Does Explicit Instruction Look Like in Action?

Watch the video of explicit instruction. Think about these guiding questions as you watch: 

  • Can you identify the four core practices? 

    • What does the teacher do to model?

    • What does she say when she verbalizes her thinking?

    • How does she provide practice opportunities?

    • How does she give feedback?

  • After watching this video, how do you think explicit instruction fits into the “I Do, We Do, You Do” model?

You may be thinking that explicit instruction sounds a lot like “I Do, We Do, You Do.” That’s because explicit instruction can work within this lesson framework. During the “I do,” explicit instruction reminds you to be clear and to verbalize your thinking. In the “we do,” explicit instruction helps you plan for multiple practice opportunities. And during the “you do,” you’ll remember to give feedback.

Family Connection

Families may not be familiar with the term “explicit instruction.” If you find that a student does particularly well with this type of teaching, you can introduce the term to family members at a parent-teacher conference. 

Explain that explicit instruction means teaching a skill really clearly and giving a child lots of opportunities to practice the skill. Suggest some ways a parent or guardian might use parts of explicit instruction at home, such as an example of how you would give really clear directions about how to clean up a bedroom. You’ll find that explicit instruction can help students—both in school and at home.   

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