Response to Intervention for Early Reading Instruction

Reading failure in Australia is well documented. 1 in 5 children fails to learn to read at an adequate level. It is widely accepted that a subset of students have learning disabilities preventing them from learning to read but what of the others? There is a significant, unspoken-about and sizeable population of students with no learning disability who are struggling. They find learning to read much more difficult than their peers. More often than not, they struggle to come to grips with English’s deep orthographic code. English is rich and very beautiful, but all agree that the many nuances, a product of its long history, make it a lot more complex than relatively simpler shallow orthographies such as Spanish and Finnish. 

The students who struggle with the code need high levels of support with quality instruction. Explicit instruction in phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read words. Once students have the necessary phonic knowledge, they will gain access to the vast majority of written words – a necessary prerequisite for the goal of reading: to make meaning. The Reading Wars are still raging. Whole Language advocates are a hindrance to the full implementation of high-quality phonics programs. Advocates of evidence-based phonics approaches to teaching early reading are unrelenting in their pursuit of change. Such dedication needs to continue to ensure the best instruction is implemented in our schools.

Response to Intervention is a rigorous approach to intervention for struggling readers. Once a high-quality, evidence-based reading program has been implemented, Response to Intervention can be used to ensure no child falls through the inevitable cracks. All students receive whole-class instruction from a knowledgeable teacher (Tier 1). Students who fall behind are detected through careful monitoring are placed into targetted, small group instruction (Tier 2). Those who continue to display low progress are then given intensive, individual instruction (Tier 3).

Quality instruction in the classroom will be enough for the majority of children. In a Response to Intervention model, instruction within the classroom needs to be of the highest quality to ensure students moving to the second tier of intervention are minimised. The role of teacher knowledge is crucial in the implementation of effective Tier 1 instruction. Teachers of early reading need to understand our language at specialist level to ensure instruction is of the highest quality. As Louisa Moats notes:

“The teacher who understands language and how children are using it is more likely than others to impart clear, accurate and organised information about sounds, words, sentences, and discourse. He or she should be able to respond to student errors with helpful corrections and feedback and aim instructional activities to a purpose. Expert teaching of reading and writing is only possible when the teacher knows not just the meanings conveyed by language, but how language itself works.” 

If primary teachers do not know anything else, then they should have the necessary knowledge to implement quality reading instruction. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many teachers. This is a major concern that needs to be addressed to ensure the most children possible learn to read within Tier 1 instruction. If it is not addressed, then a Response to Intervention model is doomed to failure.

No matter how good instruction is, there will likely be a subset of students who struggle to learn to read and will, therefore, need more instruction. These students do not need anything new; rather, the amount and intensity of instruction need to be adjusted to fit their needs. Tier 2 instruction in a Response to Intervention model seeks to address student needs through small group instruction. In the context of reading, a highly skilled teacher of reading would implement a systematic program which addresses the 5 keys to reading. Reading Recovery is a program often used as Tier 2 intervention. Reading Recovery is not an appropriate intervention for struggling readers for Tier 2 because it lacks the evidence-based approach needed to be most effective; lacks evidence of impact; and, as a one-to-one intervention, is not likely to be cost- or time-effective. Minilit, a program designed for Tier 2, is a good example of a program fit for purpose. Most students will benefit immensely from a well implemented, high-quality Tier 2 program lead by a strong teacher of reading. The students with the highest needs will still require more instruction beyond Tier 2.

Students with the highest level of need require very intense and targetted one-to-one instruction. Tier 3 instruction is one-to-one instruction for these students. Ideally, the same, strong teacher who implemented Tier 2 instruction will also implement Tier 3 instruction. The students who reach Tier 3 are finding reading extremely tough. For many professionals, parents and policy-makers interested in early reading instruction, it is these students who drive their passion and advocacy. These students are never likely to read the most complex of novels or most detailed academic papers without strong, timely intervention. They should not be doomed to failure because schools and systems refuse to adopt evidence-based approaches and fail to implement necessary interventions to support them. We can do better. Response to Intervention is a model designed to help these very students and should be given consideration.


Readings used to create this blog post

Hempenstall (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading

Centre of Independent Studies and Evaluation NSW Department of Education (2017)  Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years

Moats (2010) Speech to Print

Seidenberg (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight

Buckingham, Wheldall and Wheldall (2013) Why Jaydon Can’t Read

Buckingham (2016) Focus on Phonics

Bradford & Wan (2015) Reading Recovery: A system-wide evaluation


2 thoughts on “Response to Intervention for Early Reading Instruction”

  1. RTI has failed students in the past due to lengthy time periods to move to tier 2 and tier 3. (BTW, you have a whole paragraph repeated in your article)


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