If all children are to learn to read to a good level of proficiency in the first few years of schooling, we need a clear plan to ensure that no child falls through the net. Such a plan must be both effective and cost-effective. It has become increasingly accepted in recent years that a three tier, phased model of reading instruction, known as Response to Intervention (or RtI), is the best means of achieving this.
The three tier RtI model is predicated upon a first tier of exemplary initial instruction in reading for all students during their first year of schooling (Kindergarten in New South Wales). This first tier of instruction should essentially comprise the best scientific evidence-based instruction. To the layman, this sounds obvious but in many Australian schools a less effective implicit model of reading instruction has held sway for the last few decades. Much of this implicit approach to reading instruction is highly desirable as a bedrock upon which to build effective reading instruction, and it may be enough for a minority of children, but most will need direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the five pillars or ‘five big ideas’ of teaching reading : phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. What is often lacking in initial reading instruction, in particular, is effective, specific instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics; how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words.
Even when afforded exemplary reading instruction, there will always be some children who take longer than others to catch on. It is important to identify these low-progress readers as early as possible so that they do not fall too far behind their peers as their difficulties compound. Children who do not learn to read in the first few years of schooling are typically destined to a school career of educational failure because reading underpins almost all subsequent learning. A safe strategy is to target students who fall into the bottom twenty five per cent of the population for remedial reading intervention, as soon as their difficulties become apparent. Students’ progress should be checked regularly, in order to provide remedial intervention for those who need it from the beginning of Year One, at the very latest.
The RtI model recommends that struggling readers, the low-progress readers who comprise the bottom quartile, should be offered more intensive Tier 2 intervention in small groups of three to four students. Again the instruction provided to these students should be based on what the scientific research evidence has shown to be most effective— essentially the same five big ideas of reading instruction but more intensive and more individualised. In small groups, teachers are able to be more responsive to the specific idiosyncratic needs of the students with whom they are working. Small group instruction can be just as effective as one-to-one instruction for children without severe reading difficulties.
Even with a solid Tier 2 small group reading program in place, there will still be a very small number of students who ‘fail to thrive’, perhaps about 3-5% of all Year 1 students. These are the students for whom we should reserve Tier 3 one-to-one intensive reading instruction, preferably with a specialist reading teacher with a sound background in special education. The same five big ideas are still critical. What is different, of course, is the intensity of instruction. Having successfully taught the vast majority of Year 1 students the basics of learning to read by Tier 1 and, where necessary, Tier 2 small group teaching, it is a far more manageable proposition to provide these few remaining students with the individual reading support that they will need, for as long as they need it.
With this three tier Response to Intervention model in place, predicated upon scientific evidence based reading instruction, almost all, if not all, children will become proficient readers. Of course, the RtI model does not stop at the end of Year 1, it is important to monitor reading progress closely for all students, especially for the first three years of schooling. But by employing these procedures rigorously and teaching scientifically, it is not too much to expect all of our children to learn to read.
Note: A longer version of this post is available at: http://tinyurl.com/7cr8ddo