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Update: Middle School Readers Need More Precise RTI Screenings, Study Finds

Happy middle school readers are all alike, but unhappy readers are unhappy in their own ways. Even response-to-intervention models, which are intended to deliver more individualized support to students, may not be screening comprehensively enough to help struggling readers, according to a new study in the journal School Psychology Review.

Response to invervention couples a foundation of high-quality instruction for all students (called "Tier I") with regular screenings and escalating tiers of interventions for students who do not succeed with the base teaching alone. Tier II is intended to bolster students in problem areas: This first level of evaluation and intervention is crucial to sift learning difficulties from true learning disabilities. Those who do not succeed with Tier II interventions are identified for Tier II, intensive interventions and eventually special education.

"As students grow older and are confronted with more complex and cognitively demanding texts, specific difficulties in reading comprehension may emerge in students with adequate decoding and fluency skills, marked primarily by limitations in listening comprehension and vocabulary," the authors wrote.

[Update:] Yet researchers Jeremy Miciak and Karla K. Stuebing of the University of Houston, with colleagues at that institution, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Missouri, found that the cognitive differences between middle school students who respond well to second-tier reading interventions and those who don't vary significantly based on their specific problem areas, and when the researchers controlled for reading skill, the differences were no longer significant.

"Thus, we argue that testing cognitive skills after a determination of inadequate response is a waste of time and resources--not because there are no differences, but because those cognitive differences parallel differences in reading skill," Miciak told me. "We learn nothing new."

The researchers pulled a sample of students from an ongoing, multiyear study of RTI reading interventions at all three tiers in grades 6 through 8. Students who had been identified for Tier II were randomly assigned to receive additional 45-to-50-minute daily instruction in word study, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension for a full year. Then, the researchers conducted a battery of more than a dozen measures of various aspects of reading, from cognitive and reading processing to vocabulary, fluid reasoning, silent and oral group reading, and other skills. 

They found only about 77 students—about one in three in the sample—responded well to the intervention when assessed on these multiple domains of reading. Those who continued to struggle performed poorly on different response indicators: Those with poor comprehension had the biggest problems with verbal knowledge and listening tests, while students who were not fluent readers had trouble with phonological awareness (the ability to hear and recognize language sounds) and rapid-naming tests, and students who performed poorly in decoding, fluency, and comprehension had the most trouble with tests of phonological awareness.

It may be cause for concern that the struggling readers performed differently on different tasks, because even experienced RTI schools rarely assess students on so many different reading skills when evaluating their response to an intervention at Tier II. "The use of any single criterion measure in this study would have resulted in a much larger number of students identified" as responding well to the intervention, the authors wrote. "In schools this may result in a large number of students being ineligible for neccesary intervention, despite the need documented by a more comprehensive evaluation of their reading skills."

The findings suggest that teachers working with middle school readers, at least, may need to use additional measures to pinpoint when pinpoint students' problem areas don't get picked up by traditional fluency assessments (and hat tip to treyatl for the additional analysis.)  

 Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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