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Mass Literacy

Tiered Instruction within the MTSS Model

High-quality, evidence-based literacy instruction for all students is a central tenet of an effective MTSS framework (Al Otaiba et al., 2011; Marchand-Martella, Ruby, & Martella, 2007). The scheduling, staffing, professional learning, and data-based decision making components of MTSS all converge on instruction with the goal of "preventing or ameliorating the effects of early risk" (Leonard et al., 2019). The MTSS Blueprint explains the tiers as fluid:

Movement amongst the three tiers is fluid and is not determined or defined by specific designations, such as diagnosed disabilities. Rather, movement is supported by data from universal screeners, diagnostic assessments, progress monitoring, and how a student responds to one level of intervention. Any and all students should have access to supports when they need them. In addition, obtaining services at one point does not mean that students will always need that level of support. The MTSS process is not always linear, but rather oriented around problem solving. When data suggests that students require more or less intensive supports to aid either remediation or enrichment, they will move throughout the tiers based on that need.

Norma Hancock
"As a reading specialist, I work with children who have failed to learn in the classroom, and really as educators we've failed them because we haven't given them that first tier of evidence-based instruction."

Norma Hancock
Reading Specialist and Doctoral Research Fellow
Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab at MGH Institute

Culturally Responsive Practice and Tiered Instruction

Decisions about intervention and remedial instruction have important implications for equity. For instance, over-identification of Black children for special education has been well-documented, especially for categories that involve more subjective judgement (Grindal et al., 2012). When considering whether children require intervention services or remedial instruction, it is necessary to keep in mind the conditions impacting the child's learning. It should never be assumed that a child has intrinsic deficits or problems learning which require a remedial approach to teaching. There are many reasons why a child may not be meeting literacy benchmarks, ranging from inadequate instruction or resources to low expectations or prior tracking into remedial learning. Children of color "tend to be provided fewer educational resources and opportunities to learn than their majority peers during early childhood education and throughout schooling" (Sullivan & Proctor, 2016) and their learning progress is impacted by these factors.

When a child falls behind, MTSS is a powerful framework for questioning the quality of support a child has received, rather than assuming there is some sort of deficit within the child. MTSS calls for educators to consider what may have prevented a child from learning, including examining whether the child has had access to evidence-based, culturally responsive core instruction and differentiated support. MTSS can disrupt patterns of bias because it asks the educational system to better serve a child who has fallen behind and address those factors to support student success (Sullivan & Proctor, 2016). Assessing students with a valid and reliable screening assessment provides one source of objective data to proactively assess risk and determine the specific skills requiring additional instruction to help get a child back on track toward grade level success. Additionally, gathering information about the type and quality of instructional materials with which the student has been taught can illuminate the source of current difficulties and inform instructional decisions.

The MTSS Blueprint offers these resources to support districts in ensuring equitable access to instruction:

  • MTSS Mobilization Guide: Provides guidance for how a school district might think about engaging in this work and where to start.
  • MTSS Self-Assessment: Allows a school district to gauge where its current strengths and gaps are relative to the MTSS model.
  • MTSS Resources: Links to a clearinghouse of tools and resources to support MTSS implementation

Tier 1

Tier 1 provides the instructional foundation within a tiered model and is often referred to as "core." Core instruction is provided to all students (Connor et al., 2007). Data from screening and progress monitoring is used to differentiate instruction within tier 1. All students must have equitable access to core instruction that addresses grade-level expectations for learning.

Tier 2

Tier 2 is preventive intervention offered to students who fall behind, who demonstrate difficulty based on screening measures, or who make weak progress from regular classroom instruction. Instruction in tier 2 must be targeted to the underlying difficulty(s) impacting the students' progress in literacy. Students in tier 2 receive supplemental ("in addition to") small group instruction. Importantly, this instruction should be systematic, explicit, and highly interactive. Progress-monitoring data should be used to group students periodically. Students who demonstrate improvement and exit from tier 2 support should be carefully monitored to ensure that general classroom instruction is adequate. In many studies, effective tier 2 intervention has been shown to reduce or eliminate reading difficulties in the early elementary grades (Gersten et al, 2017 ).

Tier 3

Tier 3 is more intensive intervention offered to students for whom support in tiers 1 and 2 was insufficient. Instruction in tier 3 must be targeted to the underlying difficulty(s) impacting the students' progress in literacy. Ongoing tracking of student performance is critical in tier 3. If students still experience difficulty after receiving high-quality core instruction and targeted tier 2 support, they may be evaluated for possible special education services, but tier 3 is not synonymous with special education.

Tier definitions adapted from Gersten et al., 2009 ; Gersten et al., 2017 ; RTI Action Network.

Assigning students to tiers of instruction and targeting support in tiers 2 and 3 is part of data-based decision making.

Effective Intervention Instruction

Specific to reading intervention, The National Center on Intensive Intervention (2018) outlines the following instructional principles:

  • Explicit instruction
  • Systematic instruction
  • Precise, simple, and replicable language
  • Repeated opportunities to practice, build fluency, and review
    • Including providing a "double dose" of instruction in which a previously taught skill is retaught, using small group or one-on-one instruction, and/or using technology to facilitate reading practice (Gersten et al., 2008)
  • Frequent opportunities to respond and interact
  • Specific error correction and feedback

For information about effective intervention instruction in relation to dyslexia, see Chapter 6 in the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines.

Effective instruction in all tiers includes Universal Design for Learning principles.

Leveraging Linguistic Assets for Multilingual Learners

English learners must have equitable opportunity to meaningfully participate in all foundational skills instruction. Please refer to WIDA Can Dos, WIDA Instructional Supports, and Supporting Early Literacy for Multilingual Learners (Instruction Partners) for information and strategies to support English Learners.

  • Realizing the Potential of RTI: Considerations When Implementing RTI with English Language Learners, from RTI Action Network (Video)
  • Meeting the Needs of English Learners with and without disabilities, Brief 4: Fostering Collaborative Partnerships with Families of English Learners Within a Multitiered System of Supports (grade3+), from Project LEE, Project ELLIPSES, & Project ELITE2. (2021).
  • Meeting the Needs of English Learners with and without disabilities, Brief 2: Evidence-Based Tier 2 Intervention Practices for English Learners (grade3+), from Project ELLIPSES, Project LEE, & Project ELITE2. (2020).
Additional Information on Tiered Instruction in an MTSS Model

Al Otaiba, S., Folsom, J. S., Schatschneider, C., Wanzek, J., Greulich, L., Meadows, J. (2011). Predicting first-grade reading performance from kindergarten response to tier 1 instruction. Exceptional Children, 77(4), 453–470.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., Fishman, B. J., Schatschneider, C., & Underwood, P. (2007). The early years: Algorithm guided individualized reading instruction. Science, 315(5811), 464–465.

Coyne, M. D., Oldham, A., Dougherty, S. M., Leonard, K., Koriakin, T., Gage, N. A., Gillis, M. (2018). Evaluating the effects of supplemental reading intervention within an MTSS or RTI reading reform initiative using a regression discontinuity design. Exceptional Children, 84(4), 350–367.

Gersten, R., Newman-Gonchar, R. A., Haymond, K. S., & Dimino, J. (2017). What is the evidence base to support reading interventions for improving student outcomes in grades 1–3? (REL 2017-271). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C.M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W.D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades . A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Grindal, Todd & SCHIFTER, LAURA & Schwartz, Gabriel & HEHIR, THOMAS. (2019). Racial Differences in Special Education Identification and Placement: Evidence Across Three States. Harvard Educational Review. 89. 525-553. 10.17763/1943-5045-89.4.525.

Marchand-Martella, N. E., Ruby, S. F., & Martella, R. C. (2007). Intensifying reading instruction for students within a three-tier model: Standard- protocol and problem-solving approaches within a Response to-Intervention (RTI) system. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 3(5), n2.

Moats. L.C.& Tolman, C. A. (2019). LETRS (3rd edition). Voyager Sopris Learning.

Sullivan, A. L. & Proctor, S. L. (2016). The Shield or the Sword? Revisiting the Debate on Racial Disproportionality in Special Education and the Implications for School Psychologists. School Psychology Forum: Research in Practice, 10(3), 278–288.

Taylor, J. A., Getty, S. R., Kowalski, S. M., Wilson, C. D., Carlson, J., & Van Scotter, P. (2015). An efficacy trial of research-based curriculum materials with curriculum-based professional development. American Educational Research Journal, 52(5), 1–34.

Last Updated: December 29, 2022

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