More About Direct Instruction Methods in Teaching Reading and 

 Why Children Often Fail to Learn with Indirect Methods


The research shows us direct phonics instruction is more effective in teaching children to read than methods that rely on embedded, analytical or other indirect methods.  Direct phonics instruction explicitly teaches the children the sounds that the letters make and how to blend these individual sounds into words. Programs vary in their degree of explicitness. Some programs leave virtually all aspects of reading up to the child to figure out on their own. Some direct-systematic programs explicitly lay out each step.  In general, the more direct the program, the less left to chance and the more effective the program is in helping children learn to read.


Here is a quick analogy: Your bright enthusiastic child loves dinosaurs and wants to find a dinosaur bone. With a shovel in hand, he just starts wandering around, digging holes wherever he goes. He might get lucky and find a dinosaur bone, but probably not. Despite his best efforts, enthusiasm and hard work his only results at best may just be the beef bone the dog buried in the back yard. Now if you specifically teach the child some of the facts about where to find dinosaur bones and sign him up on a guided fieldtrip to dig bones, his probability of success will be much greater.  Direct instruction not only benefits your child in a mission to find dinosaur bones but will also benefit him in his mission to learn to read our complex language proficiently. 


We have to realize that children, no matter how bright, are naïve amateurs about our written language. They learn best when we directly teach them all the necessary information.  Direct methods teach children exactly what they need to know in an explicit manner. Direct instruction is more effective (the child actually learns) and efficient (learns at much faster rate) that indirect methods.  The purpose of direct instruction is to help the child learn.  It has nothing to do with controlling the teacher or limiting teacher creativity and involvement.  Direct instruction is for the child’s benefit!


Direct instruction is explicitly teaching the child what he needs to know. In phonemic awareness activities, it is directly teaching the child how to hear, distinguish and manipulate sounds. You demonstrate how to do the skill and directly teach the necessary skills.  In direct phonics instruction, this is teaching the child the necessary printed letter = sound relationships and then how to blend these sounds together into words.   The correct blending skills and tracking skills are also directly demonstrated and taught. The key for directly teaching the phonetic code is to directly link the printed letter to the correct sound in isolation. For example: have the child write or trace the letter while saying the correct sound (print ‘m’ while saying /m/), have the child make and trace a texture letter while saying the sound, have the child practice the letter=sound directly with plain flash cards or with fun games such as ‘sound bingo’.


Parents and teachers CAN absolutely use imagination, creativity and fun with direct instruction.  Direct instruction of letter=sound activities that are not only highly effective and efficient but can be designed in fun ways! The possibilities are endless. Parents and teachers can come up with their own great ideas. Just be sure you design activities to directly teach the child exactly what he needs to know.  Go can go outside on a nice day with the sidewalk chalk and writing letters while singing sounds. Finger paint the letters while saying thesounds. You can jump up and down while looking at the letter j on the board and chanting the sound /j/. You can dance around with the printed letter ‘d’ on a card while saying /d/. You can play a bunch of fun ‘sound games’ like 'sound bingo' and 'sound memory' to directly practice and develop automatic knowledge of the essential printed letter=sound code. Invent your own game like ‘fishing for sounds’ where you write the letters on paper ‘fish’ and the kid ‘catches’ the fish by saying the correct sound.. Just directly teach your child what he needs to know.


In contrast, the following illustrate common indirect techniques and activities that are often ineffective and inefficient in teaching children the necessary letter=sound phonetic relationship.  

ü      Teaching letter names instead of the correct sounds of the letters.  (For example the child learns a = /ay/ , but has to infer the /a/ sound on his own, h=/aych/ instead of  the /h/ sound necessary for reading, and ‘c’ = /see/ instead of the necessary /k/ and /s/)

ü      Teaching that letters = objects instead of sounds. For example, the child is taught that a=apple and d=dinosaur

ü      Teaching the letter=sound by having the children color and circle pictures. For example, the child circles and colors pictures of alligators, apples, and airplanes to learn a=/a/, and circles pictures of trains, tops and trees to learn t=/t/.

ü      Teaching sounds by having them listen to stories.  These activities can be great for developing phonemic awareness when the child is directly taught to recognize and listen for a specific sound. However, simply listening to the Adventures of Alice the Amazing Alligator will not teach the child  necessary printed a= sound /a/ relationship.

ü      Relying on unrelated multi-sensory approaches (serving the kids apple slices for snack) (painting pictures of apples and apple trees)  (doing a puppet show with ‘a’ animals, alligators and armadillos) (learning the American Sign Language signs for the letters) (planting flowers during ‘f’ week)


Indirect methods, no matter how wonderful and well intentioned, fail because many kids are not able to pull out and learn information out on their own.  These indirect techniques depend on the child hearing and isolating the sounds on their own and then making the correct printed letter = sound association.  Many children are not able to isolate sounds and make the connection to the abstract printed letter=sound on their own.  If the child has poor phonemic awareness, he is not able to isolate and distinguish the separate sounds. In other words, he does not distinguish the separate sound /a/ at the beginning of apple. Many children fail to make the connection that the sound is represented by a specific printed letter. This may be obvious to most adults but it is absolutely not evident to many naïve children who don’t understand the workings of our written language.


The indirect circling or coloring pictures of items that start with a specific sound is a prime example of where the child must first hear and isolate the sounds and then recognize the printed letter = sound association on his own.  Not only is this indirect instruction, but often these pictures are confusing and sometimes inaccurate. Is the picture a dog or a puppy, is it a train or an engine, and is it a car or a van? To make it worse, picture associations are sometimes linguistically incorrect. For example, airplane starts with the letter a but the ‘a’ is part of the /air/ sound not the a=/a/; orange starts with ‘o’ but should not be used to teach o=/o/ as it is part of the ‘or’ phonogram; a jar of ‘ink’ is incorrectly used to teach the sounds for ‘i’.  


Other indirect methods also frequently fail to teach the necessary reading skills. The child who is laughing at the silly story about the alligator Alice, may never notices and isolate the /a/ sound. Even if he hears the isolated /a/ sounds, he is unable to see the printed ‘a’ to learn ‘a’=/a/.  While sign language is a terrific communication tool, it teaches the child a hand symbol for a letter NOT the necessary printed letter = sound relationship necessary for reading. While a child may enjoy the tasty apple slices, this healthy snack does nothing to teach him the essential printed letter=sound relationship.  


In addition, even if the child learns, indirect methods often develop incorrect and inefficient processing pathways. For example, If the child sees the letter 'd' in a word and has to think 'that is the letter 'dee', the 'dee' stands for 'dinosaur', 'd..d..dinosaur' starts with the /d/ sound. For efficient reading the child needs to look at the pritned 'd' and automatically know the sound /d/. Some of the indirect item associations, whole word associations and unrelated handsigns, or long lists of rules actually create inefficient indirect processing.


In addition, you have to remember you are working with kids. Children are often too busy with ‘other’ priorities to learn information that is deeply buried. It is not that the children are incapable of learning but rather they get distracted and go off in other directions. If you indirectly teach this essential knowledge by showing the kid a picture of an apple, often they are off on the typical kid tangent that goes something like….  “I like apples”… “My Grandma has an apple tree” … “We got to go see my Grandma last summer”… “She took me to the water slide”… and on and on from there.  The thoughts of the fun day at the waterslide with Grandma will take precedence over the buried abstract relationship that the picture of the word ‘apple’ starts with the isolated /a/ sound and that the printed 'a'  represents the /a/ sound in our language.  The child who is circling a picture of an alligator ends up daydreaming about the time he saw an alligator at the zoo or the TV show about the man wrestling the alligator that he likes to watch.  The child is too busy with ‘real’ exciting events to ever make the abstract connection of printed black squiggly a = /a/. Indirect methods rely on the child making all the connections on their own. A process that in reality, often does not happen with kids. In contrast, directly teaching the printed letter a = the sound /a/ is much more effective and efficient. With direct methods you make sure your child learns necessary knowledge and skills. 


Here is an actual example about a preschooler I know.  The school and the mother are concerned because the little girl is not learning her letters and sounds. The other day the little girl proudly showed me her work for the day. The class had been working hard on ‘o’, the letter for the week. These worksheets were of a picture of an ‘owl’ and an ‘ornithominus’ (a type of dinosaur). I am not making this stuff up.  No wonder she does not know her sounds! Not only are the methods indirect but in this case confusing and inaccurate. If the little girl by chance, did isolate and hear the beginning sound in ‘owl’ and somehow link to the printed ‘o’, she would have learned the letter o = /ow/. Her nicely colored dinosaur worksheet was even more ineffective. Not only is ‘ornithominus’ an absurd word for a preschooler but it is linguistically incorrect for teaching the letter ‘o’ sounds (‘or’ is a separate phonogram). And importantly, the picture was confusing. To confirm my theory, I asked the little girl what her nice picture was. She told me the picture was a dinosaur and gave me the look as if I was some sort of idiot for asking such an obvious question.  No wonder she is not learning her letters and sounds! We are failing to directly teach children what they need and then place the blame the kids for being ‘slow’ and ‘not learning’. This little girl loves preschool and is getting all the valuable social interaction and the benefits of a wonderful caring teacher, a daily story time, a healthy snack and fun activities, but she is not being taught the knowledge she needs to read!  The fact is indirect instruction fails many children.  


These examples of indirect instruction techniques contain some wonderful activities that we should absolutely do with our children. However, these indirect techniques are not effective or efficient in teaching the children the necessary printed letter=sound knowledge that essential to learning to read. So enjoy the yummy apples, paint lots of pictures, watch the fun puppet show and plant those flowers. Just don’t depend on these type of activities to teach your child to read. Essential reading skills are too important to be left to chance. Make sure you directly teach your child the skills an knowledge he needs to know how to read!


Additional information, articles and resources on teaching children to read proficiently can be found on the Free Reading Information page of the Right Track Reading website.  


This article was written by Miscese R. Gagen a mother, reading tutor and author of the reading instructional program Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to provide parents with general information related to effectively teaching children how to read. More information is located at  Copyright 2005 Miscese R. Gagen