Action Step and Orientation

E2. Provide differentiated, evidence-based Tier I literacy instruction to all students.

The implementation of a response to intervention (RTI) framework includes a multilevel instructional framework. In this lesson, you will learn more about the primary level of the instructional framework—also known as Tier I, or the comprehensive core literacy program—and what it takes to deliver differentiated, evidence-based literacy instruction to all learners.

Part 1 of this lesson provides an overview of how to use assessment to inform Tier I in your RTI framework.

In Part 2, you will learn how to implement quality Tier I instruction using comprehensive core literacy programs.

In Part 3, you will learn how to implement quality differentiated Tier I instruction.

To get started, download the Implementation Guide for this component and refer to the Action Step for this lesson. Review the Implementation Indicators for each level of implementation and note the Sample Evidence listed at the bottom of the chart.

Part 1—Tier I Literacy Instruction

As Lesson E1 explains, RTI is an instructional framework that integrates the systematic use of assessment data into a multitiered approach to help educators intervene and target students’ learning needs.

Tier I, the primary prevention level, is the core literacy instruction delivered to all students in general education classrooms. For this reason, Tier I serves as the foundation for student learning. When effectively delivered, it should meet the majority of your students’ needs (Vaughn, Wanzek, Woodruff, & Linan-Thompson, 2007).

“Without sufficient initial instruction, the percentage of students in need of intervention support will likely be larger than the capacity of the schools to respond adequately” (Burns, Sorto, & Pettersson, n.d.).

To achieve the greatest success at the Tier I level, you will need to establish expectations for instructional practices that are high quality and evidence based. Many of the expectations for quality instruction are delineated in the teacher evaluation system used in your district, but your campus-based leadership team will need to ensure that expectations specific to literacy instruction are communicated, supported, and monitored across your campus.

One of the evidence-based practices that your campus-based leadership team may identify as an expectation is explicit instruction. Explicit instruction involves modeling and explaining concepts and skills in ways that are concrete and visible, using clear language and many examples. These explicit procedures need to be predictable, and they need to include clear and consistent instructions and clearly stated expectations. Explicit instruction “does not leave anything to chance and does not make assumptions about skills and knowledge that children will acquire on their own” (Torgesen, 2004, p. 363).

Explicit instruction incorporates the I Do, We Do, You Do cycle of instruction. The first stage, I Do, encompasses explicit teacher modeling and thinking aloud. This means teachers show students what it is they are expected to think about, say, and do (Archer & Hughes, 2011).

I Do: As one step in teaching students to use and understand subordinating conjunctions, a seventh-grade teacher shows students how to analyze and break apart model sentences from a text they have been reading. He displays the following sentence: “Although caring for her horses is a lot of work, Judith doesn’t mind it because she loves her horses like family.” He tells students, “Writers can express multiple ideas in a sentence by using conjunctions to show the connections between ideas. In this sentence, the writer connects three ideas.” The teacher underlines the first part of the sentence and says, “The first idea is that caring for her horses is a lot of work.” He then underlines the next part in a different color and says, “The second idea is that Judith doesn’t mind it.” He underlines the last part of the sentence in another color and explains, “The final idea is that Judith loves her horses like family.” He then circles the words although and because. He explains that the subordinating conjunctions although and because show the relationships among the three ideas. He rewrites the three ideas as separate sentences and explains that the conjunctions allow him to combine shorter ideas to make longer sentences.

This type of explicit instruction includes scaffolding. Scaffolding refers to instructional supports that help students learn with assistance what would otherwise be inaccessible without this support. Content, activities, materials, and delivery procedures or routines are all types of scaffolds that can be adjusted and extended to meet the diverse range of learners in a Tier I classroom.

The I Do, We Do, You Do cycle is one form of procedural scaffolding. Support is gradually withdrawn as you move through the stages. During We Do, students immediately try the task or skill along with teacher support.

During the We Do phase of the lesson, it is important that students practice the same skill at the same level of difficulty that was modeled by the teacher. A common misapplication of the I Do, We Do, You Do cycle is for a teacher to model the first part of a task and then release students to finish the remaining steps of a task or activity in groups or on their own. However, when done correctly, as seen in the following example, the teacher supports students in performing the same task at the same level of rigor.

We Do: The teacher continues by saying, “Now we are going to analyze and break apart a model sentence together.” He displays and reads the following sentence: “While his mother was making dinner, Liam baked a chocolate cake because he was in the mood for dessert.” The teacher calls on volunteers to identify the three separate ideas and come to the front to underline them in different colors on the display and to circle the connecting words (conjunctions). The teacher provides corrective feedback as needed. Next, he tells students to rewrite the sentence as three smaller sentences and randomly calls on students to share their work.

During the You Do stage, students are given multiple opportunities for practice with corrective and positive feedback.

You Do: The teacher then says, “Now it's your turn. I am going to distribute sentences from the text we have been reading. With a partner, break the sentence apart into three separate sentences and write each smaller sentence on a sentence strip and identify the conjunctions.” As students work, the teacher circulates around the classroom to answer questions and provide corrective feedback. Students share their work with the class. In a follow-up lesson, the teacher will repeat the I Do, We Do, You Do cycle to show students how to combine shorter sentences to vary the sentence length in their writing.

Keep in mind that the I Do, We Do, You Do cycle is similar to a feedback loop. If students are having difficulty during any of the stages, you can circle back to model another I Do, practice another We Do or You Do, or perform any combination or all three again (Archer & Hughes, 2011).

Quality Tier I instruction also employs practices that increase student engagement and motivation. To accomplish this somewhat daunting task, teachers need to purposefully plan how students can be actively engaged during literacy lessons. Lessons should be planned with the goal of connecting with students’ prior knowledge, interests, and culture. During instruction, increasing engagement often requires an increase in the number of times students respond and practice skills and concepts. Every student should be spending each minute during instruction participating, whether it’s thinking, discussing, completing hands-on activities, reading, or writing. For example, you may need to help your teachers plan and implement interactive response routines, such as think-pair-share, that involve all students.

Always keep in mind that Tier I literacy instruction goes beyond the dedicated English or reading block and includes the building of discipline-specific literacy skills. To facilitate instructional literacy experiences across content areas, your team and your staff may need more information and opportunities to build capacity in this area. You can find additional information about disciplinary literacy in To Learn More at the end of this section and in the Standards-Based Instruction module of the TSLP online course, which includes specific information about literacy instruction that can help guide work on Tier I instruction, including English language arts and reading and discipline-specific reading and writing instruction.

Your campus-based leadership team may also need to identify strengths and specific areas for growth in your current Tier I instructional practices. As discussed previously, analyzing student data from screening assessments and ongoing progress monitoring can help determine the effectiveness of Tier I and identify classroom or grade-level problems. More information on using data to determine Tier I effectiveness can be found in Part 2 of Lesson E1—Data to inform instruction, as well as in the Assessment component of the TSLP.

As you learn about the Effective Instructional Framework component, keep in mind that the Action Steps overlap. Although steps will be presented separately, it may not be possible to implement them one at a time. The Implementation Indicators for each Action Step will help you reflect on the professional development your staff may need to ensure successful RTI implementation.

Your campus-based leadership team may identify professional development that is needed for several aspects of this component. For example, as you reflect on Action Step E2, your team may decide to target the characteristics of high-quality Tier I instruction, differentiated instruction, and flexible grouping practices as focuses for professional development. Remember to provide opportunities for professional development in many formats, not just on traditional staff development days.

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TO LEARN MORE: The resources below will help you gain a better understanding of Tier I literacy instruction.

The Building Capacity for Response to Intervention Implementation Project at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk contains links to resources on all aspects of RTI.

Disciplinary Literacy: Why It Matters and What We Should Do About It,” a presentation by Elizabeth Birr Moje, offers an introduction to the concept of disciplinary literacy and suggestions for educators seeking to strengthen disciplinary literacy on their secondary campuses.

Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents: A Guidance Document from the Center on Instruction provides comprehensive recommendations for improving literacy instruction in grades 4–12. It includes sections such as explicit instruction, increasing student motivation and engagement, working with English language learners, and content-based literacy instruction.

Online Course: Bringing Literacy Strategies into Content Instruction: Professional Learning for Secondary-Level Teachers helps participants learn more about evidence-based practices for improving literacy instruction in the content areas.

Part 2—Comprehensive Core Literacy Programs in High-Quality Tier I Instruction

Effective Tier I instruction includes a comprehensive, evidence-based core literacy program that increases students’ ability “to understand and learn from grade-level text” (Torgesen, Houston, Rissman, 2007, p. 1). The most essential skills that the core program should address include

  • the ability to read text accurately and fluently;
  • enough background knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of the content;
  • knowledge and skill in using reading strategies that improve understanding or repair it when it breaks down;
  • the ability to think and reason about the information and concepts in the text; and
  • motivation to understand and learn from text (Torgesen, Houston, & Rissman, 2007).

Comprehensive Tier I literacy instruction requires that literacy skills and concepts are taught in a carefully designed sequence, that lessons move from easy tasks to more difficult tasks, and that lessons begin with those of higher utility.

A strong, conceptual understanding of the vertical progression of grade-level literacy standards, primarily the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), can help all teachers use assessment data to plan and deliver targeted Tier I instruction. This involves a working knowledge of the prerequisite skills and understanding implied within each of the TEKS in order to pinpoint any underlying learning objectives students may not have mastered. View the English language arts and reading TEKS vertical alignment document.

Let's read how teachers at one high school applied their knowledge of the vertical progression of the TEKS to identify specific instructional focus areas in Tier I.

Scenario: At XYZ High School, the latest screening and progress monitoring assessments indicated that eleventh-grade students were having difficulty with TEKS reading standard 2(A): “analyze the way in which the theme or meaning of a selection represents a view or comment on the human condition.” The data analysis team suspected that many of these students had not learned the prerequisite skills they needed to master more complex skills. Upon analyzing the assessment question and student responses, the team noticed that students were confusing theme and topic. The vertical thread for the skill of recognizing theme includes sixth-grade TEKS reading standard 3(A): “infer the implicit theme of a work of fiction, distinguishing theme from the topic.” The team determined that teachers needed to review the difference between topic and theme. Considering the scope and sequence, they noticed that a review of this concept would dovetail nicely with an upcoming writing unit. They next planned an appropriate Tier I mini-lesson to be delivered to all eleventh-grade students at the start of the writing unit.

Tier I has been described as the “primary instructional tool that teachers use to implement effective reading instruction” (IRIS Center, p. 3). Many of the instructional programs and materials commonly used support evidence-based literacy practices that are characteristic of high-quality Tier I instruction, but some do not. As a result, evaluating your current core programs and materials is essential. You can find more information about core literacy programs, sequencing and pacing, and how to evaluate them in the Standards-based Instruction module of this TSLP online course.

Core literacy programs help provide coherence and consistency in the Tier I instruction at your school. This means that all your students receive similar learning experiences with the same academic language through grade-appropriate instructional practices that are implemented across classrooms, tiers of instruction, and grade levels. To ensure this coherence and consistency, procedures should be in place to monitor the fidelity of your implementation to your core literacy program and materials (Center on Response to Intervention, 2011).

Because Tier I instruction should provide a solid instructional base for all your students, instructional leaders need to ensure that all students participate in the required English language arts and reading courses. To maximize student learning time, you may need to work collaboratively to ensure ancillary services are scheduled around these classes. 

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TO LEARN MORE: The resources below provide further details about comprehensive core reading programs, as well as suggestions for their evaluation and selection.

Improving Literacy Instruction in Middle and High Schools: A Guide for Principals from Center on Instruction provides a framework for improving literacy instruction school-wide across the content areas.

The ELAR/SLAR TEKS Handbook is available on the Texas Education Agency's (TEA) website.

Part 3—Differentiated Tier I Instruction

It is important to understand that the RTI intervention protocol begins with Tier I, not Tier II. Tier I instruction is not a one-size-fits-all approach that relegates the task of teaching struggling learners to Tier II and Tier III.

“Rather than expect students to adjust to the curriculum, teachers should adjust the curriculum to fit the diverse learning needs of their students” (IRIS Center, p. 2).

Once a high-quality, evidence-based, comprehensive core literacy program is in place, you will need to provide instructional leadership in differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of all students. Differentiated instruction is a foundational characteristic of Tier I instruction. We will focus on the use of assessment data to plan and deliver differentiated Tier I instruction, including flexible grouping practices, targeted lessons, and evidence-based instructional delivery strategies.

Assessment plays a key role in implementing quality, evidence-based Tier I instruction that is differentiated or matched to the diverse needs of all learners. You can find specific information about the assessments used to inform Tier I instruction in Lesson E1—Data to inform instruction and in the Assessment component of the TSLP.

You may need to provide professional development focused on using data to differentiate Tier I instruction. Your campus-based leadership team may need to take part in grade-level data analysis meetings to help disaggregate the data to inform Tier I small-group instruction. Specific suggestions for grade-level data analysis teams can be found in Part 2 of Lesson E1. If not already in place, you may need to include content area teachers in both professional development and data analysis meetings to ensure differentiated instruction that employs a disciplinary literacy approach is provided in their classrooms.

To successfully implement flexible grouping practices in Tier I, you need to continuously monitor students’ progress and plan instruction based on their changing instructional needs. Traditionally, teachers have thought of Tier I literacy and content area instruction as whole-group instruction, but flexible grouping practices are hallmarks of an RTI framework that includes differentiated instruction.

Small-group Tier I instruction needs to occur at every grade level. Assessment data is used to form need-based, teacher-led groups; to schedule time for small-group instruction during classes; and to plan targeted instruction. Teachers need to make many grouping decisions such as

  • the size of each group (e.g., 3–5 struggling readers, 5–7 other students);
  • how frequently each group meets with the teacher (e.g., daily or two to three times a week);
  • the amount of time allotted for each group (based on student need—those with the highest level of need require more time with the teacher); and
  • the lesson’s content, which is usually limited to two or fewer focus skills per lesson (Florida Center for Reading Research, 2006; Hall, 2006; Walpole & McKenna, 2009).

To ensure instruction is differentiated, purposeful grouping practices need to be used in Tier I, including small groups (both heterogeneous, or mixed ability, and homogeneous, or same ability, depending on the lesson's objective); pairs or partners (struggling students paired with somewhat more capable learners); independent practice; and one-on-one. Groups should never remain static. In an RTI framework, group membership continuously changes to reflect student growth and needs.

Tier I teacher-led small-group lessons must be targeted to meet the needs and abilities of each data-based group. Teachers need to ensure that the lessons are not the same for every group. This involves more than just changing which set of leveled readers is used. Both the content and delivery methods need to vary depending on students’ specific needs and abilities.

Effective Tier I teachers employ more than one type of small-group lesson structure to meet the needs of all the students in their classrooms (Florida Center for Reading Research, 2006). For example, a skill-focused format is often used with students who are struggling, and a more guided reading-oriented approach is used with students at or above grade level (Walpole & McKenna, 2009, 2011). When implementing either type of small-group lesson, teachers need to carefully plan each lesson and select materials matched to students’ needs and reading levels. You can find more information about these two small-group lesson structures in To Learn More at the end of this section.

Let’s look at a Tier I skill-focused small-group lesson.

Scenario: At MNO High School, Ms. Kendall has just graded a test that assessed her ninth-grade students’ ability to analyze how the genre of texts with similar themes shapes meaning. One item on the test required a one-paragraph response that connected the themes of two texts while contrasting the effect of the genres. She noticed that six students in one class did not sufficiently connect the themes of the two texts on the assessment.

During the following class period, Ms. Kendall returned the tests and directed the class to expand their paragraphs into a complete analytical essay. She arranged the students in previously determined groups, seating the six identified students together. After the class began working, she seated herself with the group of six students. She explained that before they wrote their expanded essay, she wanted to give them more practice connecting the themes of texts with different genres. She then distributed copies of two texts that the class had previously read and discussed an exemplary paragraph that connected the themes of those texts while contrasting the effects of the different genres. She told students to follow silently while she read the exemplary paragraph aloud.

While reading the exemplary response, Ms. Kendall paused several times and called on students to paraphrase the writer’s meaning. She paid careful attention to the section of the paragraph that effectively connected the two texts. When finished, she asked students to recall that section. She referred students to a previously discussed rubric of the components for an effective response of this type, called on students to identify sections of the exemplary paragraph that met the criteria of the rubric, and checked understanding for each student in the group. She explained that the students needed to revise their test responses to more clearly connect the themes of the two texts by using what they had learned in their analysis of the exemplary paragraph. Distributing sticky notes, she directed the students to use the notes to revise their test paragraphs. She told them to work silently for five minutes as she circulated around the classroom to monitor and assist the other students. She then returned to the six identified students, checked their work, and provided corrective feedback as needed.

In Tier I, differentiated instruction blends some whole-group instruction with teacher-led and student-led small-group instruction. Successful delivery of Tier I small-group instruction depends on establishing expectations, routines, and behavior management systems. Students need clearly defined expectations and routines for peer-assisted interactions in whole groups, small groups, and pairs. Time spent at the beginning of the school year establishing appropriate behaviors and routines can make a substantial difference in student learning. At the beginning of the year, administrators may need to provide additional support staff, if possible, to assist some teachers in the initial stages of implementing differentiated instruction using flexible grouping. Taking the time up front to establish these management systems pays off in the long run.

Literacy centers (or stations) are an effective way to provide students with meaningful independent or peer-assisted opportunities to practice reading and writing. The focus of these literacy centers should be based on student assessment data. The centers need to be purposefully designed to provide additional practice, reinforcement, and an extension of what’s already been taught during whole- and small-group instruction. To differentiate centers, you can keep the same routine or activity over a period of time if you change the skill focus so that the content being taught matches students’ specific needs and abilities.

Let’s look at how one high school used centers to differentiate for Tier I students.

Scenario: At ABC High School, the four members of the tenth-grade team have just met to analyze results from the middle-of-the-year (MOY) universal screening assessment. The team identified two TEKS reading standards for which the majority of students did not demonstrate mastery: (1) “explain shifts in perspective in arguments about the same topic” and (2) “synthesize information from multiple graphical sources to draw conclusions about the ideas presented.” To support student mastery of these skills, the team decided to create materials they could use in centers.

The teachers broke into pairs; two teachers created centers that would reinforce the first skill, and the other two created centers for the second. For example, Ms. George laminated three different graphical representations of sales data for a popular video game and a set of index cards that student groups could use to question each other about the data. The four teachers then shared their materials and created class sets for their students.

At the beginning of the next class, the teachers briefly explained each center activity to the whole class and then divided students into predetermined groups according to their performance on the two focus skills on the MOY assessment. Students worked in groups to complete their center activity and rotated through the other centers as time allowed. Teachers circulated to check understanding, provide corrective feedback, and monitor behavior.

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TO LEARN MORE: The resources below may be useful as you seek to learn more about the elements of Tier I literacy instruction.

Brown University’s publication “Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching” expands on seven characteristics of culturally responsive teaching and offers suggestions to aid in the implementation of these principles.

Classroom Reading Instruction That Supports Struggling Readers: Key Components for Effective Teaching,” published by the RTI Action Network, explores in detail several instructional components deemed vital by the National Research Council for supporting good readers.

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NEXT STEPS: Depending upon your team’s progress implementing Tier I instruction, you may want to consider some of the following next steps:

  • Peruse the resources listed in To Learn More for Parts 1–3.
  • Examine your current Tier I core reading instructional practices within and across grade levels to determine if they are evidence based and facilitating differentiation of instruction.
  • Determine how you will evaluate your current level of Tier I implementation to make data-based decisions for improving and enhancing instruction within and across grade levels.
  • Identify (or re-evaluate the need for) evidence-based professional development (e.g., collaborative planning, observation and feedback, coaching, professional learning communities) to build or continue to strengthen capacity for high-quality differentiated Tier I instruction.


E2. Provide differentiated, evidence-based Tier I literacy instruction to all students.

With your site/campus-based leadership team, review your team’s self-assessed rating for Action Step E2 in the TSLP Implementation Status Ratings document and then respond to the four questions in the assignment.

TSLP Implementation Status Ratings 6-12

In completing your assignment with your team, the following resources and information from this lesson’s content may be useful to you:

  • Refer to Part 1 for an overview of how to use assessment to inform Tier I in your RTI framework.
  • Refer to Part 2 for implementing quality Tier I instruction using comprehensive core literacy programs.
  • Refer to Part 3 for implementing quality differentiated Tier I instruction.

Next Steps also contains suggestions that your campus may want to consider when you focus your efforts on this Action Step.

To record your responses, go to the Assignment template for this lesson and follow the instructions.


Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

Burns, M. K., Sorlo, R., & Pettersson, H. (nd.). Response to intervention for literacy in secondary schools. Retrieved from

Florida Center for Reading Research. (2006). Differentiated reading instruction: Small group alternative lesson structures for all students. Just Read Florida. Retrieved from

Hall, S. L. (2006). I've DIBEL'd, now what? Designing interventions with DIBELS data. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

IRIS Center. Star Legacy Modules: How can teachers increase student reading success in early grades. Retrieved from

National Center on Response to Intervention [NCRI]. (2010). Essential components of RTI–A closer look at response to intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.

National Center on Response to Intervention [NCRI]. (2011). RTI essential components integrity rubric. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.

Torgesen, J. K. (2004). Lessons learned from research on interventions for students who have difficulty learning to read. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 355–382). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Torgesen, J., Houston, D., & Rissman, L. (2007) Improving literacy instruction in middle and high schools: A guide for principals. Retrieved RMC Research website:

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J. Woodruff, A. L., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2007). Prevention and early identification of students with reading disabilities. In D. Haager, J. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention (pp. 11–27). Baltimore: Brookes.

Walpole, S., & McKenna, M. C. (2009). How to plan differentiated reading instruction: Resources for grades K–3. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Walpole, S., & McKenna, M. C. (2011). Differentiated reading instruction in grades 4 & 5: Strategies and resources. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.