September 20, 2017

Reading and Writing Interventions: Making Them Work in Middle School

I'm just going to say it.  I believe the United States education system right now is obsessed with the word intervention.  It's the answer for everything.  A student is reading several levels below grade level?  Let's put them in a reading intervention.  A teacher notices one of her student's writing skills aren't up to par?  Let's put them in a writing intervention.  I'll be clear: I don't disagree with having interventions.  However, after teaching and being the literacy coach at a middle school who is entering into the fourth year of a universal intervention period, I have some thoughts and non-negotiables about what is going to make the time and effort a teacher/a school system takes to plan out interventions worthwhile for all involved.  Also, as I'll point out below, an intervention alone is not enough to "fix" students' reading and writing deficits.

1.  Know the purpose of the intervention.  The middle school level is unique.  We have students just out of elementary land, and we're preparing other students to enter into high school.  This may create different reasons in some teachers' minds for why students need an intervention.  Is this intervention for (a) to increase reading and writing abilities in a student or (b) to increase reading and writing productivity in a student.  There is a big difference between (a) and (b).  Doing an intervention to help increase abilities is going to involve knowing everything about that student as a reader and writer and using specific strategies to help fill in deficits and build on strengths.  Doing an intervention to increase productivity is a behavioral issue that is going to focus in on student motivation and organization.  We must be clear on the purpose because a student who needs an intervention to increase reading and writing abilities but is in an intervention to increase reading and writing productivity is a waste of time for all involved and vice versa.

2.  Provide Teacher PD and Intervention Resources.  As a school system, if you want high-quality interventions done, you must make an investment in teacher expertise and intervention resources.  My school, for example, has purchased Fountas and Pinnell's Red, Gold, Purple, and Teal Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) Systems.  Several of the teachers using LLI, including myself, have attended LLI professional development instructed by Fountas and Pinnel themselves.  We also do a beginning of the year refresher and alignment each year.  A school simply cannot expect teachers to provide magical interventions without resources or training.  A significant investment must be made in both teachers and resources in order for interventions to be effective.

3.  Don't Ignore Universal Instruction.  Before any student is placed in a reading or writing intervention, the question has to be asked: What is happening at the universal level in the classroom?  If a student is receiving ineffective reading and writing instruction each day at the universal level, that problem needs to be fixed first.  We have come so far as educators as far as differentiating at the universal level to meet the needs of all students in our classroom.  Every English Language Arts classroom at the middle school level should have a balance of whole group, small group, and individualized instruction through whole group minilessons, guided reading/writing, literature circles, and reading/writing conferences.  The gradual release of responsibility should also be used during each minilessons so that students are exposed to a specific learning target, modeling of the learning target, a guided practice, and an independent application.  Minilessons should be focused on reading and writing skills that can be applied to how reading and writing works again and again versus specific reading and writing tasks teachers want students to do.  These are non-negotiables.  If these things aren't happening on a consistent basis, then going down the path of intervention is silly.  Universal instruction must be fixed first.

4.  Don't Replace Universal Instruction with Intervention.  If you were to ask me what the biggest mistake would be when implementing an intervention for a student, this is it.  Students needing a reading intervention are taken out of reading class to complete that intervention.  It sounds logical right?  Doing this is a total system mistake.  Students truly in need of a reading or writing intervention need universal instruction plus an intervention.  They need that double dose.  Replacing universal instruction with intervention gives that student, who is already struggling with reading or writing, less than other students in the classroom.  Their instruction at the universal level will be choppy and confusing because they're in and out to complete intervention, and many teachers don't adjust their expectations of these students even when they're missing significant chunks of class to attend the intervention.  This will just put already struggling students further and further behind and also leave them feeling more isolated and frustrated.

5.  Consider a Universal Intervention Period.  My school utilizes an "all hands on deck" approach to intervention by taking the first 40 minutes of the school day to provide interventions and extensions to every single student in our school.  There isn't a "you're in an intervention" stigma that students are worried about because every student participates.  Every staff member is involved in providing either an intervention or an extension.  No student has to miss universal instruction to receive his or her intervention.  Also, teachers are more aware of strategies they can use to help struggling readers and writers at the universal level.  It really seems like a win-win for everyone involved.

6.  Programs Aren't Always the Answer.  Earlier on in this post, I mentioned the importance of investing in resources.  My school has invested in LLI resources and training for staff as one option for reading intervention.  Here's the thing.  Purchasing a bunch of boxed programs and computer intervention programs isn't the answer either.  The biggest return a school will get on intervention effectiveness is to invest in the professional development of the teachers teaching the interventions.  Purchasing a professional development book, having teachers do a compensated book study of the resource, and giving teachers time to discuss implementation strategies of what was learned will go a lot further than purchasing every fancy intervention system out there.  The reps for intervention systems are extremely persuasive, but a program is just a program when there isn't teacher expertise to back it up.

7.  Ditch the Computer Intervention Programs.  There are great interventions out there where there is a computer element to a teacher-led intervention.  That is not what I'm talking about here.  I'm talking about the intervention programs where students walk into the classroom, grab a computer, and sit and complete a reading or writing intervention with zero connection to a human being/teacher.  My observations of students in an intervention like this is they might start out strong and learn, but there is a quick burnout rate where students become unmotivated and start to despise reading and writing, even though computerized passages and writing prompts are not what authentic reading and writing is, this is what students begin to associate with reading and writing.  There is nothing that any one could say to me to convince me that this is a better option than setting students in front of a highly qualified teacher who knows specific strategies to use with struggling readers and writers.  A teacher like this can observe what a student is doing and make a decision about what direction to take that student.  A teacher performing an intervention can smile, encourage, motivate, and explain.  A computer can do none of these things in a meaningful way.  Students spend enough time in front of a computer, television, or cell phone.  They don't need any more meaningless screen time added to their day then what already exists.

8.  Focus on Transfer.  The universal reading and writing instruction in the classroom should complement intervention reading and writing instruction.  If there is not a connection between the two, it is highly unlikely that the classroom teacher will see an improvement in students' reading and writing.  Classroom teachers and intervention teachers (who are sometimes one in the same) need to get on the same page as far as what good reading and writing instruction looks like and make sure already struggling readers and writers aren't getting complete mixed messages that will confuse them more.

9.  Give Teachers Time to Collaborate.  So much can come from allowing a struggling student's intervention teacher and classroom teacher time to have a conversation about that student.  If these two teachers can get in the same room and share their noticings about a student with one another, there is no doubt in how much more powerful the classroom teacher and the intervention teacher's instruction for that student will be.

10.  Use Multiple Pieces of Data to Re-Visit Intervention Placement.  A student should not be placed in a reading or writing intervention based on one piece of data from a 30 minute computer test.  Placing a student in an intervention is a big decision, and in order to make the best decision, teachers, interventionists, and principals need to be looking at multiple pieces of data.  I recommend using something like this Middle School Literacy Profile which includes looking at a benchmark assessment, computerized reading test data, a spelling profile, a writing sample, and a sentence dictation.  If your school uses Fountas and Pinnell's Benchmark Assessment, know that there is so much information a teacher can pull from that assessment beyond the level the student tests at.  I have created these Benchmark Assessment Helpers to help teachers break down the data they receive on this assessment and get the most out of it.  By far the most important piece of student data though is teacher observation and anecdotal notes from the universal level of instruction.  Also, just because a student is placed in intervention doesn't mean they should stay in that intervention for the entire school year.  Intervention placements should be flexible and reactive to student data continuously.

Please realize that the ten suggestions for interventions listed above are for ideal circumstances.  I know that schools struggle with money and time.  It saddens my heart that more money isn't invested into schools so that ideal situations are possible to help provide high quality universal instruction and intervention.  As leaders in schools though, it is still our responsibility to do what we can with our knowledge and the resources we are given.  I hope there is something from my thoughts above that get you thinking about how intervention is used at your school and how you could work to improve it.


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