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Redefining the Identification of Reading Disabilities: Response to Intervention in Early Childhood Education

Strategies for Successful Learning, Volume 2, Number 1, September 2008

Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D.

Response to Intervention (RTI) is an approach to identifying reading disabilities in children by assessing children’s ability to learn how to read, or their response to reading instruction and intervention. RTI has redefined the identification of reading disabilities in that it doesn’t rely on IQ testing and other diagnostic reading assessments after a reading difficulty is suspected. Instead, RTI is preventative. It aims to reduce referrals to special education by accurately identifying children’s reading difficulties before they become severe and to identify the problems and possible interventions as early as possible.

The Individuals with Disabilities Educational Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) supports the use of RTI models to intervene with young children at risk for reading disabilities.

According to the International Reading Association (, RTI models encompass several core concepts, including evidence-based reading instruction by highly-qualified teachers, frequent and ongoing assessment and progress monitoring of all students, data-based decision making, the early identification of learning and behavioral needs, and collaboration among key personnel, including parents, general educators, special educators, and related services personnel. Based on children’s responses to instruction, RTI also increases the levels and intensity of intervention.

RTI models typically include three tiers of instruction and support. Tier One comprises general instruction or a general curriculum, in which all students participate. The curriculum should ideally be research-based and deemed effective for promoting children’s early literacy abilities through one or more rigorous scientific evaluations (e.g., see the What Works Clearinghouse website at Early literacy instruction would include, for example, a focus on phonological awareness, print awareness, vocabulary knowledge, and alphabet knowledge. Tier One of an RTI model would also include frequent progress monitoring using scientifically validated instruments to assess children’s progress in the general early literacy curriculum. Children whose progress in Tier One is inadequate would then receive additional targeted support in Tier Two.

In Tier Two, students would work with educators in smaller groups to receive supplemental instruction in their areas of need. For example, children having difficulty with phonological awareness might meet with their teacher in groups of three or four students, three days per week, to work on rhyming and segmenting activities, in addition to their regular classroom instruction. Through frequent progress monitoring, students are assessed to determine how their Tier Two instruction should be further modified. For children who respond well to Tier Two interventions, supplemental support can eventually be removed and they can return to Tier One. Progress monitoring would continue to ensure that these children continue to respond adequately, to make good progress, in Tier One.

Children who do not respond adequately to Tier Two support continue to receive targeted and supplemental intervention until third grade (or possibly beyond), where they then participate in an in-depth assessment of their reading abilities to determine whether they do indeed have a reading disability. When in-depth assessment reveals that children are likely to continue to have problems learning to read, children move to Tier Three, which can include placement in special education for more intensive reading support.

Three important facts are often overlooked about RTI. Fact 1: Under IDEA 2004, parents can request a full evaluation, including an evaluation for reading disabilities, at any time; they do not have to wait until third grade. Fact 2: Under IDEA 2004, RTI can be part of a comprehensive evaluation for special education eligibility; it cannot constitute the entire evaluation. Fact 3: There are many different RTI models.

Much research is underway to examine the core concepts of RTI, including successful and effective Tier Two interventions, the development and validation of progress monitoring instruments for RTI models, and the evaluation of RTI models at-scale using large samples of young children in longitudinal research studies, with the goal of preventing reading difficulties and disabilities.


P.L. 108-446. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Available at

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (2008). What Works Clearinghouse. Available at

Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall).

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