Two years ago, I wrote my first blog for Catapult’s EduBlog, titled “Back to the Future of Special Education.” That blog post explored the question, “What is special about special education?” from the perspective of the importance in taking a diagnostic and prescriptive approach to special education. Two years later, I find myself revisiting this theme from a slightly different vantage point. Given the fact that a highly diagnostic and prescriptive approach provides the foundation for an effective special education program, what does “specialized instruction” really look like in terms of delivery of instruction? What is different about specialized instruction when delivered by a master special educator? The answer to these questions can be found by reviewing research-based practices tied to instruction that is systematic, explicit, supportive, and intensive.

Systematic Instruction
Systematic instruction refers to both planning and delivery of instruction that follows a logical, well-defined, and sequential scope and sequence of skills and content. When instruction is systematic, there is a hierarchy of skills that builds over time. Generally, this means starting with foundational skills and building more complexity over time—after mastery of previous skills has occurred. There is often frequent repetition and review of previously learned skills to ensure this mastery over time. For example, when teachers utilize a phonics-based reading intervention, there is a highly systematic and defined protocol to follow to introduce sound/symbol correspondences beginning with consonants and short vowels. Over time, the learner is taught consonant digraphs, blends, vowel teams, and multi-syllable words. Such a highly systematic approach implemented over a long period of time with consistency and fidelity has shown to increase reading proficiency.

Explicit Instruction
From a historical perspective, many related terms have been used over the years to describe explicit instruction. Direct Instruction (DI), direct instruction, and Explicit Direct Instruction have all been used to describe instructional practices that provide a structured framework for lesson planning and implementation. Since the early 1990s, the term “explicit instruction” has become an increasingly popular term for an instructional design and delivery approach characterized as unambiguous, structured, systematic, and scaffolded (Archer & Hughes, 2011; Goeke, 2009; Hall & Vue, 2004)*. In the last decade, explicit instruction has been included frequently in a variety of educational outlets, practice guides, special and general education journals, and educational psychology. Further, explicit instruction has been identified as a key component of current education initiatives such as response to intervention (RTI) and intensive instruction. Most recently, explicit instruction was identified by the Council for Exceptional Children as one of the twenty-two practices in High Leverage Practices in Special Education.

In a recent article in Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, “explicit instruction” was defined as “a group of research-supported instructional behaviors used to design and deliver instruction that provides needed supports for successful learning through clarity of language and purpose, and reduction of cognitive load. It promotes active student engagement by requiring frequent and varied responses followed by appropriate affirmative and corrective feedback, and assists long-term retention through use of purposeful practice strategies.” The essential elements of explicit instruction include the following:

  • Segment Complex Skills: The most frequently mentioned component is breaking down (segmenting/chunking) complex tasks and strategies into smaller, more “manageable” units of instruction. “Chunks” are taught separately, in a logical sequence, to reduce cognitive complexity and load (Archer & Hughes, 2011; Doable et al., 2012)*. Students are required to master the first chunk or sub-skill before moving on to the second, and so on. When possible, the previous sub-skill is incorporated (practiced) with the new chunk in a cumulative fashion, so that at the end of the instructional chain all sub-skills are practiced with authentic tasks.
  • Draw Attention to Important Features of the Content through Modeling/Think Alouds: This component focuses on providing students with clear, concise, and consistent descriptions and demonstrations of how the skill or strategy is performed. Teachers use modeling and think alouds to make key external and internal processes of what is being learned explicit by “showing” (i.e. physical actions) and “telling” (i.e. thinking aloud) students how to solve a problem or complete a task. Demonstrations and descriptions are presented using words that students understand (clear), avoiding unnecessary words (concise), and, if necessary, using the same key words throughout the lesson (consistent).
  • Promote Successful Engagement by Using Systematically Faded Supports/Prompts: After a new skill or strategy has been modeled, the teacher provides initial practice opportunities and promotes student accuracy and confidence by using appropriate levels of guidance or scaffolding through use of prompts (physical, visual, and/or verbal). The level or strength of prompts is gradually withdrawn as students continue to demonstrate accuracy and understanding. Finally, fading continues until learners are ready to practice with no prompts but under close teacher monitoring. Monitoring student responses to unprompted tasks allows the teacher to verify when students are ready to practice independently (e.g. seatwork, homework).
  • Provide Opportunities for Students to Respond and Receive Feedback: Throughout an explicit lesson, frequent student responses are elicited to increase learner attention and engagement, as well as providing teachers with information about how well students are understanding/performing what is being taught. Close teacher monitoring of student responses allows teachers to provide timely affirmative or corrective feedback, and to decide whether to adjust instruction (Heward & Wood, 2013)*. As with many explicit instruction components, the requirements for responding can be scaffolded if needed (e.g. use of writing frames, sentence, starters, simplifying level of questioning).
  • Create Purposeful Practice Opportunities: Independent practice activities follow a lesson, are critical for retaining and generalizing new skills and knowledge, and are most effective when created and completed in deliberative and purposeful manner, especially for students with a learning disability (LD) (Fuchs, Fuchs, Schumacker &Seethaler, 2013)*. Practice activities can be used for a variety of purposes (e.g. initial acquisition, fluency, retention, recall, transfer), in a variety of effective practice formats (e.g. distributed, cumulative, worked solutions, retrieval/testing). Regardless of purpose, format, or arrangement, practice is more effective when followed by affirmative and correct feedback—sometimes up to three times more effective (Hattie & Yates, 2014)*.

In addition to the five “key components” noted above, seven other instructional components were also identified in the research:

  • Select Critical Content: Critical content refers to academic facts, skills, strategies, concepts, and rules that students need to know—in the present and in the future—to be academically successful. When possible, critical content should be broad, overarching, and useful for a wide range of content areas. This refers to teaching general learning strategies that can be used in many situations, rules that apply for many examples as opposed to teaching one example at a time, and/or the “big idea” of a content area.
  • Sequence Skills Logically: When teaching bodies of knowledge consisting of related and sequential skills (e.g. phonics, math), a general rule is to teach easier skills before harder ones. This ensures that students are taught skills that build on each other (e.g. prerequisite skills needed to learn new content). Additionally, similar skills or concepts should be separated in an instructional sequence to reduce possible confusion (Watkins & Slocum, 2003)*.
  • Verify Students Have Prerequisite Skills and Background Knowledge: Activating prior knowledge by helping students access what they know about an upcoming topic is an oft-recommended activity when beginning lessons. While the process of activating knowledge that currently exists in the learning is an important scaffold, it is based on the assumption that the learner does, in fact, know something about the new content. For students with LD, this is not always the case. They may enter the lesson or activity without prior knowledge or prerequisite skills and for them to be successful, some background information needs to be taught or re-taught (up front). This requires verifying whether all students have the prerequisite knowledge to benefit from learning the new skill prior to beginning a lesson.
  • Provide Students a Clear Statement of Goals and Expectations: When beginning a lesson, and as part of providing an advance organizer, teachers tell students explicitly what they will be learning and, if appropriate, discuss how the new information is related to old. This is often followed by a discussion of why the skill or information is important to learn, and where and when they can use the information.
  • Present a Wide Range of Examples and Non-examples: Providing students with a wide range of examples is important for reducing under-generalization of a rule, strategy, or vocabulary usage, while a range of non-examples is important for reducing over-generalization (Archer & Hughes, 2011)*.
  • Maintaining a Brisk Pace: Pacing is extremely important. While not talking too fast or too slow is important, other variables can also negatively affect pacing including teacher digressions, classroom disruptions, and lack of lesson preparation. A brisk pace is important when presenting information. However, a slower pace can be appropriate for other instructional situations such as providing adequate “thinking time” for student responses.
  • Present Information in Ways That Help Students Organize Knowledge: A common, effective intervention used to help students with LD recognize how content knowledge is organized and related are graphic organizers. Graphic organizers help students understand the organization and relationships between facts and concepts through visual displays along with verbal explanations (Dexter & Hughes, 2011)*. For students with LD, graphic organizers are most effective when they are explicitly taught to fill them out and use them (e.g. as study tools, organizing writing assignments). Graphic organizers can be used before a lesson (often as an advance organizer), during the lesson (students fill them out during a presentation of content), and/or after the lesson (as a study tool, etc.).

Supportive Instruction
For systematic and explicit instruction to be effective, it must also be supportive. That is, instruction must be active rather than passive. A situation in which a teacher watches as students work on “practice pages” without any type of scaffolded support is not supportive. Teachers must take the role of interventionist to mediate instruction for students, which includes: step-by-step modeling; advance organizers; pre-teaching of needed skills and vocabulary; re-teaching as needed after close monitoring of correct responses and error patterns; all followed by additional instruction and practice as needed. Supportive instruction also includes mentoring assistant teachers to apply the same principles of explicit instruction. Additional supports are also provided by related service providers (i.e. SLP) and reading specialists.

Intensive Instruction
The final piece to the puzzle is instruction that is intensive. All students with special needs require a level of intensity of instructional programming that exceeds that which is typically provided for most students.  Consideration should be given to some key questions in determining the best instructional plan for the student. Is the student progressing, but progressing too slowly? If so, additional instructional time may be an appropriate intensification for the student. With additional time, teachers may plan for a greater amount of practice with feedback to solidify and expand proficiency on foundation skills, offer more explicit, systematic, step-by-step instruction, focus on teaching new skills and strategies, and use student performance as feedback for adjusting instruction.

Is the size of the group suitable for specialized instruction and practice with feedback, considering the expertise of the teacher and the severity of the students’ learning problems? Researchers who focus on group size suggest what teachers have known all along—smaller groups allow teachers to provide more specialized instruction. Generally, small groups and one-on-one instruction are associated with better outcomes for students with learning problems than larger groups (Wanzek & Vaughn, 2007, 2008)*.

Is the duration of the instruction adequate? Duration of instruction refers to the amount of time each day the instruction is provided, the frequency with which instructional sessions are delivered, and the number of weeks the intervention lasts. Strategies for increasing the duration of intervention are to increase: (a) the amount of time for each session; (b) the number of times per week the sessions are scheduled; and/or (c) the number of weeks the intervention lasts. For some students, the intensity of instruction by increasing instructional opportunities and practice is insufficient. These students require individualized programs. Data-based instruction (DBI) is an empirically proven method for individually tailoring instruction for students with significant learning problems. Research on the efficacy of DBI shows that it helps teachers plan stronger, more strategic programs and accelerate the academic growth of struggling students with and without disabilities.

Forty-three years in special education has allowed me to experience numerous instructional trends. Early on in my career, the trend was a pure Diagnostic & Prescriptive approach to working with special needs students. Everything began with a full and thorough assessment of academic levels and cognitive processing skills. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) were highly individualized to remediate skill deficits. The additional aspect of how to provide remediation and meet curricular standards was not addressed. As a result, other trends such as inclusion and the regular education initiative (REI) brought additional attention to participation in general education. Today, research-based interventions and data-based individualization harken back to the roots of special education with the additional focus on curricular standards. Research into instructional intervention has, at long last, identified the missing pieces. For instruction to be effective for special needs students, it must be systematic, explicit, supportive, and intensive!

*References refer to article, “Explicit Instruction:  Historical and Contemporary Contexts” in Learning Disabilities Research and Practice.