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.edu: RTI Demystified

Bolster your program by expanding into middle schools and including more ELL students.

September/October 2009

implementing a response to Intervention plan is challenging. It calls for a delicate mix of identifying possible student learning disabilities, correctly interpreting student achievement data, and creating an individual learning plan—and then monitoring it all to make sure it works. And this process must be repeated for each student. So while the gains from RTI programs can be dramatic, the work can be taxing.

It’s no wonder districts are careful when they set out to expand these programs, hoping to avoid false steps. In this question-and-answer article, we asked Dr. Barbara A. Marinak, assistant professor at Penn State Harrisburg; Susan A. Mazzoni, an independent literacy consultant; and Dr. Linda B. Gambrell, professor of education at Clemson University in South Carolina, about how to combat the challenges of implementing RTI in middle schools, how to best serve ELL students in RTI programs, and how to plan effective professional development for educators.  

Q: Many districts have RTI programs for elementary students, but how can districts expand these programs into middle schools?
Barbara A. Marinak: Though there are several aspects of secondary education that make RTI more challenging, intervening effectively with adolescents is critical. In most models of RTI, Tier 1 is core reading instruction. Middle schools must decide how long core reading will be offered to all students.

Other challenges of RTI in the secondary grades include scheduling and differentiation. Intervention should always take place in addition to core reading, and the school day for most adolescents is pretty busy. Creative scheduling and making hard decisions about electives is often needed to free up periods for reading support. In addition, given the complex nature of struggling readers in the secondary grades, effective intervention should include differentiated options—for example, decoding support, comprehension support, etc.

Q: Some schools in our district are linguistically diverse; how can I make sure ELLs who may need RTI get equal and effective attention?
Marinak: RTI has the potential to effect change for English-language learners by requiring the use of research-based practices based on children’s specific needs. However, all ELLs need culturally and linguistically appropriate instruction no matter the educational setting. Instruction and interventions must consider a student’s cultural background as well as their linguistic proficiency—in both English and the native language.

To make sure the special needs of ELLs are met, an ESL teacher should be a regular member of the curriculum committee that plans core reading instruction as well as a member of the RTI team. It is this critical member of the RTI team that can provide information about first- and second-language acquisition, culturally responsive pedagogy, and differentiation of cultural and linguistic differences from disabilities.

Q: Some students’ parents are eager to get more involved. Are there any RTI models in place that incorporate more engaged learning in the home?
Linda B. Gambrell: All models should regularly involve parents. Tier 1 of RTI is effective core classroom instruction with regular reporting to parents. Therefore, when a child begins to struggle in core, parents should be informed (with specific data and examples) and included in the intervention decision. 

Once support begins, the RTI team should thoroughly explain the intervention and demonstrate how parents can help. However, in their efforts to involve parents, the classroom teacher and interventionist should be careful not to overwhelm families. Home support might include comfortable guided practice such as rereading familiar books, sight-word review, silent reading practice, etc.

Q: We’ve just begun implementing RTI, but our school is seriously understaffed. How can we make sure our teachers—who already carry heavy workloads—aren’t completely swamped?
Susan A. Mazzoni: RTI doesn’t necessarily involve adding more to a teacher’s workload. Instead, RTI may involve changes to instructional practice.

In fact, some schools have been doing RTI for years without the RTI label. Teachers will be asked to reflect on their data, and such reflection may result in replacing less effective methods with instruction that better meets the needs of their students. In doing so, teachers may need to let go of some traditional practices. And such ‘giving up’ can be challenging.

It is helpful for the RTI team to begin discussing and evaluating current assessment and instructional practices. Instead of adding more, think about what can be done differently and more effectively to address the ongoing strengths and needs of students.

Also, research suggests that intervention should be in addition to—never in lieu of—core reading instruction. The only way to avoid teachers being swamped by the demands of RTI is for districts to commit to interventionists. In other words, teachers should have a partner in this process. Reading specialists should be available to provide intensive intervention for students in your classroom who are showing signs of difficulty despite excellent core instruction.

Q: What kind of professional development can be linked to RTI? Our staff needs substantial training.
Marinak: There are actually studies indicating that critically reading intervention manuals can help teachers become familiar with new instructional methods. This research suggests that teacher’s manuals can act as a “guide on the side”—providing vignettes of complex instructional language.Such tools should always be viewed as suggestions. Nothing can replace the professional decision-making of a highly qualified teacher and/or reading specialist.

In addition, the professional development needed for effective RTI might be viewed as a nomadic journey—it is always moving but never arriving. In other words, RTI professional development should be intensive, ongoing, and housed within professional learning communities. The most effective development of course takes place when teams
collaborate and come together to analyze data, share knowledge and resources, and plan interventions.    

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