Tuesday, May 21, 2024

This is the third and final post in a series of three posts that detail the process of differentiating Tier 1 instruction of foundational skills through flexible, skill-based grouping. 

Our first two blog posts of the series walked through the importance of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework and the Continuous Improvement Process (CIP) in rethinking how we teach literacy in Tier 1. We specifically discussed a model in which English language arts blocks are strategically scheduled so that additional staff is available to push into a classroom or a grade level to teach foundational concepts in small groups. 

Tier 1 instruction, also known as core instruction, is for all students and should allow at least 80% of students to reach grade-level expectations. Tier 1 typically consists of 90-120 minutes of instruction that follows an evidence-aligned scope and sequence and instructional routines. Ideally, interventionists push in and provide Tier 1 small-group instruction along with the classroom teacher. If students receive Tier 2 or Tier 3 instruction, that would be provided at another time and would be considered an intensified “extra dose” of the same targeted instruction they are receiving during their small group instruction in Tier 1. 

Universal screening data will guide the formation of small groups, which can then be fine-tuned by carefully assessing students’ skills. Dr. Stephanie Stollar, educational consultant and creator of the Reading Science Academy, recommends that screening and diagnostic assessment data be used to make decisions about how much time is spent on word recognition and language comprehension, and how to group students for that instruction (S. Stollar, personal communication, May 3, 2024). For students who are at-risk, the use of diagnostic, prescriptive assessments helps determine where they are on the instructional continuum and where they should be placed into groups based on patterns of scores. If universal screening data show that most of the class scored similarly, then instructing in a whole group setting would be appropriate. 

When teachers are working with a small group, the students who are not working with their teacher would be working in centers. Center activities should be designed for practice only—students should not be expected to engage in new skills during this time, and centers should only include activities that the teacher has seen the students do accurately. These activities can be done independently, with a partner, or in a small group. It is imperative that students be trained on how to work in centers so that instructional time is maximized. 

Another option for Tier 1 grouping would be to group students within an entire grade level based on shared skill needs so that students across the grade level receive the same targeted instruction. To do so, grade-level teachers would plan together and use screening data to create groups across the entire grade. An example this, called “Walk to Read,” is explained by The Right to Read Project

Let’s look again at the CIP and how we can use it with our scenario:

  • Step 1 - Assess: Where are we now and where do we want to be?
    • Less than 80% of students are meeting benchmark on the universal screener, and we want at least 80% of students to meet or exceed benchmark with Tier 1 instruction.
  • Step 2 - Prioritize: Why?
    • The goal of Tier 1 instruction is for at least 80% of students to meet grade-level expectations.
  • Step 3 - Plan: What are we going to do, and how are we going to do it?
    • Differentiating Tier 1 instruction of essential skills through flexible, skill-based grouping will allow teachers to provide their students with exactly what the data indicate their students need. 
  • Step 4 - Implement: Are we doing what we said we would do?
    • Monitor teaching practices and learning outcomes. 
  • Step 5 - Evaluate: Did our plan work?
    • The only way we are going to know the answer to this question is to look at data!  Progress should be monitored to determine whether the instruction is closing gaps. Teachers review data approximately every two weeks and make changes as needed. This is why grouping is considered “flexible.” Data will drive the formation of groups and the respective instruction. 

Lastly, it is also important to note that, although we can plan for differentiated instruction to meet the needs of our learners, we must also consider what the data indicate our Tier 1 instruction is providing—or not providing. Eighty percent of students should meet grade level benchmarks with Tier 1 instruction alone—without intervention. If not, Stollar (2024) recommends that the team analyze and improve their Tier 1 system of supports. As she explains:

I think everybody's familiar with using screening data to identify students who are at risk. We're doing a good job now of doing that, but we're not doing such a good job using screening data to identify systems that are at risk. What I mean by that is specifically using screening data to reflect the health and effectiveness of your classroom reading instruction. (Geiger, 2023) 

When our Tier 1 instruction is effective, the number of students who need interventions will be reduced, which then improves the effectiveness of Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports. We can’t intervene our way out of inadequate Tier 1 instruction. Data will tell us where the holes are, and we need to rely on the data to meet the needs of our students. Doing so may require addressing Tier 1 instruction while also leveraging the MTSS framework and following the Continuous Improvement Process. 


Geiger, A. (Host). (2023, November 13). How to use assessment data within MTSS - with Dr. Stephanie Stollar (No. 146) [Audio podcast episode]. In Triple R Teachinghttps://www.themeasuredmom.com/how-to-use-assessment-data-within-mtss/?utm_source=triple-r-teaching&utm_medium=podcast&utm_term=146-how-to-use-assessment-data-within-mtss-stephanie-stollar&utm_content=&utm_campaign=list 

Stollar, S. (2024, March 4)You may be right, I may be crazy. Reading Science Academyhttps://www.readingscienceacademy.com/blog/Tier%201