Implementing a Tiered Model of Instruction

Bob Heimbaugh has been a K-5 principal in Wyoming for 17 years. He has been involved with the IDEA Partnership representing the National Association of Elementary Principals for the past 5 years.

As a special education teacher, I was always in search of reading instruction that would allow students to reach their potential as readers. Finding instruction and reading interventions that addressed the particular needs of students proved to be most difficult, and any interventions I tried were “hit and miss” at best. At times, I became as frustrated as the students that I was teaching. I felt that there had to be a systematic approach that would allow me to diagnose, intervene, and provide reading instruction to impact student learning. My search always led me to the same conclusion-there were a lot of people out there just like me trying to do the same thing with the same frustrations.

As a principal, my quest for providing meaningful reading instruction for students was shared by my teaching staff. While we felt we were doing great things for students in the area of reading, our state assessment showed that, in some cases, 50% of our students were not at grade level in reading. Also, the data from the state assessment showed that some years we did very well at particular grade levels, while other years we did not. As with most schools, we felt that our good or poor showing was based on the academic ability of the students who were in those classes.

With the advent of NCLB came the introduction of Reading First. For the first time, there was a systematic approach based on solid research that was having a positive impact on student reading achievement. After reviewing, researching, talking, and contemplating, we agreed as a staff that if it could be done, and done well, we could do it.

During our first year of implementation, we started slowly, using a Ready!, Fire!, Aim! approach. Not really knowing how to begin, we felt that we should “begin with the end in mind”, with a focus on assessment. We agreed that we would be trained and learn how to use DIBELS as a reading screening device for one year. After that year, if we did not think that DIBELS was a good fit with our school, we would abandon it and try something else. After the first few months, the implementation of the DIBELS screen took on a life of its own. Teachers began to see that there was a strong connection to what they taught, how students responded to that instruction, and that student learning could be measured and monitored in a way that gave them feedback about not only student learning, but about their instruction, too. Slowly…very slowly, we made the change from thinking about teaching to thinking about learning. Teachers started to come to the conclusion that if they used data appropriately, they could focus on the particular learning needs of students.

With the momentum we gained during our first year of implementation, the second year we focused on reading interventions. Providing interventions at tiers 2 and 3 was problematic for us. We now had good data, but we continually asked, “How do we select interventions that provide student learning results?”. We found comfort in knowing that progress monitoring would give us good feedback on our instruction, but we struggled with the “how to implement an intervention plan that provided the strongest impact on student learning”. With so much to learn about reading instruction, we went back to the research and Reading First and incorporated the 5 big ideas of reading (Vocabulary, Phonics, Phonemic Awareness, Fluency, and Comprehension). As we gained more knowledge in these five areas, we became more comfortable in our approach to providing interventions for kids. The research on the Big 5 concepts allowed us to pinpoint specific skills for instruction for all students.

We are now in our third year of full implementation. We have established a school-wide schedule that has allowed us to provide 90 minutes of reading instruction for our students. Students are grouped by skill during small group instruction. The impact on student learning has been outstanding, and the collaboration between teachers has allowed us to really focus on student learning. We still have “miles and miles to go,” but we are moving in the right direction.

For any school looking at implementing a tiered model of instruction, here are some considerations:

  • Work hard to create a collaborative environment for teaching and learning. Know that this takes time and is a huge change to how schools have historically done business.
  • Create a continuum of service delivery and be explicit about what occurs instructionally at each tier.
  • Use a team approach to assessment.
  • Increase teacher knowledge about reading through strong professional development and focus on learning rather than teaching.
  • Know and understand data and use it to make instructional decisions about learning.
  • Use researched-based instructional practices and find quality researched interventions.
  • Move from content-based instruction to skill-based instruction.
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