Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and the author of a number of prominent books on reading policy and instruction, is one of the country’s most recognized experts on early literacy. A former president of the International Reading Association and the National Reading Council and co-editor of No Quick Fix: Rethinking Literacy Programs in America’s Elementary Schools (Teachers College Press, 1995), Allington has long advocated for intensifying instructional support for struggling readers, and he is often credited with helping lay the groundwork for the response to intervention concept. But while he believes RTI is “our last, best hope” for achieving full literacy in the United States, he is critical of the way it has been conceptualized and implemented in many schools. Allington’s most recent book, tellingly, is titled What Really Matters in Response to Intervention (Allyn & Bacon, 2008).
In No Quick Fix: The RTI Edition, you describe response to intervention as an “old wine with a new label.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I’m 62. And literally, since I entered the education field at 21 and became a reading specialist the following year, the promise has been held that we’re going to teach all kids to read. The good news is that, in the past five or 10 years, we’ve had large-scale demonstrations that show that in fact we could do that if we wanted to. We have studies involving multiple school districts and hundreds or thousands of kids demonstrating that, with quality instruction and intervention, 98 percent of all kids can be reading at grade level by the end of 1st or 2nd grade.
So it’s not a question that we don’t know what to do. It’s a question of having the will to develop full literacy in this country, and to organize schools and allocate money in ways that would allow us to do that. Instead, we’ve tended to come up with flim-flam excuses for why it’s not possible.
So you see RTI as a way of building on the research that’s been done on successful literacy instruction?
I’d like to think it could be. I’ve called it perhaps our “last, best hope.”
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Why do you think it holds promise?
If for no other reason that, for the first time in many years, the federal government wrote a law that is not very prescriptive. It simply says: Take up to 15 percent of your current special education allocation and use that money instead to prevent the development of learning disabilities or reading disabilities. And do it in a way that, while there’s no mention of specific intervention tiers, incorporates increasingly expert and increasingly intensive instruction. It’s just telling schools to stop using money in ways that haven’t worked over the past half-century and start investing at least some of that money in interventions that are designed to actually solve kids’ reading problems.
So it’s not so much the specific framework of RTI that you see as promising as the emphasis it puts on intensive reading instruction?
Yes. For me the most important part of the proverbial three tiers is the first one: regular classroom instruction. In my view, RTI works best if it’s started in kindergarten and 1st grade—we know how to solve those problems. Unfortunately, we have good evidence that a lot of kindergarten and 1st grade teachers in this country are just not very skilled in teaching reading. They may offer solid social and emotional support, but when it comes to delivering high-quality academic instruction, they just don’t do it. And a lot of them also assume that if a kid is struggling and is way behind in reading, he must have some neurological problem, and therefore it’s not their job to teach him.
So you can do a lot by strengthening instruction. The evidence is there in the research literature. We can reduce the number of kids who have trouble in the 1st grade by half just by improving the quality of kindergarten. And by 2nd grade, we can reduce the number of kids who are behind by another half just by improving the quality of 1st grade instruction.
How do you do that? I mean, if you were an administrator who was implementing RTI, what would you do in terms of professional development? How do you help teachers so they can deliver that high level of instruction?
I think it takes someone who knows what they’re doing to start with, and virtually every school system already has those people on their staff. Again, we know from the research literature that, while a lot of kindergarten and 1st grade teachers might not be that strong in academic instruction, at least 25 percent of kindergarten and 1st grade teachers are in fact very skilled. So that 25 percent is out there whose expertise can be built on. The problem is they’re just typically ignored.
But, yes, the most successful training models are those that involve teachers who are actually working with each other, where the teachers who don’t know what to do in delivering reading instruction are given a few days each to observe a teacher who does know what to do. The skilled teacher, that is, becomes a mentor teacher who helps others acquire those types of skills.
And the effects of a little high-quality training can be significant. One of the studies on reading professional development that the [U.S. Department of Education’s] What Works Clearinghouse has rated as having strong evidence—actually I think it’s the only one—was done by my wife [University of Tennessee Professor Anne McGill-Franzen] in Philadelphia with kindergarten teachers. This program primarily involved using mentor teachers and some staff from an organization called the Children’s Literacy Initiative. And it really only required about three days of work before the school year started and about three hours a month of professional development and, for some teachers, a little in-class support. But the difference in performance was dramatic: Students in the classes of the teachers who got the training ended the year in about the 45th percentile in reading, while those with teachers who didn’t get the training ended the year at the 13th percentile.
And I’ll tell you, I actually went down to help my wife with some of the debriefing interviews at the end of the year. We had veteran teachers—people my age—breaking down in the interview and starting to cry, saying, “Why didn’t anyone ever teach us this before? Why have I been teaching for 30 years and never knew how to teach kids to read?”
What mistakes do schools commonly make in implementing RTI?
Letting the interventions be done by paraprofessionals or parent volunteers or special education teachers who have limited reading-instruction expertise. If you want a kid to remain illiterate and ultimately end up in special ed., send him out to work with someone who lacks expertise in teaching reading. If you want him to develop literacy, put him with someone with expertise in teaching kids at that age to read.
The idea behind RTI was for a district to actually take some of its special education budget to fund reading specialists, but in most cases, they haven’t done that. In too many cases, they simply have paraprofessionals work with those kids. So the amount of expert reading instruction the kids are getting under RTI is typically very slight.
My question to superintendents is always, “Would you let me randomly select one of your paraprofessionals to be your assistant superintendent for finance, or to be the head football coach, or teach AP chemistry?” No, of course not, because those jobs require that you know something. But when you take people who are not reading experts and put them with hardest kids to teach, and then blame the kids when they don’t make progress, you penalize the children for the rest of their lives because of your decision.
You’ve been critical of the use of so-called packaged reading programs in schools. Why?
Well, the problem is that the concept of a packaged reading program doesn’t have any scientific validity to start with, because we know that if you take 100 kids or even 10 kids, there are no prescribed programs that will work with all of them. What kids need are teachers who know how to teach and have multiple ways of addressing their individual needs. And the evidence that there’s a packaged program that will make a teacher more expert is slim to none.
So the alternative would be to focus on building on teachers’ expertise and knowledge?
Right. And one good example of how to do that is the much-criticized Reading Recovery program, which isn’t a scripted program in the sense that most commercial programs are. Instead, it’s a year long—or even life long—professional development plan. Of the 150 reading-intervention programs that the What Works Clearinghouse looked at, it was the only one determined to have strong evidence that it worked. And I’ve been telling principals for 20 years that the good thing about a program like Reading Recovery is that, if your district ever decides not to continue funding it, your teachers still have that expertise, and you can’t take that away from them. You can take away the one-to-one tutoring that’s part of the program, but even more important than that is the expertise of the teachers. Another example of a large-scale program that schools ought to be looking at is the Interactive Strategies Approach, developed by researchers F.R. Vellutino and Donna Scanlon. That is also a kind of extended PD plan.
When schools implement RTI, they often use digital screening and monitoring tools for assessment …
Those tools aren’t effective?
No. We don’t have any evidence that any computerized screening and monitoring tools are related to reading growth. It just doesn’t exist. In fact, I think we have enough evidence in the opposite direction with the problems of Reading First.
So what do you advise schools to use to determine where a student is in his reading ability?
Well, I tell them, if the student is in kindergarten or 1st grade, to listen to the child read. And you have to have some sense of the difficulty level of the books, and you need to be expert enough to know what strategies students at different stages should be demonstrating in their reading.
OK, say I’m a principal, and I say to you, “Listen, I’m not sure my teachers have the expertise at this point to make those kinds of judgments without the help of available tools.”
I’d say you’re a principal who doesn’t have a clue, and you probably need to go off and develop some expertise yourself. Or maybe find another job.
Look, the problem isn’t that teachers don’t know which students are in trouble and need help. I mean, you could try an experiment: Call 100 1st grade teachers around the country and ask them, “Do you have any kids who are in trouble in learning to read?” They’re not going to say, “Gosh, I don’t know. I haven’t DIBEL’d them yet.” Teachers know who needs help. If they don’t know, they shouldn’t be teaching.
But you just said that many teachers aren’t skilled in teaching reading?
But that doesn’t mean they don’t know who’s in trouble. They just don’t know what to do with a kid who’s in trouble. The point is we need to free teachers up from spending their time using an assessment program on kids every few weeks, or having a reading or LD specialists going around doing it. Educators need to be working with kids and teaching them rather than continuing to document that they can’t do something.
Do you have any guidelines for the amount of intervention time that should be provided for a struggling reader?
Well, let’s talk about kindergarten and 1st grade. In kindergarten, amazingly, it takes as little as 15 to 20 minutes a day, working in a one-on-one or very small group setting with a child. That’s it. In 1st grade, most of the studies have recommended either a half-hour or 45 minutes a day, five days a week, usually for a period of roughly 20 weeks, as an initial shot at it. At that point, some kids still may not be up to grade level. But if you give them another 20 weeks, you can be down to 2 percent of kids who aren’t reading at grade level. And that 2 percent, according to the large-scale studies, are typically those students who are highly mobile and come in and out of the program, or are part of that very small portion of the school population who have very severe or profound cognitive disabilities. But you have to look around and ask, how many schools do we currently have that have any kind of intensive expert intervention in place in kindergarten, much less 30 or 45 minutes a day of one-to-one or one-to-three expert intervention for up to a year in the 1st grade? The answer is, there are virtually no schools like that in this country.
None. And they’ll say they don’t have enough money to provide that kind of intervention. And I’m saying, wait a second, we’re spending between $5,000 and $10,000 a year on every child who’s identified as having a learning disability, and you don’t have enough money to try to prevent that?
Can RTI work with older students or adolescents?
Well, we don’t have a lot of research on how well it works with older children, but I certainly think it can. The problem is that you really have to ramp up instruction because, as they get older, the kids get further and further behind in the current setting. Let me give you an example: Let’s say you have a 4th grader who’s reading at the 2nd grade level. So you’ve got evidence that whatever you’ve been doing up to this point has produced about a half grade’s growth per year. So even if you can provide something that will double his rate of growth, up to a year’s growth per year, by the time he gets to 9th grade, he’ll only be reading at a 7th grade level. Now, if we can triple his rate of growth—to a year and a half grade level per year—he’d be caught up by 9th grade. If we could quadruple it, he’d be caught up by 6th grade and in even better shape.
How do you do that?
I think you could do that, with a substantial amount of high-quality instruction—and that means, in effect, that his reading instruction has to take place all day long. In other words, if he’s reading at a 2nd grade level in 4th grade, this child would need texts in social studies, science, and math that are written at the 2nd grade level but cover the 4th grade curriculum, so he has a book in his hands all day long that he can actually read. If we did that in addition to high-quality classroom reading instruction and then provided 45 minutes every day after school of one-on-one expert instruction, and maybe did something in the summer that wasn’t as useless as what we usually see going on in summer school, we might be able to catch him up.
How realistic is that scenario?
I think it’s pretty realistic, and it’s not very expensive compared to what we’re doing now to keep the child essentially illiterate. If you look at the research on the quality and quantity of reading instruction given to students in special education or Title I classes (some of which both my wife and I conducted), I mean, it’s not a rosy scenario. Too often, no one gets worse or less instruction in reading than the kids who need it most. Did you know there are only 19 states that require special education teachers to take even one course in teaching reading? In other words, special education teachers often know less about teaching reading than the regular classroom teachers who turn to them for help.
When do you think a determination for special education should be made under an RTI framework?
I think if you’ve spent most of kindergarten and 1st grade giving a child expert, intensive instruction and he or she is still lagging way behind, it might be time. But I’d be awfully hesitant to classify any child given the lack of expectations for academic growth in special education. If we had evidence that special education programs were actually declassifying a third of their kids each year—in other words that two or three years of treatment in special education could get them caught up—I’d be more optimistic.
So, in most cases, you’d just continue the interventions and expert reading instruction?
Even if a student failed to make it to grade level for several years running?
Yep. Now, you could define special education such that the whole point was that kids who go into it were getting more and better instruction every day, such that special education was likely to catch them up and perhaps lead to declassification. But I don’t see any will in schools to do that. And I worry about RTI, in some states and schools, being run by special ed. personnel. Again, though it was created in a special education law and has potential bearing on how special education determinations are made, it’s not intrinsically a spec. ed. program. It’s about strengthening regular classroom instruction and general education interventions for students so they can stay out of special ed. But I’m afraid some schools just see it as a way to find more LD kids faster.
What advice would you have for a teacher who is in a school that is implementing RTI and wants to make it work?
Well, the best advice is to make sure you know what you’re doing with struggling readers in your classroom, all day long. And then work to ensure that, when a student leaves your classroom for intervention, he or she is going out to work with someone who knows as much or even more than you do about what to do with that child.
Any particular resource or book you would recommend to start with?
I think one of the most powerful resources is a skinny little book called Choice Words by Peter Johnston. I think it’s all of 68 pages long, and the subtitle is How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. It’s simply a careful and close look at how effective teachers talk to their children and how less effective teachers talk to their children. How do you foster a child’s sense of agency and identity? Think about it: By the end of 1st grade, most struggling readers already know they’re terrible at reading and they think they’re the problem. And at that point they start working very hard on any number of schemes to try to hide the fact that they can’t read or aren’t very good at it. And not surprisingly, they don’t do much reading independently. This is a cycle that teachers need to and can break.
In the end it’s us, educators, who really matter in the case of struggling readers. We have to understand that and ask the questions about what we are doing or not doing, rather than asking what is wrong with the child.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Responding to RTI