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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


Child Reading

Reading Struggles: Using Tiers to Promote Success

By: Mia Daucourt

With approximately 1 in 11 people identified as learning disabled, concerns have risen about how to tackle childhood learning difficulties, especially in reading. The first step in helping children with reading problems is to identify which children need extra help. As it currently stands, there is a tracking and intervention framework embedded in U.S. classrooms called “response to intervention,” or “RTI,” which uses three possible definitions to flag children for extra help in reading. This extra help comes in the form of targeted small group intervention for children who do not respond to traditional full-class instruction in one or more key literacy areas. Problematically, there are three competing definitions for qualifying children for intervention. Specifically, intervention is provided for either children who fail to get better across a school year, children who fail to reach grade-level proficiency of the 25 th percentile or higher at the end of the school year, or children who fail to reach both of these benchmarks. In order to resolve this inconsistency, a recent study by Milburn and colleagues (2017) explored three key literacy areas, namely oral language (like vocabulary skills), print knowledge (like knowing letter names), and phonological awareness (knowing how written letters and words sound), in order to figure out which of these definitions was best for flagging children who need extra reading help.

Looking more deeply at Milburn and colleagues’ (2017) study, their sample included 277 children who attended North Florida Title 1 prekindergarten programs with high-quality Tier 1 preschool curricula. The children were in regular classroom instruction, or Tier 1, for 3 months, and those who qualified were then in Tier 2, small group instruction, for 11 weeks. Tier 2 involved weekly intervention doses that ranged from 60 to 180 minutes of explicit instruction in the literacy area(s) in which a child struggled. A child who needed help in one reading domain, received 60 minutes of additional small group instruction, while a child who qualified for help in two or three domains received either 120 or 180 minutes of targeted small group intervention, respectively.

After being a part of both Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction, all children, including those who only received Tier 1, were classified as either responsive or nonresponsive to intervention, using the three competing definitions used to flag children for extra help. To reiterate, extra help is provided for either children who fail to get better across a school year, children who fail to reach grade-level proficiency at the end of the school year, or children who fail to reach both of these benchmarks in one or more literacy domains. In addition, these three definitions were compared based on the how many children they classified as responsive to intervention and how consistently they flagged children that needed Tier two intervention.

There were a number of important findings from these definitional comparisons. Overall, Milburn and colleagues (2017) found that students who participated in Tier 2 intervention were better off (aka, more responsive) than children who did not receive anything beyond Tier 1 instruction on both individual and average literacy domain scores. Basically, Tier 2 instruction works to improve children’s literacy performance in vocabulary, phonological awareness, and print knowledge. When comparing how many children were classified as responsive to intervention across all three literacy domains, the reading disability definition that required children to improve across the school year identified the most children as responsive, the definition that required children to reach grade-level proficiency (the 25 th percentile or higher) identified the next highest proportion of children as responsive, and the criterion requiring both benchmarks identified the fewest children as responsive. Overall, the different definitions had low agreement on the children they identified for Tier 2 intervention. However, the criterion that included both end-of-the-year grade-level performance above the 25 th percentile and getting better across the school year may be the best way to flag kids for intervention because it showed the highest level of agreement.

Overall, the RTI approach is important because it gauges how kids are doing and adapts the instruction they receive based on children’s specific needs. Although there is no exact definition for reading disability that emerged as best for classifying kids to get Tier 2 intervention, Milburn and colleagues (2017) did show that the definitions differ in the proportion of children they identify. If a school wants to make sure they cast the net wide, capturing as many children with reading deficits as possible, they are best off using a definition based on how children improve over the school year to flag children for Tier 2 intervention. However, a school that may have less resources to dedicate to helping struggling kids may be better off using the more stringent criteria that requires both improvement over the school year and end-of-the-year grade level performance to qualify for Tier 2 instruction. These are important findings for adapting intervention techniques to the resources a school has available and to children’s specific reading needs.

Want to know more about RTI?

RTI involves three tiers of instruction that increase in intensity based on how children respond to intervention. The first tier of RTI is regular full-class instruction that uses a scientifically- validated curriculum and ongoing testing to monitor children’s reading progress. Based on how they score on progress-monitoring literacy skill tests, children either remain in Tier 1 instruction with no additional help or are flagged for more intensive intervention. Accordingly, the Tier 2 of RTI is a supplement to regular full-class instruction and involves additional small group intervention that specifically targets the literacy area(s) in which children are flagged as struggling. Only those children who do not respond to Tier 2 intervention are moved forward into Tier 3, which involves intensive one-on-one intervention after the previous tiers fail to help a child reach proficiency in one or more literacy areas.

Milburn, T. F., Lonigan, C. J., & Phillips, B. M. (2017). Determining responsiveness to tier 2 intervention in response to intervention: Level of performance, growth, or both.The Elementary School Journal,118(2), 310-334.