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Four Major Mistakes Schools make when using Reading Intervention Programs.

If a student struggles with literacy, can a commercially produced reading intervention program solve her woes?
If a student struggles with literacy, can a commercially produced reading intervention program solve her woes?
Brandi L. Noll

Why do schools flock to commercially produced reading intervention programs like kids running to the ice cream truck in summer?

From my experiences, this seems to occur for several reasons. First and foremost, intervening with and/or remediating struggling readers seems to be a very unattainable goal for many districts, a real kink in their side. No matter what they try, nothing seems to be foolproof, so schools bounce from one intervention to another looking for that one miracle cure. Sometimes it’s because there are consequences related to the number of students not succeeding (usually legislative and based on standardized test scores…. sigh), and so districts are scrambling to find quick fixes in order to comply. Other times its for all the right reasons; educators simply want to help all students learn to read because they know of the real-world consequences resulting from the inability to read, and they often want to pass on a love of reading to their students.

As I work within local school districts and speak to educators across the state and nation, I cringe at a few misconceptions about, and poor decisions in regard to reading intervention programs. In all honesty, most of these mistakes are in the name of “trying” to help students read, and therefore are not malicious, but rather just a little off track when you step back and look at the big picture.

Here are a few in no particular order. I will explore several other common mistakes within the sequel to this article found here (link when activated).

Mistake #1: Telling parents that a program will be “teaching” their child.

Take for example this excerpt from a letter sent home to parents of struggling readers,

“Your child has been identified as having reading difficulties and will be placed in the _________________ intervention program” (insert any commercially produced reading intervention program in the blank).

First of all, is that box of materials, produced in a factory somewhere and designed by editors, really what you want parents imagining as the “expert” in control of the learning for your most needy students? Don’t you instead employ highly qualified, highly trained human beings called ‘educators’ that will actually be in control of the teaching and learning of your students?

It is always interesting to me that we treat classroom teachers with this professional courtesy (well…some of the time) by reporting to parents that their child will be in “second grade with Mrs. So-and-so next year,” rather than stating that “they will be taught by ABC Basal Publishing Company in reading this year.” Simply stated, no commercially produced program has ever taught any child to read successfully on its own; a program is simply a conglomerate of materials. Materials don’t teach children to read, teachers teach children to read!

I suggest replacing the wording found in letters and in person with the following: “In our school, we have both a classroom teacher and a reading intervention teacher working together as a team to assess your child’s reading and writing needs. We will meet these needs using a variety of materials and strategies both in and out of the classroom so that he/she can become a successful reader and writer.”

Mistake #2: Believing that a reading intervention program is the most important factor in the progress of a struggling reader, while also using progress monitoring data to only make adjustments to that area.

Some schools put an unbelievable amount of time and money into reading intervention programs and then wait for positive results to follow, while neglecting the much broader and more impactful area of classroom literacy instruction. There are a variety of reasons this occurs, but no matter the reason it is such a fallacy to believe that any instruction lasting between 30-45 minutes would make a major difference in the abilities of a struggling student.

In my experiences, many educators have put way too much weight in one-minute progress monitoring tools (I won’t go into the reliability and validity with these in this article) used within intervention to make decisions about what should occur within intervention. How can one separate out the impact of 30 minutes of intervention from the other one to two hours a child might spend in a regular classroom learning about literacy? How can one say that progress-monitoring data collected during intervention simply reflects how much impact that intervention is having on a student’s literacy abilities, when in fact it most likely reflects a lot more?

Data about a child’s progress – no matter when it is collected or by whom - likely tells us how that child is learning within three areas: his instruction provided by the regular education teacher, interventionist, and what is happening at home! There is no way to separate these, as they all influence the rate of progress, and sometimes sadly, the lack of progress. This is why progress-monitoring data alone cannot and should not determine whether an intervention is or isn’t working for a child.

In fact, a student could be in the most effective, well-chosen reading intervention ever provided, while not showing progress at fast enough rates to catch up with his peers. How could this occur you ask? If the child had no support at home and has an ineffective classroom teacher! We should never expect a 30-minute, pullout intervention to make up for the other 23.5 hours of the day!

For most students who struggle, data has consistently pointed to the idea that what mainly determines the trajectory of that child’s growth over the school year is the effectiveness of classroom literacy instruction – the teaching and learning that occurs throughout most of the school day, not in an isolated intervention time. Highly effective teachers – those who reach almost all of their students year after year – not only know how to deliver whole class instruction, they know how to adjust and scaffold in small group and in one-on-one situations in order to help all students be successful.

This doesn't mean that all teachers can teacher all students every year. This simply means that successful teachers are better at 'weeding out' the truly struggling readers that need more specialized, intense instruction (something really different) and those students who simply need a classroom teacher to recognize their needs and adjust to them.

The next contributing factor is likely all that occurs outside of the school day – the child’s socio-economic status (as this directly impacts vocabulary growth which is directly connected to reading and writing success), access to books, to a local library, to role models who use literacy regularly, and to parents who know how to support a child’s literacy development and also have time to do so.

And what do we have left? Those itty-bitty, 30 minutes of the day that a child spends with a reading interventionist. Lets not put all of our primary focus and money into those 30 minutes and expect changes to be out of this world. Because if we do, we will be sadly disappointed. And do you know what is likely to occur if that child isn’t progressing? The school will move onto another intervention program... It’s a sad cycle that does little for struggling readers!

Mistake #3: Separating intervention from classroom instruction.

Many schools address struggling readers in the following ways.

-Struggling students are provided with a specific literacy curriculum inside the classroom, provided by a classroom teacher who uses specific materials and techniques *Often referred to as Tier I or Core Reading Instruction.

-Three to five days per week the child leaves the room to work with another educator, who often uses other materials and techniques (or commercial programs) during a 30-45 minute intervention period. *Often referred to as Tier II or Intervention. Most often these two key educators - the classroom teacher and the interventionist - know very little about what the child is getting in terms of instruction in either setting. Sometimes they are aware of materials being used in the other setting (that’s an easy concept to share), and every once in a while they are using the same assessment (but not always).

This child is getting two different pieces of instruction and information which is in no way connected except for the fact that both periods of instruction could be lumped into the category of 'literacy instruction.'

Unfortunately this struggling reader is not getting support with classroom instruction – but instead is simply getting something different outside the classroom. For our struggling readers and writers, it is most beneficial if the intervention supports exactly what the child is having difficulty with inside the classroom! The two tiers of instruction must not only support each other, but also must be intricately connected.

As an example of disconnected instruction consider the following scenario:

A classroom teacher knows that Johnny is reading below grade level and needs more help than his peers with problem-solving when he comes to words he doesn’t know as he reads. This teacher assists Johnny whenever she can during class time. During silent reading time, an interventionist pulls Johnny out of class to work on sight words, letters and sounds in isolation, and phonemic awareness skills. As you can see, Johnny is getting a wide spectrum of instruction however; certain skills are practiced and taught only during Tier I, while others are taught during Tier II. There is no crossover between tiers of instruction.

In fact, this type of disconnected instruction actually contradicts what most struggling students need. And that is to be directly shown how instruction in one setting supports instruction in another – how the two tiers of instruction go together! Johnny doesn’t need two different curriculums going on congruently, but instead needs one basic set of skills and strategies that all teachers are supporting and scaffolding, within every situation in which Johnny reads!

To simply search for, purchase, and implement a commercial reading intervention program to use within intervention time truly defeats the purpose of supporting the struggling student with skill deficits related to classroom instruction. This approach actually guarantees little to no alignment will occur. And by alignment I definitely don’t mean purchasing an intervention program produced by the same publishing company as the tier one classroom program! Struggling students can survive and thrive within grade-level, classroom instruction if the extra 30+ minutes per day was spent supporting it.

Some examples of supportive interventions include the following. Some students who struggle need more repetitions and exposures to reading concepts than their typically developing peers. For these students, adding in more time to work with the specific sight words, phonics patterns and comprehension strategies that were just taught to them by the classroom teacher would help to make these concepts more concrete and automatic.

As well, some students don’t do well in large group activities, and so moving whatever was taught during whole group instruction into a small group format within the classroom would be a great way to connect the two tiers of instruction! The more exposures and opportunities for feedback, the better!

In other situations, a child may be reading below grade level and simply need to use a different text when practicing his comprehension strategies, or may require more scaffolding so that the child can access grade-level text successfully. Scaffolding is very easy to provide in a small group format, while also exposing the child to grade level work so that the child can be ‘pulled up’ to grade level, rather than ‘pushed down’ to lower level standards. Over the long term, this is much less likely to produce large gaps between the child’s actual grade level and his independent reading level. When we separate grade-level work and only place it in classroom instruction and simply provide lower-than-grade-level work during intervention, we are likely to cause the gap to continue to grow.

#4 Administrators telling teachers that they must follow programs with “fidelity.”

For anyone who has conducted research in the area of literacy intervention (or outside it for that matter), they are likely to come across this term 'fidelity.' This is true because the term originated in just that: the research arena. If I, a researcher, wanted to do a study to see if one particular process or strategy worked better than something else, I would ask participants in my study to follow my research plan with fidelity. This means that whatever we decided would happen at the beginning of the study should hold true so that I could say with confidence: If _____ occurs then ________ happens (simple cause and effect). Unfortunately this term started spilling over into everyday classroom instruction and even into Response to Intervention (RTI) texts and articles, and soon it took on a completely different meaning than it was intended.

In all actuality, the term seemed to take on a multitude of definitions, depending on who used it and what they wanted it to mean in their specific situation. Some administrators started to use the term to mean, Follow this program to a T and don’t change a thing about it! This is not what the term fidelity should mean in regard to real classroom reading instruction and intervention (outside of research)!

To require educators to follow a lesson sequence (or a script) designed by a publishing company who has never met, nor assessed any of the children with whom a teacher is working is simply setting both the teacher and the student up for failure. Reading instruction and intervention should be much more flexible and reactive than that. An educator must start with assessment (diagnostic to be specific) then match instruction to that students’ needs, rather than starting with a lesson plan and purchased materials and trying to make a child ‘fit’ into that mold.

As well, when anyone uses the term fidelity when referring to a commercially produced reading intervention program they seem to be insinuating that this program is perfect just the way it is and that any changes a teacher makes would make it worse. Much research has debunked that thought. What we currently know about commercially produced reading programs is that they all have their own strengths and weaknesses (read Dewitz's book about this topic). I have found in my work with teachers and interventionists alike that most teachers can recognize the weaknesses within a provided program very quickly and have great ideas to make it better by supplementing, adding to, and taking away pieces and parts. In fact, the educator working with the exact children within the small group using the program are the most knowledgeable people able to make these adjustments because they know the students. They know what the students need and don't need, and also know how that program meets those needs (or fails to meet those needs).

Schools must take on the attitude that a commercially produced program is simply a start, not an end to great literacy instruction for our most struggling students. Schools need to listen to teachers - educated professionals who know reading and the students - rather than to salespeople that claim the program will only work miracles if teachers use it as is. Isn't is ironic that if students succeed while using a commercial reading program, publishers want to take the credit. However when students fail, publishers want to blame teachers for not implementing it with fidelity. This simply is not true.

Conclusion

There is rarely a singular reason that our most struggling students fail to learn to read as well as their peers. Every struggling reader is an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses. To assume that one product - a commercially produced intervention - can cure the struggles of all readers is hogwash. To assume that these programs can lead to more growth than data-based decisions made by trained educators is asinine.

Stay tuned (become a subscriber at the link by my name at the top left of this article), as I will be exploring several other decisions that schools make, which tend to hurt our most struggling readers the most. Part two of this article will be published shortly and linked here.