The derivation of somatic motoneurons (MNs) from ES cells (ESCs) after exposure to sonic hedgehog (SHH) and retinoic acid (RA) is one of the best defined, directed differentiation strategies to specify fate in pluripotent lineages. In mouse ESCs, MN yield is particularly high after RA + SHH treatment, whereas human ESC (hESC) protocols have been generally less efficient. In an effort to optimize yield, we observe that functional MNs can be derived from hESCs at high efficiencies if treated with patterning molecules at very early differentiation steps before neural induction. Remarkably, under these conditions, equal numbers of human MNs were obtained in the presence or absence of SHH exposure. Using pharmacological and genetic strategies, we demonstrate that early RA treatment directs MN differentiation independently of extrinsic SHH activation by suppressing the induction of GLI3. We further demonstrate that neural induction triggers a switch from a poised to an active chromatin state at GLI3. Early RA treatment prevents this switch by direct binding of the RA receptor at the GLI3 promoter. Furthermore, GLI3 knock-out hESCs can bypass the requirement for early RA patterning to yield MNs efficiently. Our data demonstrate that RA-mediated suppression of GLI3 is sufficient to generate MNs in an SHH-independent manner and that temporal changes in exposure to patterning factors such as RA affect chromatin state and competency of hESC-derived lineages to adopt specific neuronal fates. Finally, our work presents a streamlined platform for the highly efficient derivation of human MNs from ESCs and induced pluripotent stem cells. Our study presents a rapid and efficient protocol to generate human motoneurons from embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. Surprisingly, and in contrast to previous work, motoneurons are generated in the presence of retinoic acid but in the absence of factors that activate sonic hedgehog signaling. We show that early exposure to retinoic acid modulates the chromatin state of cells to be permissive for motoneuron generation and directly suppresses the induction of GLI3, a negative regulator of SHH signaling. Therefore, our data point to a novel mechanism by which retinoic acid exposure can bypass the requirement for extrinsic SHH treatment during motoneuron induction. Copyright © 2015 the authors 0270-6474/15/3511462-20$15.00/0.