Rosenshine’s (and Stevens’!) SIX fundamental instructional “functions”

Rosenshine’s principles of instruction aren’t anything new. Their origin is the 1960s in the direct instruction work initiated by Siegfried Englemann and Carl Bereiter in their work with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Rosenshine and Stevens themselves readily point out the influences of their instructional model: Gagne’s “components of instruction” (1970), Good and Grouws’ “key instructional behaviours” (1979) and Hunter’s “Lesson Design” (1981). Rosenshine and Stevens also identify “How to Instruct” (1945), a series developed during in Second World War by the War Manpower Commission.

Similarities with earlier models

It’s interesting to not how similar all these approaches to direct instruction – including Rosenshine’s – actually are. For instance, Robert Gagne’s sequence (or “events“) looks like this:

  1. Gaining attention
  2. Informing the learner of the objective
  3. Stimulating recall of prerequisite learning
  4. Presenting the stimulus material
  5. Providing learning guidance
  6. Eliciting the performance
  7. Providing feedback
  8. Assessing the performance
  9. Enhancing retention and transfer

Thomas Good’s and Douglas Grouws’ “instructional behaviours” looks like this:

Madeline Hunter’s sequence looks like this:

Rosenshine and Stevens’ model

Teaching Functions, a 1986 paper by Rosenshine and Stevens presents the model for instruction that is currently in vogue across the UK. Like these direct instruction models from the 1970s and 1980s, it presents the teaching of new materials as a sequence:

Of course, this is an early form of the principles of instruction (which number 17 by the time they were popularised by the IAE pamphlet in 2010).

Points that seem ignored

What’s very interesting about Teaching Functions is that the writers make a number of observations about how and when this instructional model should be delivered. Of course they suit many curriculum subjects – but there are a number where the model isn’t relevant. This point seems to be ignored – or missed – by lots of the Rosenshine enthusiasts.

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach: “It would be a mistake to claim that the teaching procedures which have emerged from this research apply to all subjects, and all learners, all the time. Rather, these procedures are most applicable for the “well-structured” (Simon, 1973) parts of any content area, and are least applicable to the “ill-structured” parts of any content area.” The writer’s go on to explain that this type of instruction suits the learning of facts/knowledge: “It would be a mistake to claim that the teaching procedures which have emerged from this research apply to all subjects, and all learners, all the time. Rather, these procedures are most applicable for the “well-structured” (Simon, 1973) parts of any content area, and are least applicable to the “ill-structured” parts of any content area.

Rosenshine and Stevens make it clear that their “functions” suit a step-by-step approach which can be applied repeatedly (not general skills): “Thus, the results of this research are less relevant for teaching composition and writing of term papers, analysis of literature, problem solving in specific content areas, discussion of social issues, or the development of unique or creative responses.

I’m interested in their comments regarding English teaching. The writers see value in using the approach for learning the facts of the text, for instance: “In teaching literature, there is a place for explicit teaching in teaching about the characters, setting, plot, and theme identification. But these procedures are less relevant for teaching students to appreciate the story, evaluate the ideas, or critique the style of writing.

Research on “human information processing”

Teaching Functions, the authors claim, is based on “recent research on human information processing” (1970s, of course). They make important points about how to deal with limits of a learner’s working memory:

  • Teachers should not present too much new information in one go. Instead, take small steps with practice.
  • Start by reviewing relevant prior knowledge.
  • State objectives/learning journey of the lesson.Teachers provide this support by previewing lessons, telling students what they are going to learn; by relating the new information to what students have previously learned; and by providing organizers and outlines for the lesson.”
  • Teachers should provide activities that enable learners to transfer new material from working memory to long-term memory. It requires teachers to ask questions, require students to summarise ideas in their own words, make connections between prior and existing knowledge, students tutor each other, practice steps in a new skill, provide feedback.
  • Rosenshine and Stevens advocate “overlearning”. (repeating and rehearsing basic material)This enables automatic retrieval of prior learning (which helps when confronted with new material). “Retention and application of previously learned knowledge and skills comes through overlearning, that is, practice beyond the point where the student has to work to give the correct response. This results in automatic processes which are rapidly executed and require little or no conscious attention.

Six fundamental instructional functions

The sequence of instruction – based on the models of Good and Grows and Hunter – are:

  1. Review, check previous day’s work (and re-teach, if necessary)
  2. Present new content/skills
  3. Guided student practice (and check for understanding)
  4. Feedback and correctives (and reteach, if necessary)
  5. Independent student practice (and reteach, if necessary)
  6. Weekly and monthly reviews

They describe demonstration, guided practice, and independent practice as the “instructional core”.

Rosenshine and Stevens also point out that the six functions aren’t unusual features of the classroom – it’s just that not enough time is spent on them at the right time: “Although all classrooms have these components, they are not always carried out effectively. All classrooms have demonstrations, but frequently they are too short, there are too few examples, and the examples are imprecise or unclear. All classrooms have guided practice, but often it is infrequent or too brief, there are loo few questions and examples, and too little checking for student understanding. All teachers also correct student errors, but frequently the corrections are uninformative, consisting of only a single word or sentence; reteaching in small steps occurs seldom; and there is insufficient systematic guided practice to ensure error-free performance. All classrooms have independent practice, too, but frequently too great a proportion of classroom time is allocated to independent practice, especially without immediate feedback, and students are expected to learn too much from worksheets. Frequently the teacher does not circulate to help students during independent practice and does not reteach when necessary. All classrooms have review, but frequently there is insufficient reteaching of material missed during review, and the review and practice does not continue until student responses are rapid and firm.

The second half of Teaching Functions comprises a review of the research into the research guiding each of the six functions. Rosenshine and Stevens describe examples about how the functions are put into practice.


The importance of reviewing past learning is emphasised: “a daily review is a teaching function that could be done more frequently in most classrooms“.

Present new content

In the “present new content/skills” function, they provide guidance on making a clear presentation:

They summarise: “it is important for teachers to state the goals of the lesson, provide students with explicit, step-by-step demonstrations of the new material, use many examples, and check to see that all the students understand the material before proceeding to the next point.”

Guided student practice

Following demonstration is guided student practice “in which the teacher leads the students in practice, provides prompts, checks for understanding, and provides corrections and repetition“. They also advocate alternating from brief demonstrations to guided practice and back (“making the two steps seem as one“).

More effective teachers spend more time in guided practice: “In summary, the guided practice function is usually led by the teacher who:

  • Asks a large number of questions
  • Guides students in practicing the new material, initially using prompts to lead students to the correct response and later reducing them when students are responding correctly – Checks for student understanding
  • Provides feedback
  • Corrects errors
  • Reteaches when necessary
  • Provides for a large number of successful repetitions“.

Rosenshine and Stevens suggest that it is important that learners get a very high success rate in their answers to teacher questions reviewing learning (something like 80-95% correct). They advocate ensuring success by 1) teaching in small steps and 2) practice until over learning occurs.

Checking for understanding methods include:

  • Prepare a large number of oral questions beforehand
  • Ask many brief questions on main points, supplementary points, and on the process being taught
  • Call on students whose hands aren’t raised in addition to those who volunteer
  • Ask students to summarize the rule or process in their own words
  • Have all students write the answers (on paper or chalkboard) while the teacher circulates
  • Have all students write the answers and check them with a neighbor (frequently used with older students)
  • At the end of a lecture/discussion (especially with older students) write the main pointson the board and have the class meet in groups and summarize the main points to each other.

The writers present methods for organising and conducting practice, including: random vs. ordered turns, accepting call-outs, and choral versus individual responding. Choral/group responses appear to be useful in the research presented – when learners are in smaller groups.

Feedback and correctives

The fourth function involves responding to answers and correcting learners’ mistakes. After describing the different ways students can answer, Rosenshine and Stevens explain how to respond to incorrect answers, prompting and re-teaching: “Generally, the most effective approach during teacher-led practice is to try to guide the student to the correct answer by using hints, prompts or simpler questions. However, this is useful only when these individual contacts remain brief (e.g., 30 seconds or less). Contacts of longer duration are detrimental because the teacher loses the attention of the rest of the students. If a student cannot be guided to the correct answer through a brief contact, it is necessary to reteach the material to that student. Usually this reteaching occurs while the rest of the class is doing independent seatwork, or at some other time of the day (e.g., during recess, art, group activities or before or after school).

They also suggest re-teaching in whole ability groups when several students make errors or to select students during independent work. Alternatively (in Mastery classrooms) students who understand/know the learning tutor the less secure.

Rosenshine and Stevens summarise correction as: “whether one uses hints, prompts, or reteaching the material, the important point is that errors should not go uncorrected. In most cases, if a student makes an error, it is inappropriate to simply give the student the answer and then move on. It is also important that errors be detected and corrected early in a teaching sequence. If early errors are uncorrected they can become extremely difficult to correct later and systematic errors (or misrules) can interfere with subsequent learning.

Independent student practice

Once students show 80% correct responses in guided practice, the writers suggest independent practice. During independent practice, students go through two stages:

  • unitisation – “During unitization the students are putting the skills together. They make few errors, but they are also slow and require a lot of energy to complete the task.
  • automaticity – “When they have worked a sufficient number of problems correctly, and are confident, firm, and automatic in the skill, they are in the automaticity phase. The students’ responses become more automatic because they have practiced the skills to the point of overlearning.

Using the term “seatwork” to describe individual/paired student independent practice, Rosenshine and Stevens stress that effective teachers spend less time using this function: “although seatwork activities take place in all classrooms, the successful teachers spend a good deal more time than do average teachers in demonstrating what is being taught and in leading the students in guided practice. Students who are adequately prepared during the teacher-led activities are then more able to succeed during the seatwork. In contrast, the less successful teachers spent less time in demonstration and guided practice and relied more on self-paced, “individualized” materials, where students spent more time working alone.

They also suggest that it is beneficial for teachers to establish routines for independent practice “including what activities they are to do during this time, what they are to do after they complete their exercises, and how they are to get extra help if necessary.” Other ways of accomplishing independent practice are:

  • teacher-led – particularly with younger students and lower-attaining, short presentations with long periods of repeated questions with participation of students with high degree of student success.
  • independent practice with routines – they give the example of ECRI where a checklist of tasks is given
  • student cooperative practice – “Research using these procedures usually shows that students who do seatwork under these conditions achieve more than students who are in regular settings… Presumably, the advantages of these cooperative settings come from the social value of working in groups, and the cognitive value gained from explaining the material to someone and/or having the material explained to you.

Rosenshine and Stevens suggest that student engagement is improved by:

Weekly and monthly reviews

Rosenshine use “enhanced” to explain the effect of weekly and monthly reviews on learning. This final function has the briefest of explanations and, essentially, appears to be a means of teachers checking that information has been retained.


The final section of Teaching Functions states that more work needs to be done to explore each of the functions. Rosenshine and Stevens are also tentative in their endorsement of the merits of the functions.

A copy of Teaching Functions by Rosenshine and Stevens can be downloaded HERE.