Carefully Structuring Effective Intervention

frustrated young boy in class

Many educators focus more on intervention than prevention, spending time chasing the effects of instructional gaps rather than addressing the root causes. However, an emphasis on effective K–2 reading instruction is a key strategy for reducing the number of struggling students in upper grades.

The earlier K–2 students who struggle with grade-level expectations can be identified, the better. Research shows that if schools wait until grades 3–5 to identify struggling students, the intensity of intervention required to close the gap is significant and seemingly unachievable. Prevention and early identification of skill gaps for all students are crucial (Fielding, Kerr, & Rosier, 2007; Scanlon et al., 2005; Torgesen, 2002).

The first step to structuring an effective intervention is to identify the students who need help and the skills with which they are struggling. Frameworks such as RTI and MTSS recommend ongoing assessment to determine student needs:

  • Universal screening
    Universal screening is typically given at the beginning of the year and is used as a quick indicator of which students are on track and which students require closer monitoring. Students who are identified to be at some level of risk are often progress-monitored monthly, weekly, or even daily.

  • Progress monitoring 
    Progress monitoring is a powerful assessment tool in helping teachers determine student profiles and help guide and inform their instruction. The overarching purpose of progress monitoring tools is to provide teachers with information regarding student progress in relation to the instruction/intervention they are currently receiving. Progress monitoring tools used less frequently (i.e., monthly or three times a year) are often administered to assess a student’s general reading performance in relation to grade-level benchmarks/standards and whether students are able to generalize their learning beyond the curriculum-specific material. Results from these kinds of general progress monitoring tools, often norm-referenced measures, are compared to prior results to determine whether the student is making progress. If the data show that the student is not making progress, additional progress monitoring tools usually associated with a specific curriculum and criterion-based measures are used for the purpose of determining how to adjust the instruction/intervention in order for the student to respond.
  • Diagnostic assessments
    Although not used as frequently, diagnostic assessments can be extremely helpful in completing a student’s profile. When thinking about how diagnostic tests can inform instruction, one main purpose is to provide teachers with additional information that they did not receive from either the screener or progress monitoring tool. Diagnostic assessments can also be used in scenarios when the progress monitoring tool’s validity or reliability may be in question (e.g. if the child was tired or hungry the day the progress monitoring assessment was given, or was especially anxious during the testing). Diagnostic tests can help fine-tune instruction and provide more information to understand why a particular student may be struggling.
Structuring the intervention

Intervention is not accomplished simply by spending more time on the same instructional content. However, if the student does not respond to the initial intervention, switching instructional programs reflexively may not be the right answer either. There are a number of factors that should be carefully balanced and adjusted in order to provide effective intervention for struggling students whose needs can vary. Foorman and Torgesen (2001) suggest that intervention for at-risk students must be explicit, scaffolded, and more intensive. Achieving the right level of intensity of targeted instruction involves several key aspects:


Matching the program to the student’s needs 

Some schools are quick to change programs if the student doesn’t respond to the initial intervention. However, before implementing any kind of intervention strategy, we must first understand the specific needs of that student through progress monitoring and diagnostic assessment. Often, schools have one or two different programs at Tier II or Tier III, and it is important that teachers understand which skills those programs target to ensure that they match the individual needs of the student.


Monitoring the effect of the intervention 

Frequent progress monitoring is absolutely critical in intervention and RTI and MTSS models. Teachers must ask themselves "Did it work?” and then carefully note what adjustments were made and what their impact was on student learning. This is important for potentially replicating the same approach with other skill areas (and monitoring to see effectiveness). Some of these adjustments may be as simple as noting that students responded better to one-on-one instruction than they did in small groups, or that small bursts of instruction were more effective than lengthy instructional sessions.


Small-group instruction vs. one-on-one instruction 

Some teachers believe that they cannot provide proper intervention unless it takes the form of one-on-one instruction. However, research shows that if you group students with similar needs, small-group instruction can be as effective as delivering instruction in a one-on-one setting, as long as the teacher has targeted the specific skill needs and grouped the students based on the common need (Vaughn et al., 2003).


Finding the right balance of time intensity 

Intervention requires us to provide more hours of instruction for each student. There are several ways in which the delivery of instruction can be varied, and these decisions should be based on how each student responds to intervention (Vaughn, Denton, & Fletcher, 2010). Below are several factors by which to vary the intensity of the intervention:

  • Increase the duration (number of weeks of time) of the intervention

  • Increase the duration of each session (e.g. 30 minutes per session vs. 20 minutes)

  • Increase the frequency of the sessions (number of times per week)

  • Increase the level of individual attention by varying the size of the group

Supporting teacher effectiveness 

Schools must consider the skill levels of their teachers and paraprofessionals when delivering intervention. Expecting teachers to create their own curriculum is not realistic given the lack of available resources and knowledge base (Moats, 1994). However, well-designed, scripted reading curricula will not be effective without sufficient training and support. This kind of professional development should focus on helping teachers make thoughtful decisions regarding their classrooms and small-group instructional strategies (Foorman & Torgeson, 2001), but should also include data coaching so teachers learn how to target instruction effectively.

Effective classroom reading instruction can help all but a small percentage of students to read and write effectively. This instruction must balance the use of small-group and one-on-one settings, and vary the intensity of instruction according to each student’s individual needs. Most importantly, teachers must monitor student performance on an ongoing basis so that skill gaps can be identified as they develop, and targeted instruction on individual needs can ensure students maintain grade-level proficiency.

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