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Best Practice for RTI: Differentiated Reading Instruction for All Students (Tier 1)

After reviewing the research, the What Works Clearninghouse recommends that in tier 1 of Response To Intervention, schools provide differentiated reading instruction for all students based on assessments of students’ current reading levels.

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One way to help educators identify students in need of intervention and implement evidence-based interventions to promote their reading achievement is a framework called “Response To Intervention.”

The Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences convened a panel to look at the best available evidence and expertise and formulate specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations to use Response To Intervention (RTI) to help primary grade students overcome reading struggles. The panel made five practice recommendations. The second recommendation is to:

Provide differentiated reading instruction for all students based on assessments of students’ current reading levels (tier 1).

Tier 1

Ideally, classroom reading instruction would be evidence based. However, research that might provide a clear, comprehensive model of how to teach reading to students in the primary grades is lacking (NRP, 2000). The purpose of this recommendation is to discuss classroom reading instruction as it relates to RTI and effective tier 1 instruction.

In particular, we focus on the use of assessment data to guide differentiated reading instruction.

Tier 1 provides the foundation for successful RTI overall, without which too many students would fall below benchmarks.

The panel recommends differentiating instruction in tier 1. For example, during independent work time, students weak in vocabulary can practice vocabulary with a partner or in small groups, while other students form teams to brainstorm character traits and motivations for the main characters in the story they are reading that week.

Data from the various screening and progress monitoring measures in recommendation 1 should also serve a role in orchestrating differentiated instruction.

Because differentiated instruction under tier 1 requires identifying and grouping students to work on targeted skills, readers may wonder where differentiated instruction ends and tier 2 intervention begins.

Differentiated instruction applies to all students, while tier 2 instruction applies only to those at risk in key areas. The panel believes that, to be effective, a multi-tier approach can blur the lines between tier 1 and tier 2, and that sensible data driven instruction should permeate all of the tiers of reading instruction.

Level of evidence: “low”

The panel judged the level of evidence for this recommendation as low. A correlational study demonstrated that the more teachers used assessment information, the greater their students’ reading skill growth in grade 1 (Connor et al., 2009).

Brief summary of evidence

One descriptive-correlational study examined how student reading growth varied by the degree to which teachers employed a specific differentiation program. This differentiation program relied on assessments to group students. Student reading growth was higher for teachers who implemented the program with greater fidelity.

How to carry out this recommendation

1. Provide training for teachers on how to collect and interpret student data on reading efficiently and reliably.

Provide training on how to use diagnostic measures, especially measures for those students experiencing difficulty. Informal assessments can help educators make better informed decisions. For example, listening to how a student reads a text that is slightly too difficult can yield useful information and is easily embedded within lessons. Teachers can ask a student to summarize a story they just read. This exercise will reveal how well the student comprehends what they read. Listening to the student’s summary of the story can also reveal other information - for example about the student’s own life or what they know of other books (Snow, 2001).

2. Develop data-driven decision rules for providing differentiated instruction to students at varied reading proficiency levels for part of the day.

According to the panel, independent silent reading activities should be gradually increased as reading skills improve. Data on student performance (a measure of word identification fluency or fluency in reading connected text) should inform this decision. For many grade 1 students, independent silent reading time would be minimal during the first few months of the year. Student-managed activities should be introduced gradually and should focus only on skills students have mastered.

3. Differentiate instruction — including varying time, content, and degree of support and scaffolding — based on students’ assessed skills.

The panel believes that as students fall below grade expectations, more time in explicit instruction provided by the teacher in small groups is critical to bring their skills to grade level. The panel suggests independent or group work, such as independent silent reading or buddy reading, are more effective when they are gradually increased as student reading skills improve.

Roadblocks and suggested approaches

Roadblock 2.1. It is difficult for teachers to interpret assessment results and subsequently use the information for instruction.

Suggested approach: The panel recommends providing professional development focused on how to administer assessments, interpret the results, and use the information. This should be ongoing. With proper training, teachers’ instruction may be more effective.

Roadblock 2.2. Using multiple small groups is difficult when some children have difficulty paying attention, working independently, and interacting with peers.

Suggested approach: Classroom management procedures should be firmly in place during reading instruction. To facilitate effective reading instruction, administrators should provide teachers with supportive efforts and motivational strategies, especially in managing independent and small group work.


Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C.M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., and Tilly, W.D. (2008). . Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

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