Expert Intervention Teachers: Money Well Spent

This is blog post number 4 of 4 inspired by Mary Howard’s book RTI From All Sides:  What Every Teacher Needs to Know.  We found this book to be a treasure and whole-heartedly encourage you to purchase it.  

Well-trained literacy interventionists know how to choose high-quality resources and are able to design and plan effective instruction that is aligned with each student’s needs.  They know that the last thing their students need is more of the same instruction that has proven unsuccessful and insufficient.  They know that it is inadequate to focus on skills and strategies in isolation and spend little time on real reading.  They know that it is an absolute waste of time to have students do mindless worksheets during their intervention.  They know that relying on commercial programs or exclusively using commercial intervention programs for a particular tier is “sheer folly” (Howard, p. 61).

Interventionists should keep in mind the ultimate goal of our instruction no matter what tier we are working in.  The ultimate goal of reading instruction should be to support students in “enjoying and understanding interesting text (Howard, p. 63).  We are doing much more than teaching our students how to read.  We are teaching our students to be readers.  Being a reader is so much more than obediently spitting out sounds while trying so hard to be right.  I am going to borrow from Regie Routman in her book Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners to explain what being a reader means.  When we teach a student to be reader we have:

  • somebody who chooses to read for various reasons: enjoyment, to learn, & to see the word in a different way
  • somebody who reads with understanding and appreciation for the author’s work
  • somebody who values reading
  • somebody who cherishes books
  • somebody who reads lots and lots and lots of BOOKS (p. 193)

Interventions proven to work

The majority of pre-packaged intervention programs do not have any research to support their use. Visit What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to compare various literacy interventions.  According to What Works Clearinghouse two interventions that are research tested and proven to work with struggling readers are Reading Recovery and Leveled Literacy Intervention.

Reading Recovery

In my opinion, much of what makes Reading Recovery work is that it is not a program. While Reading Recovery does have a lesson plan format with each component backed by sound research, nothing about a Reading Recovery lesson is pre-planned for the teacher.  Reading Recovery teachers use everything they know about the child and reading theory to create a lesson plan that is highly individualized for each child they work with. Reading Recovery develops an expert teacher through a rigorous training year and then on-going monthly professional development.

Leveled Literacy Intervention

Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) looks more like the traditional packaged program in that it includes a manual and leveled texts that are read by students in a sequential order.  Again, this is just my opinion, I believe that a large part of what makes LLI a successful intervention is that training is less about doing the program and more about understanding the reading/writing process to make the teacher a more effective decision maker.

LLI Caution #1:  We need to keep in mind that LLI was not created for us to follow each lesson blindly. We should always think carefully about the needs of each student and plan for teaching points, prompting language, and ways in which to facilitate the comprehension conversation before the lesson.

LLI Caution #2:  We have to remember that manuals do not know our students.  I will even be as bold as to say that sometimes we may need to stray from the manual for just a moment and that’s okay.  As knowledgeable teachers, we should feel comfortable making these types of decisions.

A Story

I am going to tell you a story about a second grade student who was a friendly little boy that loved to talk and share his knowledge about a variety of topics. unfortunately, he was also a very frustrated little boy when it came to reading. 

I started out by administering Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System, a spelling inventory, and an interest inventory.  I felt that I could meet his needs by seeing him in a group of two and I planned to use LLI as a tool to support instruction. We spent the first couple of weeks reading easy books as I learned more about him. 

As we moved into books that were in the instructional range I noticed that he had a strong behavioral response to an unknown word.  He would usually start out by attempting the first sound but them moved quickly to crying, calling himself “stupid”, banging his head with his hand or on the table, and pushing the book away as he complained that all of my books were too hard. When he noticed that something he read was incorrect he would often try to fix it (by making the first sound of the incorrect word), but the attempt often led to stuttering which then led to frustration and crying.

I knew that if I was going to “follow the child” I needed to abandon the manual and carefully select books that would supply just the right amount of work for him.  For a few lessons, we worked on replacing crying with appealing and then moved on to  “just say something that makes sense”.  At times, I would cover the word while I encouraged him to say something that made sense because he was so focused on wanting to sound words out letter by letter.  After five lessons he proudly noticed that didn’t cry anymore at “hard” words. We also took the time to embrace mistakes.  Once he understood that mistakes are an important part of learning his anxiety lowered enough for him make most self-corrections with minimal stuttering.  

During a later lesson, my student told me that he really wanted to read a chapter book because the kids in his class read chapter books. He went on to tell me that the chapter books his teacher had were too hard.  It pays to know your books well because I was able to abandon the plan and grab a favorite early level chapter book about Bella and Rosie that featured a different genre for each chapter (narrative, reader’s theater play, and non-fiction).  Over time, he read a few more of these lower level chapter books (thank you Pioneer Valley Books!).  He loved them so much that he often brought them home to read, and read them in his classroom. 

With the goal in mind of helping my student be a reader I felt it was important to stray from the program. 

An effective literacy intervention design

” These low-achieving students need to work on overall literacy development (not just word work) – hearing, talking about, and writing stories and texts as well as playing around with language.”

~Regie Routman, Conversations, p. 121

Research has identified specific intervention instructional designs that are most successful with accelerating reading growth.

Mary Howard highlights guided reading as a “key instructional activity” in which you can work on strategies and skills that the child needs within authentic texts (p. 61). The teacher matches texts to the student depending on the child’s interests and needs and makes sure that the text is “appropriately difficult” (Allington, p. 31).

During lessons we want the student to spend the majority of the time reading.  The following are the approximate optimal times to spend on each component of a 30 minute lesson.

Read Familiar Books – 5 minutes

Word Work/Phonological Skills – 5 minutes

Read New Text – 15 minutes

Comprehension Skills and Strategies – 5 minutes

(Allington, p. 67)

It is probably important to point out that there are some interventions that vary from the above design that show evidence of growth.  Unfortunately, they do not show evidence of accelerated growth in overall reading achievement – just in individual skills (reading nonsense words, reading word lists, etc.).

We can not forget about the importance that writing plays in learning to read.  Writing requires the child to slow down and attend to print in detail.  Observing a child during writing allows the teacher to understand more about the “learner’s way of working” (Clay, p. 18).  Marie Clay makes the claim that writing should be a component of any early literacy intervention.  If we do not include writing in daily lessons we are “severely limiting the child’s opportunities to learn” and the interventionist is “contributing to slower progress overall, at a time when it is most important to learn quickly” (Clay, p. 18).

Shared Responsibility

Although the focus of this blog post is on intervention lesson design I feel that it is important to include the classroom teacher’s role as well as the RTI team’s role in planning for powerful interventions.

Working with the classroom teacher

We cannot work effectively if are not working side by side with the classroom teacher.  The classroom teacher should be aware of the strategies and skills their student is working on during their intervention time. The classroom teacher should have some say in what is worked on. The interventionist and the classroom teacher should both consistently progress monitor the goal’s that the child is working on.

Literacy interventionists can also support classroom teachers by spreading the word about the importance of increasing the volume of “high-success” reading (Allington, p. 64).  Discuss ways in which the classroom teacher can provide more support to their by struggling readers by decreasing the group size, increasing the frequency with they meet with the student for small group instruction and/or 1:1 reading conferences.  Interventionists should work with the classroom teacher to make sure that the intervention takes place outside of the student’s reading block.

Working with the RTI/MTSS team

When used effectively, RTI teams can also be instrumental in the decisions made about planning/designing literacy interventions.  The role of the RTI team is not to complain that the parents aren’t supportive, gripe about a student’s behavior, to make decisions for the interventionist, or to only talk data. The role of the RTI team is to have discussions that lead to “concrete solutions for helping struggling learners” (Howard, p.65).

RTI/MTSS team meetings should:

  • be brief and focused
  • have a moderator and agenda
  • use data-based decisions in which ongoing informal assessments are also considered
  • have the interventionist and classroom teacher as central roles in the process
  • cause the members to think more deeply about each aspect of instruction
  • have team members that ask more questions than they answer
  • emphasize how to adjust the intensity and specificity of intervention
    • by decreasing group size
    • by increasing frequency and/or duration of lessons (Howard, p. 65)

To have interventions that truly make a difference schools need to spend money on what counts such as trained literacy teachers to work with our tier 2 and tier 3 students, embedded professional development and learning experiences for teachers to lift their understanding of literacy, and amazing, engaging, culturally diverse books to fill our classrooms.  Schools also need to trust their teachers and allow them to use their knowledge to create powerful lessons that follow their students’ needs.  Interventionists need the freedom to design lessons that follow their students, freedom to spend the majority of their lessons with the students reading real books, and freedom to support their students in truly becoming readers.

We hope that you enjoyed this series and that you were inspired to reflect on the RTI process in your school. What do you think?  Was there anything that I wrote about designing powerful instruction that was surprising to you or was there anything you would add?  Is there anything else regarding RTI that you are curious about?  Let me know in the comments below!

 Please visit our previous posts from our RTI From All Sides:  What Every Teacher Needs to Know series.    

Literacy Interventions: Let’s think outside of the box

Getting Students in & Out of Intervention: We can’t keep them forever

Decrease the Need for Intervention: Strengthen Classroom Instruction



Allington, Richard L.  What Really Matters in Response to Intervention:  Research-Based Designs.  Boston:  Pearson, 2009.  Print.

Clay, Marie.  Change Over Time In Children’s Literacy Development.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2001. Print.

Howard, Mary.  RTI From All Sides:  What Every Teacher Needs to Know.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2009.  Print.

Routman, Regie.  Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Learning, and Evaluating.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2000.  Print

Routman, Regie.  Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners.  Portland:  Stenhouse Publishers, 2018.  Print.

2 thoughts on “Expert Intervention Teachers: Money Well Spent

  1. Regie Routman

    Rhonda, This is such an insightful and important post on many levels. First of all, it’s great that you’re continuing to be inspired by Mary Howard’s outstanding RTI From All Sides, which continues to be my go-to book for all things RTI and for sane and sound interventions. I was also struck, as a former Reading Recovery teacher, of your mention of how “Reading Recovery develops an expert teacher.” The training is rigorous and is focused first on the child-as-a-reader, not just on teaching reading. Until I became a Reading Recovery teacher, even with a degree as a Reading Specialist, I was a phonics-first-only-and-forever person. Without the wisdom and brilliance of Mary Clay and Reading Recovery, I don’t believe I would have become an expert teacher of reading. Because of that “expertness”, I can use any “program” as a resource, not a straight jacket, and tailor the teaching to the actual reader. I do believe not enough of us receive the excellent and ongoing professional learning that is needed to become expert teachers to readers. Bravo on your post! Regie


  2. Pingback: Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 1 – Literacy Pages

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