Implementing Response to Intervention – How are you doing?

I am very pleased to welcome Stephanie Le Lievre, a classroom teacher and speech pathologist, as our first guest blogger on The No Nonsense Educator. You can read more about Stephanie at the end of the post.

When discussing RTI, most of the discussion revolves around the Tier 2 (small group) or Tier 3 (usually intensive one-on-one) levels of support for students identified as having literacy difficulties. What is often overlooked is the whole class (Tier 1) level of instruction. We need to start with the first Tier to ensure our whole class instruction reflects explicit, systematic and structured literacy instruction.

It is often the case that a school implements a structured and systematic phonics program with fidelity for the allocated phonics time each day, yet the reading material still reflects the three-cueing whole-language method. Emergent readers are provided with predictable texts and encouraged to use a range of ‘reading strategies’ which essentially suggests to students that there are no clear patterns to English orthography so they need to guess from context. This can lead to ‘the fourth grade slump’ phenomenon, which can actually become apparent in Year 2 or 3 in Australian schools when students can no longer rely on guessing strategies as the texts become more advanced.  These students lack the decoding automaticity and phonemic proficiency to be able to read more advanced texts containing multisyllabic words and unfamiliar vocabulary, resulting in cognitive overload.  At this age, students are expected to make the jump from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’, but if they haven’t been taught how to decode words through systematic phonics instruction, they may not be fluent enough to comprehend the texts.   

The better alternative, supported by a large body of research, is to teach students how to decode words though systematic and structured literacy instruction, and provide opportunities for them to practice these skills. By eliminating the guess-work in reading and making sense of the English orthography, we are helping our students establish good reading habits which result in strong orthographic representations.

Implementing structured and systematic literacy instruction from the get-go is the most critical preventive measure and will result in far less students (or instructional causalities) requiring Tier 2 intervention down the track. It will prevent the.  Nancy Young’s The Ladder of Reading illustrates this concept perfectly (used with permission from Nancy Young).

Once the school has established evidence-based Tier 1 instruction, we can address Tier 2 and 3 of the RTI model. Students with identified literacy difficulties will require further intervention IN ADDITION TO the Tier 1 reading program. Tier 2 intervention is usually run a few times a week in groups of 5-8 students. It is vital that this further intensive intervention is done on top of the Tier 1 whole class instruction, so that the students are receiving additional and more intensive support. This requires considerable timetabling, where students are not removed from their regular English lessons for their intervention. Tier 3 intervention is reserved for students who are either not making sufficient progress in Tier 2 groups, and/or require more intensive intervention (usually groups of 1-3 students). Providing such an intensive Tier 3 service is often unfeasible for schools, especially for students who aren’t funded for a recognised disability/learning difficulty. 

When determining which students require Tier 2 and 3 interventions, it is essential to use research-aligned measures. Measures of phonic code knowledge, phonological awareness and reading fluency should be included in the screening battery. This serves as baseline data (to measure intervention progress) while also pinpointing where the students’ difficulties lie, so they can be placed in appropriate intervention groups. An important element of RTI is the regular monitoring of progress with intervention using research-based progress measures.

Two common questions I am often asked is ‘how do I know whether a student has made sufficient progress in intervention or not’ and ‘should I refer them to investigate a specific learning difficulty?’. Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dry answer to this as it will depend on each individual student. If you are unsure, always consult a learning support teacher, speech pathologist or educational psychologist with parent permission.

Questions for Self Reflection

To conclude this post, here are some questions which may guide you when determining where to start when implementing RTI:

  1. Does your school have an evidence-based structured synthetic phonics reading program, beginning in the Early Years? (Tier 1 whole class level).  For examples of high quality research-aligned reading programs, AUSPELD recommended programs can be found here
  2. Does your school use research-aligned assessments and screeners to identify students at risk for reading difficulties? Assessments/screeners should include measures of phonological awareness, phonics (letter-sound) knowledge, fluency (Oral Reading Fluency), decoding (including non-word), encoding (spelling), and oral language. Levelled reader running records/benchmarking is not a research-aligned measure- there is little validity and reliability with these assessments and they reflect the outdated 3-cueing method to reading instruction.
  3. Once students are identified as having reading difficulties, is there a school procedure for creating an Individual Education Plan, with examples of how to create SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed) goals with evidence-based strategies?
  4. Are there selection procedures in place for deciding which students receive Tier 2 intervention?
  5. Does your school have an evidence-based Tier 2 intervention? For examples of high quality research-aligned reading interventions, AUSPELD recommended programs can be found here.  Reading Recovery is NOT an example of an evidence-based intervention.
  6. Are the teachers and/or education assistants who implement the Tier 2 intervention formally trained?
  7. Is there consistent progress monitoring of students using phonological awareness, phonics and fluency measures? Often Tier 2 programs contain their own progress monitoring tools and assessments. Reading Science in Schools has a comprehensive list of research-aligned assessments which can be downloaded from the Reading Science in Schools Facebook page.
  8. If a student has a diagnosis/disability which impacts their learning (e.g. Autism Spectrum Disorder, Specific Learning Difficulty in Reading/ Dyslexia), does the school collaborate with allied health professionals, psychologists and parents to create an IEP which contains recommended strategies? 
  9. Are parents routinely involved and consulted in the process (i.e. informing of child’s progress, discussing IEP goals, consulting with them to determine appropriateness of referral for further assessment)?

Stephanie Le Lievre is a Level 3 Classroom Teacher and Certified Practising Speech Pathologist. She has spent the past 5 years in The Kimberley region as a Literacy Coordinator of a large district school. Stephanie now does consultative work for schools in Perth, providing professional learning on best practice literacy instruction.  She also co-facilitates the Facebook community ‘Reading Science in Schools’ with Natalie Campbell and Jasmyn Hall.

If you are an Australian educator, please join our Facebook Community Reading Science in Schools.

I am pleased to announce that in Term 3 I will be running two Teach Alongs: Supercharging Your Phonics Teaching and Text Based Learning.  You can learn more about these professional learning opportunities and register your interest here. Take care, Jocelyn.

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