Implementation Science: Key to Success

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February 2015


By: Barbara A. Wilson, M.Ed.

Implementation science was the topic of a pre-conference symposium presented at the 2014 International Dyslexia Association (IDA) conference in San Diego. While IDA members have long embraced the science of reading, there is another science of equal importance that directly influences the success of lasting change in reading instruction within schools and districts: implementation science. This is no small subject, either in depth or in importance.

When a new school initiative is announced—whether a federal, state, local, or even school-based change—many educators in schools across America often think, “Here we go again.” They may be tempted to wait it out instead of investing time and energy into learning and putting into practice something that may not last for very long since they have seen many ideas come and go. Other educators may wholeheartedly embrace a new initiative and invest precious time and resources only to be disappointed by the lack of sustainability in spite of their efforts. In both cases, the unfortunate outcome is a lack of, or limited, student success—or perhaps only temporary success.

There Is a Science to Implementing Change

There is a reason for these challenges, but also a solution—and both are connected to implementation science. Yes, there is a very specific and detailed science to the implementation of any systems change. Without heeding the science, change is neither scalable nor sustainable. Putting implementation science into practice, however, enables desirable, enduring results.

When considering supports for individuals with dyslexia, it is critical to attend to the research of implementation science. To become literate, individuals with dyslexia need intervention clearly defined by extensive research and proven over time. Still, choice of an appropriate teaching methodology alone will not ensure development of adequate literacy skills. Teachers must be able to deliver the intervention instruction with fidelity. Mastery of both content knowledge and skilled instructional strategies requires time and effort: coursework completion and practicum experience supervised by a highly qualified trainer of teachers. But even that—an effective and masterfully taught intervention—is not enough. Implementation science research has found that for schools to solve the challenges they face, the following are necessary:

Implementation Science Research Solution

(Fixsen, Blase, Duda, Naoom, & Van Dyke, 2010)

In practice, for students to benefit, a teacher armed with an effective intervention must be part of a school or school district culture that promotes effective implementation within an enabling context. In other words, if the teacher is prepared to instruct students but does not work within an enabling context, optimum learning will not occur. For example, the teacher might have a large caseload that includes students with special needs and I.E.P.s designating different requirements for intervention to meet the variety of their needs; these students may be in class at the same time for several subjects, making it impossible to provide each with appropriate instruction. Or the teacher might meet with students for only two or three thirty-minute sessions a week, which would not provide sufficient intensity. Other aspects of the school culture, including scheduling, may not provide the enabling context necessary to allow the change initiative to succeed.

Implementation Science’s Core Components: Vital for Students with Dyslexia

The work of the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) has provided much insight into the importance of scientific implementation ( A synthesis of the research (Fixsen, Naoom, Blase, Friedman, & Wallace, 2005; Fixsen et al., 2010) describes stages of implementation, the importance of implementation teams, and other core components such as competency drivers (recruiting, training, and coaching staff), organizational drivers (monitoring fidelity, actions and policies needed for success, attention to scheduling, etc.), and leadership drivers that are key factors for achieving intended outcomes.

Four stages of implementation are defined by the research: exploration, installation, initial implementation, and full implementation. It is during the first stage, exploration, that the decision to adopt an effective intervention to teach students with dyslexia should be made. The implementation team must collaborate actively to determine appropriate activities to occur during each stage and then provide the leadership necessary to incorporate these stage-appropriate activities while assessing outcomes and managing expectations.

Implementation teams usually consist of three to five individuals with varied roles who are responsible for the success of the implementation effort. Team members are selected based on specialized expertise and experience with the intervention, implementation methods, or ability to operationalize change within the school or district.

Other core components of the implementation effort must also be in place. For example, key elements of the effective intervention must be identified and then observed in the classroom to confirm that teachers have generalized the required knowledge, skills, and abilities. This requires staff competence and confidence that can be gained only through training accompanied by effective coaching in classrooms.

There is much involved with the science of implementation, and this summary just begins to outline it. For more information, visit the NIRN website. In addition, it is possible to purchase the audio recording of the IDA conference symposium (W2 – Making it Happen vs. Hoping it Happens: Do It with the Science of Implementation – Barbara Wilson) or view the handouts from this IDA symposium session. With effective intervention and effective implementation within an enabling context, students with dyslexia can learn to read and write. Though not easy, following the key principles of implementation science can make it happen.

Fixsen, D.L., Blase, K.A., Duda, M.A., Naoom, S.F., & VanDyke, M.V. (2010). Implementation of evidence-based treatments for children and adolescents: Research findings and their implications for the future. In J.R. Weisz & A.E. Kazdin (Eds.), Evidence-based psychotherapies for children and adolescents (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Fixsen, D.L., Naoom, S.F., Blase, K.A., Friedman, R.M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida: The National Implementation Research Network.

National Implementation Research Network (NIRN). (2013). Active implementation frameworks. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Retrieved from:

Barbara A. Wilson, M.Ed. is the co-founder and president of Wilson Language Training, a company that provides professional learning and ongoing support to literacy educators across the country. Barbara has been dedicated to individuals with dyslexia since her work at Massachusetts General Hospital Reading Disabilities Clinic where she taught adults with dyslexia how to read more than 30 years ago. Barbara also leads Wilson work with school districts for their RTI implementation. Barbara currently serves on several committees for IDA and provides professional expertise for other organizations dedicated to reading and dyslexia.

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