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Differentiated Instruction


Best Practice for RTI: Small Group Instruction for Students Making Minimal Progress (Tier 3)

After reviewing the research, the What Works Clearninghouse recommends that in tier 3 of Response To Intervention, schools provide provide intensive instruction on a daily basis that promotes the development of the various components of reading proficiency to students who show minimal progress after reasonable time. It also provides some specific features that should be considered in carrying out this recommendation.

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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 fifth recommendation is to:

Provide intensive instruction on a daily basis that promotes the development of the various components of reading proficiency to students who show minimal progress after reasonable time in tier 2 small group instruction (tier 3).

Tier 3

Instruction should be intensified by focusing on fewer high priority reading skills during lessons and scheduling multiple and extended instructional sessions. One-on-one or small group instruction also provides intensity as students have more opportunities to practice and respond. One-on-one instruction includes giving students feedback based on their individual responses, teaching students to mastery based on individual learning progress, and planning instruction with materials and an instructional sequence that meets individual student needs.

There is no reason to believe that a tier 3 program should consist primarily of one-on-one instruction — though such instruction should be part of a student’s daily program. Student progress should be monitored regularly using progress monitoring measures to assess whether the program is on course and to determine whether a team of professionals needs to refine the instructional program to enhance achievement growth.

Level of evidence: “low”

The level of evidence for this recommendation is low. Although the panel found five studies on this recommendation that met the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards (or met standards with reservations), no studies reported statistically significant impacts on reading outcomes (McMaster et al., 2005; Foorman et al., 1998; Blumsack, 1996; Gillon, 2000; O’Connor and Jenkins, 1995).

Brief summary of evidence

Despite over 50 years of research on special education and remedial instruction, major gaps persist in the knowledge of how to teach reading to the 3 to 5 percent of students with the most severe reading difficulties (Torgesen, Wagner, and Rashotte, 1997). The research reveals little about students whose response to typically effective interventions is low. Therefore, the material below represents the opinion of the panel.

How to carry out this recommendation

1. Implement concentrated instruction that is focused on a small but targeted set of reading skills.

Focusing on a small set of reading or reading-related skills is essential to tier 3 in kindergarten through grade 2 because having too many instructional objectives for struggling readers makes it more difficult to learn the skills well enough for proficient reading (Blumsack, 1996; Foorman et al., 1998; Gillon, 2000). In the opinion of the panel, too many instructional objectives can overwhelm students. Achieving proficiency is also difficult for students when instruction is scattered across different aspects of reading.

Diagnostic assessments can help determine why a reading problem is occurring and which reading skills or performance deficits need to be addressed to improve reading performance. Specifically, educators can ask: what aspects of reading are blocking the student from achieving reading proficiency? When these obstacles are determined, high priority skills are identified as the focus of tier 3 instruction. For example, the panel believes that if a student is struggling with decoding, it does not make sense to use tier 3 instructional time for summary writing, comprehension monitoring instruction, or clarification strategies because the primary reading obstacle for the student is sounding out and reading words accurately. Here, decoding is considered a high priority skill because it underlies the student’s overall reading difficulty.

Additionally, the panel believes that there should be depth in modeling and practice with feedback in tier 3 instruction — perhaps requiring limited breadth. Such focus provides opportunities to review, practice, and reinforce newly learned proficiencies so that students can demonstrate sustained and consistent levels of proficiency across lessons. Often a sustained 90 percent or higher criterion of correct responses on taught material is considered mastery. Tier 3 instruction often focuses on phonemic awareness and decoding, especially for younger students or those with very limited reading proficiency. However, comprehension and vocabulary are also critical (National Reading Panel (NRP), 2000).

For a student receiving tier 3 instruction, several sessions each week might focus on phonemic awareness and decoding in depth. The other sessions might focus on comprehension and vocabulary in depth. To date, there are no clear-cut empirical guidelines to determine how to balance competing demands for instructional time.

2. Adjust the overall lesson pace.

To provide greater focus to tier 3 instruction, teachers can adjust the overall lesson pace so that it is slow and deliberate (that is, more intensive). Teachers implementing tier 3 instruction can focus the pace of lessons by focusing on a single component of a lesson. For example, teachers might focus only on introducing the new skill rather than implementing a full lesson that includes introduction, extended practice, and application. Subsequent tier 3 instruction might review the new skills (with modified or shortened instruction from the lesson’s introduction) and practice the new skills. Instructional pace is slowed and focused by implementing a series of lessons concentrating only on a variety of review and practice activities. Rather than practicing how to identify the main idea in one lesson, several lessons would practice identifying the main idea.

3. Schedule multiple and extended instructional sessions daily.

While research does not suggest a specific number of intervention sessions or duration of instructional intervention (such as weeks, months, or years) for tier 3, studies do suggest that students needing tier 3 intervention require more reading instructional time than their peers without reading difficulties. On average, students participating in tier 3 interventions receive an additional 75 minutes of instruction per week. Additional instructional time ranges from about 45 minutes per week (Blumsack, 1996) to 120 minutes per week (Gillon, 2000).

In the opinion of the panel, schools could provide an additional 30 minutes of instruction by creating a “double dose” of reading time for struggling readers. Rather than more of the same, a double dose of instruction means a teacher might introduce skills during the first session and then re-teach with added practice during the second.

Duration, or extended implementation of tier 3 intervention, also intensifies instruction. Further research is required to examine the total hours of instruction needed and relative impact of tier 3 duration.

4. Include opportunities for extensive practice and high quality feedback with one-on-one instruction.

To become proficient in the application of newly acquired skills and strategies, students with the most intensive instructional needs will need multiple opportunities to practice with immediate high-quality feedback. According to panel opinion, tier 3 students might require 10 or 30 times as many practice opportunities as their peers. An example considered by the panel includes the use of technology for aspects of the reading program. Technology can be a good means for students to receive the practice they need, such as practice in letter sound recognition (Barker and Torgesen, 1995; Chambless and Chambless, 1994; NRP, 2000).

One-on-one instruction is an effective way to maximize practice during tier 3 instruction. If scheduling one-on-one instructional sessions is not possible, the panel suggests students be organized in small groups of homogenous reading needs. One-on-one or small-group instruction provides the greatest opportunity for continuous and active learning. For example, in whole-class instruction, individual students have few opportunities to respond, practice, and interact with the teacher.

Meanwhile in one-on-one instruction, a student has many occasions to respond and practice. When working with small groups, educators can increase opportunities to respond and practice by encouraging unison group responses.

With one-on-one and small-group instruction, teachers can also provide immediate and individualized feedback (Blumsack, 1996; Gillon, 2000; McMaster et al., 2005; O’Connor and Jenkins, 1995). A key feature of instructional feedback is error correction. By correcting student errors when they are first made, it is much less likely that errors will become internalized and therefore repeated. For example, if a student incorrectly segmented a word, the teacher could model the accurate response, give the student another opportunity to segment the word, and return to the missed word later in the lesson to reinforce the correct application of the skill. This type of ongoing, guided practice provides students with the support and feedback they need to become fluent with critical reading skills and strategies.

5. Plan and individualize tier 3 instruction using input from a school-based RTI team.

In the opinion of the panel, tier 3 instructional planning requires an increased level of detail because of the individualized nature of the instruction and particular student reading needs. Students with intensive reading needs require substantial supports during the initial stages of learning.

As students progress in their understanding and knowledge, these supports are gradually withdrawn so that students can begin to apply skills and strategies independently (Blumsack, 1996; Foorman et al., 1998; Gillon, 2000; O’Connor and Jenkins, 1995). For students with learning disabilities, instruction that is carefully scaffolded is essential to successful learning (Swanson, Hoskyn, and Lee, 1999). Teachers should introduce concepts and skills beginning with easier tasks and progressing to more difficult tasks (Blumsack, 1996; Foorman et al., 1998; Gillon, 2000; McMaster et al., 2005; O’Connor and Jenkins, 1995).

When teaching oral segmenting, for example, it is easier for students to isolate the first sound than to completely segment the word. Material supports also play a role in individualizing student learning. Graphic organizers, procedural facilitators (like color-coded question cards representing questions to ask before, during, and after reading), and concrete manipulatives are all visual prompts or reminders that provide support to struggling readers as they internalize skills and strategies. For example, a story map can be used to teach students how to identify a story’s critical components.

As students become more adept at applying segmentation skills or using a story map to aid retelling, these material prompts are progressively faded out. Teachers can optimize limited instructional time and instruction by teaching skills or strategies that reinforce each other. For example, emerging research suggests that teaching spelling promotes reading for struggling readers (O’Connor and Jenkins, 1995).

Students see spellings as maps of phonemic content rather than an arbitrary sequence of letters. Practice in using the alphabetic strategy to spell words seems to transfer to reading words.

6. Ensure that tier 3 students master a reading skill or strategy before moving on.

Emerging research on tier 3 instruction focuses on individualizing instruction by teaching students to mastery. Before a student moves to the next lesson, skill, or activity, they must demonstrate that a reading skill or strategy is mastered. When teaching a series of phonemic awareness activities (Gillon, 2000). Teachers should discontinue activities when a student reaches 100 percent accuracy on all of the items in the activity. Teachers can keep notes or records about how students perform on different reading tasks. For example, a teacher could record the exact words that a student practices reading, the student’s word reading accuracy, and the number of times it takes for students to practice a word before reading it accurately (O’Connor and Jenkins, 1995).

Roadblocks and suggested approaches

Roadblock 5.1. The distinction between tier 2 and tier 3 instructional interventions can often be blurry.

Suggested approach: Teachers should not be too concerned about tier 2 and tier 3 differences; the tiers are merely a way to continually vary resources to match the nature and intensity of instructional need. Remember that at present, distinctions between tier 2 and tier 3 are not clear or well documented. The terms are conveniences for school personnel.

Many tier 3 students will also have tier 1 and tier 2 instruction as part of their reading program. A student receiving tier 3 instruction focused on decoding and fluency might also participate in a tier 2 heterogeneous group focused on vocabulary and comprehension.

One limitation with individualized, one-on-one tier 3 instruction is that there are few opportunities for students to engage in comprehension building discourse. Increasing comprehension through discourse requires different levels of student language, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. Small, heterogeneous groups are optimal for building student language and vocabulary because students have opportunities to hear different language examples, new vocabulary words, and content that helps connect understanding. Discourse-based vocabulary and comprehension activities are often included in tier 2 interventions.

Roadblock 5.2. Because most tier 3 students have problems with decoding and fluently reading connected text, some may have tier 3 interventions that only highlight these areas.

Suggested approach: Targeting important comprehension proficiencies (summarizing, use of story grammar elements, vocabulary development, listening comprehension development) need to be part of any solid tier 3 intervention.

Roadblock 5.3. School and staff resources are often too limited to support individualized instruction for tier 3 students.

Suggested approach: Consider creative alternatives for school and staff resources. For example, use community resources, such as parent or senior citizen volunteers, to help reinforce tier 3 instruction. While an experienced teacher or interventionist should teach new skills, volunteers can help reinforce and practice reading in focused one-on-one sessions. Community tutoring programs are also options. Technology is another resource to consider, and remember many individualized instruction activities work well with small, homogeneous group instruction.

Roadblock 5.4. Schools tend to give the least experienced teachers the toughest-to-teach students.

Suggested approach: Reevaluate school schedules to ensure that the more experienced teachers or specialists are teaching tier 3 instruction. This may require some professional development and ongoing mentoring even for skilled veteran teachers.

Many teachers do not have the training to teach students with intensive reading difficulties. Given the importance of carefully planning and individualizing instruction, scaffolding skill introduction, enhancing one reading skill or strategy with another (such as adding spelling to reading instruction), structuring multiple practice opportunities, and providing high quality feedback with consistent error corrections, professional development plans and ongoing mentoring should focus on the details of instructional design and planning.

Roadblock 5.5. Adding multiple and extended instructional sessions to a daily schedule can be overwhelming for some students and a challenge for schools in terms of scheduling.

Suggested approach: If a student requires an additional hour of instruction per day, teachers should consider breaking that hour into smaller instructional sessions or using several short activities to help maintain student motivation and engagement (Gillon, 2000). One session could focus on decoding, and the follow-up on comprehension and vocabulary. The morning session could introduce new word reading skills, and the afternoon session practice and review. Early reading provides critical foundational skills; such skills and strategies need to be proficient before students enter the upper elementary grades. Thus, if critical decisions need to be made about adding tier 3 instruction to a student’s reading program, using time typically allocated to social studies or science may be necessary. Other less intrusive scheduling options include providing tier 3 instruction to struggling readers while other students are participating in center activities, independent projects, or the tier 1 “add-on” enrichment activities. Tier 3 instruction could also be provided during whole-class spelling instruction.

Roadblock 5.6. Some students who require tier 3 instruction do not catch-up despite intensive, one-on-one instruction.

Suggested approach: Remind school staff that a school’s goal is to help each student reach proficient reading levels if at all possible. Obtaining significant progress toward reading proficiency should be the primary goal. Emphasize that the teaching process should involve more than merely providing students with an opportunity to demonstrate the reading skills that they already know. It must involve the integration of new knowledge with previously learned knowledge.


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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