Monday, April 15, 2024

There are many ways to approach how and when a student will receive instruction and what instruction will be delivered. Our students are all individuals, each with their own learning profiles, strengths, weaknesses, and nuances. Some students need to be taught in a manner that deviates from the methods used in the core classroom. As we look to intensify instruction for those students, there are a variety of instructional strategies that educators to use.

This blog post will describe what intensification of instruction looks like in practice across the tiers of MTSS. (For more on MTSS, see this blog post by Education and Outreach Coordinator Lindsay Seydel.)

General Reflections on MTSS 

As outlined by the Iowa Department of Education, the success of MTSS in Iowa’s schools is dependent on the following elements: 

  • First, teachers use evidence-based literacy curriculum and instruction at the universal level. This instruction follows a quality, detailed scope and sequence and includes skill-level instruction and knowledge-based content that is well-suited to scholastically engage and challenge students while building background knowledge and robust vocabularies.
  • All students in Iowa are to be assessed using a universal screener. Students found to be below benchmark by universal screening are ideally further assessed to determine the focus of the intervention.
  • Following assessment, targeted, evidence-based, and high-fidelity interventions are delivered to every student in need. 
  • Consistent progress monitoring of students in tiered interventions continues to inform instruction and intervention practices. All aspects of intervention are flexible and based on the specific needs of each student. 
  • The movement of students within tiers of MTSS is based on current diagnostic data. 

Tier I: Core Instruction

Core ELA instruction is delivered in a whole-class context, and instructional materials should be a part of a larger school-wide curriculum. Any content or materials used for instruction should align with a scope and sequence including both foundational language skills and an array of knowledge-building content and topics. Teachers provide opportunities for students to apply foundational skills to higher-level knowledge and background-building content in history, social studies, science, and other key content areas. When instructional materials are aligned across grade levels, subjects, and buildings in a district, they set students up to attain the skills and competencies expected of a graduate.

Many districts are utilizing instructional materials designed by classroom teachers over years of instructing. Because teacher-designed materials are not required to pass through the vetting of publishers, it is important to verify that all materials align with evidence-based practices, include language instruction from the sound, word, sentence, and passage level, and address vocabulary and comprehension skills. Evidence-based lessons also include opportunities for repeated practice with reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. 

If the quality of instruction in each classroom has been left to the variable skills, knowledge, and initiative of individual teachers, there can be significant variability in the kind of instruction students in the same grade level receive, possibly resulting in instructional gaps. Thus, utilizing materials that have been developed by teachers without adequate vetting can create questions about equity. In contrast, when creating instructional materials and content, publishers consider what is being taught at the core level, and they design materials to fit into a bigger picture of content acquisition to fully leverage teaching and learning. This careful alignment maximizes learning for students. Thus, in order to ensure alignment, rigor, and consistency across classrooms, grade levels, and subjects, districts are encouraged to adopt publisher-designed materials rather than relying on teachers to develop their own. 

Tier II: Small Group Intervention

A Tier II intervention accelerates learning so that students can attain grade-level skills. To do this, Tier II instruction is designed to be delivered in small groups and is focused on a narrowed range of skills. This instruction may be delivered at a table in the core classroom or a pull-out environment with a reading interventionist. Intensification in Tier II ideally leverages core content where students have strong background knowledge, and it focuses on routines that teach students diagnostically. By utilizing core content, valuable Tier II time is spent bolstering identified areas of need for students rather than teaching arbitrary content. Tier II instruction typically is not significantly behind core instruction; rather, it is being used to help students keep pace with core instruction.

There are many ways that instruction can be intensified in Tier II, including:

  • Slowing the pace of oral instruction or reducing the complexity of instructions or activities for students who struggle with processing speed or receptive language skills (i.e., listening and reading). 
  • Providing more explicit instructionFor example, students in Tier II may need to rely on segmenting and blending individual words when learning new vocabulary, even if students in core instruction have moved beyond this strategy.
  • Increasing explicit practice opportunities for students. Tier II is an opportunity for more repetitions with skills. When teachers use core content in Tier II, they build in additional exposures to skills and concepts students are already trying to master. Introducing new vocabulary and content in Tier II takes up valuable instructional time that could otherwise be used to increase students' exposure to core content.
  • Increasing opportunities for direct feedback and positive correction. The more practice opportunities a student has in Tier II instruction, the more opportunities there are for direct, explicit feedback for that student. The small-group environment allows teachers to carefully monitor work and give feedback immediately, possibly even anticipating difficulties and helping students avoid errors.  For example, if a student who struggles with “b” and “d” reversals is writing a sentence with these letters, a teacher can pre-teach those words and help the student determine which letters are needed and how they are formed before the student writes a wrong letter. 
  • Reducing distractions that may be present in whole-class instruction. 
  • Scaffolding using more multi-modal interactions with content.  For students working towards independence with skills, Tier II instruction can include teaching aids that students physically manipulate, visual aids, VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile) strategies, and multi-modal representations of learning that students may find easier to process. 

Tier III: Small Group Intervention

Tier III intervention typically occurs when students are not responding to Tier I or Tier II instruction and, therefore, are significantly at risk of falling behind their peers in core instruction. Tier III instruction is typically delivered in a pull-out model with an interventionist and should be kept to the smallest groups allowable by schedules. Tier III intensification is intended to narrow the breadth of instruction to focus on key skills according to documented levels of mastery for the student within the scope and sequence that the core classroom is following. Tier III relies on diagnostic instruction that is carefully monitored with formative and summative assessments. Intensification in Tier III will include the same strategies as the Tier II level but will be even further intensified to allow the students more time to process content, more time for explicit feedback, and more opportunities for closely supervised practice with scaffolds in place. Tier III most likely will be well behind the pace of the core classroom. Students in Tier III should continue to progress in their skill development even if their progress is slower than that of their peers.

Efficient Use of Tiered Time

Every teacher is pressed with extensive content to deliver and not enough time in which to deliver it. With this in mind, an efficient use of intervention time is a constant consideration. Evidence indicates that a key to literacy success is a strong vocabulary (Oullette, 2006) and background knowledge (Smith et al., 2021) that teachers can build from during instruction. Therefore, to maximize instructional time, teachers should select content in Tiers II and III that reinforces what students are learning in the core classroom.

A Working Example 

A first-grade class is working its way through an entire four-week unit on fairytales and folklore. They have read, discussed, written about, and completed group projects based on the content of some of the most popular fairytales. The core classroom teacher has dedicated an immense amount of planning to make sure every student is participating. Students go to Tier II intervention where they are working on foundational skills of two- and three-letter beginning and ending blends that they have struggled to master. Consider the two following sets of vocabulary words. Which set would be a more logical fit for the intervention?

Set 1

  • King

  • Elf

  • Witch

  • Grimm

  • Slept

  • Snuck

  • Dust

  • Plot

  • Frog

  • Kiss


Set 2

  • Bland

  • Clap

  • Strip

  • Clam

  • Glad

  • Flat

  • Fluff

  • Splint

  • Throb

  • Scrub

Set one would be a better fit because the words align with the core content the students have encountered in their classroom, giving them additional opportunities to develop automatic recognition of these words. These words demonstrate the current skill the students are working on in their tiered intervention (i.e., blends). 

Similarly, consider the following two sentences. Which sentence do you think contains content that student will most likely encounter in their classroom again?

Sentence 1

The elf and imp snuck past the king and were gone in the flash of dust left by the witch.


Sentence 2

Buck went to stand on the step and sing at the top of his lungs.

Sentence number one is a longer and more complex sentence, but it comprises content the students have been learning about in their core classroom. The students are likely to have a strong vocabulary and robust background knowledge on fairytales thanks to their core classroom instruction.  Interventionists who utilize core classroom content as a launchpad to intervention are a step ahead in their work with their students. 

In schools and classrooms today, time is not always our friend. Efficiently using tiered instruction is essential to maximize intervention time and give students those additional practice opportunities we know to be critical to reaching mastery.


Ouellette, G. P. (2006). What's meaning got to do with it: The role of vocabulary in word reading and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 554–566.

Smith, R., Snow, P., Serry, T., & Hammond, L. (2021). The role of background knowledge in reading comprehension: A critical review. Reading Psychology, 42(3), 214–240.