What is Response to Intervention?

Discussed: Response to Intervention, challenges to implementing it in my teaching context, and how my PLC is having a go at implementing it.

All schools are interested in differentiation, but are we implementing it in a way that is supported by evidence? I recently read an interview with Peter Westwood, author of Differentiated Instruction, who argues that “there is currently a great deal of confusion in teachers’ minds about what differentiation means in practical terms.” So I went back to the Department of Education’s pamphlet on High Impact Teaching Strategies to figure out what they meant by differentiation.

The Department of Education lists evidence-based approaches to differentiation.

It turns out that when the Department talks about differentiation, they are referring specifically to “Response to Intervention” which has an effect size of 1.07. This means that even though differentiation means lots of different things to different people, Response to Intervention is the kind of evidence-informed differentiation that is supported by the Department.


Response to Intervention is an approach to instruction that varies the level of support to students depending on need in order to maximise the proportion of students meeting grade-level expectations. It is structured in three tiers:

  • Tier 1: All students receive high-quality whole-class instruction and are universally assessed or “screened” against a baseline in order to identify students who are struggling and require additional support. This whole-class instruction is effective for between 80-85% of students.
  • Tier 2: Students who require additional support are provided with small group-based intervention in order to meet the baseline expectation. Usually Tier 2 instruction is provided to the 15% of students who don’t respond to Tier 1 instruction.
  • Tier 3: Students who do not respond to Tier 2 intervention are provided with intensive intervention in one-to-one or very small group contexts. This might be necessary for 5% of students.


In my teaching context, differentiating teaching and learning is a large concern, but I haven’t heard a lot of the language of RTI being used. We don’t talk about Tier 1 or Tier 2 instruction, defining baselines, or using universal screening data. Furthermore, introducing RTI as an instructional approach in my school might face resistance from colleagues for the following reasons:

  • Core instruction vs. varied learning goals — Teachers may believe that differentiation requires setting different learning goals for each student whereas RTI emphasises varying the intensity of instruction to ensure all students reach a common goal. An example of the former is setting different “CAFE goals” or setting goals based on curriculum descriptors at different levels. Implementing RTI successfully requires teachers to focus on one goal as a class (Tier 1 instruction) and identifying students who require extra support through Tier 2 or Tier 3 instruction. Teachers who set different learning goals/expectations for different students may also be unwilling to administer universal screening. For example, teachers may infer that an assessment is “too easy” for a student and give them a different, more challenging task.
  • Core instruction vs. teaching to the top — Teachers may believe that maintaining high expectations means teaching curriculum content above the expected level whereas RTI emphasises ensuring a maximal proportion of students meet a baseline.
  • Equity vs. equality — Teachers may believe that all students should be given equal instructional time. For example, teachers may categorise students as being below-level, at-level or needing extension then spend equal amounts of time extending each group. By contrast, RTI varies the intensity of instruction so that struggling learners receive more intensive support than others.
  • Growth measured by curriculum level vs. mastery — Teachers may overvalue the importance of curriculum levels as a means of measuring growth. Pressure to move each student 6 months ahead may mean teachers lose focus on developing mastery of at-level curriculum descriptors in order to teach curriculum from a higher level. An alternative way to monitor growth could be to measure students’ varying levels of proficiency or depth/complexity of understanding in relation to common core curriculum content.


After learning that the Department advocates Response to Intervention as an approach to differentiation that is supported by evidence, of course I want to try implementing it in my own context. Which is exactly what we’re doing in my PLC.

Our students will be developing fluency in multiplication facts. We know that some multiplication facts (2x, 5x, 10x, 1x, 0x) are pre-requisite knowledge for learning the other facts (3x, 4x, 6x, 7x, 8x, 9x). So our plan is to:

  1. Assess every student through short interviews to establish whether or not they are fluent in foundational multiplication facts: 2x, 5x, 10x, 1x, 0x. Our PLC will be using a common assessment tool (basically a checklist) so that we will be collecting similar data and can make collaborative instructional decisions based on that data.
  2. Re-teach facts where students are not demonstrating fluency, identifying students for Tier 2 support.
  3. When fluency is established in the class (ideally in 80-85% students), we will teach the next set of multiplication facts: 3x, 4x, 6x, 7x, 8x, 9x.

What are your thoughts on Response to Intervention? Let me know in the comments below.

WATCH: Response to Intervention: A Tiered Approach to Instructing All Students

More reading:

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