Does your school use a Response to Intervention (RtI) framework for intervention? Are you seeing the results you anticipated? The findings from a new study may provide some helpful guidance.

In November 2015, a report was released for a study that evaluated the effectiveness of Response to Intervention (RtI) for reading instruction and intervention in grades 1–3, in 146 elementary schools, across 13 states (Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading, Executive Summary). This study found that:

Grade 1 students who scored just below school-determined benchmarks on fall screening tests, and who were assigned to reading interventions, had lower spring reading scores than similar students in the same schools who were not assigned to those interventions. (No statistically significant effects of assignment to reading interventions were found for students in Grades 2 or 3.)

Are you surprised by these findings? Most people are. After all, schools that fully implement an RtI framework typically provide more intense small-group instruction and more reading intervention services to students who score below benchmarks. So why did the first-grade students in the study, who were just below the benchmarks, have lower spring scores than similar students not assigned to interventions?

In a recent Education Week article, Study: RTI Practice Falls Short of Promise*, the author, Sarah D. Sparks, reminds us that Response to Intervention was originally designed to target students as soon as they started to struggle. The goal is to provide early intervention so students’ learning difficulties will not escalate to the need for a special education evaluation. RtI involves early identification of students' learning problems and the use of targeted interventions—usually described as progressively more-intensive "tiers" of instruction—to improve learning. The tiers include:

Tier 1: All students receive high-quality core instruction using research-based curriculum and instructional strategies. All students are screened to identify those who may need intervention and support

Tier 2: Approximately 20 to 30 percent of students need additional support using specific reading interventions. Instruction is provided in small groups to develop foundational skills like phonics or reading fluency, and students’ progress is monitored.

Tier 3: Students who continue to struggle need more intensive interventions, more frequent progress monitoring, and potential evaluation for special education.

The researchers from the RtI study point out several issues that impacted the effectiveness of RtI at the schools in the study. They found that even the schools "fully implementing" RtI didn't always have a clear line between Tier 1 (core instruction) and Tier 2 (intervention). According to the Executive Summary of the study:

  • In 1st grade, 45 percent of the schools provided Tier 2 interventions to groups of students at all reading levels, not just for students reading below grade level. 
  • Moreover, 67 percent of schools provided Tier 2 interventions during the core reading instruction, not just in addition to it.

In a recent blog article, RtI: When Things Don't Work as You Expected, Tim Shanahan points out that if a student is struggling in fluency or decoding, he should get additional fluency or decoding instruction. “That means students should get the entire allotment of Tier 1 core reading instruction, and then they should get an additional session of teaching on top of that.” If Tier 2 intervention begins to replace Tier 1 instruction, it may explain why some students who scored just below school-determined benchmarks on fall screening tests scored lower in the spring—they may not have received their entire allotment of Tier 1 core instruction!

So, what are some takeaways from this study, and how should the results impact our day-to-day reading instruction and intervention? One clear implication is that we need to make sure all students receive their complete Tier 1 instruction. Intervention for students served in Tier 2 and Tier 3 should be in addition to that core instruction.

Another thing to keep in mind is the purpose of the study. The researchers carefully explain that the purpose of the study was to estimate the average effect of intervention for students who would be added or dropped by marginally changing the eligibility criterion, and the results are relevant for decisions about expanding or reducing the scope of intervention—not whether or not to offer intervention. In other words, the study looked only at intervention students who were performing slightly below benchmarks and compared them with similar students who did not receive intervention. The researchers point out that, “It would be misleading to conclude from these findings that providing increasing intensity of services to the students most at risk (for example, students whose screening test scores are far below the cut point) is inappropriate or ineffective.”

Finally, the researchers acknowledge that there are unexplored but plausible factors that may be related to the negative impacts of being assigned to intervention for some students in grade 1. These include: (1) false or incorrect identification of students for intervention, (2) mismatch between reading intervention and the instructional needs of students near the cut point, and (3) poor alignment between reading intervention and core reading instruction.

As educators, our goal is to develop proficient readers, and we look to research for guidance. So, keep these findings in mind as you continue to refine your RtI intervention model. If you are looking for targeted Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions, you can learn more about Read Naturally’s intervention programs on our website.

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