S2 E3 - Why isn't my Tier 2 Instruction working?

Teacher with Students at Desk

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Hello there, and welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast. My name is Jocelyn Seamer, and I am so pleased to be here with you today. I'm not recording this episode from home; I am, in fact, on the lands of the Wurundjeri Willum people in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I'm here for three gorgeous days, a full day of PL tomorrow with the school and then two days in the classroom with teachers and leaders having a look at how this school can further impact positive student outcomes. Every teacher will walk away with an action plan, and they'll be able to video me teaching every grade in the school, working on their particular goals. If this sounds like something that you think your school would benefit from, you can visit the homepage of our website, download a professional learning services brochure, or even book a discovery call.

Today's topic -  Why isn't my tier 2 instruction working?
Today on the podcast, I'll be talking about tier two instruction, some circumstances that result in it not being as effective as it could be, and some things that we could do to ensure that our and our students' efforts result in great outcomes.

Every school would say that they provide additional support to struggling readers in some form or another. However, the effectiveness of this support varies considerably from school to school. Some schools are seeing the numbers of students reaching upper primary without foundational skills in reading, reducing year on year. They track student growth with reliable data, teach using a streamlined evidence-informed approach, and have certainty about the impact of their efforts. Other schools, however, spend significant amounts of money on resources and wages and are not seeing outcomes. Why? The first mishap I see when I speak with and work with schools is that tier-one and tier-two efforts are out of alignment. 

What is tiered instruction?
Let's begin by looking at this idea of tiers of instruction. Tier one instruction is what the whole class receives. It's the universal teaching. Tier two is an extra, additional dose of what the student was learning in Tier one. In an ideal scenario, students who require additional support will be identified as soon as humanly possible. This might be through a screener such as the Check How I Process or CHIP screener from Read3. That will help you identify students who might have processing issues. When you know that a student could be wobbling in their processing and memory, you are able to have a plan for support. In phonics, this would involve teaching a lesson about /f/ to the whole class and providing the opportunity later in the day for the student to essentially have that lesson repeated, as well as an extra review opportunity for the graphemes that have already been learned.

We all learn to read the same way.
You see, we all learn to read the same way, but different children will come to this with differing levels of ease and speed. Some children will need five repetitions to connect the phoneme with the grapheme. Some will need 12. Some will need 20, and a small number of children will need 80 to 100. Trying to teach all of these students as if they are the same learner sets many of them up for failure, or at least fails to equip them with the firm knowledge of the alphabetic principle that underpins their capacity to deal with print in the years to come.

Tier 2 - Extra, not different.
Tier two instruction is not something different from the main instruction. It's just extra. As such, we don't need a special program for tier-two work. We need to closely monitor student learning and be data-driven in our approach to filling gaps as soon as they arise. In this way, we help students keep up with their peers. We don't have to use time and resources to catch them up later.

That's great if you're starting off in the Foundation year with strong systems in place. But the situation that more commonly arises is that there are significant gaps between the code knowledge of students in our class. A Year One teacher might have a student or two who barely knows any basic code, some who are wobbly on the consonant, digraphs, /sh/, /th/, /ng/, and /ch/. Others who are on track to be learning the complex code, and a small group who seem to know most of the code and can read everything but have spelling that isn't as strong.

Many schools' response to this situation is to buy in a program that's specifically for intervention work, test the students who are behind and have those students leave the classroom for a short period of time several times each week to receive intervention. Very often, the classroom teacher has no idea what's happening in those sessions. The student remains with the main class for Tier-One instruction and then has additional content to learn in the intervention session. There are several issues with this approach.

Issue 1 -  We bought a program but can't speak to the specific processes.
The first one is that the learning support teacher and classroom teacher are not on the same page. It's a common situation that learning support seems to exist as an island in the school, and I've often had school leaders tell me that they're not quite sure what goes on in the intervention space. They know that they've bought a program, but they can't speak to the specific processes in place or whether that investment in resources and people is actually having a positive impact on student outcomes. If this is your school, don't feel bad. It's a common situation, and it's one that can be rectified.

Issue 2 - Asking strugglers to learn double content.
The second issue with this approach is that we're asking the student who probably has a learning difficulty, memory challenge, or disability to learn double the content of their peers. They're expected to participate in the main lesson that they'll likely not be getting much from, (but I'll talk about that in a moment). They have to learn the content from that lesson and then go to intervention and learn content from that lesson as well. We take our most vulnerable kids and, with the very best of intentions, put systems in place that overload their working memories. Then we wonder why we aren't seeing results.

The nature of phonics learning.
Before we go on, I need to come back to that comment I just made about the students not really getting much value from the main instruction, and the reason that this occurs is due to the nature of phonics learning. Phonics must be taught and learned cumulatively. It's biologically secondary. We are not hardwired to learn it. So we learn some phoneme-grapheme correspondences, and we read and spell with them, and then we learn some more correspondences, and we add those into the words we're reading and spelling. Each part of the sequence must be learned to mastery before we move on and add more correspondences to our reading and spelling.

The road to orthographic mapping
The road to orthographic mapping, or having words live in our long-term memory, is through sounding out words for reading and spelling, attending to letters and sounds in words. But if you have gaps in your code knowledge, you can't do this effectively. If you don't have automatic recall of the grapheme <ch>, read early on as /ch/, and you are given the word 'chain' to read because your class is learning the grapheme <ai> as in 'rain', you can't fully attend to all of the correspondences and map the word to your long-term memory. You'll likely be guessing the words, and this shows up in both accuracy and reading rate.

Some children aren't gonna be overly bothered if their correspondences are in need of consolidation, we give them words to read and spell with a bit of review, and they'll be just fine. But these aren't the students who end up in intervention. The students who end up in intervention are the ones who need instruction to be targeted, tight and incredibly systematic and explicit.

Sitting these students in the main lesson with everyone else, expecting them to learn from reading and spelling words that contain graphemes they aren't firm on, sets both the student and the teacher up for failure. Our decisions about how we support a range of students must consider the learning profile of the student as well as where they are up to in the code.

Not every student who needs a bit of extra help will struggle with the main lesson. Ultimately, it's the student data that will drive your approach. If you are closely monitoring student progress in phonics and phonemic awareness, and when it's time, text-level fluency, and the student is making appropriate progress, then keep them with the main group. But if the progress is really slow or non-existent if the student is highly disengaged or even a little bit disengaged because, for some students, that's enough to get in the way of learning or they're experiencing emotional distress in the lesson, something has to change.

Issue 3 - You don't have a tier-two problem. You have a tier-one problem.
The third reason that your Tier Two instruction might not be working that well is that your Tier One isn't strong. In a multi-tiered system of support, Tier One is the hero. Tier One instruction is rigorous and inclusive, with many repetitions present, student attention focused, teaching routines are consistent, direct, and with a perky pace. (And thanks to Anita Archer for that bit of alliteration). It involves checking in weekly on student learning, particularly for those students who struggle and responding immediately to what you see. In a multi-tiered system of support, Tier One instruction is so good that the number of students needing additional support outside the classroom is really small. You may have heard it said that if you have a large number of Tier Two students, you don't have a Tier Two problem. You have a Tier One problem.

What can I do to make Tier 2 more effective?
So one of the ways to make sure that your tier-two instruction is effective is to make tier-one instruction brilliant. Our goal needs to be that we all become an expert teacher of reading. If your Tier One instruction involves sight words taught as global shapes, beginning readers given predictable text, phonics not being taught explicitly and rigorously, and progress monitoring is done by benchmark assessment or some other assessment that doesn't actually align with your sequence of teaching, your Tier Two is unlikely to be of much use because Tier One will be undermining anything good that happens in Tier-Two.

So what are the ways that we can make Tier Two super effective? The first thing is to create alignment between high-quality, rigorous Tier-One instruction and what happens in Tier Two. This might mean jettisoning your Tier Two program that you just spent a lot of money on, and I know that feels painful. The problem won't be that your Tier Two program isn't good. It's because it will likely be working on a completely different scope and sequence from what's happening in Tier One. You simply can't create alignment because words and texts are added cumulatively, and if the scope and sequences are different, the materials just don't fit with each other.

The alignment between Tier One and Two isn't just about the things. It's also about instruction. Classroom teachers retain ultimate responsibility for the progress of the students in their class. They must know what's happening in Tier-Two work. Ideally, the classroom teacher and the learning support person are working together to decide the content that the student will be learning to create alignment between the two aspects of instruction. When you do this, you can then send materials home for additional practice and increase the rate of student learning.

Classroom management.
But how do you manage things when each class has students who can't take advantage of the Tier-One phonics instruction being delivered to the rest of the class? Well, you could reimagine the role of the support teacher. What if, during core phonics instruction time, that teacher took those students from all Year One classes to another space and gave them a full hour of instruction in exactly the content they needed to learn each and every day? What would the impact on the students be if they received five hours of instruction per week in exactly what they needed instead of 20 minutes three times a week? I don't think it takes a crystal ball to know the answer to this question.

Ok, but how does that catch them up to their peers?
An objection to this suggestion is but how will they catch up to their peers? The unpopular answer is that they might not catch up until later. I'd love to tell you that if you give some great Tier-Two instruction, all of your struggling readers will catch up and be on par with peers. I hear people talking about students rejoining the main group of students after a period of time and intervention. Now this might be the case when a student has no particular learning challenges and just hasn't learned what they needed to up until this point. However, if the main group of students needs 12 repetitions to learn new correspondences and your spotlight students need 40, there's going to be a difference in the pace of learning. In order for your struggler to catch up, they actually have to then learn faster than their peers.

The ideal situation is that students can reenter the main group after a period of time, but the decision about whether this is appropriate has to be based on the learning profile of the student and what your data is telling you. Then if the student rejoins the main group, they're likely going to need strong Tier Two instruction to stay there. My point here is not to say that people are delusional with this idea of catch-up but that the approach to supporting students needs to be personalised to the student. Different students may well be following different paths while receiving robust evidence-informed teaching, but with variation in the level of intensity and the size of the group they work in.

Issue 4 - the person delivering the intervention is not qualified or experienced.
Another reason that your Tier Two instruction might not be working as well as you'd like is that the person delivering the intervention is not qualified or experienced enough to do so. The number one mistake that we make in supporting our strugglers is that we give the students with the highest needs to the least qualified, least experienced person in the room. That is, a teaching assistant. This is unfair to the student and unfair to our colleagues. In no way am I saying that our strugglers shouldn't work with teaching assistants at all.  I'm also not saying that teaching assistants can't play an important part in our whole school approach to reading instruction. I've worked in schools and now work with schools where teaching assistants run their own phonics groups during Tier One instruction and do an absolutely brilliant job. But this is under the direct guidance of a qualified, experienced teacher or leader who trains them and ensures that data reflects the effort that's put in. They're also not automatically placed on the lowest group or the students who struggle the most.

When it comes to our students who struggle the most, though, they often require something just a little bit different from their peers in that they need more time to learn phoneme and grapheme correspondences or some tweaks to instruction to get blending with graphemes going. Classroom assistants usually aren't equipped to recognise student needs and respond appropriately, and it's unfair to put them in the position to have to work it out on their own.

Issue 5 - Strugglers leave intervention too soon
The last reason that Tier Two instruction might not be cutting the mustard and getting you results is that students are actually kicked out of intervention before the job is done. Any approach to student support must put the student at the centre of the process. The deciding factor in when students are ready to leave intervention is the progress of the student, not the grade they're in or how long they've been in the program. It absolutely breaks my heart to see parents on social media groups asking for recommendations for tutors because their child's school doesn't provide additional support in reading instruction beyond a certain grade. It breaks my heart, and it makes me incredibly angry.

Putting on my leader hat.
As educators, we have one job. To teach children. This includes ensuring that they are literate and numerate when they leave us after year six. And I get that budgets are tight. I've been a school leader in four schools. I know what it's like to look at the budget and feel despair that the money isn't going to do what we want it to. But remember, if you have more students in intervention in your school than you can handle, something has to change. Tier One isn't getting it done. Tier one instruction must teach all of our students. That's not negotiable. You might be wondering how one teacher can meet the needs of all students when the spread is large. The answer is that they can't.

Jocelyn's experience.
Now there aren't any perfect one-size-fits-all answers to creating equitable access to learning for our students, but I would like to share my own experience with you in case it's helpful to your situation. Five years ago, when I went into my last school, the results were pretty abysmal. Roughly 80% of the students leaving primary school tested as needing reading intervention when they got to high school. Our approach to this was basically to teach phonics and foundational skills to every single student in the school, meeting them where they're up to. For an hour every day, all students were grouped across classrooms based on their point of reading development. This grouping was within phases of school, so the early years, years three and four, and years five and six.

Data was collected across the school and monitored centrally to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Just about every adult was a teacher of reading. Classroom assistants used the whole school approach to teach phonics and decoding lessons and did a brilliant job. The groups most in need and those in the fast lane were taught by registered teachers. There was very little additional support available for outside of classroom Tier-Two work because the school context meant that every classroom assistant was needed in the classroom so Tier One had to be amazing. As students reached the point where they could read at 90 words per minute and could read and spell, they moved on.

Two years after starting this work, the number of students testing as needing reading intervention in high school was down to about 30%. Now, the job wasn't done. Every student wasn't at grade level, but the improvements were impressive. In the upper grades, there were so many children who could read and write that we didn't need to flexibly group across classrooms in years five and six anymore; a few children continued to come out so that they could continue to receive instruction, but most students just stayed in their class and read novels and worked on age-appropriate things.

What is it going to take to make this happen?
You see, in the quest to get all of our students reading and writing, we can't ask, are we going to be able to do this? That question has "No" as one of the possible answers. A more powerful question is, "What is it going to take to make this happen?" Once you can answer that question and you are brave enough to consider all possibilities, then it's just about finding the most direct, effective path to student success for your school and taking it.

Tier Two support or intervention doesn't have to be tricky. It's only hard when we make it hard. When we are wishy-washy in our approach, when we aren't willing to make the brave choices, when we are putting maintaining the status quo above the wellbeing and outcomes of children, things are just not going to cook with gas.

Plan of Action
Your action item from this podcast episode is to ask yourself some questions and be willing to stare down the answers, and those questions are:

Number 1 - Does our data indicate that the number of students requiring Tier-Two support is getting smaller? If not, why not?

Number 2 -Does our data indicate that our Tier-Two support efforts are yielding results? If not, why not?

Number 3 - Are we using our people and physical resources to maximum effect?

Number 4 - How closely aligned are our Tier-One and our Tier-Two efforts, and how can we tighten that up?

That's all from me for this week. On behalf of your students, thank you for all that you do. Thank you for your ongoing commitment to outcomes and furthering your practice. Thank you for making it to the end of this episode. 

If you know someone who you think would find it helpful, please share it with them. If I can make just one person's teaching life that little bit easier, then I'm a happy lady. Have a brilliant week ahead. See you next time. Bye.

Looking for professional learning to make your Tier 1 instruction in foundational skills brilliant?  Then join the Evergreen Teacher membership, where'll you'll find all of our courses and plenty of live, regular support.  Click here to join as an individual or inquire about a school-level membership. 

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Sandi Troncone

Fabulous episode ! Thank you 💕💕

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Sandi Troncone

Fabulous episode ! Great ideas and great questions ! Thank you 💕💕

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Sandi Troncone

Fabulous episode . Great ideas and great questions . I will be doing things differently tomorrow. Thank you 💕💕

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