Response to Intervention for Literacy in Secondary Schools

Adolescent literacy is a top priority for the country, but it is at a critically low level (RAND, 2002). Recommendations for improving literacy among adolescents include using data to diagnose student needs and providing intensive interventions for struggling learners (Alliance for Excellent Education, NGA Center for Best Practices, National Association of Secondary School Principals, & National Association of State Boards of Education, 2005). The Response-to-Intervention (RtI) framework systematically uses assessment data to efficiently allocate resources in order to enhance learning for all students through multi-tiered systems of support (Burns & VanDerHeyden, 2006). Thus, RtI could be a way to address recommendations for enhancing adolescent literacy.

Although 51% of respondents in a 2009 national survey indicated that they have implemented an RtI framework at a high school, which was up from 16% just 1 year earlier, only 18% of them indicated that they used the framework for reading and 84% of respondents from elementary schools indicated that they used an RtI model (Spectrum K12, 2009). RtI generally consists of skill screening for all students, closely monitoring student progress, and using three tiers of intervention intensity (Batsche et al., 2006). The core elements of RtI should be present in any model, but there are fundamental differences between how an RtI framework is applied at a secondary and elementary school. Below, we discuss the relevant differences and how to apply the core components at a secondary level.

Credit, Course/Schedule Driven

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, every year approximately 3.5% of high school students drop out of school and only approximately 75% of students who enter 9th grade graduate from high school (Chapman, Laird, & KewalRamani, 2010). Low academic skills are certainly factors that can contribute to a student dropping out of high school and can increase risk for course failures and dropout. Thus, it is essential that schools provide students with interventions that address both their proximal needs (i.e., what they need right now to be successful in their current courses) and distal needs (i.e., what they need to close large skill gaps) to assure graduation.

Students need opportunities to recover lost credits in order to graduate and schools should avoid reducing opportunities to gain credits in order to provide interventions. Some schools have attempted to provide interventions before and after school, but the students most in need of intervention support also tend to have inconsistent attendance at invitational before and after school intervention programs. Students are more likely to engage in intervention programs when participation in such programs is seen as directed rather than invitational. The best ways to accomplish this shift are to embed intervention courses into the school’s/student’s master schedule, require the student to attend, track attendance and participation rates, and follow up with students who display disengagement from the intervention classes. Identifying credit-generating course codes within the state’s student progression plan is critical to ensuring that students receive credit toward graduation while receiving appropriate intervention support. For instance, Florida’s student progression plan includes more than 10 courses that can be used to provide intervention while allowing the students to earn elective credit (e.g., Personal, Career, and School Development; Reading for College Success).

Consensus Building

Most personnel at the secondary level are content specific and generally most interested in student progress within their own content area. Surprisingly, despite the fact that most secondary school teachers would likely cite reading issues as a barrier to student progression within their content areasthe goal of improving student literacy outcomes goes unmet—typically because of a lack of consensus on the need for RtI implementation.. Instead, consensus building at the secondary level often centers on improving the percentage of full option graduates (i.e., graduates who can readily join the military, take a living-wage job, and/or go to college). Thus, consensus building is often initiated by redefining the mission of the K–12 system to include full option graduation for all students and supporting all schools in redefining their own mission statements to align with the K–12 vision.

Student Role in Own Programming

Adolescence is a time of great change for students. During this period, it is both normal and healthy for adolescents to desire independence, autonomy, and a sense of control over their lives both inside and outside of school. As a result, adolescents often resist changes that they perceive are being done “to them” instead of “for” or “with” them. Adolescents who perceive that intervention supports have been imposed on them and/or do not understand the expected outcomes of interventions related to their own individual progress are likely to resist or even sabotage the supports. As such, it is critical to build consensus with adolescents by discussing the expected outcome of intervention, how the intervention will help them personally progress toward their goals, and how the intervention will be monitored to ensure that the expected impact is being attained.

Quality Core Instruction

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of providing students with strong, effective core instruction at the secondary level. Without sufficient initial instruction, the percentage of students in need of intervention support will likely be larger than the capacity of the schools to respond adequately. It has become increasingly clear to us in our work with schools that building intervention programs without maximizing the effectiveness of core instruction results in overtaxed intervention providers and severely diluted intervention programs that have little hope of providing the intensity of instruction required to adequately support struggling students.

Secondary schools often are forced to devote increasing amounts of school resources to intervention over time. We have seen this scenario play out again and again with the schools in which we work. For instance, many high schools find a need to incorporate more time within their master schedules for academic intervention for 10th grade than for 9th grade. To make matters worse, many of these schools also are faced with the challenge of meeting the academic needs of students who are becoming increasingly disengaged over time. Our experience firmly confirms our belief that schools cannot intervene their way out of their responsibility to provide effective core literacy instruction.

Instead of an intervention-focused approach to meeting students’ needs, effective programming focuses on prevention, beginning with the intensification of core instruction. Core instructional planning must address both students’ academic needs as well as their social-emotional needs in order to provide true access to core instruction. High quality academic instruction will not be enough if students are so disengaged that they fail to receive the instruction due to excessive absenteeism and/or behavior problems. Thus, effective instruction will include strategies that keep students engaged, such as beginning lessons by priming background knowledge; providing students with a choice of assignments, texts, and topics; providing opportunities for peer collaboration; and supporting students in setting reasonable yet ambitious goals and providing progress-monitoring feedback to them as they strive to achieve those goals.

Core Components of RtI for Literacy Instruction at the Secondary Level

Although quality core instruction is important for middle and high schools, personnel at secondary schools should anticipate the need for more intense Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention. In fact, most secondary schools will need to plan for and implement supplemental (Tier 2) and targeted (Tier 3) intervention services for at least a portion of their student population. Moreover, the core tenets of an RtI model should still be a part of a secondary school’s implementation model. Below, we discuss how some of the basic aspects of an RtI model would be modified at a secondary level.


Curriculum-based measurement of oral reading fluency (ORF) is by far the most commonly used assessment model in RtI for literacy at the secondary level. ORF data consist of the number of words that the student can read correctly per minute, which can be used to identify students in need of more intense intervention and to monitor student progress. National norms through the 8th grade are available for free online from ReadNaturally through their Hasbrouck-Tindal Table of Oral Reading Fluency Norms. ORF is closely linked to general reading outcomes in elementary grades, but becomes a poorer indicator of general reading skills after about 6th grade.

Because ORF does not indicate overall reading skills in high school as well as it does in elementary school, secondary personnel should consider multiple measures to screen students. The MAZE procedure could be used to screen students and to monitor progress. The MAZE procedure involves having the students silently read a passage with every fifth or seventh word deleted. In place of the deleted word are three choices from which the student circles the word that best fits the sentence (Shin, Deno, & Espin, 2000). Group-administered measures of reading comprehension such as the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress for Reading or the Scholastic Reading Inventory can be useful measures for screening students, but they have less utility in frequent monitoring of student progress.

In addition to formal measures of academic skills, school personnel should use important behavioral indicators such as attendance, discipline referrals, or suspensions, and measures of school climate for the individual student to identify students in need of additional support. Many schools are using nonacademic early warning signs (EWS) to identify students, which will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent paper.

Tiered Interventions

Although many people think of individualized interventions as the crux of RtI, the more standardized interventions used in Tier 2 are the ones that directly determine the success of the model, especially at the secondary level. Tier 2 interventions are usually delivered in a small group and are based on student needs with a standardized approach. For example, students who lacked phonic skills might all participate in the REWARDS Secondary program (Archer, Gleason, & Vachon, 2005) and those with reading fluency deficits might participate in Six Minute Solution (Adams & Brown, 2003).

Some high schools deliver interventions within a remedial reading course in addition to regular literacy instruction. However, this can be problematic because a) the course is typically 50 to even 90 minutes long but only 30 minutes are need for intervention, and b) a remedial course may impede earning credits toward graduation. There are several alternative models for delivering interventions at the secondary level. We describe some common ones below.

The first alternative model for delivering interventions is to provide a 30-minute homeroom period in which advising and related work occurs 1 day each week, but then students can be flexibly grouped for the other 4 days. Some high schools include interventions within a content area such as Social Studies. In this example, 25 minutes might be dedicated to content area instruction and 25 minutes to comprehension or decoding strategies applied to the content area book. A block schedule of 90 minutes could incorporate 30 minutes of “reading enrichment” in which students with strong or average reading skills would read independently and the teacher could run a small flexibly grouped remedial intervention in the same room. Alternatively, a reading specialist could co-teach a course and provide remediation or could run a small group in a different setting. The latter would allow the reading specialist to conduct three groups, at 30 minutes each, within the same 90-minute block.

Because these are small groups, there has to be an opportunity to create a teacher/tutor to student ratio of approximately 1 to 10. Thus, one classroom teacher and one paraprofessional (or two teachers) could teach a class of 20–24 students, or one reading specialist could pull up to 10 students at any one time from one course.

Problem Solving

Problem-solving is the basis for RtI and is defined as activities designed to “eliminate the difference between “what is” and “what should be” with respect to student development” (Deno, 2002; p. 38). Problem-solving within Tier 2 tends to focus on identifying specific deficits (e.g., fluency vs. comprehension), but analysis within Tier 3 involves collaborative efforts to identify the current level of performance, the desired level of performance, and variables that prevent the student from obtaining that desired level. At the secondary level, problem analysis and development of intervention plans is typically conducted by a team of teachers. Grade-level teams drive the RtI process at the elementary level, but secondary efforts are carried out by different types of teams. Most high schools use a content-area team, such as the English department, to examine universal screening data and to monitor progress with students receiving interventions. Some schools use multidisciplinary teams when the teams exist within small learning communities or “houses.” Tier 3 analyses and problem solving should be conducted by a multidisciplinary team that is trained in the problem-solving process. Elementary schools frequently use problem-solving teams (PSTs), but PSTs do not occur as frequently at the secondary level. Thus, some high schools conduct a meeting with the student’s teachers and include personnel who are well trained in problem solving, such as remedial teachers, special education teachers, and school psychologists.


RtI initiatives have consistently led to improved student and systemic outcomes (i.e., reduced referrals to and placements in special education, a greater proportion of students scoring proficiently on state tests; Burns, Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005), but few studies have focused on middle and high schools. Vaughn and colleagues (2010) implemented small-group Tier 2 interventions at a middle school and found that students who received the interventions increased decoding, fluency, and comprehension skills, but the effects were fairly small. Windram and colleagues (2007) found a 66% proficiency rate on the state-mandated accountability reading test among the 18 high school students who participated in a pilot RTI project. Moreover, the average increase in scores on a group-administered test for these students was over three times the national average among 9th graders and over five times their rate of increase from the previous year (Windram et al., 2007). Finally, Heartland Area Education Agency 11 (2004) found high rates of proficiency among middle and high school students within its well-known RtI model, and reported a drop out rate of less than 2%.


Given RtI’s promise to be a key component of adolescent literacy instruction and the rapid increase in implementation in middle and high schools, clear guidance regarding secondary RtI models is needed. Our hope is that this article will be the beginning, but it is only the first in a series. Subsequent articles will address important topics, the first of which will describe how to use early warning signs to identify students who need additional support to remediate or prevent difficulties. The next paper in the series will discuss how to use data to analyze student problems at the secondary level in order to determine appropriate interventions. Finally, we will discuss the importance of vertical alignment within K–12 curriculum as the foundation for RtI. Although we also recognize that much more information will be needed, we hope that school personnel will find these resources useful.


Adams, G. N., & Brown, S. (2003). The Six-Minute Solution: A reading fluency program. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Alliance for Excellent Education, NGA Center for Best Practices, National Association of Secondary School Principals, & National Association of State Boards of Education. (2005). Reading instruction is for everybody - even teenagers. Washington, DC: Author.

Archer, A. L., Gleason, M. M., & Vachon, V. (2005). REWARDS Secondary. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Batsche, G., Elliott, J., Graden, J. L., Grimes, J., Kovaleski, J. F., Prasse, D., Tilly, W. D.(2006). Response to intervention: Policy considerations and implementation.

Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Burns, M. K., Appleton, J. J., & Stehouwer, J. D. (2005). Meta-analytic review of response-to-intervention research: Examining field-based and research-implemented models. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 23, 381–394.

Burns, M. K., & VanDerHeyden, A. M. (2006). Using response to intervention to assess learning disabilities: Introduction to the special series. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 32, 3–5.

Chapman, C., Laird, J., & KewalRamani, A. (2010). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 1972–2008 (NCES 2011-012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Deno, S. (2002). School psychologist as problem solver. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology (4th ed., pp. 37–56). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Heartland Area Education Agency 11. (2004). Heartland AEA 11 annual progress report. Johnston, IA: Author.

RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding: Towards an R&D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Shin, J., Deno, S. L., & Espin, C. (2000). Technical adequacy of MAZE probes for curriculum-based measurement of reading growth. Journal of Special Education, 34, 140–153.

Spectrum K12 School Solutions. (2009). RTI adoption survey. Towson, MD: Author.

Vaughn, S., Cirino, P. T., Wanzek, J., Wexler, J., Fletcher, J. M., Denton, C. D., Francis, D. J. (2010). Response to intervention for middle school students with reading difficulties: Effects of a primary and secondary intervention. School Psychology Review, 39, 3–21.

Windram, H., Scierka, B., & Silberglitt, B. (2007). Response to intervention at the secondary level: A description of two districts’ models of implementation. Communique, 35(5), 43–45.

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