RTI is a Verb

Response to Intervention (RTI) is best understood as a verb; we have made RTI too complicated. Instead of becoming entangled in documentation, assessments, and the “steps” to special education, we should collaboratively ask the extent to which students are responding to instruction and intervention – the extent to which they are RTI’ing. We will realize the promise of RTI; more importantly, we will ensure high levels of learning for all.

Interpreted as a verb, RTI represents what we’ve always done, or what we always should have done, on behalf of students. Consider this scenario: A new fifth grade student, Molly, enrolls in school in the fall. The school screens all students to immediately identify students who may lack foundational prerequisite skills in reading (have they responded to prior instruction?). Screeners and further diagnoses reveal that Molly has deficits in phonics. Molly’s teacher team works together to provide differentiated Tier 1 instruction to all students, including Molly, with scaffolds provided during whole and small group settings within core blocks of instruction so that Molly successfully accesses content.

The school is prepared for students who lack immediate prerequisite skills and need additional time and different approaches to learn essential content. Molly and other students receive 30 daily minutes of supplemental, Tier 2 supports on essential content when data indicates the need (are students responding to current instruction?). The school is also prepared for students who lack the foundational prerequisite skills to succeed, as determined by screeners. Molly and other upper grade students with phonics needs receive intensive supports in place of other instruction, although they do not miss core instruction in essential content. Regularly, staff assesses to ensure that Molly is responding to intervention. If not, they differ, and increase the intensity of, supports.

RTI may be simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires leadership to ensure that systems support staff and students in meeting goals, and courage to make hard but critical decisions to provide intensive supports immediately.

My experiences with Scientific Learning products have been overwhelmingly positive. They are outstanding RTI resources for several reasons; yes, they are research-proven and represent cutting edge science and technology, but they work best because they support students differently. For Molly, Reading Assistant provides highly individualized supports in reading text fluently and for meaning. As a Tier 2 support, Reading Assistant supplements teachers’ targeted supports at ensuring she masters essential content. If Molly doesn’t respond to this level of Tier 2 support, and teams determine her needs exist in the phonemic awareness and phonics domain, Fast ForWord is appropriate, providing intensive, Tier 3 strategies to decode words, through unique approaches designed for students who process information differently.

At-risk students demand our best efforts immediately. Interventions such as those from Scientific Learning deliver the best possible return on investment, giving us the best chance to ensure that students respond to intervention, allowing them the opportunity to learn at the high levels required to graduate ready for college or a skilled career.

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Time, Ideology, and Every Student Reading

One of the most common questions we hear in regard to Response to Intervention is, “When can we find the time to provide students support?” One possible set of solutions is provided below, but first remember: These structures will not be effective unless there is a culture that enthusiastically embraces the fact that all students can learn at high levels, and universally (all staff members for all students) demonstrates a willingness to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Supports can and should be provided within Tier 1, Tier 2 , and Tier 3.
• Differentiated core instruction within the 60-90 block of Tier 1 instruction, with a focus on essential standards, including daily 10-15 minute small group supports to more-homogenously groups of students based on need.
Tier 2
• More time and differentiated supports to students who have not mastered the essentials, as measured by regular (twice monthly?) common formative assessments.
• May include the teaching of immediate prerequisite supports.
• May be provided during daily 30 minute flex time (SMART time).
• Students are grouped more homogeneously during this time.
• Students who have not yet mastered essentials receive support in a smaller group from the teacher who has had the most success, as measured by common formative assessments.
• Other staff may join the grade level teachers to reduce the teacher-student ratio during this flex time.
• To make optimal use of additional staff, schools may chose to stagger the times during which each grade level has flex time.
Tier 3
• For students who have not responded to Tier 1 and 2 support…
• For students who have been screened to be multiple grade levels behind their peers in foundational prerequisite skills.
• Intensive supports may need to be provided in addition to Tier 1 and 2 supports.
• These supports should be as targeted as possible, e.g., on phonemic awareness, single-syllable phonics, multi-syllabic phonics.
• Given the constraints of the school’s schedule and the immediacy and severity of student needs, Tier 3 supports may need to be provided, temporarily, in place of another important content, other than literacy and mathematics.
o Schools can creatively schedule these supports…
• …Providing them when students would otherwise be working independently during workshop, center, or Daily 5 time.
• …Alternating what content that students miss from week to week.
• Providing these supports when students are not receiving literacy and mathematics instruction in the essentials of the grade level.
o It is lamentable that students will not, temporarily, have access to content; however, their most immediate literacy and numeracy needs mandate that intensive supports be provided with a sense of urgency. Students with IEPs and school dropouts do not typically experience the rich options available to students as they progress through school.
• Tier 3 supports should not be rigidly designed to last 30 minutes or be provided in groups with a 5:1 student:teacher ratio.
o The support should be adjusted to match student needs and revised until the student is adequately responding to intervention.

Schools will undoubtedly find that the vast majority of students determined to need Tier 3 supports have needs in the area of reading. Given limited human, material, and temporal resources, they may, wisely, elect to focus their supports to the area of reading.

Assuming that Tier 1 and 2 supports have been provided intelligently and assuming that there is evidence that Tier 1 and 2 supports are working for a majority of other students, then Tier 3 supports must be targeted, they must be diagnostically determined, and they must involve the use of different strategies and approaches.

For students who have not yet cracked the code, for whom phonemic awareness and phonics are a concern, and who are not fluently able to read connected text at even a pre-primer level, traditional approaches to remediating deficits may not suffice. There may be an auditory deficit that traditional forms of early reading instruction will not satisfactorily address.

One exceptionally sound (scientifically-designed and scientifically-based) solution for which I have evidence of success is Fast ForWord from Scientific Learning. It approaches early reading uniquely and engagingly, focusing on brain behaviors that students need to possess to read. In addition to reinforcing the phonological reading and language skills of students, Fast ForWord builds students’ abilities in memory and attention, and their capacities at processing and sequencing. Fast ForWord approaches early reading differently, and different is what students most at-risk need.

Reading purists often live in ideological camps that persuade them to discourage certain approaches to reading. I respect their expertise, but I do not believe that we can afford to ignore any and all possible solutions. Students who cannot read are dramatically at-risk. Every day they do not fluently, frequently, and successfully for comprehension and enjoyment represents lost time and lost opportunities to build vocabulary and employ skills and strategies necessary to make meaning of passages through metacognitive interactions. They cannot afford for us to argue about the best ideological approach, and we cannot wait to intensely support them with solutions for which we have evidence of high degrees of success.

Fast ForWord represents a successful and viable option for students in early grades who have not yet cracked the code. The sooner students crack the code, the sooner they can begin reading for meaning and the more likely they will develop a lifelong love of interacting with text.

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Social and Academic Behavior and College and Career Readiness

Social and Academic Behavior and College and Career Readiness.

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Social and Academic Behavior and College and Career Readiness

Student behavior may be the single most important topic with which educators are currently struggling. Make no mistake: students can behave well, they want to behave well, and behavior and academics are inextricably linked. Students with lower levels of academic readiness often exhibit their frustration through inappropriate social behaviors; inappropriate social behaviors can compromise students’ opportunities to learn. And yet, I do not believe that we have explicitly identified, communicated, taught, modeled, or reinforced the social behaviors we want students to display. Schools across the country are increasingly taking responsibility for high levels of academic learning for all. We are similarly becoming much more adept at providing instruction and intervention to meet this goal. Schools recognize the critical importance of behavior; we must assume the same responsibility for high levels of student behaviors for all, and we must become more adept at providing instruction and intervention in the areas of behavior as we have in the domain of academic skills.


Moreover, social behaviors are not the only behaviors students must possess. They must also effectively employ academic behaviors, also known as self-regulatory or executive functioning strategies. Dr. David T. Conley and the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) have included, “Academic Behavior, the attitudes and behavioral attributes that students who succeed in college must demonstrate…to take responsibility for their own learning through self-awareness, self-monitoring, and self-control,” as one of the four dimensions of college and career readiness. (The other three dimensions are 1) Key cognitive strategies – the intellectual behaviors that lead to the skills and capabilities necessary for college and work. 2) Key content knowledge – a strong foundation within the academic disciplines of English/language arts, mathematics, natural sciences, world languages, arts, technology, and social sciences. 3) Contextual skills and awareness – an understanding of the college admissions process, career and college culture, and tuition and financial aid.) Behaviors, both social and academic, must represent a much more significant portion of our core, essential learning targets for students; they must be explicitly and consistently taught, modeled, and reinforced; and students must receive supplemental supports and interventions when they do not respond to initial instruction.


While our schools and our educators’ shared and working knowledge in the areas of social and academic behaviors may not be as complete as in the area of academic skills, the expertise to positively impact student behaviors does exist. There is a science of behavior and we can translate that science into content, instruction, assessment, and intervention in the domains of social and academic behaviors. Social and academic behaviors can and must be integrated within academic skill contexts; and they must occupy a space of their own in the work of schools and educators.


I became an educator because I believe in the unlimited capacities of all children and I believe education is among the most fundamental of human and civil rights. I believe we must stop trying to cover an inappropriately disjointed set of learning targets that represent far too much breadth and too little depth. Social and academic behaviors must be included in our set of essential learning targets. Given that the current quantity of academic learning targets alone is impossible for students to master, concentrating and re-examining the essential content and learning that students must master for college and career readiness is a fundamental task.

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