Where to Start?

Steve received the following e-mail from a speech-language pathologist interested in improving and advocating for effective literacy practices in his school district:

Hello Mr. Griffin,

I read your article on The ASHA Leader online as well as your interviews. It was very inspirational to me as I share many of your beliefs and desires. I am a "newly minted" SLP as well and will be starting as the new SLP in a school district in Oregon this coming fall. Our school district is really working hard to implement and adhere to an RTI model to meet the literacy needs of the children. My principal (also an SLP) has expressed to me that she would like me to be directly involved with RTI and improving and advocating for effective literacy practices. I know you are busy, but if you are able, I would appreciate any info with regard to the following questions:

Where do I start?
Is there an outline of procedures that you follow?
How do you interact with teachers?
How do you follow-up with the plans that you implement?
How do you collaborate?
How do you hold others accountable to the practices you are implementing?
What exactly do you do and what do you require of others?
How do you monitor success?
What assessments and standardized testing do you use?
How do you fit all the RTI kids in your schedule?
What does a day look like?
What does a week look like?

Again, thank you for you time and advice. If you are able to answer any of these questions that would be great!

Steve's Responses

You ask some excellent questions. Let me take them one by one.

Where do I start?

This is not an easy question to answer because my response depends on individual circumstance and situation. It appears that you are entering a great position because a) in your principal, you have an educational leader who advocates for your active involvement in the literacy practices of your district and b) your district is already making a commitment to adhering to an RTI model. This is a good situation for you!

First, I would strongly recommend you read the suggested readings I have posted on the For SLPs Page . Read the ASHA Leader Vision and Values Series articles by Dr. Wayne Secord, Barbara Ehren and Judy Montgomery. These authors offer insights into many of your questions. I certainly wish I had this information when I started in the schools ten years ago.

Second, I have recommended books on the For SLPs Page as well. I believe they are without question, must reads for anyone involved in the literacy education of children.

I have listed some practical ways SLPs can get involved in RTI and school literacy programs on this page as well.

With this being said, I would STRONGLY suggest taking it slowly during your first year. I frequently tell my graduate students at The Ohio State University that year one is a year to observe and learn the system! In order to make effective change, you need to first gain an understanding of the systems in place already. Each school has its own culture and dynamics. Learn them before you try and change anything. Survey the land and take stock of current practices. The best leaders do this. Of course, this does not mean you have to accept the "status quo" but it does mean you should do a good amount of pre-planning, collaborating and strategizing before diving in! Perform the following to start:

  • Identify the core ready curriculum and assess its effectiveness.
  • Identify current practices for screening & progress monitoring.
  • Identify intervention resources and procedures currently in place to provide intervention for struggling students.
  • Identify how students are identified as needing intervention
  • Identify current practices that are effective.
  • Identify current practices that are outdated.
  • Ask teachers to identify the strengths and weaknesses of current practices. What do they like? What changes would be helpful?

This is the start I recommend. Doing the above can truly help you obtain a good understanding of your school. You may even be surprised with the information you collect.

Is there an outline of procedures that you follow?

Wow! This is a big question and very broad. Our operating standards are consistent with most published Response To Intervention Models. However, as situations arise and new challenges present themselves we frequently need to adjust the way we do business. Tis the nature of public education! Three essential elements that remain consistent no matter what are as follows:

1. A systematic process for periodically screening all students in kindergarten through third grade to determine which students are not meeting critical milestones in early literacy.

We screen all kids K-2 at least three times a year. Kids who are not meeting critical benchmarks are screened twice a month.

2. Procedures to provide data; informed intervention instruction in small groups when a student's scores on the screening indicate he is at-risk for later reading difficulty, or already experiencing difficulty.

This can look a number of different ways. We try to provide intervention at least three times a week for 20-30 minutes in groups no larger than four.

3. Continued progress monitoring to ensure that the instruction is helping and that the struggling student stays on track once he reaches benchmark.

Any student who receives intervention is progress monitored two times a month. Most RTI models recommend a much higher rate but for us more than twice a month is simply not practical and our results have been good with just two monthly data points. I think we are able to get away with this because our intervention teachers are highly skilled so their daily observations of progress and intervention effectiveness are typically on target.

It is essential that you understand when implementing RTI, there needs to be great emphasis on the integrity and fidelity of its implementation, particularly in the delivery of interventions in order for the initiative to be successful! Also recognize that systematic change in a school is a process, not an event and can take a few years to take hold.

How do you interact with teachers?/How do you collaborate?

There is no cookbook for interacting with teachers and collaborating although there have been many books written on the topics of leadership and success. I have listed 10 suggestions I think are important to keep in mind as you begin your journey into literacy.

1. Go to them! Classroom teachers are busy. Do not wait for them to walk into your room. Make yourself available to teachers and keep a schedule flexible enough for collaboration. Find ways to make their jobs easier.

2. Collaboration is a two way street. You should want to learn just as much from them as they do from you. Listen to teachers, observe their classes, examine their methodologies. Teachers have a real expertise in generating a plethora of engaging and dynamic activities.

3. Some learn only through doing. Whatever the topic, be it phonological awareness instruction, explicit literacy instruction, corrective feedback, etc, some people need to see it in action! Do not be the person who orders a new book and then expects everyone to implement the new content. It is just not that simple! Don’t tell teachers what they should be doing, show them or give them materials they can use to begin themselves. This will open the door to further professional dialogue.

4. Collecting data is one thing, using it is another! In RTI, most speech-language pathologists play instrumental roles in data collection. I urge you to play an even bigger role in data interpretation! Help teachers use the data they collect to drive their literacy instruction.

5. Advocate for common planning time. I have worked in buildings with common planning for grade level teachers and in buildings without. The schools with it gain a significant advantage.

6. Painless change is an oxymoron. Recognize that change is difficult. Switching from the wait to fail model to an RTI model is no exception. You and others must believe that the successful accomplishment of this task is more rewarding than avoidance of it all together.

7. Handle Adversity. The manner in which you handle adversity will make or break you. This is a lesson that at times I still have to learn the hard way. There will be times when you become frustrated because of something someone else has done, said, or refused to do. There will also be times when you think your job is thankless and your efforts fruitless. Handle the emotions coupled with these situations professionally and avoid the breakdown of relationships with your colleagues. While others may not always agree with you, never give them reason to not respect you.

8. Recognize the difference between building consensus and creating change. Change in education is essential. While it is easier to lead a group when everyone agrees, total consensus is not necessary for effective literacy change to take place. Don’t make the assumption that the best leadership is also the easiest. Individual resistance to change is inevitable. Identify it, accept it for what it is and move on!

9. Earn your CCC’s. I am not referring to your Certificate of Clinical Competency. In life and career, I seldom run into a problem that cannot be solved through Communication, Collaboration and Compromise.

10. Lead with your heart.

How do you follow-up with the plans that you implement?

Built in plan time really helps! When follow-up is needed I know where and when I can find grade level teams, which is useful. We typically meet together after we collect our benchmark or progress monitoring data so we can discuss kids and their progress as a team. We talk about what is working, make necessary tweaks to intervention or classroom instruction and make sure we are providing intervention to the correct students, no one slips through the cracks! We also change our small groups to make sure we have the best combination of kids in each literacy group. This meeting time is also a time to share ideas within the team about new activities or methods that work. Many of our teachers support each other and take ownership of the success of the entire grade level not just their class.

How do you hold others accountable to the practices you are implementing?

This is the job of the administrator in your building. The Florida Center for Reading Research has created Principal Reading Walk Through Checklists which are worth consideration. You can download them here:

Principal Reading Walk Through Checklists Kindergarten

Principal Reading Walk Through Checklists First

Principal Reading Walk Through Checklists Second

Principal Reading Walk Through Checklists Third

Principal Reading Walk Through Checklists Fourth and Fifth

The other point I will make regarding this topic is that the systematic collection of data goes a long way in ensuring the integrity and fidelity of both classroom and small group instruction. If the data is not acceptable on a consistent basis then you know something needs to change. With that being said, please remember the MAIN purpose of data collection is to drive instruction. If you are only using data as a measure of teacher accountability you are missing the whole point!

What exactly do you do and what do you require of others?

I cannot cover all that I do in this response so I will speak in general terms. Frequently when I present at conferences, I mention I would like to author a book entitled Tiers Without Tears. I have seen too many schools complicate the RTI process and produce unneeded frustration. He is what I (we) do.

    1. Identify all kids who are at risk for reading struggles.
    2. Get these kids the educational instruction they need, when the need it.
    3. Make sure the instruction is working.

This is RTI in a nut shell. This is what we do.

As far as what I require of myself and others I think the following statement pretty much sums up what we should expect of anyone involved in the literacy education of children:

We must understand that the most fundamental responsibility of schools is teaching children to read and as a result of this understanding do what is necessary to implement the following components and practices into our reading instruction to ensure that all children learn to read:

  • Direct teaching of decoding, comprehension strategies and literature appreciation.

  • Explicit and purposeful phonemic awareness instruction.

  • Systematic and explicit instruction in the written alphabetic code of English.

  • Vocabulary instruction that focus on both referential vocabulary and relational vocabulary.

  • Daily exposure to texts, activities and incentives that foster a love of reading.

To do this requires attention to research, a commitment to standards and the availability of high quality professional development. I like to think that I help our school maintain this focus.

How do you monitor success?

In terms of early literacy, our success is measured by our data collection. Each grade level has minimum end of the year oral reading fluency and reading comprehension standards that must be met. We use the the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to collect this data. We also use district created measures of educational achievement that are aligned to our state standards.

For example, by the end of first grade we want all children to read at least 40 words correct per minute on a first grade reading passage and demonstrate a level of reading comprehension that is commensurate with this level of fluency which on the DRA is a Level 18 or higher.

What assessments and standardized testing do you use?

We use DIBELS for our universal screener. The Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) are used as measures of comprehension, in addition to district assessments aligned to grade level content standards.

How do you fit all the RTI kids in your schedule?

I do not see all of the RTI kids. I share the responsibility of delivering small group intervention with several other intervention teachers. We meet frequently to coordinate schedules and make sure all children receive the small group instruction they see. Our classroom teachers also work with all kids in small groups and/or one-on-one. You need to have more than one person available to deliver intervention. If we simply had just one reading recovery teacher for example, we could never meet the reading needs of our students. It would be impossible. Our partnership with The Ohio State Speech-Language–Hearing Clinic also allows us to utilize the services of graduate students to provide literacy interventions as well.

What does a day look like?/What does a week look like?

My caseload is a mix of traditional speech and language kids on IEPs and early literacy intervention students. The balance is approximately 50/50. The RTI kids are seen in early literacy groups of four with a few kids seen in pairs or one-on-one (kids identified with severe dyslexia). The schedule is quite full but I do build in time for collaboration and team meetings. For more on caseload management strategies check out the For SLPs page.

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