When they’re not learning what you’re teaching: RtI in the elementary classroom

What do you do with students who aren’t progressing?

By Rachel Wilser

Your classroom looks awesome. Your lesson plans are on point. You’re perky and on time in the morning. You’re making adorable projects, and reading all the best books for read-alouds. But some kids still aren’t getting it. You’re teaching the content, but it’s not making it in for a handful of kids. What do you do?

If you’re 4-6 weeks into the school year, and there are a few kids who are struggling routinely, it’s time to start thinking about RtI. What’s RtI, you ask? It stands for Response to Intervention, and the most basic answer is that RtI is anything you do outside of your normal instruction to assist students. It’s likely you’ve seen this triangle (or something similar) in a training of some sort before. It’s a pretty standard visual representation of RtI. (For the purposes of this article, we’re only discussing academic interventions. Behavior charts and interventions will be a separate topic.) And before you get nervous tics thinking about planning to support the 15% of your kids who will need RtI, in a classroom of 25 kids, it’s 6 students max (1-2 in the top 5%, 3-4 in your middle 10%).

Response to Intervention

So, how do you know which students in your class truly need RtI? Students who need RtI are struggling in class in a noticeable way. In lower elementary grades (K/1), they might have a hard time writing their name, recognizing letters out of ABC order (D, J, K, Z, Q), identifying numbers out of order, or displaying early literacy behaviors (maybe they still hold a book upside down, or attempt to read right to left). In upper elementary grades, they may struggle with fluency and/or comprehension, basic operations, or decoding. Your students who need RtI are kids who are not progressing adequately in a regular, high-quality classroom; when students aren’t making progress it’s clear that they need an intervention. It’s our responsibility as teachers to support all students in our classroom, and when our students are stalled we have to figure out what supports they need to jump-start progress.

What do you do with students who aren’t progressing? The short answer is provide some type of targeted, research-supported intervention. (We’ll dive deeper into what exactly this means next month.) Often, this might mean a smaller group of students receive different instruction, but that’s certainly not the only thing that it can mean.

RtI models vary from school to school, so you should clarify with your grade level team and administrators, but generally teachers are the first implementers of RtI, especially to the middle 10% students. It’s also important to know that interventions for students who aren’t making progress should be structured, consistent, and research-based. It’s likely that you’re going to notice a few students who would be good candidates for RtI when you complete your first round of in-class assessments this fall. When I was teaching first grade, this was usually about a month into school. We were a Lucy Calkins/workshop model school, so I had to give my students Fountas and Pinnell assessments, plus the literacy survey. (Everyone got a full literacy survey in the fall, and once they passed it we didn’t often loop back because of how labor intensive the full survey is.) Any student who struggles on one or more portions of the literacy survey gets an immediate red flag. (The literacy survey measures skills like rhyming, initial sound matching, identifying letters out of order, and blending/segmenting.) You might only do leveled reading assessments or math fluency tests in older grades, but if you have a student who doesn’t pass your first round of teacher-given assessments in the fall is someone you want to watch closely.

RtI is manageable, and shouldn’t be overwhelming. Next month we’ll talk about how to do RtI. If you’re looking for resources in the meantime check out wrightslaw.com and mrsdscorner.com; both have great resources for teachers and parents. Beware: wrightslaw has great resources, but is a bit wordy.

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.