Differentiated instruction and response to intervention

So far in this discussion we have ignored the obvious variety among students. Yet their diversity is a reality that every teacher recognizes. Whatever goals and plans we make, some students learn the material sooner or better than others. For any given goal or objective, some students need more time than others in order to learn. And any particular teaching strategy will prove more effective with some students than others. Effective teaching requires differentiated instruction—providing different materials, arrangements, and strategies with different students. The differentiation can include unique structural arrangements in the school, such as special tutoring for individuals or special classes for small groups needing particular extra help. Differentiation can also include extra attention or coaching within a classroom for individual students or small groups (Tomlinson, 2006; Goddard, Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007).

One of the more widely used approaches for differentiating instruction is called response to intervention (or RTI). Like other forms of differentiation, RTI begins with the premise that students differ widely in how they learn and the extent of their learning. It also assumes that a central part of teaching is respond to these differences, and to do so as promptly as possible. To achieve this purpose, RTI programs typically frame educational interventions around three levels called tiers. Tier 1 instruction involves efforts to teach an entire class in the most effective ways —ways that are good bets for being effective with the majority of students. Using Tier 1 strategies, for example, a teacher might sometimes explain new ideas to the whole class, but also put students into small groups for selected projects and give them individual seat work or homework to do. Tier 2 instruction involves additional time or materials for the relatively small number of students who do not learn from Tier 1 methods. Typically it involves additional work in small groups or even individual tutoring within the classroom by the teacher, an educational assistant, or adult volunteer. Tier 3 instruction is reserved for the even smaller number of students who still do not learn even from Tier 2 instruction. It is likely to involve special classes or individual tutoring outside of the classroom, using special education teachers or educational assistants hired for the purpose. Tier 3 instruction is therefore more resource intensive than Tier 2 instruction, which is in turn more resource intensive than Tier 1 instruction.

Although the three-tiered system of RTI resembles a traditional “tracking” system of education, it is much more effective (and fair to students) than traditional tracking because it also emphasizes the importance of assessing learners’ successes and needs continually. Even Tier 1 instruction involves detailed screening of learners’ progress— all learners’ progress—through brief, short-term tests and observations. Since brief assessments can sometimes prove inaccurate, many advocates of RTI also propose screening all learners not once, but several times following initial instruction (Fuchs & Deshler, 2007). The tests and observations help to identify students who are not responding to instruction and therefore may need Tier 2 instruction. At Tier 2 and Tier 3, assessment is also continual and short-term, and instruction focuses as much as possible on the same goals and objectives as in Tier 1 (Allan & Goddard, 2010). When implemented properly, therefore, it is difficult for a student to get placed at Tier 2 or Tier 3, only to be in effect abandoned at those levels educationally

As this description implies, RTI is often used to organize services for students with special educational needs (for additional strategies see: “Students with special educational needs”). Many books have been published to help special educators with implementing its ideas (see for example, Mellard & Johnson, 2008; or Campbell, Wang, & Algozzine, 2010). RTI differs from some alternative approaches to special education in advocating an especially inclusive approach when responding to diversity: essentially the same approach is proposed for teaching the entire class as is used for teaching students who are struggling. In either case, the key to the approach are two-fold: 1) use a variety of the best available teaching practices, and 2) assess students frequently, specifically, and briefly to keep track of their progress.


Allan, S. & Goddard, Y. (2010). Differentiated instruction and RTI: A natural fit. Interventions that work, 68(2).

Campbell, P., Wang, A., & Algozzine, B. (2010). 55 tactics for implementing RTI in inclusive settings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fuchs, D. & Deshler, D. (2007). What we need to know about responsiveness to intervention (and shouldn’t be afraid to ask). Learning disabilities research and practice, 22(2), 129–136.

Goddard, Y. , Goddard, R., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007), A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers’ College Record, 109, 877–896.

Mellard, D. & Johnson, E. (2008). RTI: A practitioner’s guide to implementing response to intervention. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Tomlinson, C. & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.