Selecting a Scientifically Based Core Curriculum for Tier 1

The purpose of this article is to discuss the Response-to-Intervention (RTI) component of scientifically based instruction for all students (Tier 1). We do not identify or present research on specific programs of intervention but rather present guidelines for selecting scientifically based instruction/curricula used in Tier 1. The aim of this article, rather than endorsing specific curricula, is to assist the reader in making informed decisions about the nature of Tier 1 instruction. To that end, this article is divided into the following sections:

  1. What is Tier 1?
  2. What is scientifically based research?
  3. Selecting a Tier 1 core program in reading
  4. Bridging research to practice
  5. Selecting core programs in other subjects

What Is Tier 1?

Although Tier 1 of an RTI model is typically referred to as classroom instruction (Fuchs & Deshler, 2007), it actually comprises three elements. Vaughn, Wanzek, Woodruff, and Linan-Thompson (2007) described these elements as a) a core curriculum based on scientifically validated research, b) screening and benchmark testing of students at least three times per year (i.e., fall, winter, and spring) to determine instructional needs, and c) ongoing professional development to provide teachers with the necessary tools to ensure every student receives quality instruction.

One of the cornerstones of an RTI model is that scientific, evidence-based Tier 1 instruction effectively eliminates inappropriate instruction as a reason for inadequate progress. This reflects the position of the 2001 President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education that many problems affecting students identified as having learning disabilities (LD) are not related to deficits in the student, but instead are related to inappropriate and/or ineffective instruction (Yell & Drasgow, 2007). Crucial to this cornerstone of RTI is that Tier 1 instruction must be based on scientifically based research.

What Is Scientifically Based Research?

Although the term scientifically based research is not defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004), Congress clearly aligned many of the 2006 IDEA regulations (e.g., interventions based on scientifically based research) with requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2006, 34 C.F.R. § 300.315 et seq.). According to the NCLB requirements, scientifically based research

(A) Means research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs; and

(B) Includes research that—
(i) Employs systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment;

(ii) Involves rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses and justify the general conclusions drawn;

(iii) Relies on measurements or observational methods that provide reliable and valid data across evaluators and observers, across multiple measurements and observations, and across studies by the same or different investigators;

(iv) Is evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental designs in which individuals, entities, programs, or activities are assigned to different conditions and with appropriate controls to evaluate the effects of the condition of interest, with a preference for random-assignment experiments, or other designs to the extent that those designs contain within-condition or across-condition controls;

(v) Ensures that experimental studies are presented in sufficient detail and clarity to allow for replication or, at a minimum, offer the opportunity to build systematically on their findings; and

(vi) Has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review. (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. § 1411(e)(2)(C)(xi))

Selecting a Tier 1 Core Program in Reading

In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) reported that while there are no simple answers or solutions for improving reading achievement, an extensive body of knowledge now exists demonstrating the skills children must learn to read well. These skills supply the foundation for sound curriculum decisions and instructional strategies. The five components of effective early reading (e.g., grades K–3) instruction, as reported by the NRP, are as follows:

  1. Phonemic awareness, the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words
  2. Phonics, the relationship between the letters of written language and individual sounds of spoken language
  3. Fluency, the ability to read text accurately and quickly
  4. Vocabulary, the words one must know to communicate effectively
  5. Text Comprehension, understanding what one is reading

As part of the 2000 report, the NRP reviewed more than 100,000 studies that met several criteria: a) the study included one or more of the above components in reading, b) results were generalizable to a large number of students, c) the study had to examine effectiveness of an instructional approach, and d) the research was regarded as "high quality" (see the information presented above on what constitutes scientifically based research). The results of the NRP review were incorporated into the implementation of the Reading First component of NCLB, and the legislation stressed—by using the term more than 100 times (Foorman, 2007)—that instructional decisions are to be made using scientifically based reading research (SBRR).

Bridging Research to Practice

To many practitioners, the statistical analysis of effective programs and procedures using SBRR is difficult to understand and translate into practice. In light of this fact, the U.S. Department of Education supports a Web site and funds three technical assistance centers to help states, districts, and schools implement the SBRR requirements of Reading First.

What Works Clearinghouse

The What Works Clearinghouse features evidence-based studies of the effects of curriculum on students' achievement outcomes (Foorman, 2007). The aim of the clearinghouse is to promote informed educational decision making through a set of easily accessible databases and user-friendly reports. As of April 2008, the Web site includes effectiveness ratings for 24 specific beginning reading programs (e.g., K–3) across four domains: a) alphabetics, b) fluency, c) comprehension, and d) general reading achievement.

Technical Assistance Centers

The U.S. Department of Education funds technical assistance centers in Oregon, Texas, and Florida to help states, districts, and schools implement Reading First requirements. At least two practical tools were developed at these centers. Simmons and Kame'enui (2003) created A Consumer's Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading Program Grades K–3: A Critical Elements Analysis at the Oregon Center, and researchers at the Florida center created a scoring rubric for evaluating potential core reading programs. According to Foorman (2007), The Oregon Center's Consumer's Guide suggests that educators select a core reading program by first considering (a) evidence of efficacy established through rigorously designed experimental studies, and (b) relevance to the demographic characteristics of the students who will use the program. At a second stage, the guide includes a critical elements analysis to help educators determine whether the five major components of reading instruction emphasized by the NRP are adequately addressed: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Educators are recommended to review elements (a) in terms of the program's scope and sequence, (b) within a lesson or series of two to three successive lessons, and (c) across a series of 10 consecutive lessons (to analyze a "skill trace"). Elements are to be rated as (a) not satisfactorily meeting the criterion, (b) partially meeting or exceeding the criterion, or (c) consistently meeting or exceeding the criterion. (p. 27)

The Florida Center's rubric consists of the following questions:

  1. Are all five components from the NRP present and prominent?
  2. Is instruction within each component explicit and systematic?
  3. Is the sequence for instruction organized sequentially?
  4. Is student material coordinated with the teacher guide?
  5. Is instruction across components clearly linked?

Each potential core reading program is judged by the presence (yes/no) and quality (acceptable/not acceptable) of these five categories. Essential to this review process, each reviewer must be highly knowledgeable in reading content and pedagogy.

Using Oregon's consumer guide and Florida's rubric for selecting core reading programs as their basis, Al Otaiba, Kosanovich-Grek, Torgesen, Hassler, and Wahl (2005) reported that effective core reading programs aligned with Reading First share three important features:

  1. A clearly articulated statement of SBRR
  2. Explicit instructional strategies
  3. Consistent organizational and instructional routines

The presence of these features in a core reading curriculum potentially helps prevent reading difficulties in a wide array of diverse classroom learners.

Selecting Core Programs in Other Subjects

Although there is considerable literature describing selection of core curricula in reading, there is much less focusing on core curricula in writing, mathematics, science, and social studies. At present, there is only one elementary math curriculum with discernible positive effects listed on the What Works Clearinghouse. No particular curriculum or information is provided for beginning writing, science, or social studies.

However, some of the findings by Al Otaiba et al. (2005) about reading programs appear to translate across disciplines. That is, effective core curricula should a) have a clearly articulated scientific research base, b) involve explicit instructional strategies, and c) provide consistent organizational and instructional routines. Without explicit guidance or the aid of technical assistance centers in these subjects, it becomes imperative that classroom teachers take the lead in determining an effective core curriculum in these subjects. Teachers can accomplish this by asking whether the content of a curriculum's teacher guide is research based and clearly organized, and whether the text in the pupil edition allows students sufficient practice to master the instructional strategies covered in the lessons (Foorman, 2007).


Al Otaiba, S., Kosanovich-Grek, M. L., Torgesen, J. K., Hassler, L., & Wahl, M. (2005). Reviewing core kindergarten and first-grade reading programs in light of No Child Left Behind: An exploratory study. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 21, 377–400.

Foorman, B. R. (2007). Primary prevention in classroom reading instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39, 24–30.

Fuchs, D., & Deshler, D. D. (2007). What we need to know about responsiveness to intervention (and shouldn't be afraid to ask). Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22, 129–136.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2004).

National Reading Panel. (2000, April). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read (NIH Publication No. 00-4654). Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. 70 § 6301 et seq. (2002)

President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. (2001). A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families. Retrieved March 7, 2008.

Simmons, D. C., & Kame'enui, K. J. (2003). A consumer's guide to evaluating a core reading program Grades K–3: A critical elements analysis. Retrieved March 1, 2008.

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities, 71 Fed. Reg. 156 (Aug. 14, 2006) (to be codified at 34 C.F.R § 300).

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Woodruff, A. L., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2007). Prevention and early identification of students with reading disabilities. In D. Haager, J. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention(pp. 11–27). Baltimore: Brookes.

Yell, M. L., & Drasgow, E. (2007). Assessment for eligibility under IDEIA and the 2006 regulations. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 32, 202–213.

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