Friday, April 5, 2024

This is the second blog post in a series of three that details the process of differentiating Tier 1 instruction of essential skills through flexible, skill-based grouping. 

In the first blog post of this series, we highlighted the importance of familiarizing ourselves with the framework and process for continuous improvement adopted by the Iowa Department of Education to ensure we make instructional decisions that meet students' needs. We introduced the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework and the Continuous Improvement Process (CIP). As a reminder, there are five steps involved in the CIP:

  • Step 1 - Assess: Where are we now and where do we want to be?
  • Step 2 - Prioritize: Why?
  • Step 3 - Plan: What are we going to do, and how are we going to do it?
  • Step 4 - Implement: Are we doing what we said we would do?
  • Step 5 - Evaluate: Did our plan work?

We discussed a scenario in which we completed steps 1 and 2 of the CIP process and established the goal that 80% or more of our students should be meeting grade-level expectations as a result of Tier 1 instruction. Now, in step 3 of the CIP process, we must make a plan to determine how we are going to achieve that goal. If we are falling short of our goal, we should first look at universal screening data. If there is a wide range in performance on a skill,  we use diagnostic data to differentiate Tier 1 instruction so that it is aligned with the needs of each student. Dr. Stephanie Stollar, educational consultant and creator of the Reading Science Academy, refers to this as the primary prevention of reading failure. As Stollar explains, when we differentiate Tier 1 instruction, we are “teaching reading the first time around in a way that’s lined up to student needs—not teaching over their heads, not teaching something that they already know, but matching first instruction to student needs (Stollar, 2023). 

It is not uncommon to teach most elements of literacy in a whole-group setting. However, research would encourage us to consider another option. While whole-group instruction certainly has a time and a place, research indicates that small-group instruction allows for differentiation and equity, leading to better outcomes for all students. Valiandes (2015) found that, in classrooms where teachers focused work on their students’ skill needs, students made more progress compared to students in classrooms where teachers used traditional whole-class instruction. In addition to allowing for differentiation and equity, small-group instruction also offers students additional practice opportunities and immediate corrective feedback. 

When essential skills are taught in a whole-group setting, all students are getting the same instruction, regardless of their individual needs. Whether they are students who are not meeting benchmarks or students who have already mastered skills being taught, they are getting the same instruction. As an alternative, differentiated, small-group instruction can benefit students at all skill levels because it relies on data to target their specific needs. In a meta-analysis by Elbaum, et al. (1999), alternative instructional groupings (i.e., pairs and small groups) were found to yield the highest effect sizes for reading outcomes for students with disabilities. Those findings echoed the work of another meta-analysis done three years prior by Lou, et al. (1996) on small-group instruction for students without disabilities, which also yielded significantly high effect sizes for small-group instruction. Students instructed in small groups learned much more than students who were not instructed in small groups (Lou, et al., 1996). 

Not only is there research in support of differentiated, small-group instruction for struggling readers, there is also evidence indicating that students who have already met or exceeded expectations would benefit from instruction that is designed to meet their specific needs. As described by Young (2024), “Unnecessary instruction for students who are advanced in reading is likely to delay learning and may result in student frustration and boredom” (p.197). 

We understand that Tier 1 small-group instruction might be a significant shift for many teachers and districts. A common instructional model is whole-group instruction followed by a small group of students (sometimes considered Tier 2) being pulled to a table with their homeroom teacher for additional instruction while the rest of the class works independently. Advocates for differentiated, small-group Tier 1 instruction are not referring to this model. Rather, we are discussing a model in which ELA blocks are strategically scheduled so that additional staff members are available to push into a classroom or a grade level to teach those foundational concepts that may have otherwise been taught in the whole-group setting. Students are placed in small groups that have been formed by carefully assessing skills.

Small-group instruction is necessary because our students need different levels of support, and their instruction should be designed to meet those needs, even in Tier 1. In other words, it can support educational equity, which is “not achieved when all children are treated ‘equally’ by receiving the same instruction, the same resources, and the same allocation of time” (Diamond, 2023). Rather, differentiating Tier 1 instruction of essential skills through flexible, skill-based grouping allows teachers to provide their students with exactly what the data indicate the students need. 

In our next and final blog post of this series, we will provide examples of how this model could look in your classroom or building and finish out the remaining steps in the 5-step continuous improvement model. 


Diamond, L. (2023) Small group reading instruction and mastery learning: The missing practices for effective and equitable foundational skills instruction [White paper]. Collaborative Classroom.

Elbaum. B., Vaughn. S., Hughes. M., Moody, S. W. (1999). Grouping practices and reading outcomes for students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 65(3), 399-415.

Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., Spence, J. C., Poulsen, C., Chambers, B., & d’Appolonia, S. (1996). Within-class grouping: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 423-458. 

The Reading League Wisconsin. (2023, September 12). Tier 1 Instruction is Risk Reduction [Webinar]. YouTube.

Valiandes, S. (2015). Evaluating the impact of differentiated instruction on literacy and reading in mixed ability classrooms: Quality and equity dimensions of education effectiveness. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 45, 17–26. 

Young, N. (2024). Advanced in reading (AIR). In N. Young & J. Hasbrouck (Eds.), Climbing the ladder of reading and writing: Meeting the needs of ALL learners (pp. 184-197). Benchmark Education Company.