Response to intervention

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As this website gets more widely read, I'm increasingly being contacted by people who say their child didn't learn to read or write well at school, so they either:

  • Worked out how to teach their child to read and spell themselves, or
  • Found an expert and paid them quite a lot of money to teach their child to read and spell, or
  • They're still trying to work out how their child can be taught, how long it will take and what it will cost.

Many of these older, struggling children seem to have done Reading Recovery, which their parents thought would solve the problem. However, they didn't catch up with their peers as a result, and beyond Reading Recovery, they often discovered that their child's school did not have additional resources to provide their child with further, targeted, individual intervention.

Isn't this the school system's job?

The question all these parents ask is: "Why should parents have to do this? Isn't it the school system's job to teach everyone to read and write?".

Without literacy, you can't do much at school, and sooner or later many of the kids who can't read and spell start causing trouble on other fronts too, with difficult and disruptive behaviour. I'm not sure I would be very different if I was stuck in a classroom year in, year out, unable to do the work.

Teachers, especially secondary teachers, are keen for struggling learners to get the right help at the right time, and for the school system not to put anyone's literacy in the too-hard basket.

Apart from anything else, they end up with some of the kids with poor literacy in their classes, mucking around, being the class clown, and disrupting other students' learning. Plus they can see these learners' misery, and seeing misery day in, day out is no fun either.

Yet the system doesn't seem to have a proper, never-give-up system for helping these kids, so schools are left trying to work this out while keeping their behaviour under control, or sending them off to a Community School or other specialist programs when that's not possible.

Efficient intervention

In schools, I'm always looking for a way to pair up kids with similar skills and needs, or put them in little groups, so that I can get through all my referrals. Speech Pathology caseloads in schools can be pretty insane and unmanageable otherwise, especially once the teachers notice that you knew what to do with a Grade 2 kid who seemed to be heading for illiteracy and troublemaking. Suddenly a whole lot of other kids with weak phonemic awareness and poor spelling pattern knowledge come out of the woodwork.

Another reason to work in pairs and groups is that a few children working together tend to compete and push each other along, whereas in 1:1 work the pace can be a lot slacker, unless you use a lot of artificial hurry-up devices like timers and "I'll give you two stickers if you get all of this page done before recess".

Tier 1, 2 and 3 intervention

Response to Intervention is a fairly rigorous approach to intervention for struggling learners, in which whole classes (Tier 1) are firstly taught using methods based on the best available evidence (in early literacy this means systematic, explicit synthetic phonics), and then anyone who shows up on standardised assessments as having difficulty learning goes into Tier Two, small group intervention.

This should happen as soon as their difficulties are evident, e.g. in the middle of the first year of schooling. If there's one thing we know about literacy difficulties is that we must, as far as is humanly possible, stop children from falling significantly behind their peers.

As soon as they do that, they tend to continue to fall even further and further behind (click here for a previous blog post about this). So keeping up is critical in the early years, and waiting to see if a child grows out of a problem is not an option. Odds on, they won't.

In the Response To Intervention model, any child who is still struggling after an intensive, small group Tier 2 intervention is then referred for Tier 3 intervention, and gets 1:1 attention carefully targeting their specific areas of difficulty.

Because an early, well-targeted Tier 2 intervention is an efficient way to address a lot of children's early difficulties, fewer children subsequently require the more expensive, time-consuming Tier 3 intervention.

This means that overall, this approach is an efficient way to allocate a school's intervention resources, and it becomes less likely that the system has to give up on a child at an arbitrary point, like the end of Reading Recovery, because of lack of resources.

After this, many schools try to cobble together suitable work for these students, but the system doesn't give them much help in deciding what to do, and seems to offer no additional resources. Reading Recovery is expensive, and after that, it's more or less game over.

Example programs

Response to Intervention models are now in widespread use in the US and UK, and there are many well-packaged literacy programs designed for Tier 2, small-group use.

For example, Get Reading Right's Power Pack and Minilit both look like efficient and effective ways to help young, struggling readers and writers as soon as their difficulties are identified. This intervention then just needs to be backed up by some additional, expert 1:1 work for the few students who are still falling through the cracks.

Why make struggling children wait till their second year of schooling for extra literacy help, when any experienced teacher can tell after just a few weeks which Grade Prep children are "getting" literacy, and which aren't, plus there are plenty of simple and quick tests available which can formally identify weak phonemic awareness and spelling pattern knowledge?

There are also many Tier 3 programs to suit learners of any age or ability level, click here for my list. Please let me know if there's a good program out there that I don't yet know about.


2 thoughts on “Response to intervention

  1. Peter Pan

    Sorry, am back again. 

    Just like to add one thing to the above article-PARENTS! Yes, parents must be involved in the teaching of their children, because the school system can only help so much.  Parents need to be educated on how to help their child with reading and writing,  as there are plenty of parents who don't understand the english language and how best to help their child. 

    1. alison Post author

      Yes, I agree, at least until schools have the training and equipment to teach in a more evidence-based way. I just bought the book Teaching Kids To Read by Fay Tran, which seems to be a really useful starting point for parents, and apparently there is an iPad version coming out soon.


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