It is important that all your staff understand that RTI intervention protocol begins with Tier I, not Tier II. Tier I instruction is not a one-size-fits-all approach that relegates the task of teaching struggling learners to Tiers II and III.
“Rather than expect students to adjust to the curriculum, teachers should adjust the curriculum to fit the diverse learning needs of their students” (IRIS Center, p. 2).
Once a high-quality, evidence-based, comprehensive core literacy program is in place, you will need to provide instructional leadership in differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of all students. Differentiated instruction is a foundational characteristic of high-quality Tier I instruction. We will focus on the use of assessment data to plan and deliver differentiated Tier I instruction, including flexible grouping practices, targeted lessons, and evidence-based instructional delivery strategies.
Quality Tier I instruction in an RTI framework also includes data-informed differentiated instruction to accommodate the range of instructional needs within one classroom. Assessment plays a key role in implementing quality evidence-based Tier I instruction that is differentiated or matched to the diverse needs of all learners. You can find specific information about the assessments used to inform Tier I instruction in Lesson E1—Data to inform instruction and in the Assessment module.
You may need to provide professional development focused on using data to differentiate Tier I instruction. Your campus-based leadership team may need to take part in grade-level data analysis meetings to help disaggregate the data to inform Tier I small-group instruction. Specific suggestions for grade-level data analysis teams can be found in Lesson E1, Part 2. If not already in place, you may need to include content area teachers in both professional development and data analysis meetings to ensure that differentiated instruction is also provided in their classrooms.
To successfully implement flexible grouping practices in Tier I, you need to continuously monitor students’ progress and plan instruction based on their changing instructional needs. Traditionally, teachers have thought of Tier I literacy and content area instruction as whole-group instruction, but flexible grouping practices are hallmarks of an RTI framework that includes differentiated instruction.
Small-group Tier I instruction needs to occur at every grade level. Assessment data is used to form need-based, teacher-led groups; to schedule time for small-group instruction during the core literacy block; and to plan targeted instruction. Teachers need to make many grouping decisions, such as
- the size of each group (e.g., 3–5 struggling readers, 5–7 other students);
- how frequently each group meets with the teacher (e.g., daily or two to three times a week);
- the amount of time allotted for each group (based on student need—those with the highest level of need require more time with the teacher); and
- the lesson’s content, which is usually limited to two or fewer focus skills per lesson (Florida Center for Reading Research, 2006; Hall, 2006; Walpole & McKenna, 2009).
To ensure instruction is differentiated, purposeful grouping practices need to be used in Tier I, including small groups (both heterogeneous, or mixed ability, and homogeneous, or same ability, depending on the lesson's objective); pairs or partners (struggling students paired with somewhat more capable learners); independent practice; and one-on-one. Groups should never remain static. In an RTI framework, group membership continuously changes to reflect student growth and needs.
You can watch a video from Reading Rockets, Tier I Differentiation, to learn more about what it takes to differentiate instruction in Tier I. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the video.)
Tier I teacher-led, small-group lessons must be targeted to meet the needs and abilities of each data-based group. Teachers need to ensure that the lessons are not the same for every group. This involves more than just changing which set of leveled readers is used. Both the content and delivery methods need to vary depending on students’ specific needs and abilities.
Effective Tier I teachers employ more than one type of small-group lesson structure to meet the needs of all the students in their classroom (Florida Center for Reading Research, 2006). For example, a skill-focused format is often used with students who are struggling, and a more guided reading-oriented approach is used with students at or above grade level (Walpole & McKenna, 2009, 2011). When implementing either type of small-group lesson, teachers need to carefully plan each lesson and select materials matched to students’ needs and reading levels. You can find more information about these two small-group lesson structures in To Learn More at the end of this section.
Let’s look at a Tier I skill-focused small-group lesson.
Scenario: At MNO Elementary School, Mr. Hill, a second-grade teacher, plans a skills-based phonics lesson on consonant-vowel-consonant-e (CVCe) words for a group of struggling readers who are having trouble with decoding. Using student data, he first selects a set of leveled books with a large number of CVCe words. These decodable texts provide opportunities for his students to practice reading words of this syllable type. He wants them to use what they’re learning about letters and sounds as their primary strategy for figuring out unfamiliar words in connected text. For this reason, he tries to avoid predictable books because he has observed that several of his students rely on the pictures and will guess, rather than decode, unfamiliar words.
Next, Mr. Hill plans his small-group, skills-based lesson for this group. He determines how much time he’ll need for each part of the 25-minute lesson. He knows it’s only an estimate because he may have to make adjustments during instruction based on student learning.
Here is his rough timeline for the lesson:
1 minute - Perform introductory or housekeeping chores (handing out materials, establishing response routines, setting the purpose for the lesson)
4 minutes - Review problematic, high-frequency words
8 minutes - Practice phonics with teacher modeling and guided practice decoding and reading CVCe words
10 minutes - Read instructional-level, decodable text (with CVCe words) and apply reading strategies to connected text
2 minutes - Wrap up
Mr. Hill keeps a timer at his teacher table to help him follow his plan and move through the lesson at an appropriate pace.
In Tier I, differentiated instruction blends some whole-group instruction with teacher-led and student-led small-group instruction. Successful delivery of Tier I small-group instruction depends on establishing expectations, routines, and behavior management systems. Students need clearly defined expectations and routines for peer-assisted interactions in whole groups, small groups, and pairs. Time spent at the beginning of the school year establishing appropriate behaviors and routines can make a substantial difference in student learning. At the beginning of the year, administrators may need to provide additional support staff, if possible, to assist some teachers in the initial stages of implementing differentiated instruction using flexible grouping. Taking the time up front to establish these management systems pays off in the long run.
Within your core literacy block, literacy centers (or stations) are an effective way to provide students with meaningful independent or peer-assisted opportunities to practice reading and writing. The focus of these literacy centers should be based on student assessment data. The centers need to be purposefully designed to provide additional practice, reinforcement, and an extension of what’s already been taught during whole- and small-group instruction. To differentiate centers, you can keep the same routine or activity over a period of time if you change the skill focus so that the content being taught matches students’ specific needs and abilities.
Let’s look at how one teacher differentiates her learning centers.
Scenario: In the word work center, Ms. Marez has students build and make words throughout the first semester. The center’s activity and directions stay the same week after week.
- Look at the word list.
- Make the words using the letter tiles.
- Write the words on your white board.
- Whisper-read the list of words four times.
- Read the words to someone in your group.
Each week she has to change only the words. This allows her to match the words they are building and reading to the lessons and skills in her core program, as well as to each student’s needs and abilities. Sometimes, she adds or deletes steps to address students’ changing needs and abilities.
For example, one week her most at-risk group works with a modified list of words consisting of the basic phonics elements (CVC and CVCe words) she has been reteaching and reinforcing in their small group. That same week, her more advanced learners complete two additional steps:
- Write a story about a surprise you would like to give someone. Use five or more of the words on your word list in your story. Underline them.
- Read your story aloud to a friend.
TO LEARN MORE: The resources below may be useful as you seek to learn more about the elements of Tier I literacy instruction.
“Effective Instruction at Tier I” on the IRIS Center website provides an example of how one elementary teacher implements assessment-driven, differentiated Tier I instruction using flexible grouping practices.
Brown University’s publication “Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching” expands on seven characteristics of culturally responsive teaching and offers suggestions to aid in the implementation of these principles.
“Classroom Reading Instruction That Supports Struggling Readers: Key Components for Effective Teaching,” published by the RTI Action Network, explores in detail several instructional components deemed vital by the National Research Council for supporting good readers.
“Differentiated Reading Instruction: Small-Group Alternative Lesson Structures for All Students” is a guide for coaches and teachers and offers several lesson suggestions and examples for differentiated, small-group instruction in Tier I. To access this publication by the Florida Center for Reading Research, click on the “Download full text” link.
NEXT STEPS: Depending upon your team’s progress implementing Tier I instruction, you may want to consider some of the following next steps:
- Peruse the resources listed in To Learn More for Parts 1–3.
- Examine your current Tier I core reading instructional practices within and across grade levels to determine if they are evidence based and facilitating differentiation of instruction.
- Determine how you will evaluate your current level of Tier I implementation to make data-based decisions for improving and enhancing instruction within and across grade levels.
- Identify (or re-evaluate the need for) evidence-based professional development (e.g., collaborative planning, observation and feedback, coaching, professional learning communities) to build or continue to strengthen capacity for high-quality differentiated Tier I instruction.