Supporting Your Struggling Students: RtI in the Elementary Classroom

Establishing and assessing goals for struggling students

By Rachel Wilser

Grab your coffee, and dig in, teacher friends. Last month, we talked about how to recognize students who need additional support. We said that these would be students who are not progressing adequately in a classroom with regular, high quality instruction. At the beginning of the school year, you’re likely recognizing these kids because they’re showing up as below grade level on back to school assessments you give, and/or their independent work is flagging them in some other way (e.g. they’re writing backwards, they reverse numbers, they are struggling with basic math, etc.). So, now you have these students that you’ve identified as needing extra help. What’s the next step?

I’m so glad you asked! The quick answer is that you want to collect data for six weeks on your students. The longer version has a few more steps. Often, students who aren’t making adequate progress need support in several different area. For example, you might have a first grader who’s reading below grade level, which is the most obvious problem. When you look closer, you might realize another part of the problem is that they’re still confusing some letter sounds. No matter what the problem is, the general six-week cycle is: set a goal, collect the data, re-set the goal.

Supporting your struggling students by Rachel Wilser (

Copyright 2017 Rachel Wilser

Let’s take a hypotheical student through this process. We’re going to call him Max—obviously not his real name. Max is a first-grader who is struggling to read and demonstrate comprehension. He doesn’t have many strategies for reading. His writing is difficult to read, and he’s confusing place value in two digit numbers (ie he makes not distinction between 26 and 62), and still struggling with 1:1 correspondence. It’s clear that Max is not performing at the same level of his peers; what’s more, he’s not making adequate progress in first grade.

At this juncture, we need Max to get some extra support so that he can either catch up with his peers, OR we can collect the data we need to push him into the SST process. (*Note: SST stands for Student Support Team; it’s the general process of bringing kids to the table to talk about how best to support them, and ultimately, the pipeline to Special Education testing, if that’s what’s needed. It is not called SST in every school, but usually is called something similar.) If we look at the above diagram, we’ve already accomplished step 1: we’ve identified Max’s current problems//barriers to learning. Now, what we need to do is set specific, measurable goals that we can track for six weeks. It’s best to set 1-4 goals (otherwise students can get overwhelmed, and let’s be honest—teachers can, too) so that you can observe progress. You also want to start with the most basic goals; you can’t sound out words, if you don’t know the sounds letters make. You can’t multiply if you can’t add. You get the picture.

So, if I’m thinking about the most basic skills that Max needs to move forward, this is what I would list. This isn’t necessarily an exhaustive list, but just some of the foundation skills that he needs to build upon//master.

  1. Doesn’t know all letter sounds
  2. Doesn’t routinely identify two digit numbers accurately, and occasionally confuses 1 and 7
  3. Relies exclusively on sounding out as only reading strategy, but has a hard time sounding it out because he’s not confident in letter sounds
  4. Struggles to track both lines of text in a book, as well as objects counted (1:1 correspondence)
  5. Reverses many letters when writing
  6. Low comprehension and fluency

I cannot tackle ALL of these goals in a six-week period, so now what I need to decide is what are the most basic//important goals. Sure, Max is reversing lots of letters when he’s writing, and he has low fluency, but those are not going to be my priority goals. If he’s more confident in his letter sound knowledge, his fluency will slowly improve, so I’m going to tackle the most basic goals first. You can’t put the cart before the horse. When I write goals, I want them to be clear, measurable, and actionable. “Improve phonetic knowledge” isn’t a clear, measurable goal, but “correctly identify 10/10 letters when given out of ABC order” is. These are certainly not the only goals that you can write for Max, but when Max was my student I wrote the following six-week goals for him. (I did write them in a chart like this, because it makes the data collection step SUPER easy.)

Supporting your struggling students by Rachel Wilser (

Copyright 2017 Rachel Wilser

Now that I’ve established goals, I need to choose how I’m going to assess these goals. These assessments don’t need to be elaborate, but they do need to be consistent. For example, the fourth goal “Max will accurately identify 4 out of 5 numbers when randomly selected” I had number cards in my classroom and each time I monitored this goal I would have them number side down, mix them all up, and ask Max to choose 5. He flips them one at a time, and tells me the number as he flips it. I track how many he identifies accurately, and write down any relevant notes. For the first goal, I want him to recognize all letters in ABC order first. If he masters that before the 6 weeks are up, I’ll note that and start showing him all 26 letters in a scattered order.

The next step is to collect the data. That means I’m going to assess these goals at least once a week, and write down what I notice. So maybe Max’s intervention is that he’s receiving an additional amount of phonics instruction per week. I hope that this additional instruction will help him recognize letters and sound out CVC words. I’ll give him the same assessment each week for six weeks and write down the date I gave it, and include any relevant notes. To be clear, for the second goal of decoding 4/5 CVC words, I’m giving him the same assessment in the sense that I’m asking him to decode five CVC words each week presented in the same manner (orally, in this instance); I’m not asking him to decode the same five CVC words each week.

At the end of the six weeks, I’m going to reevaluate his goals, likely with someone else—a coach, my grade-level special education teacher, my grade-level partner—and discuss his progress. Has he mastered some goals? Is he showing progress on others? Is there a goal that seems sticky? We’re likely to discuss what interventions are working, which ones seem successful, and which ones we need to continue. Then, we’re going to start this six-week timer over again. We’ll end again with another meeting. The ultimate goal is that the interventions are successful, and the student can make progress.


Additional Resources

Response to Intervention: Meeting Students at Their Learning Ability

RTI Dos and Don’ts

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle school. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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