You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy: MTSS and Tier I Instruction

by Stephanie Stollar | 1 | 1 Comment

This is a guest re-post of a blog recently written by Stephanie Stollar, founder of Stephanie Stollar Consulting and creator of The Reading Science Academy. Stephanie’s message caught our eye — she shares some important insights about issues related to implementing core literacy instruction for schools using a multi-tiered system of supports framework.

I keep getting asked the same questions and running into the same issues related to MTSS and Tier 1. These questions and issues are challenging my understanding of the MTSS model. Am I crazy or have we strayed from the original intent of the model?

So I’m going to put some ideas out there for you to (respectfully) react to. 

1. Tier 1 instruction shouldn’t always be implemented with fidelity.

2. All students don’t necessarily need the same Tier 1 instruction.

3. Tier 1 instruction shouldn’t always be delivered in whole group.

4. Students with disabilities don’t have to have the same Tier 1 instruction as the rest of the grade.

Here are what I consider to be characteristics of effective Tier 1 reading instruction:

  • designed for the purpose of primary prevention of reading failure
  • available to all students
  • planned for a protected block of time
  • aligned to research in terms of what to teach and how to teach
  • highly differentiated (not always all whole group)
  • designed to meet the needs of the vast majority of students – something like 80% of the students should reach the minimal grade-level expectations with Tier 1 alone (no intervention)
  • planned by the grade-level and/or school-level leadership team, based on screening and other data

The general education curriculum for beginning reading should be a comprehensive, cohesive, core program that articulates and sequences the essential literacy skills within and across grades. A core, Tier 1 system of supports provides a common set of outcomes for all students. This does not mean everyone gets the same instruction or is taught using the same program. Students will need different levels of support, even in Tier 1.

You are working through the same scope and sequence toward the same outcomes/standards, but the starting place will be different for students who are behind. To accelerate learning and catch students up to grade-level expectations you will need to stack the learning opportunities within the school day (e.g., the tiered model). 

By definition, a student with a disability needs specially designed instruction to access and make progress in the general education curriculum.  It is illogical to me, and potentially a violation of FAPE, to expect students to learn to read by being exposed to grade level content. Just because everyone gets Tier 1 doesn’t mean they all get the same Tier 1.

When it comes to reading, accessing the general education curriculum may involve working on word recognition skills, for example, that are typically mastered in a lower grade. If a third-grade student isn’t reading grade-level text for meaning because they lack basic decoding skills, their Tier 1 instruction should be designed to meet their needs. It doesn’t help to “implement with fidelity” unless the program has evidence of effectiveness and is the right match to what students need.

Depending on the needs of the students, Tier 1 might involve whole group read-aloud and discussions of complex text for the purpose of explicitly teaching language comprehension and content knowledge, with flexible, skill-based, small-group instruction that is targeted at different decoding skill levels. Teaching a third-grade student to read CVC words is in service of, not disconnected from, third-grade reading comprehension standards and expectations.

Additional intervention supports (Tier 2/3) may be needed at another time of day for students who are significantly behind and not catching up with effective Tier 1 that is getting most students to grade-level expectations. Two key ideas here – shrink risk by providing effective Tier 1 and provide more and better instruction for the small number of students who are still struggling after receiving effective Tier 1. Rather than expecting struggling students to catch up via exposure to a grade-level phonics lesson, it is the double dose of instruction, starting at their current skill level, that will accelerate them through the phonics scope and sequence and catch them up to grade level.

If more than 20% of the students in any grade are scoring below expectations or at risk on universal screening, the grade-level planning team should design Tier 1 instruction that meets the needs of the students. This may mean using resources flexibly to support small groups.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as a grade-level and/or building-level leadership team.

  1. What percentage of students in this grade are performing below grade-level expectations? If it is less than 20%, design Tier 2/3 interventions for those students. If it is more than 20%, go to question 2.
  2. Do those students have the pre-requisite skills to participate in instruction focused on grade-level objectives? If not, how far back in the scope and sequence do you need to go?
  3. If students need support to learn pre-requisite skills, how much time each day will they receive that support? What program will be used? How will they be grouped for the support? How will their progress be monitored? What training and coaching will be provided to the instructor?

It is the job of the district or building leadership team to use data in the problem-solving model to identify and remove the barriers to better reading outcomes. It is NOT the role of these teams to discuss individual students. In MTSS, team-based problem-solving meetings about individual students aren’t needed until moving from Tier 2 to Tier 3.

If these ideas challenge your thinking about MTSS, I hope you will reach out so we can have a discussion.

Stephanie Stollar Bio

Dr. Stephanie Stollar is the founder of Stephanie Stollar Consulting LLC and the creator of The Reading Science Academy. Dr. Stollar is a part-time assistant professor in the online reading science program at Mount St. Joseph University, and a founding member of a national alliance for supporting reading science in higher education. As a board member for the Innovations in Education Consortium, she collaboratively plans the annual MTSS Innovations in Education Conference.  Dr. Stollar has worked as a school psychologist, an educational consultant, and as Vice President for Professional Learning for Acadience Learning Inc. She has provided professional development, conducted research and published in the areas of assessment, early intervention, and collaborative problem solving. She is passionate about aligning practice to research and designing school systems to prevent reading failure.

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1 Comment

  1. Krista

    I have listened to several podcasts from Tim Shanahan. He has several episodes that focus on grade-level instruction for ALL students. How are students going to catch up if they are not included in grade-level instruction? Often, what this means is students are placed in a special education room. Unfortunately, a sped teacher isn’t always the best option to deliver instruction. These environments become a dumping ground for watered-down instruction and reduced expectations. ALL students need access to all tiers of instruction.



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