Adolescent Literacy Systems and RTI

In working with many schools and districts, I regularly hear much concern, comment and effort from schools that are attempting to meet the requirements of RTI – Response to Intervention. RTI is a simple idea that seems to have become complicated in its implementation.  As with anything that has an external accountability component, it has taken on a life of its own – and unnecessarily so.  

As we look at the critical components of a systematic approach to adolescent literacy, RTI can become clearer, less complex, and less frightening.  Here are the fundamentals of an effective programmatic approach to literacy at middle and high school levels:

  • foundational literacy instruction – teaching all students to read, and continuing that instruction throughout their schooling years, gradually shifting from literature to informational text, as complexity of learning needs deepen
  • cross-content literacy integration to apply core literacy strategies in service of content learning and continued skills development
  • intervention that works at multiple levels; intervening in the classroom for students who have temporary issues with content or process, and intervening outside the classroom for students who have more long-term learning issues.
  • solid professional training and coaching for teachers, focused on all three core program elements noted above; and job-embedded in nature
  • distributed leadership structures that engage all stakeholders in the dialogue, planning, and implementation of literacy improvement strategies

So, back to RTI:  The first three components of a systemic approach to adolescent literacy fulfill the requirements of RTI . . . on paper.  If all students have access to program content, and that content includes varied chances for support when needed, then the requirements of RTI have been fulfilled.

However, there are multiple questions that remain.  First, are these different components consistent with one another?  Second, do schools have sufficient scaffolding in place for teacher learning and practice, such that they can be assured of program fidelity and quality?  And third, is there a sustainable commitment to the plan and its consequences in a school community?

These questions drive us to look at the last two program components noted above – professional development/coaching, and distributed leadership.  Too many schools are looking for the quick fix, the program-in-a-box that they can put into classrooms to not only fulfill RTI requirements, but to fix all that may be wrong with practice and student performance.  This is impossible.  It takes the effort of the full community to change their instructional habits for good.

A friend of mine once said “change happens in an instant, we just get ready for it and used to it for a very long time.”  It is possible that program implementation alone can create an instant change.  After all, something is now different.  However, to prepare for that change and to sustain that change takes long and well-supported effort to create new habits of mind.  RTI and other external policies can create the playing field for real change, but they can’t make it happen.  That’s up to school communities that are willing to take a problem on for deep and sustained work.

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