Diagnostic and Prescriptive Teaching

What is it?

Diagnostic prescriptive teaching is an educational approach that has existed for decades. To implement this type of instruction in a classroom, teachers first diagnose their students’ academic abilities and limitations, then prescribe an appropriate course of action to address areas of weakness. Like a doctor trying to decide the correct pill dosage for a patient, the diagnostic prescriptive teacher needs to understand the individual needs of the student and cater instruction to meet those needs. Additionally, in order to assess the effects of a medication on the patient, a doctor would schedule follow-up appointments. Similarly, a teacher looking to make sure that the educational prescription for a student is working would want to periodically assess (while also having a daily pulse on) its effectiveness. “Although any educational plan for an individual learner should spring from assessment, diagnostic prescriptive teaching has had a more specific meaning. The key idea underlying diagnostic prescriptive teaching is that a given diagnostic pattern is linked differentially to a specific instructional strategy” (Reynolds and Fletcher-Janzen, 2007, pg. 772). This approach to instruction allows learning to be personalized and powerful: teaching choices are driven by close knowledge of the students who are affected by them.

How do you do it?

“Prescribed instructional goals must flow from assessment, addressing the learner and his/her style of learning, the skills or abilities that must be learned, and the situation and contingencies under which learning will be best facilitated” (Reynolds and Fletcher-Janzen, 2007, pg. 772). In other words, a teacher or administrator must look at the whole student and his/her abilities to determine where instruction must start. This entry point will change depending on the age of the student and the content or skill area that is being addressed. 

For example, if an educator wishes to assess the level of writing skills for his students, he could assign students an open-ended writing prompt, analyze their responses, and from their responses, determine areas of need. He may look for the following skill abilities when assessing student work:

  • Does the student understand the structure of a sentence? The structure of a paragraph? 
  • Can the student use proper punctuation? 

Similarly, If a teacher is wishing to assess reading ability, she can have students read words or passages to see which areas of oral reading they may or may not have difficulty. She may ask: 

  • Does the student know syllable types as a way to help decode unfamiliar words? 
  • Is the student familiar with the sounds letters make? 

An important part of diagnostic perspective teaching is progress monitoring to assess which skills may or may not need to be revisited.  Louisa Moats suggests in her book Basic Facts About Dyslexia and Other Reading Problems that “what the teacher emphasizes, where the teacher gives extra help, and how fast the teacher proceeds with the small groups are determined by the results of the progress monitoring assessments” (Moats, 2008, pg. 58). In an ideal setting, the content and speed of its delivery is entirely dependent on the student’s progress. Closely monitoring and tracking student progress can also be a powerful tool to help them see the growth that they have made in certain areas. Typically, progress monitoring directed by a teacher in the classroom is assessed through informal assessments. 


Reynolds, C. R., & Fletcher-Janzen, E. (2007). “Diagnostic Prescriptive Teaching.” In Encyclopedia of Special Education (3rd ed., Vol. 1, p. 772). John Wiley & Sons.

Moats, L. C., & Dakin, K. E. (2008). Basic Facts About Dyslexia and Other Reading Problems. Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.

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