The Power of Quality Tier 1 Instruction


A reflection of a former classroom teacher:

I wish I would have known more.  I wish I would have known more about the volume of reading. I wish I would have known more about small group instruction in tier 1.  I wish I would have known more about the five components of reading. I wish I would have known more about teaching metacognitive strategies.

I wish I would have known the importance of first focusing on tier one instruction when contemplating how to best meet the needs of  students on the “bubble.”

In chapter 7 of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she discusses the power of tier one instruction, outlining the approach her school took to address the needs of bubble kids.  As opposed to outlining the approach, I will instead focus on two powerful sentences in the chapter.

  1. My hope was that student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students (Allen, p. 128).
  2. In their research, Allington and his colleagues demonstrate how students benefit from long, uninterrupted chunks of learning time as well as from consistent instruction from high-quality teachers. Yet our neediest kids tend to have the most segmented days, being shuffled from intervention to intervention (Allen, p 128).

I have been a part of many discussions and teams concerning Response to Intervention.  Let me first say, I commend all the teams I have worked with as they try tirelessly to help our struggling readers and writers.  There have been so many collaborative discussions about targeted instruction and tier two support.  And, all of this is valid.

However, let us be real and know that sometimes, or more aptly, most times, we skip a key component of Response to Intervention: solid, research-based instruction by the classroom teacher in tier one.

So, when considering our “bubble” kids, let us start with this: “How do we provide professional support for all of our classroom teachers.  Because the better their craft is, the fewer kids we have on the “bubble.”  The result of this: 1) Solid, research-based instruction benefits all kids of all levels. 2) Solid, research-based instruction will prevent a great number of kids from falling into tier two intervention, thereby allowing us more time to provide targeted instruction to kids who do fall in tier two instruction.

So, to new teachers, I say study your craft as much as possible.

To veteran teachers, I say guide discussions that focus on tier one instruction first, then tier two.

To coaches, send this message over and over again–we need to devote as much time and finances we can to develop the teacher.

Administrators, provide that time to build the craft of your teachers in tier 1, while also supporting tier two and three.

Better Data Days Are Ahead

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We’ve all been there, we collect data, make beautiful color coded spreadsheets detailing nearly every data point we could possibly collect on each possible child. We compare district data to state data, nationally norm referenced data against in class assessments. We highlight students’ projected growth in order to make adequate progress for each child. We look at whole class data and determine standards to re-teach. We attend collaboration and intervention meetings in order to discuss students who are receiving services and what progress is being made. We create, update, and review a school data wall. We can name multiple data points on each student in our classes at the snap of a finger. 

Face it, we are inundated with data. But are we always really looking at the data for all children and determining the next steps?
Chapter 6 “Supporting Curriculum and Assessment” made me pause and think about how important it is to take that next step in data. Jen dives deep in this chapter with some really important details to consider as literacy leaders in a building. Not only should we be tracking student achievement for ALL learners, we should carve out time periodically to review this data and determine next steps. Some prompting questions Jen outlines are as follows:

  • What are the strengths and needs of each student?
  • What students are you concerned about?
  • What students have made the most growth?
  • What observations can you make about your overall literacy data?

Jen suggests having these literacy team meetings each fall, winter, and spring to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. Each person has a crucial role in the process; the teacher reflects on each student, the principal reviews the student’s cumulative folder, the assistant principal listens and takes notes for student placement, and the literacy leader takes notes on students who are still at risk of failure.

As a result of reading this chapter, I have had some really great discussions with teachers and my administration about how we can create a better culture of data REVIEW. I am excited that our staff is ready to take the next steps in data review and that we are clearly beyond the idea of just being great collectors of data. 

This is going to be a great year. Teachers are asking for the next step in our data process and are ready to take it on and make it our own, and make it meaningful. I am confident that as a result, our teachers will feel a better sense of direction and purpose. And once again, the work that goes on behind the scenes will play out better in classroom instruction, in our relationships with our students and families, and will result in increased student achievement.

Should we level texts for students?


photo credit: David Kracht via photopin cc

I saw this article shared out a number of times on social media, but never sat down to read it until now. I thought Annie Murphy Paul wrote a balanced story on whether or not text should be leveled to meet the needs of each reader. She highlighted a new digital tool called Newsela that automatically dials up or down the complexity of current events students are reading. The lead provided a good example of how a complex text can be simplified without losing too much information in the process. Both sides of the coin on leveling texts were well represented. I am surprised there weren’t more comments posted.

My big question as I read the article was, “What is the primary purpose for reading the text?” I emphasize “primary” because we should always be teaching reading. At the same time, teaching reading without some type of context can reduce engagement on the part of the reader. My belief is, if it is about conveying content information, then it should be leveled, assuming that essential understandings are not lost in the process of translation. Students should be able to read it independently. If it is about teaching reading, then leveling may not be as effective because we would be working with different texts while teaching one strategy. The text should be at their instructional level, with lots of modeling and scaffolding provided by the teacher.

I remember one year teaching 5th graders U.S. history, specifically the Great Depression. I provided the students with an article that would give them more background information about the topic (we were reading Out of the Dust and they were really interested in this period of time). As they worked through it, I realized that they were not engaged. The students were displaying off task behaviors, and I was becoming frustrated with them. After reflecting on the lesson, I realized that the text was too difficult for independent reading. I should have been reading it aloud to them, and then sharing my thinking at strategic points. My primary purpose was to convey information, not to teach reading strategies, although strategies could have been embedded. Now with the advent of digital media available pretty much anywhere, I might have also shown them primary resources from that period of time using websites like the National Archives, or maybe Skyped in an expert on the topic. This would be an addition to possibly using technology like Newsela to level the same text.

I also like the idea of using eReaders with students when appropriate. Nooks and Kindles “hide” the texts for students who are self-conscious about what they are reading. I had an ELL student using an eReader last year. One day he privately asked me to put titles from the Flat Stanley series on his Nook. There was no way he would have been caught reading that simple chapter book series in front of his peers. In addition, there is recent research that finds students with disabilities do benefit from the format of an eReader, related to the limited amount of text presented, plus the ability to resize the font as needed (Source: It is also understated that digital tools are “cool”. Kids would much rather use a tablet or smartphone to help with reading due to various disabilities versus a magnifier or related type of support that draws attention to their disability.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Please share in the comments.

Responsive Language for Positively Affecting Students’ Learning

I just got back from a weekend vacation. We stayed with my wife’s family in a cabin along the Mississippi River, located in the Northeast part of Iowa (for my niece’s graduation). No wireless in the cabin, but I didn’t miss it. It was good to be disconnected for a couple days. I visited with family, thought, and read. The only time I really used my smart phone was to check the weather.

However, always a learner, I did take time to briefly reflect on my school’s progress in being more socially proactive with our students. We are in the midst of implementing the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) framework. It is an initiative that helps an entire building develop consistent expectations, as well as focus on the positive actions of our students whenever possible. Despite the sometimes bumpy ride when you implement any kind of initiative, I have been pleased with the progress we have made.

One area of focus is the words we use with students when things are going well or need correction. The more all staff use the same language when addressing issues in school, the more students will consistently meet our behavioral expectations. Once home, with my mind freed up from the constant stream of information (i.e. social media), I was able to transfer the work by Peter Johnston, in his book Choice Words, into a language matrix. As you can see below, example phrases are provided that would be applicable to several situations in each setting.


This is on a Google Doc, for good reason. I am sure there will be suggestions for improvement, once the PBIS Team reviews this and the staff start to use these phrases. Many already do. However, it is nice to have a summary written down of what’s important from an essential resource like Choice Words, and applied to a specific setting. If you have additional suggestions for one of the responses, please share in the comments.

I Say Let Them Read

This post is actually a comment I left on Annie Murphy Paul’s blog, on her post titled “Teens Are Choosing Books That Are Too Easy For Them”.

Where I agree with the concerns of this report is that secondary students do need more guided instruction. By guided, I mean the teacher conferring with readers on a regular basis, asking them questions about the text and giving support in the form of strategy instruction. And I am not against reading the classics and being challenged as a reader from time to time. But the job of the teacher is to scaffold the students’ experiences with the text so they are successful, with strategies such as questioning and graphic organizers. It shouldn’t be left to the parents.

That said, this report fails to cite any research that would give any validity to these concerns. What research says about reading text that is “easy” for students is very clear:

– The most effective teachers provide text for students they could easily read (Allington and Johnston, 2002; Keene, 2002; Langer, 2001)
– High levels of reading accuracy produce the best reading growth (Ehri et al, 2007)
– Reading comprehension predicts reading volume and reading comprehension performance (Guthrie et al, 1999)

You can read more about this research in the excellent resource What Really Matters in Response to Intervention by Richard Allington. I also recommend his article Intervention All Day Long, found at In the article, Dr. Allington actually goes into a secondary school and concretely shows the fallacy of matching readers with text that is too difficult.

Where some seem to see a problem in students not selecting challenging texts, I see this issue as a success story. Students are reading! Who here reads books because they are challenging? I don’t. I choose to read text that is interesting, engaging, and meaningful to me as a reader and a person. Sounds like this is what these students are doing. For the most part, I say leave them alone and let them read.

Engagement as a Reading Intervention

What would happen if, rather than focusing on teaching reading strategies, we focused instead on getting students engaged?

Peter Johnston provides this lead to one of the best blog posts I have read. Titled Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement, he describes a group of 8th graders who were given edgy fiction to read and discuss with peers during school. It seemed more like a book club instead of 7th Hour English. At the end of the year, assessments revealed that these students, with only one to three copies of each text, scored very well on achievement tests. At least as important, student behaviors decreased, trust among peers increased, and they reported being more happy.

Shortly after discovering this post on Stenhouse’s blog, I found out that my school could not host our computer-based after school reading intervention program for 4th and 5th grade students this year. Instead of canceling it all together, we are attempting to simulate the same set up that Peter describes. We are going to purchase limited copies of age-appropriate, high interest books. The only expectation we have for students is they show up, they read, and they share what they are reading with their peers in a way they prefer most. No tests. No book reports. Just lots of reading and enjoyment.

The adults must also think this looks like fun, as several staff members have already signed up to facilitate this reading intervention/book club. My reading resource teacher and ELL aide are waiting patiently for their purchase order to arrive so they can go to our favorite book store, Book Look in Plover, WI, to pick out the reading materials.

My question to you is, what books would you recommend for 4th and 5th grade reluctant readers?

Please share your suggestions in the comments. My interventionists look forward to your recommendations!

Does Intervention Have to be a Pull-Out?

During a very informative Twitter chat on Professional Learning Communities (#atplc) led by John Wink (@johnwink90), I tweeted the following:

“Common misconception: Intervention is a pull out. Research shows interventions are just as successful in classroom (R Allington). #atplc”

I got a few questions after sharing, such as “Can the regular classroom teacher also administer an intervention?” and “What specific research actually supports this?”.

I discovered this information in the excellent resource Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write by Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham. The authors provide a lot of practical ideas for improving student learning. A common thread throughout this book is schools don’t necessarily need more staffing and funding to get better. Rather, they should relook at what they already have and do things a little differently. (I just became aware that there is a third edition of this resource.)


Take intervention blocks. Many schools are now required to insert 30-45 minute periods at each grade level for intervention. This concept is proposed by Dr. Michael Rettig among others. With the daily school schedule already broken up for specials, lunch, recess and more, this model may serve to further fracture an already disconnected school day. As another option, Allington and Cunningham suggest a more flexible approach: Have special program teachers provide all their instructional support in the regular classroom rather than in a location down the hall (74).

The research to support this method has been around for almost twenty years (Gelzheiser et al., 1992; Sharpe et al., 1994). The two authors summarize these studies by stating that in-class instructional support, whether remediation or special education, produces achievement gains at least as large (my emphasis) as the gains from pull-out instruction without having a negative impact on the achievement of other students in the room (75).

It is not suggested that all intervention should be a push-in model; teachers have to understand their students’ needs. What works best for each individual may be different, including location. For example, a student might be easily distracted in the regular classroom, or they may be embarrassed to be observed by peers reading easier books. In both situations a pull-out model probably works best. However, a positive of intervening in the regular education classroom is the potential for more and better academic collaboration between the specialist and the classroom teacher. The specialist sees the learning targets students are working toward in the classroom and can better connect the intervention to what their student is learning during regular instruction.

Here are more reasons for using this approach to intervention:

– The stigmatism of being pulled out for a “special class” is removed.
– Transitions can be emotionally difficult for some students.
– Each teacher can observe the other teacher instruct, which can lead to some informal yet powerful peer coaching opportunities, encouraged by many educators such as Regie Routman (2012).
– Less instructional time is wasted going back and forth to and from the intervention room. Allington and Cunningham estimate that, at a minimum, 10 minutes are wasted each day for a student during transitions (124), including getting work put away and back out in the regular classroom. This equates to about one hour per week, or almost four instructional days for an entire school year. What teacher wouldn’t want four more days of instruction to work with their students without having to extend the school year?


Is the Change Worth the Messiness?

As with any significant change, doing things differently to try to increase student achievement usually involves altering the way we teach. It is uncomfortable, messy and is usually met with resistance. The way I may plan to approach this in my school is finding one or even two people who are willing to try this out, even on a very small basis. If positive results are observed, word will spread and more staff will be interested in giving it a shot. At the same, I am keeping an open mind by remembering that no one process works for all schools, including my own.


Allington, R.L., & Cunningham, P.M. (2002). Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write (2 ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gelzheiser, L. M., Meyers, J., & Pruzek, R.M. (1992). Effects of pull-in and pull-out approaches to reading instruction for special education and remedial reading students. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 3, 133-149.

Routman, R. (2012). Mapping a pathway to schoolwide highly effective teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 93, 5, 56-61.

Sharpe, M.N., York, J.L., & Knight, J. (1994). Effects of inclusion on the academic performance of classrooms without disabilities: A preliminary study. Remedial and Special Education, 15, 281-287.