Tier 2 Intervention for Some: Revisiting What It Is and How to Best Implement It in the Current Educational Landscape
Disruptions to schooling over the past two years due to the pandemic have resulted in a significant number of students performing below grade level in the 2021/2022 school year (McKinsey and Company, 2021). In a well-implemented Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), core instruction (Tier 1) should meet the needs of most students, but some students will require Tier 2 targeted, small-group intervention in addition to Tier 1. In the current school year, however, many districts’ universal screening data are showing that upward of 80 percent of their first- and second-grade students are performing below grade level on foundational literacy skills. So what do schools do? Providing Tier 2 intervention to the vast majority of students will tax the system. Schools simply do not have the resources to provide this level of support to such a large number of students. Ultimately, schools will need to leverage the instruction in Tier 1 as a means to provide “class-wide intervention” to meet the current needs of their student population.
A class-wide intervention in Tier 1 may involve the teacher presenting very explicit and systematic instruction on the foundational skills to address the students’ current skill level with the goal to accelerate their progress to the greatest extent possible. This type of classroom intervention can be provided both whole-group and in small-group differentiated instruction during Tier 1. Teachers can utilize the intervention component that many core programs include or instructional materials from a lower grade level. Again, the goal is to build the missing foundational skills as quickly as possible so as to bring the students’ reading skills to grade level. This does not mean that tiered instruction goes away, though. Even within the current context, some students will require additional support to be successful.
Offering Tier 2 support for the students who are performing in the lower range on measures of early literacy skills as compared to their peers will continue to be an important part of achieving a healthy system that meets the needs of all students. Just as schools will need to tighten up their Tier 1 instruction, they will also need to provide the strongest Tier 2 support possible this year for a subgroup of the lowest-performing students. As such, it is a good time to review the definition and characteristics of high-quality Tier 2 intervention. In the sections below, we will discuss what Tier 2 intervention is, two common approaches to providing Tier 2 intervention, essential components of Tier 2 interventions, resources for locating Tier 2 interventions, and procedures for monitoring student progress within Tier 2.
What Is Tier 2 Intervention?
Tier 2 is defined as targeted intervention for some—for the students scoring below grade-level benchmarks on screening assessments. Typically, Tier 2 intervention is provided to about the lowest 20 percent of students in a grade level. The purpose is to reduce the risk of academic problems. Students receiving Tier 2 support require more focused instruction than typical classroom reading instruction provides. Tier 2 provides that additional focus and support and is delivered in addition to core reading instruction.
Tier 2 intervention is presented in small groups. In practice, these groups often consist of six to eight students, but the research indicates that groups of three or four students are ideal (Gersten et al., 2008). The Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences’ Practice Guide Assisting Students Struggling with Reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tier Intervention in the Primary Grades recommends providing intensive, systematic instruction on up to three foundational reading skills three to five times per week, 20 to 40 minutes a day in these small groups. Tier 2 interventions will vary in intensity (time, instructional intensity, duration) based on student need. The goal of Tier 2 intervention is to get students back on track so they can meet grade-level benchmarks without intervention.
Two Commonly Used Approaches to Providing Tier 2
There are two commonly used approaches to providing Tier 2 in an MTSS model: standard protocol and problem solving. The IRIS Center’s module on RtI includes an excellent description of each approach. A brief description of each is provided in the sections that follow.
Standard Protocol Approach
The standard protocol approach involves using one validated intervention to improve students’ skills. That is, all Tier 2 students receive the same empirically validated program. These interventions typically address a variety of skills, focusing on the foundational skills and strategies that are necessary for students to learn to read. Ideally, the program is aligned with the core reading program implemented in Tier 1, but alignment with the core program is not as important as ensuring that the instruction is explicit and systematic and teaches high-priority reading skills. As the authors of the IES Practice Guide pointed out, it is unlikely that the same skills will be addressed in the core reading instruction at the same time. The intervention is provided in a small-group setting for a set period (e.g., 10 to 20 weeks) with frequent progress monitoring.
One main advantage to the standard protocol approach is that it does not require a lot of time or resources for teams to select intervention curricula and place students. Teams can utilize in-program placement tests to determine the appropriate lesson entry point for each student and group students based on common starting lessons. The IRIS Center points out that other advantages to this approach are that it is easier for staff to implement with fidelity and a variety of staff members, including support staff, can provide instruction using these programs.
In a problem-solving approach, a school-based team works to identify a student’s needs, develops and implements a plan to address the needs, and evaluates the plan’s effectiveness. With this approach, students with similar needs can be grouped together for Tier 2 intervention. As with the standard protocol approach, students are frequently progress monitored. Interventions are continually modified based on student progress-monitoring data and discontinued when data indicate lack of progress.
A main advantage of the problem-solving approach is that all students can receive instruction that is aligned more closely with their individual needs (IRIS Center). One potential disadvantage to the problem-solving approach is that teams will need to determine individual student needs by administering informal diagnostic assessments—a process that does require some time. An additional disadvantage of this approach, according to the IRIS Center, is that the quality of the instruction can vary and will depend on the knowledge and skills of the team that plans (and implements) each intervention.
Ultimately, what varies between these two approaches is the level of match between the intervention and the specific student need. The IRIS Center points out that in practice, many schools/districts combine or blend aspects of the two approaches to fit their needs. Regardless of the approach selected, it is important that schools start Tier 2 support as soon as possible after students are identified through the process of universal screening. Even more important is the quality of the intervention that is implemented.
Essential Components of Tier 2 Interventions
Whether teams choose commercially available, empirically validated interventions when utilizing the standard protocol approach or develop more targeted interventions based on specific student needs in the problem-solving approach, the quality of the Tier 2 intervention is key for student success. Essential components of Tier 2 interventions include:
- a focus on at least three big ideas in beginning reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and/or comprehension;
- explicit instruction;
- a carefully designed scope and sequence that builds skills gradually, introducing skills first in isolation and then gradually integrating with other skills;
- multiple opportunities for students to practice;
- high level of teacher-student interaction;
- specific error correction procedures/frequent feedback from teacher;
- instruction that focuses on skill mastery;
- cumulative review;
- formative assessment to provide targeted and timely instruction;
- placement tests and mastery tests in commercially available programs;
- the opportunity for application of skills and strategies in connected text;
- incorporation of complex reading skills; and
- instructional design that accelerates student growth and closes skill gaps
(Gersten et al., 2008, IRIS Center, Oregon Response to Instruction and Intervention).
Resources for Selecting Tier 2 Interventions
When selecting intervention programs for use in the standard protocol approach, districts should choose programs that have demonstrated effectiveness through independent evaluations using rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental designs (Gersten et al., 2008). In addition, teams will want to determine if the intervention has been tested with the same student groups that they will be implementing the interventions with (IRIS Center). Two reputable sources of information to help educators make informed decisions when selecting Tier 2 interventions are:
Educators can also visit the IRIS Center to find a list of organizations that are trustworthy sources for current evidence-based practices for students in Grades K–12.
Monitoring Student Progress in Tier 2 Interventions
Once the program or practices for Tier 2 intervention have been selected, the recommendation from the IES Practice Guide is that students in Tier 2 be monitored at least monthly (Gersten et al., 2008). If a Tier 2 program does not include built-in mastery checks, the IES recommendation is to monitor students’ progress weekly if possible, but no less than once a month. Common practice is for schools to monitor the students placed in Tier 2 intervention biweekly. The more frequent the progress monitoring, the more data points that will be available to help inform team decisions for student continuation or exit from Tier 2 intervention. As with universal screening, progress monitoring measures should be efficient, reliable, and valid. (See the Center on Multi-Tiered Systems of Support at the American Institutes for Research.) The IES Practice Guide outlines appropriate progress monitoring measures by grade level (K–2).
Teams should meet regularly to review the data to determine whether students continue to require intervention. Teams should agree on predetermined criteria for students to exit Tier 2. Typically, students exit Tier 2 when they have reached benchmark on the targeted skills and demonstrated mastery across several data points. If a student or students in a group are not making expected progress, the team will want to take a careful look at the implementation of the Tier 2 intervention. The team needs to compare a student’s progress to the group’s progress to determine if it is an individual student problem or if the whole group is not making expected progress to determine appropriate remedies. Questions to consider include:
- Is the intervention program being implemented with fidelity?
- Is the intervention being implemented using the recommended schedule? For example, should the time of the intervention be increased to 30 minutes a day, five days a week?
- Is the lesson placement appropriate? Do some students need to be regrouped?
- Is the pacing of the lessons appropriate (e.g., is the pace too fast or too slow)?
- Is the interventionist utilizing individual turns throughout the lesson to check for student mastery?
- Is the interventionist adjusting instruction based on mastery test performance?
- Is student attendance impacting the student’s progress?
- Is a student’s behavior or lack of engagement negatively affecting progress?
- Is the progress monitoring data being reliably collected? (Observe administration and scoring of progress-monitoring measures.)
- Is there an extreme data point (an outlier) or extreme variability in the data that is affecting the trend line of the data?
By regularly reviewing progress monitoring data and keeping a close eye on the implementation of the Tier 2 intervention, the team will be able to identify those students who have reached grade-level benchmarks and can exit the Tier 2 intervention as well as those who require more intensive instruction through Tier 3 support.
Following two years of disrupted learning due to the pandemic, it will be more important than ever in the 2021/2022 school year for schools to implement schoolwide systems of support to meet the needs of all students. Although recent data nationally indicate that a disproportionate number of students began the school year reading below grade level, districts and schools can leverage practices within Tier 1 instruction in order to meet students’ current needs. An especially strong Tier 1 coupled with a resource-driven implementation of Tier 2 for the lowest-performing students has the potential to make a large impact on student achievement this school year. Schools need to select Tier 2 programs and practices that include essential components, particularly those with explicit and systematic instruction on the essential skills of reading. Through regular progress monitoring, school teams will be able to determine who continues to require Tier 2 intervention and who has reached benchmark and can be exited. With a strong implementation of Tier 2 support, the goal of getting students back on track so they can meet grade-level benchmarks without intervention can be achievable.
Center on Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, the American Institutes for Research, https://mtss4success.org/essential-components/progress-monitoring.
Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., and Tilly, W. D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and multi-tier intervention in the primary grades.
A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/practiceguides/.
IRIS Center, https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/rti01/cresource/q2/p05/.
McKinsey and Company. (July, 2021). COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning. New York: McKinsey & Co.
The National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII), Academic Interventions Tools Chart, https://charts.intensiveintervention.org/aintervention.
Oregon Response to Instruction & Intervention, MTSS-R Component Modules, Tier 2 Interventions, https://sites.google.com/ttsd.k12.or.us/mtss-r-component-modules/tier-2?authuser=0.
What Works Clearinghouse, Find What Works Based on the Evidence, https://sites.google.com/ttsd.k12.or.us/mtss-r-component-modules/mtss-r-modules-overview