RTI: As Easy as Your Baby’s Growth Chart?

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By Posie Boggs

March 2018


Response to Intervention (RTI) should work just like your baby’s growth chart: the one you see in the doctor’s office or at the well-baby clinic. By comparing your baby’s measurements (weight, length, and head circumference) to other babies of the same age, you and your healthcare team can determine if your baby is growing in a healthy way. Monitoring your baby’s growth can predict future health issues or screen for early signs of disease. This way diagnosis and treatment can start early if there is a problem.

I was very excited when I first read the research about RTI because it made sense to me as a mom and a nurse. I could follow a baby’s growth chart. I was part of the healthcare team. And now the education system was using evidence-based practices to measure reading growth, and I was invited to be on the team as a parent. The RTI team is a group of professionals (school psychologist, special education coordinator, teacher, vice principal) and should include parents who meet regularly to look at a child’s reading growth. At your school, this team may be called the child study team, the student support team, or the RTI team.


Measuring Early Reading Skills

What are the measurements of early reading skills that can help predict and help us watch a child’s reading progress? It’s easy to picture weighing a baby and measuring its length and head circumference. It’s not as easy for most parents to picture what early reading skills are and how they are being measured in the RTI process. The RTI process starts with universal screening and continues to progress monitoring. Screening is the use of tools to help get a baseline measurement—to start a reading growth chart. Progress monitoring for all children simply means the same thing as being weighed and measured every time you take your baby to the doctor’s office—schools repeat the early reading measures and watch for growth. When states, districts, and schools apply or use Response to Intervention the principles are the same.

What RTI Looks Like in the Classroom

It may help to watch videos of children and teachers participating in various early reading measures that you might find your school or district using under RTI.


How Are Standards Set?

Remember in the doctor’s office how your baby’s growth was compared to the same measurements from other babies? How are the standards for a baby’s growth in the first 24 months of life determined? There are two important agencies that do so: the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, in education the results of these measures aren’t compared to reading standards that are set by one or two organizations. National and international standards in reading and early reading skills come from various organizations such as educational research and professional organizations, and data that publishers collect such as Aimsweb, DIBELs, and others. There are about a dozen major products and you’ll want to know which one your school district uses. Think of these as huge spreadsheet databases that these companies have tried to make easy for teachers to use.

Just as my grandson’s parents ask me to follow his growth chart from the doctor’s office, they have asked me to follow his reading development when he enters kindergarten. I understand growth charts as a universal screener. We watch babies grow to evaluate the effectiveness of a treatment for a baby’s growth, if needed. I can help my grandson’s parents understand the expected growth in reading, what they should see from their school and teachers, and how to identify when his reading growth is off track. As a family filled with dyslexia, this is important to us.


Understanding Screening Tools

The first thing I must do is understand which screening tool my grandson’s school is using. In general, reading screening tools share some common measurements. These measurements are usually based on the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report on what kids need to learn to read. The report has been updated since then, but the basics are still the same. They are called the big five because they are needed for children to develop reading, and weaknesses in these areas can be a red flag, predicting future reading struggles. Again, this is very important to families with children with dyslexia.


This means that no matter which of the screening tools your school district uses, early universal screening should cover most of these five areas. I will get to know the tool my grandson’s school district uses. They will be administered a minimum of three times a year. The Center on Response to Intervention at American Institutes for Research has a nifty screening tools chart that you can use to get to know the universal screener used at your school.

For example, AIMSweb, DIBELS, and easyCBM all measure kindergarten fluency with a test called Letter Naming Fluency. It is simply the number of lower and upper case printed letters that a kindergarten student can accurately identify in a minute. Phonics is measured by a subtest called Correct Letter Sounds or Letter Sound Fluency. The child provides the most common sound of each letter. See IDA’s fact sheet on universal screening for more information. 


Risk Categories

Generally these universal screenings categorize kids into three or four risk levels. This means that results are usually reported as low risk, some risk, or at-risk. It does depend on the tool being used as some universal screeners/benchmark screeners report results as above benchmark, at benchmark, below benchmark, or well below benchmark. Remember these are not deep diagnostic tests. They merely give an indication of a student’s risk level in achieving whatever is being measured. Risk is exactly what I want to know about my grandson’s early reading skills. This will give me and his parents an indication of where he starts and where his reading skills may go.

When he enters kindergarten I would expect to see an initial screening, occasionally called the benchmark, covering these areas. His teacher would report the results of this first screening to his parents. If my grandson is a typical learner at the beginning a kindergarten, he will be low risk. At midyear and spring screenings we would hope he would continue to be in the low-risk category. This would mean that whatever is going on in his kindergarten classroom is working for him. When he enters into first grade, the universal screeners (now may be called benchmark screeners) will be given again and we will follow him in first grade through his midyear and spring screenings. We hope the results will show he is in the same low-risk category and is meeting the end of year goals. His data would look like this:

What Interventions to Expect for Struggling Readers

If he is a struggling learner, I would watch for some important things to happen from the school. The first thing I expect is that his teacher will inform his parents that there is a sign of some level of risk that he may struggle to achieve reading goals unless he has additional support. They are often called interventions. The interventions should have scientific evidence that they are effective at improving outcomes.

The second thing the teacher might report is that he or she may increase the number of minutes spent on reading for my grandson each week. Third, the teacher will start progress monitoring. Each state, district, school building, and classroom may do this in a different way.

The monitoring should be at least weekly but might be monthly. His progress should be measured and compared to normal rates of learning, and should last about 8 to 10 weeks. Of course, the hope is that after 8 to 10 weeks of some extra time on reading and a scientifically evidenced intervention, my grandson will not be in the at-risk or some risk categories any longer.

So what happens if my grandson’s scores after 8 to 10 weeks looks the same or worse? I would look for the teacher to make some decisions. These decisions might include the following:

  1. increasing the time on the intervention
  2. choosing a different scientifically evidenced intervention
  3. referring my grandson to the school team (child study team, the student support team, or the RTI team)
  4. referring my grandson to be evaluated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Pub.L. 101-476, 104 Stat.1142

A Note About RTI and Evaluation for Special Education Services

Your district or school’s RTI process cannot be used to delay or deny your child’s evaluation for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). You can request that your child to be evaluated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

If my grandson has dyslexia, the progress monitoring may show him to still be at risk or have some risk at the end of kindergarten. This can happen even with excellent decisions that are made by the teacher. I expect that my grandson’s parents are kept informed of his progress and of the decisions that his teacher and school team are making. His data should look like this if all is going well and Response to Intervention is being implemented appropriately in his school by his teacher.




His teacher should progress monitor each reading skill area that he screened as at-risk or some risk. So I might see a chart like this for Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Letter Sound Fluency, or Nonsense Word Fluency in kindergarten and then Oral Reading Fluency starting in mid-first grade along with a cloze task or other comprehension and vocabulary measure. This is where those technology tools like AIMSweb, DIBELS, and easyCBM really come in handy. In some school districts, teams administer the screeners for the teachers so they don’t have to take time out of instruction to do so. Then the results are shared to the whole team. This process will look different school to school and district to district.

Well, what do I look for if my grandson is not making progress like other kindergarteners? I would hope that his teacher would move him to Tier 2 in the RTI process. It might look like this.




At some point my grandson might be moved to Tier 3 under a RTI process. This means that he will receive one-to-one intervention or small group intervention. He may be referred to the Special Education Department for an evaluation for services under IDEA. The process of Tier 2 may continue while a full evaluation of his needs is carried out and a plan is made. His plan may look very much like the RTI process or it may look quite different.


What Families Can Do

Thinking about RTI in the same way that we think about our baby’s growth chart may be a helpful way to start a parent’s journey into the RTI world. Finally, I will encourage my grandson’s parents to educate themselves about struggles in learning to read due to dyslexia. I want them to arm themselves with the best information they can find. Hopefully, if I do my job right they will find the RTI process helpful as well as identify scientifically evidenced reading instruction.


Posie Boggs is an active advocate for educating students, parents, educators, and policy makers on the necessity of improving literacy in our nation and the world. She has emphasized that providing comprehensive research-based literacy education early to all our students and adults who struggle with literacy is essential to increasing our nation’s educational outcomes. Equally important is providing educators extensive, rigorous, and multidisciplinary training in the knowledge and practice of teaching the “3 Rs.” As founding president of the Alaska Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, she uses every opportunity available to communicate that research about dyslexia provides a critical base of knowledge that contributes to all aspects of literacy acquisition and instruction. Ms. Boggs has a Masters in Educational Diagnostics and a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. She haunts the Institute of Education Science and the What Works Clearing House to keep her knowledge on the cutting edge of literacy science. She has received training in and utilizes the following scientifically evidenced methods for teaching literacy and reading: The RAVE-O™ program, Lindamood-Bell™ programs, including On Cloud Nine Math©, LIPS©, Visualizing Verbalizing©, Seeing Stars©, LAC3 Test©, Slingerland™ – Level 1, & 2 and the Writing Institute™

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