As a teacher, you know how to spot a struggling learner. But sometimes, a more critical look, one based on ongoing, comprehensive assessment and data-driven analysis is needed. Experts suggest that Response to Intervention (RTI) — an educational model that strives to raise student achievement through specialized instruction and quality assessment — is the answer.

Implementing a workable RTI process is an enormous undertaking, which is why we’ve called in our panel: Linda B. Gambrell, Barbara A. Marinak, and Susan A. Mazzoni. Whether you’re new to RTI or have questions that have arisen since you began using it, hear what these experts have to say about one of education’s hottest topics.

Meet the Panel

Linda B. Gambrell is a professor at the Eugene T. Moore School of Education at Clemson University and former IRA President.

Barbara A. Marinak is graduate program coordinator for literacy education at Penn State and also serves on the RTI Commission of the IRA.

Susan A. Mazzoni is an independent literacy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Reading Teacher and Reading Psychology.

Q&A

Q: I’m totally new to RTI. How can I be sure to place kids at the levels where they need to be?

Linda: Getting off on the right foot takes effort and collaboration. To make sure that students receive the most effective interventions, it is important to build a comprehensive data profile for each student receiving assistance. It’s also important that the RTI team be made up of all the language and literacy professionals in a building, including the classroom teacher, reading specialists, ESL teacher, speech and language clinician, school psychologist, and building principal, plus the parents. Lastly, all data that is brought to the table (including performance-based samples from the classroom teacher) must be respected. It is only by adopting this inclusive and respectful view that effective planning can occur for all RTI students.

Q: What are the major components of RTI? How can teachers prepare for assessment?

Sue: That’s a great question. First, quality assessment is a major component of RTI. You’ll want to avoid using what the International Reading Association’s RTI commission calls “contrived texts or tasks generated specifically for assessment purposes.” Instead, assessments should provide comprehensive, valid information about authentic classroom language and literacy activities. Second, effective core classroom instruction is a key component of RTI. Prepare by looking into evidence-based best practices and their intended outcomes. Be cautious of prepackaged instructional programs advertised as quick fixes. Keep in mind that because effective instruction is differentiated based on students’ strengths and needs, some small-group instruction needs to occur, which can be challenging at first if you’re accustomed to whole-class instruction. Classroom management is also a typical concern. Begin thinking about authentic tasks that students can engage in while you work with each small group. Third, there needs to be highly qualified professional staff available for intervention.

Q: I’ve heard a lot about RTI for students in the early elementary grades, but how would you recommend implementing RTI in middle school? Is assessment more difficult?

Barb: There are several aspects of secondary education that make RTI more challenging. But intervention at this age is critical. In most models of RTI, Tier 1 is core reading instruction. Given this premise, middle schools must decide how long core reading will be offered to all students. Then, in high school, if core reading becomes the English class taken by all students, some curricular revision might be necessary to include more reading (versus language arts) strategies. Other challenges of RTI include scheduling and differentiation. Intervention should always take place in addition to core, and the school day for most adolescents is pretty busy. Creative scheduling and making difficult decisions about electives is often needed to free up periods for reading support. Sometimes the greater challenge is having highly qualified reading specialists available to conduct individualized diagnostic evaluations when necessary.

Q: My school is linguistically diverse. How can I make sure English Language Learners who may need RTI get equal and effective attention?

Barb: RTI can really help ELLs because it requires the use of research-based practices based on students’ specific needs. All ELLs need culturally and linguistically appropriate instruction no matter the educational setting. Instruction and intervention must consider a student’s cultural background and experiences as well as their linguistic proficiency (in both English and the native language). To make sure that the special needs of English language learners are met, an ESL teacher should be a regular member of both the curriculum committee that plans core reading instruction and the RTI team.

Q: My students’ parents want to know more about how they can help with RTI. What ideas can I share with them?

Linda: How wonderful that your students’ parents want their children to become successful readers. All RTI models should involve parents. When a student begins to struggle, parents should be informed and included in the intervention decision. The RTI team should explain how parents can help, but be careful not to overwhelm families. Home support for RTI can include comfortable, guided practice such as rereading familiar books, sight word review, silent reading practice, and so on.

Q: I’m just starting out with RTI, and I’m so eager to see how students’ skills have improved. How often should I monitor their progress?

Barb: Mark your calendar for about once a month. Most researchers suggest that progress monitoring occur every three to four weeks unless specific concerns arise. It’s important that progress monitoring be comprised of assessments from both core and intervention instruction, such as work in word study, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and motivation. And start collecting performance-based data now! This might include running records and writing samples—but keep in mind that these measures should be so closely aligned to instruction that they are virtually indistinguishable from core and/or intervention.

Q: After assessment, one of my students has been recommended for special education. When should she be assessed again? At what point can she reenter regular instruction?

Barb: Let me tackle your second question first. The least restrictive environment (LRE) clause in IDEA obligates IEP teams to include a child in general education classes as often as possible — with accommodations and/or modifications. Therefore, when schools implement RTI that includes small-group differentiated instruction within any/all of the tiers, it might be possible for an identified student to receive reading intervention within a regular education tier of RTI. In fact, many states are tiering and blending their RTI reading interventions based on instructional reading needs of students (as opposed to labels such as IEP or ESL). And often these intensive, tier-blended interventions are taught by reading specialists versus special educators. RTI will likely blur the line between regular education and special education based on the needs of the child and the interventions available in regular education. Therefore, with RTI, identified students are less likely to leave regular education and will be assessed with the same frequency as their non-identified peers.

Q: Lately it seems like my school’s efforts in RTI have shifted to focus on teachers and accountability. How can we keep the focus on the students, their needs, and their progress?

Sue: It’s not uncommon for staff to slip into talking about teachers — and who’s more effective — rather than talking about kids. One way to keep the focus on students is for teachers to immerse themselves in best practices for assessment and instruction. Make time to discuss students’ strengths and needs with specificity, using data from multiple assessments (including observational notes). Use evidence-based instructional methods and engage in discussions about the fine-print details of this specialized instruction (for example, description of population samples, time duration expected for a method to show a result, limitations of method, etc.) Make an effort to participate in ongoing professional development and act as a stalwart student advocate.

Q: We’ve 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?

Sue: RTI doesn’t have to bog down teachers’ workloads. Rather, RTI involves changing the way we think about instructional practice. In fact, some schools have been doing RTI for years without the RTI label. Instead of adding more, think about what can be done differently and more effectively to address the ongoing strengths and needs of your students. You may have to replace less effective methods with instruction that better meets the needs of your students. In doing so, you may need to let go of some traditional practices, and such ‘giving up’ can be challenging. For example, instead of whole-class teaching, you may try more small-group differentiated instruction. It is helpful for the RTI team to begin discussing and evaluating current assessment and instructional practices. 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, like reading specialists, who can provide intensive intervention for students in your classroom who are showing signs of difficulty despite excellent core instruction.

Q: To receive any specialized instruction, my kids will need to miss something else. Should I pull them out of P.E. or music? Or wait until after school?

Sue: I’m sure most teachers can sympathize with a packed schedule. RTI requires everyone on the team to be flexible. Core instruction (Tier 1) — or what I call diagnostic, differentiated instruction — can and should take place during regular instructional time. This is accomplished by delivering small-group instruction during reading class. All students should receive this type of instruction, not just struggling learners. And the assessments needed to differentiate core reading instruction will need to be carried out during class time as well. At the elementary level, Tier 2 or 3 interventions will likely be delivered by reading specialists in a pull-out or push-in model while you work with another small group. By doing this, Tier 2 students never miss instructional time; they miss only independent work. At the secondary level, intervention can push-in if block scheduling is in place or pull-out during elective classes. With respectful negotiation, it is possible to maximize intervention while minimizing the impact on core instruction.

Q: We’re now using RTI. How can we make the most out of professional development?

Barb: Studies show that intervention manuals can help teachers become familiar with new instructional methods, acting as a “guide on the side.” However, RTI should be intensive, ongoing, and housed within professional learning communities. The most effective development takes place when teams come together to analyze data, share knowledge and resources, and plan interventions.

Q: I think one of my students’ parents will be upset to hear their child has learning difficulties and may need special attention. How can I deliver the news appropriately?

Linda: I think we can all understand that parents might be concerned about such a recommendation. However, most parents are aware of the fact that their child might be struggling. It is also important to understand that whatever educators say to parents will be reflected onto the child. In other words, we need to handle these situations with great respect and regard for the child as well as the parents. It never hurts to start such conversations by focusing on all that the child does well. Continuing discussions should center on the need to provide the best instruction for the child and should be followed by the presentation of an instructional plan that has been carefully crafted to ensure success for the child.

Q: I’ve tried several different interventions with one of my students but he isn’t responding. What’s next?

Sue: I would recommend arranging an RTI team meeting for the purpose of discussing the comprehensive data everyone has collected, including your observations. Be sure to include an evaluation of the assessment(s) you’ve used and the instruction you’ve provided. Ask the team to engage in a reflective discussion about what is working and what needs shaping based on the student’s strengths and needs. Such a discussion may or may not result in moving the student to another intervention and/or tier of RTI, but it should conclude with a next in the step plan.