Action Step and Orientation

E2. Provide differentiated, evidence-based Tier I literacy instruction to all students.

The implementation of a response to intervention (RTI) framework includes a multilevel prevention system. In this lesson, you will learn more about the primary level—also known as Tier I, or the comprehensive core literacy program—and what it takes to deliver differentiated, evidence-based literacy instruction to all learners across all grade levels and content areas.

Part 1 of this lesson provides an overview of how to use assessment to inform Tier I in your RTI framework.

In Part 2, you will learn how to implement quality Tier I instruction using comprehensive core literacy programs.

In Part 3, you will learn how to implement quality differentiated Tier I instruction.

To get started, download the Implementation Guide for this component and refer to the Action Step for this lesson. Review the Implementation Indicators for each level of implementation and note the Sample Evidence listed at the bottom of the chart.

Part 1—Tier I Literacy Instruction

As Lesson E1 explains, RTI is an instructional framework that integrates the systematic use of assessment data into a multitiered approach to help educators intervene early and prevent learning difficulties.

Tier I, the primary prevention level, is the core literacy instruction delivered to all students in general education classrooms. For this reason, Tier I serves as the foundation for student learning. When effectively delivered, it should meet the majority of your students’ needs (Vaughn, Wanzek, Woodruff, & Linan-Thompson, 2007).

Researchers Burns and Gibbons state that student success in Tiers II and III is predicated on high-quality Tier I instruction, and “without quality core instruction, nothing else matters!” (2012, p. 79).

To achieve the greatest success at the Tier I level, you will need to establish expectations for instructional practices that are high quality and evidence based. Many of the expectations for quality instruction are delineated in the teacher evaluation system used in your district, but your campus-based leadership team will need to ensure that expectations specific to literacy instruction are communicated, supported, and monitored across your campus.

One of the evidence-based practices that your campus-based leadership team may identify as an expectation is explicit instruction. Explicit instruction involves modeling and explaining concepts and skills in ways that are concrete and visible, using clear language and many examples. These explicit procedures need to be predictable, and they need to include clear and consistent instructions and clearly stated expectations. Explicit instruction “does not leave anything to chance and does not make assumptions about skills and knowledge that children will acquire on their own” (Torgesen, 2004, p. 363).

Explicit instruction incorporates the I Do, We Do, You Do cycle of instruction. The first stage, I Do, encompasses explicit teacher modeling and thinking aloud. This means teachers show students what they are expected to think about, say, and do (Archer & Hughes, 2011).

I Do: When teaching students to segment words into sounds, a first-grade teacher says, “Words are made up of individual sounds. Being able to hear and separate sounds will help us to read and spell words.” Then, rather than simply asking her students to segment the sounds in "cat," she tells her students to listen as she stretches the sounds so they can hear all the sounds that make up the word. She says, “My turn. Watch and listen to me.” She then stretches the word "c-a-t" for the students as she holds up one finger for each sound.

This type of explicit instruction also includes scaffolding. Scaffolding refers to instructional supports that help students learn with assistance what would otherwise be inaccessible without this support. Content, activities, materials, and delivery procedures or routines are all types of scaffolds that can be adjusted and extended to meet the diverse range of abilities in a Tier I classroom.

The I Do, We Do, You Do cycle is one form of procedural scaffolding. Support is gradually withdrawn as you move through the stages. During We Do, students immediately try the task or skill along with teacher support.

We Do: Now the first-grade teacher says, “Let’s practice stretching the individual sounds in these words together. Say each sound with me and hold up one finger for each sound as we pronounce it.”

During the You Do stage, students are given multiple opportunities for practice with corrective and positive feedback.

You Do: The first-grade teacher says, “Now it's your turn. With your partner, take turns stretching the individual sounds in these words. Remember to hold up one finger for each sound as you pronounce it.” The teacher monitors each pair as they practice and provides corrective feedback when necessary.

Keep in mind that the I Do, We Do, You Do cycle is similar to a feedback loop. If students are having difficulty during any of the stages, you can circle back to model another I Do, practice another We Do or You Do, or perform any combination or all three again (Archer & Hughes, 2011).

Quality Tier I instruction also maximizes student engagement. To accomplish this somewhat daunting task, teachers need to purposefully plan how students can be actively engaged during literacy lessons. This often requires an increase in the number of times students respond and practice skills and concepts. Every student should be spending each minute during instruction participating, whether it’s thinking, discussing, completing hands-on activities, reading, or writing. For example, you may need to help your teachers plan and implement interactive response routines, such as think-pair-share, that involve all students.

Always keep in mind that Tier I literacy instruction goes beyond the dedicated language arts and reading block and includes the building of content area literacy skills. To facilitate instructional literacy experiences across content areas, your team and your staff may need more information and opportunities to build capacity in this area. You can find additional information about content literacy in To Learn More at the end of this section.

Your campus-based leadership team may also need to identify strengths and specific areas or needs for growth in your current Tier I instructional practices. As discussed previously, analyzing student data from screening assessments and ongoing progress monitoring can help determine the effectiveness of Tier I and identify classroom or grade-level problems. More information on using data to determine Tier I effectiveness can be found in Part 2 of E1—Data to inform instruction, as well as in the Assessment component of the TSLP.

As you learn about the Effective Instructional Framework component, keep in mind that the Action Steps overlap. Although steps will be presented separately, it may not be possible to implement them one at a time. The Implementation Indicators for each Action Step will help you reflect on the professional development your staff may need to ensure successful RTI implementation.

Your campus-based leadership team may identify professional development that is needed for several aspects of this component. For example, as you reflect on Action Step E2, your team may decide to target the characteristics of high-quality Tier I instruction, differentiated instruction, and flexible grouping practices as a focus for professional development. Remember to provide opportunities for professional development in many formats, not just on traditional staff development days.

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TO LEARN MORE: The resources below will help you gain a better understanding of Tier I literacy instruction.

The Building Capacity for Response to Intervention Implementation Project at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk contains links to resources that pertain to all aspects of RTI.

What’s Your Plan? Accurate Decision Making within a Multi-Tier System of Supports: Critical Areas in Tier I” published by the RTI Action Network elaborates on the decision-making process that occurs within a multitier system of supports and provides guidance on critical decisions made by teams at the Tier I level.

The Reading Rockets website article “Top 10 Resources on Literacy in the Content Areas” provides suggestions for promoting literacy skills, as well as links to more information on each strategy.

Part 2—Comprehensive, Core Literacy Programs in High-quality Tier I Instruction

Effective Tier I instruction includes a comprehensive, evidence-based core literacy program. It should include the essential, grade-appropriate components of reading instruction: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Comprehensive Tier I literacy programs include a scope and sequence that can help you provide systematic instruction within and across grade levels. This means that literacy skills and concepts are taught in a carefully designed sequence, and lessons move from easy tasks to more difficult tasks and begin with those of higher utility.

A strong conceptual understanding of the developmental progression of early reading skills can help all of your grade-level teachers use assessment data to plan and deliver targeted Tier I instruction. This involves a working knowledge of the phonological awareness and phonics (e.g., six syllable types) continuums in order to pinpoint any prerequisite skills and concepts students may not have mastered.

Let’s read how teachers at one elementary school applied their knowledge of developmental reading skills to identify specific instructional focus areas in Tier I.

Scenario: At XYZ Elementary School, the latest screening and progress monitoring assessments indicated that students were having difficulty with grade-level literacy skills. Many of these students had not learned the prerequisite skills they needed to master more complex skills. In other words, they had advanced to the next grade but had not fully developed some of the previously taught Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). For example, in both kindergarten and first grade, teachers administered informal diagnostic phonological awareness measures found in their core program and discovered that most of the students who scored low on the phoneme segmentation screening were also unable to segment words into syllables or onset rimes.

They decided to review with these students how to segment and blend words at these lower levels (onset rime and syllable) during their small-group phonemic-awareness lessons. Down the hall, teachers in grades 2–5 noticed that some of their students who scored low on the oral reading fluency (ORF) measure also lacked basic word analysis or decoding skills. They discussed the different types of errors these students made while reading the probes. They concluded that the inability to automatically recognize words in connected text was one reason their fluency scores were not improving. They began to work on strengthening these students’ word analysis and decoding skills during small-group time.

The core program has been described as the “primary instructional tool that teachers use to implement effective reading instruction” (IRIS Center, p. 3). Many of these programs and materials support evidence-based practices that are characteristic of high-quality Tier I instruction, but some do not. As a result, evaluating your current core programs and materials is essential. You can find more information about core literacy programs, sequencing and pacing, and how to evaluate them in the Standards-based Instruction module of this TSLP online course.

Core literacy programs help provide coherence and consistency in the Tier I instruction at your school. This means that all your students receive similar learning experiences with the same academic language through grade-appropriate instructional practices that are implemented within classrooms, tiers of instruction, and across grade levels. To ensure this coherence and consistency, procedures should be in place to monitor the fidelity of your implementation to your core literacy program and materials (Center on Response to Intervention, 2011).

Because Tier I instruction should provide a solid instructional base for all your students, the TSLP calls for schools to schedule a protected 90-minute (at least) block of daily, uninterrupted literacy instruction at each grade level. To facilitate this process, you may also need to work collaboratively to ensure ancillary services are scheduled around the literacy block. You can take a closer look at master schedules in Lesson E3—Tier II intervention.

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TO LEARN MORE: The resources below provide further details about comprehensive core reading programs, as well as suggestions for their evaluation and selection.

Lesson SBI 1—Alignment to state standards from the Standards-based Instruction module of this TSLP online course contains guidance for implementing an integrated and coherent program of instruction based on current state standards.

High-Quality Instruction: Comprehensive Core Reading Program” on the IRIS Center website elaborates on the characteristics of a comprehensive core reading program, including the five critical components of reading. Clicking on the links to pages 4–9 allows you to access specific information about these five critical components, as well as see considerations for English language learners.

Professional Development Presentation” on the University of Oregon website provides an overview of comprehensive, evidence-based core programs and tools to aid in evaluating and selecting a program for your school. Click on “Part 1 (14:08)” of the “Professional Development Presentation” to view this resource.

Part 3—Differentiated Tier I Instruction

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.

  1. Look at the word list.
  2. Make the words using the letter tiles.
  3. Write the words on your white board.
  4. Whisper-read the list of words four times.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Read your story aloud to a friend.

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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.

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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.


E2. Provide differentiated, evidence-based Tier I literacy instruction to all students.

With your site/campus-based leadership team, review your team’s self-assessed rating for Action Step E2 in the TSLP Implementation Status Ratings document and then respond to the four questions in the assignment.

TSLP Implementation Status Ratings K–5

In completing your assignment with your team, the following resources and information from this lesson’s content may be useful to you:

  • Refer to Part 1 for an overview of how to use assessment to inform Tier I in your RTI framework.
  • Refer to Part 2 for implementing quality Tier I instruction using comprehensive core literacy programs.
  • Refer to Part 3 for implementing quality differentiated Tier I instruction.

Next Steps also contains suggestions that your campus may want to consider when you focus your efforts on this Action Step.

To record your responses, go to the Assignment template for this lesson and follow the instructions.


Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

Burns, M.K., & Gibbons, K. (2012). Implementing response-to-intervention in elementary and secondary schools: Procedures to ensure scientific-based practices (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Florida Center for Reading Research (2006). Differentiated reading instruction: Small group alternative lesson structures for all students. Just Read Florida. Retrieved from

Hall, S. L. (2006). I've DIBEL'd, now what? Designing interventions with DIBELS data. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Hall, S. L. (2008). Implementing response to intervention: A principal's guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

IRIS Center. (n.d.). Star Legacy Modules: How can teachers increase student reading success in early grades? Retrieved from

National Center on Response to Intervention. (2011). RTI essential components integrity rubric. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.

Torgesen, J. K. (2004). Lessons learned from research on interventions for students who have difficulty learning to read. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 355–382). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Woodruff, A. L., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2007). Prevention and early identification of students with reading disabilities. In D. Haager, J. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention (pp. 11–27). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Walpole, S., & McKenna, M. C. (2009). How to plan differentiated reading instruction: Resources for grades K–3. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Walpole, S., & McKenna, M. C. (2011). Differentiated reading instruction in grades 4 & 5: Strategies and resources. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.