Response to intervention: The key to ensuring social equity in literacy education

With two young children of my own, I spend many a weekend at children’s birthday parties. While the children are happy playing and getting their sugar fix, us parents get the often rare chance to have an uninterrupted conversation for a couple of hours.

Sadly though, I have lost track of the number of conversations I have had with parents sharing their concerns about their child’s reading struggles. In these moments, I struggle to keep my parent hat on and not switch to the learning difficulties specialist, as all I want to do is support these parents and provide intervention tips. And some of the time, I do.

But what gets to me—and it is something I do not tell them—is that the majority of reading difficulties are preventable. We know from researchers that 95% of students have the potential to be readers by the end of first grade, but in reality, there is a huge discrepancy between students who are skilled readers and those who have the potential to be. So how then do we close this gap?

This is where response to intervention comes into play

What is response to intervention?

Also known as RTI, response to intervention is a whole-school framework and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) that is both preventative and responsive in nature. It is based on a systematic approach to the provision of early intervention and involves a teaching cycle of Assess, Plan, Teach, Review, Reflect, and Respond. Although there are fundamental elements essential for an RTI framework to be effective, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach and it can look slightly different from school to school.

Five key components

There are five key components to RTI. The first is evidence-based practice—the implementation of teaching literacy based on what has been proven to make the greatest impact and is aligned with how the brain learns to read. The second is universal screening and progress monitoring, where high-quality assessments are used several times per year to identify students at risk and monitor progress and achievement for every student. The third is multi-tiered instruction that is based on three tiers of instruction with increasing frequency and intensity according to a student’s individual need and specific underlying literacy difficulty profile. The fourth is parental involvement because when parents are involved in the learning process, there are greater outcomes for students. And the fifth is schoolwide, systemic RTI approaches to ensure every student succeeds.

Response to Intervention: The key to ensuring social equity in literacy education

Universal screening and rigorous progress monitoring

RTI is based on a culture of datainformed practices schoolwide, where teachers make effective use of formative assessment for flexible, responsive teaching during lessons, and also effective data analysis of diagnostic and summative data through universal screening and ongoing assessment.

Universal screening consists of high-quality assessments that provide useful student data three times per year. This screening provides a snapshot of specific reading sub-skills of student progress and achievement, tracking data at a system level and identifying students at risk at the first sign of academic difficulties. The key to the success of universal screening is the prompt analysis of data, the subsequent response plan of action, and the rigorous progress monitoring at a classroom and leadership level.

In terms of progress monitoring, at the Tier 2 and Tier 3 level, students need to be engaged in frequent mini assessments to ensure they are making adequate progress. For students in Tier 2 intervention, progress monitoring would be occurring every 3–5 weeks with a clear exit plan in place. The goal here is to catch these students up to return to Tier 1 instruction alone. However, for Tier 3 individualized intervention, just as the intervention is of increased frequency and intensity, so too should be the frequency of progress monitoring.

The focus begins with Tier 1

For schools embarking on the implementation of an RTI framework, the focus must be on getting the Tier 1 whole-class instruction right. We know that when Tier 1 instruction is rooted in evidence-based practices, including explicit teaching of the pillars of reading (oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and language comprehension), along with high expectations for every student, we are providing the best opportunity for student success.

The one thing we can control as teachers is the quality of our teaching, as our teaching is directly reflected in our students’ learning. If our school approaches have a “wait and see” (aka “wait to fail”) philosophy, or are focused on Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention alone, then we will always have an oversubscription of students that experience unnecessary literacy struggles.

Whole-school approaches to RTI

RTI is dependent on a systemic schoolwide approach with strong leadership. This includes a clear alignment of the school’s strategic improvement plan, an ongoing professional learning plan for staff, and learning targets for students. This would ideally be coupled with peer observation and coaching, as there is a significantly higher transfer rate to classroom practice when professional learning is aligned with a coaching and feedback model. In addition, a low-variance curriculum across the school with consistent explicit teaching approaches and scope and sequences aligned with evidencebased practice is also essential in implementing a high-fidelity RTI model, as within-school variability is the greatest barrier to student achievement.

Final thoughts

Response to intervention is a social justice issue. It is the only way we know of that can effectively close the gap between those who can read and those who have the potential to read. Without it, we are simply not providing the opportunity for every child to be a proficient reader, writer, and thinker.

This article was published in the July/August/September 2022 issue of Literacy Today, the member magazine of the International Literacy Association.

Further Reading

Archer, A.L. & Hughes, C.A. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. Guilford Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Moats, L.C. (2010). Speech to print: language essentials for teachers. Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

RTI Action Network. “What is RTI?” whatisrti

Showers, B. & Joyce, B. (1996). The evolution of peer coaching. Educational Leadership, 53(6), 12–16.

Spear-Swerling, L. (2015). The Power of RTI and reading profiles: A blueprint for solving reading problems. Paul H. Brookes Publishing.