10 Reasons RtI Doesn’t Work

RTIIn the latest edition of “Perspectives,” a quarterly publication on literacy, Response to Intervention (RTI) was a major topic for discussion and exploration. RTI was established in schools to provide structure for making decisions about how to recognize children’s early academic difficulties, along with monitoring progress and appropriate interventions, in the hope of preventing long term failure.  By providing universal, evidence-based instruction to all children, the goal was to maximize the opportunities for learning at the classroom level so that at least 80% of students would not need extra help.

In theory, this should reduce the number of referrals to special education because students are identified for learning difficulties early and receive interventions that are meeting their learning needs. For children at risk for failure, frequent monitoring should catch them before they fall through the cracks.  So why doesn’t it work?

So why doesn’t RtI work?

  1. Research-driven approaches are not being utilized. There is a “gap between science-based ideas and practices and those most often used in our classrooms,” according to Dr. Louisa Moats, National Literacy Expert.
  2. Children are not getting enough phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate sounds) and phonics (matching letters to sounds) instruction in the early grades. These components of reading should be emphasized for emergent readers.
  3. “Phonics and word reading skills are viewed as unnecessary, distracting, and even harmful by some proponents.” Moats drives home the point that these ingrained, yet disproven, views have perpetuated over the years and have not left our educational institutions of learning.
  4. Most teachers rather teach reading through leveled books because they find it more appealing. Teachers gave priority to the literature-based approach when asked, with the exception of teachers trained in a phonics-based approach who were well prepared to teach foundational skills. Many teachers were not prepared well to teach phonics, and this lack of comfort in alphabetic code-based instruction accounted for their preferences.  More needs to be done to change teacher preparation courses to reflect the evidence accumulated over the last forty years of research.
  5. The type of corrective feedback when students make errors in reading encourages guessing and memorizing words rather than analysis to figure words out phonetically. Inefficient strategies and cueing give students the message to use pictures, memorization, and contextual guesswork.
  6. There are few opportunities for students to apply phonics skills through cumulative practice. Decodable texts are not prevalent in schools, so whatever phonics is taught is not being practiced enough. Mastery of basic skills allows for children to become competent readers.  Beginning and struggling readers need repeated exposures to the alphabetic code.
  7. There is a flawed view of how children learn to read, and many teachers think it is primarily a visual task. Children are encouraged to know high-frequency words and use Word Walls (sight words posted on classroom walls).  Sight word memorization before sound-symbol relationships are formed is detrimental for developing readers. It reinforces the message that words should be learned as visual wholes.
  8. Resistance to change is a major reason for lackluster performance. A paradigm shift is needed unless children will continue to stay in intervention services and receive unnecessary special education classification.
  9. Regarding the Common Core, Moats said, “Most unfortunate is the placement of Foundational Reading Skills at the end of the Language Arts section, a signal that word-level skills should not be emphasized in teaching and that reading is all about complex text, close reading, knowledge building, and other comprehension-focused activities.” Teachers who look to this document to guide instruction will not be able to make sound decisions that are appropriate for beginner readers.
  10. Children usually receive more of the same ill-conceived teaching methods when pulled out of the classroom for extra help. Most schools use Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) instead of a Structured Literacy approach.

As a teacher, learning specialist, regional reading coach, and administrator, I have personally witnessed how reading practices do not align with reading science. In my book, Reading Intervention Behind School Walls: Why Your Child Continues to Struggle, I encourage parents and educators to demand high-quality instruction and intervention.  “Be the change you wish to see.”  Our children deserve better.

Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties.  Her book, Reading Intervention Behind School Walls: Why Your Child Continues to Struggle, is available on Amazon.  See information on her book and an interview with Ms. Borkowsky at https://highfiveliteracy.com/book/




2 thoughts on “10 Reasons RtI Doesn’t Work

  1. Kim says:

    It sounds like you are critiquing whole language, not RTI. Informed RTI advocates will join you in calling for evidence-based reading instruction that includes explicit instruction in decoding and related skills. Clearly, if schools do not adopt research-supported instructional practices, student learning will be sub-optimal. However, all definitions of RTI endorse the use of high quality instructional practices matched to student needs. Might there be some schools whose specific practices are not high quality? Sure. That’s not a reason to abandon RTI, though … such reasoning would be akin to abandoning evaluation because some practitioners choose poor quality assessment tools. Both of these situations highlight training and implementation needs (as opposed to a need to abandon an entire process or framework). Moats underscores the importance of teaching decoding and related skills; that point is not meant as a critique of RTI. Phonics and related skills can be addressed in all tiers of instruction within an RTI framework. (Moats, in fact, is a contributor to the RTI Action Network, where she has expressed support for thoughtfully planned, well-implemented RTI frameworks.)

    • High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching says:

      Thank you for your comments. I believe systemic change is required to make RtI work. Without this paradigm shift in education, where evidence-based instructional practices are the norm in every classroom, the model will not serve the children who need it the most. Ideally, this model should help struggling students in the early grades get supplemental, targeted help based on need. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I agree with you that it is an instructional issue; but until we can get schools up to speed with best practices, the concept has no chance of working.

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