Direct Instruction for English Language Learners

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Direct instruction, in which teachers lecture or demonstrate content directly to the class, is an important educational tool. In this lesson, teachers will learn how and when to use direct instruction with ESL (English as a second language) students.

What Is Direct Instruction?

When used appropriately, direct instruction (DI) can be a valuable method of delivering content to ESL students. Basically, DI involves a teacher directing information at students in the form of a lecture or demonstration. DI is commonly used in the following situations:

  • To introduce new or unfamiliar concepts
  • When students need additional review
  • To clarify confusing information
  • To demonstrate key ideas

For instance, if you are introducing food-related vocabulary to a class of young ESL beginners, confine the direct instruction of the lesson to vocabulary only (definitions and pronunciation). Don't worry about grammar structures, tenses, etc. Those topics can be covered in subsequent lessons. Keep your direct instruction as focused as possible.

DI is often used in conjunction with other teaching methods that require more student involvement. When you are teaching ESL learners, it's important to not spend too much time using DI. Any ESL lesson should include plenty of practice and interaction. For instance, giving a 50-minute, 1-sided lecture to a class full of ESL students is generally not an efficient or effective way to teach this type of student. DI should comprise no more than 30-40% of lesson time, and even less for younger learners.

How to Use Direct Instruction

Direct instruction should be specific, organized and appropriate.


The content you deliver to students through direct instruction should be highly focused on a particular topic. This helps to eliminate confusion and encourages a more accurate understanding of the material. It's important to remember that, in addition to trying to understand the language you are using, ESL students are also trying to comprehend academic information. Putting too much information in a lecture can be detrimental for student comprehension and confidence. For example, if you're lecturing on sentence types (simple, compound, complex) for the first time, the DI should focus only on simple sentences. The lecture should include plenty of examples and be followed-up with lots of practice and exercises.


Direct instruction should be structured in a way that allows students to absorb a maximum amount of information without becoming overwhelmed of confused. For instance, ESL students can benefit greatly from visuals representations of lecture content because these visuals can help to clarify your words. PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and blackboard writing can all serve this function. Create a lecture that has a clear introduction, body, and conclusion that includes a review of important concepts. If you're giving the simple sentences lecture, include numerous examples in any visuals you provide.

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