As we celebrate the start of a new year, we simultaneously approach the midway point of the school year. This is a great opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished academically for our students and take stock of what might require a “reset” based on current trends.

An area of particular importance to me is the value of “intensive instruction or intensive intervention.” I refer to these concepts so often that it has become part of my vernacular on a daily basis in working with school personnel, particularly school directors. I preach it and I hear it reflected back. But do we really know what it means? What does research say about intensive instruction? Do we practice what we preach? Is it really possible for instruction to reflect research in practice?

For a review of the research, I turned to Sharon Vaughn  and Jeanne Wanzek for a summary of findings on this topic. Vaughn and Wanzek used three data sources to build a rationale for why intensive interventions are necessary for students with pervasive reading disabilities: current data on performance of students with disabilities on reading achievement measures over time; observational studies on students with reading disabilities in general and special education classrooms; and findings from intensive intervention studies for students with reading disabilities. These findings were published in the journal, Learning Disabilities Research & Practice.

It is interesting to note that research unveils a number of “non-examples” of intensive interventions in regular public schools in regards to instruction for students with pervasive reading disabilities. The result is a rather bleak picture of what is NOT happening in most typical public school settings for our most needy learners. Some highlights include:

  • The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicated a statistically significant decline in reading for fourth-grade students with disabilities, while reading scores for students without disabilities increased.
  • Data from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) reported that by 2013, there was an increase to 60% of students with disabilities spending 80% or more of the school day in general education. During the same time period when students with disabilities reading scores were declining, they were spending MORE time in general education.
  • Results of observational data in general and special education settings yielded a number of concerns. The first concern was time engaged in reading; that is, the amount of time students with disabilities were NOT participating in reading instruction because they were off task, out of the room, or waiting.
  • Researchers observed students engaged in many non-reading activities throughout the day, even during time set aside for reading instruction.
  • Several of the synthesized studies reported special education classrooms where teachers were providing services to large groups of students with disabilities (5−19) where whole-group instruction prevailed and little individualized or differentiated instruction was observed.
  • Another factor was related to the quality of reading instruction. Even in the most recent studies, limited time with print was evident with little to no evidence of differentiation in engaging students in active responding based on student need.
  • Research also suggested that students received little comprehension instruction and spent large amounts of time in both general and special education settings doing seatwork and worksheets.

Further research shows that many struggling students in the primary grades respond successfully to Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction. Yet these same researchers and others indicate that these interventions, even when implemented with fidelity, do not dramatically decrease the rate of inadequate responders to reading and math programs. Further, the success rate of older students (grades 4 and older) participating in Tier 2 interventions is less than that of primary-grade students. These students’ poor response signals a need for even more intensive instructional care. Research shows, however, that these students do NOT routinely get more intensive instruction and that providing typical special education services does not ensure an appropriate education.

It was also revealed that many students with learning disabilities receive no substantial modifications to general education curriculum or instruction. Further, there is an unfounded and naïve belief that virtually all children and youth with disabilities, including those with very serious learning problems, are helped sufficiently by the core curriculum with co-teaching, modifications to the core instructional program, or other such supports. Research has determined that few educators know how to develop and deliver intensive intervention distinctive from Tier 2 small-group tutoring. Many schools do not have the know-how to provide specialized intensive intervention and, therefore, cannot offer “full-spectrum” instruction to all students. As a result, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) created the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII). The NCII’s goals are to provide schools with a research-backed vision of what intensive intervention looks like for students with severe learning needs.

Despite these rather glum statistics, there are many schools and individual classrooms where evidence exists that students’ needs are adequately being addressed through individualized and differentiated instruction. But, as the above research points out, such classrooms are the exception, not the norm.

So, if the previous research highlights the non-examples, what does research inform us as to the examples?

First, in regards to time spent reading and engaged in reading tasks, often referred to as “dosage,” research informs us that across subject areas in general education, small groups of 3−4 students are associated with significantly higher effect sizes than groups of 8−10 with the lowest achieving students benefiting the most. Similarly, the use of differentiated, small-group instruction in the general education setting is significantly related to higher reading outcomes. Students with reading disabilities who are provided a one-to-one intervention or intervention in very small groups (5 or fewer per group) make greater gains than students provided reading instruction in large groups.

Second, teachers need to provide intensive and ongoing interventions in reading to ensure that adequate progress is made for our neediest students. Research suggests that intensive intervention is defined by a criterion of 100 sessions (approximately 20 weeks of daily treatment) or more for students in grades K−3 and a criterion of 75 sessions (approximately one semester of daily treatment) or more for students in grades 4−12. The researchers also looked at the effect of duration of intervention. The largest effect sizes were for students who received intensive interventions cumulatively over multiple years.

When students are not sufficiently responsive to research-validated Tier 2 tutoring programs, what can teachers do to intensify instruction to make it beneficial? Consideration should be given to some key questions in determining the best instructional plan for the student.

  1. Is the student progressing, but progressing too slowly? If so, additional instructional time may be an appropriate intensification for the student. With additional time, teachers may plan for a greater amount of practice with feedback to solidify and expand proficiency on foundation skills, offer more explicit systematic (step-by-step) instruction, focus on teaching new skills and strategies, and use student performance as feedback for adjusting instruction.
  2. Is the size of the group suitable for specialized instruction and practice with feedback, considering the expertise of the teacher and the severity of the students’ learning problems? Researchers who focus on group size suggest what teachers have known all along: smaller groups allow teachers to provide more specialized instruction. Generally, small groups and one-on-one instruction are associated with better outcomes for students with learning problems than larger groups (Wanzek & Vaughn, 2007, 2008).
  3. Is the duration of the instruction adequate? Duration of instruction refers to the amount of time each day the instruction is provided, the frequency with which instructional sessions are delivered, and the number of weeks the intervention lasts. So strategies for increasing the duration of intervention are to increase (a) the amount of time for each session, (b) the number of times per week the sessions are scheduled, and/or (c) the number of weeks the intervention lasts.

In conclusion, the question remains: Can we learn from research and apply these guiding principles to our full-day special education programs? The answer is a resounding YES! In our full-day school programs, we have the ability to control our own priorities and, hence, the destiny of our students. To do this, we MUST remain vigilant in matters related to the three Ds: DATA, DOSAGE, AND DURATION.

Data drives instruction. It is that simple. If we use the data at our disposal, including Renaissance Star Assessments along with skill-based assessments, then yes, we can identify student levels and build a plan for instruction.

Dosage is the gas that fuels the engine. If we build an instructional plan based on the best available data and research-based interventions that are delivered with intensity and fidelity by trained teachers, then yes we can ensure that students have sufficient intervention time each day to effect a change. Instruction that includes BOTH remediation of skill deficits AND targets grade-level standards allows the best chance of student gains. If this core principle is adhered to, then yes, we can provide sufficient dosage.

Duration is the long road trip. It means that we don’t give up if academic gains are not seen quickly.  If we provide intensive intervention, sometimes for multiple years, then we can change the trajectory of student achievement over time. People often have a habit of giving up just when something is about to change! If we can remain faithful to the three Ds, then we are practicing what we preach and changing the destiny of our beloved students!