Can the SLP Help Make RtI Part of the Educational DNA? Y-E-S

By Wayne A. Foster, PhD, CCC-SLP/A

Author of The Role of the Speech-Language Pathologist in RtI: Implementing Multiple Tiers of Student Support

Is there a role for a speech and language pathologist (SLP) in Response-to-Instruction/Intervention (RtI) beyond the application of special education services (Tier III in a three-tiered model)? Some will say that an SLP can play a (limited) role in the application of pre-referral interventions. I wrote this book to argue that there is a very special but previously poorly defined role for the SLP. In fact, in the absence of support for the RtI process by those who understand the principles of child development, it is likely that RtI will fail to thrive.

Response-to-Instruction or Intervention (RtI) makes great sense as a system to support struggling students in America’s K–12 educational system. In short, RtI refers to the application of academic and/or behavioral support that is linked to the student’s functional level within a given domain and is provided at an appropriate intensity and frequency. This support is monitored for effectiveness and modified as needed. The ultimate goal is to close the gap between a student’s functional level and the level needed to progress in the standard curriculum.

While RtI makes sense it is relatively rarely implemented with the fidelity necessary to generate the type of success needed to help it become part of the DNA of the educational process. In many schools RtI never takes root and where it has been implemented it is constantly under threat of being dismantled in favor of more traditional educational processes.  Today it seems no easier to implement and sustain a multi-tiered system of student support (such as RtI) than it was two decades ago. Why is it so difficult to make a multi-tiered system of student support work?

One answer became clear to me at a 2008 workshop on literacy I presented to the kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in a moderate-sized school district. At this training session the developmental progression of literacy skills was outlined via a series of slides. The initial slides associated the development of language to the development of early phonological awareness. With each slide the teachers could see how literacy skills transitioned and ultimately led to the ability to comprehend lengthy, complex, and abstract text. They were fascinated and most admitted that this was the first time they had ever learned about the development of literacy over time (and grades). The teachers in the room clearly understood the standards of their grade level curriculum but were not aware of normal patterns of development for literacy. In fact, far too many educators have not been trained in the patterns of child development for language, literacy, mathematics, or behavior (including socio-emotional development).

Implementation of RtI demands knowledge of development. How is one to address the needs of a student who is functioning in one or more domains well below a grade-level curriculum? One answer is that you must meet the student at their functional level with an intervention that helps close their developmental gap.  This requires a rather detailed knowledge of development. In workshop after workshop  I realized that general educators across America had not been adequately trained in the language of development. I came to the conclusion that there exist two major educational languages spoken in America’s public schools—the language of curriculum and the language of child development. Unfortunately few educators are fluent in both.

In most tiered systems (such as RtI) the initial application of support is provided through differentiation of instruction within the general classroom. Many educators understand this differentiation to mean appreciation of different learning styles (e.g., visual versus auditory versus tactile/kinesthetic) and how to modify instruction to allow students to access the curriculum via the learning style that maximizes their learning potential. This is a correct view but differentiation also means assisting a student who may be delayed in development of skills. Differentiation can mean breaking down instruction into smaller steps and providing meaningful feedback. If differentiation is not successful then individual or small group interventions are applied and monitored for progress (Tier I in the RtI model). If this level of support is not sufficient, then a more intense, frequent, and individualized intervention may be necessary (Tier II in the RtI model).  Think about what this requires on the part of the professional. First, they must identify where in the developmental progression the student is functioning. Second, they must select an appropriate treatment (i.e., intervention) that moves the student forward. Third, they must monitor progress and know when the appropriate skill level for the child’s age is attained.  This is a developmental perspective, clearly more of a developmental perspective than a curricular one.

If RtI is to work in a school those professionals who understand child development must support those charged with implementing the early Tier I and Tier II level interventions. RtI will flounder as an educational paradigm if there is poor integration of the two languages and poor coordination between the professionals who are fluent in those languages. Unfortunately, that has been the case in many of the schools I have visited over the past decade.

School-based SLPs are highly trained in the realm of child development and are well positioned to provide support of the RtI–multi-tiered system of student support. The major reason for writing The Role of the Speech-Language Pathologist in RtI: Implementing Multiple Tiers of Student Support was to provide a description of the differences between curricular and developmental perspectives and explicate the role of the SLP in making RtI successful without dramatically increasing the workload of the school-based clinician. Further, there did not seem to be a resource available that could help an SLP better understand their own educational approach (development) much less come to a strong appreciation of the general educator approach (curriculum).