To Special Ed or Not to Special Ed: RtI and the Early Identification of Reading Disability

  • 06 February, 2014

Teacher question:

My question centers on identifying students for special education. Research says identify students early, avoid the IQ-discrepancy model formula for identification, and use an RTI framework for identification and intervention. 

That said, I have noticed that as a result of high stakes accountability linked to teacher evaluations there seems to be a bit of a shuffle around identifying students for special education. While we are encourages to "identify early", the Woodcock Johnson rarely finds deficits that warrant special education identification.  Given current research  on constrained skills theory ( Scott  Paris)  and late emerging reading difficulties (Rollanda O’Connor), how do we make sure we are indeed identifying students early? 

If a student has been with me for two years (Grades 1 and 2) and the instructional trajectory shows minimal progress on meeting benchmarks, (despite quality research-based literacy instruction), but a special education evaluation using the Woodcock Johnson shows skills that fall within norms, how do we service these children? Title I is considered a regular education literacy program. Special Education seems to be pushing back on servicing these students, saying they need to "stay in Title I."  Or worse, it is suggested that these students be picked up in SPED for phonics instruction, and continue to be serviced in Title I for comprehension. 

I am wondering what your thoughts are on this. The "duplication of services" issue of being service by both programs aside, how does a school system justify such curriculum fragmentation for its most needy students? Could you suggest some professional reading or research that could help me make the case for both early identification of students at risk for late emerging reading difficulties, and the issue of duplication of services when both Title I and SPED service a student?

Shanahan response:

This is a great question, but one that I didn’t feel I could answer. As I’ve done in the past with such questions: I sent it along to someone in the field better able to respond. In this case, I contacted Richard Allington, past president of the International Reading Association, and a professor at the University of Tennessee. This question is right in his wheelhouse, and here is his answer:

  I know of no one who advocates early identification of kids as pupils with disabilities (PWDs). At this point in time we have at least 5 times as many kids identified as PWDs [as is merited]. The goal of RTI, as written in the background paper that produced the legislation, is a 70-80% decrease in the numbers of kids labeled as PWDs. The basic goal of RTI is to encourage schools to provide kids with more expert and intensive reading instruction. As several studies have demonstrated, we can reduce the proportion of kids reading below grade to 5% or so by the end of 1st grade. Once on level by the end of 1st about 85% of kids remain on grade level at least through 4th grade with no additional intervention. Or as two other studies show, we could provide 60 hours of targeted professional development to every K-2 teacher to develop their expertise sufficiently to accomplish this. In the studies that have done this fewer kids were reading below grade level than when the daily 1-1 tutoring was provided in K and 1st. Basically, what the research indicates is that LD and dyslexics and ADHD kids are largely identified by inexpert teachers who don't know what to do. If Pianta and colleagues are right, only 1 of 5 primary teachers currently has both the expertise and the personal sense of responsibility for teaching struggling readers. (It doesn't help that far too many states have allowed teachers to avoid responsibility for the reading development of PWDs by removing PWDs from value-added computations of teacher effectiveness).

  I'll turn to senior NICHD scholars who noted that, "Finally, there is now considerable evidence, from recent intervention studies, that reading difficulties in most beginning readers may not be directly caused by biologically based cognitive deficits intrinsic to the child, but may in fact be related to the opportunities provided for children learning to read." (p. 378)

  In other words, most kids that fail to learn to read are victims of inexpert or nonexistent teaching. Or, they are teacher disabled not learning disabled. Only when American schools systems and American primary grade teachers realize that they are the source of the reading problems that some kids experience will those kids ever be likely to be provided the instruction they need by their classroom teachers.

  As far as "duplication of services" this topic has always bothered me because if a child is eligible for Title i services I believe that child should be getting those services. As far as fragmentation of instruction this does not occur when school districts have a coherent systemwide curriculum plan that serves all children. But most school districts have no such plan and so rather than getting more expert and more intensive reading lessons based on the curriculum framework that should be in place, struggling readers get a patchwork of commercial programs that result in the fragmentation. Again, that is not the kids as the problem but the school system as the problem. Same is true when struggling readers are being "taught" by paraprofessionals. That is a school system problem not a kids problem. In the end all of these school system failures lead to kids who never becomes readers.

  Good answer, Dick. Thanks. Basically, the purpose of these efforts shouldn’t be to identify kids who will qualify for special education, but to address the needs of all children from the beginning. Once children are showing that they are not responding adequately to high quality and appropriate instruction, then the intensification of instruction—whether through special education or Title I or improvements to regular classroom teaching should be provided. Quality and intensity are what need to change; not placements. Early literacy is an amalgam of foundational skills that allow one to decode from print to language and language skills that allow one to interpret such language. If students are reaching average levels of performance on foundational skills, it is evident that they are attaining skills levels sufficient to allow most students to progress satisfactorily. If they are not progressing, then you need to look at the wider range of skills needed to read with comprehension. The focus of the instruction, the intensity of the instruction, and the quality of the instruction should be altered when students are struggling; the program placement or labels, not so much.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Susan Jun 19, 2017 08:09 PM


"In other words, most kids that fail to learn to read are victims of inexpert or nonexistent teaching."

If the reason that some kids don't learn to read is that the teachers are not doing their job, then explain how it is that most of the kids do learn to read and just a few don't.

I would say that since most do learn to read the teacher was indeed teaching.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 08:09 PM


The issue here comes down to how much failure is acceptable. You’re correct that most students learn to read. And you conclude from teachers must be doing a good enough job. But some don’t find those levels of failure to be acceptable and have shown that by altering current practices it doesn’t have to be. Similar fights have been taking place in medicine and I’d encourage you to read Atul Gawande’s article about variations in success.

Susan Jun 19, 2017 08:10 PM


The vast majority of my students do learn to read and to suggest that the few that don't "are victims of inexpert or nonexistent teaching" is insulting.

Most of the teachers that I've worked with do everything within their power to teach students the strategies and skills they need and at times it's just not enough. And when it's not enough we reach out and get help from other experts within our school system. Even then on a few rare occasions I've seen some students make very little gains despite the efforts of everyone involved.

That being said, no amount of failure is acceptable in my book.

Are there bad teachers? You bet and it's the responsibility of administrators to deal with them. Either get them the training they need to be competent or do what is necessary to get them out of the school system.

For the past three years I've asked my principal to let me work with the lowest readers in my grade level. To be at grade level my students should have a starting fluency score of 42 wpm and an ending score of 87 wpm. This year their beginning scores ranged from 3-11 wpm. If they perform similar to my classes in the past they will leave in the 60-70 wpm range. Will they be at grade level? No. Will they have made more than a typical amount of growth? Yes. Did I do my job? Hell yes! This has been the hardest teaching assignment I've ever had but it's also been the best teaching assignment I've ever had.

So if you have a sure fire remedy/program/secret to ensure that all students learn the necessary reading skills please share because I'm doing everything I can and getting damn tired of reading/hearing how teachers are the problem. I'm serious. I'd love to know how to "alter my current practices" so that all students learn to read. "Or as two other studies show, we could provide 60 hours of targeted professional development to every K-2 teacher to develop their expertise sufficiently to accomplish this."

Give me the name of the book/program/conference and I'll sign up tomorrow, as would the other teachers I know.

I'd also like to address family responsibilities but I'll get off my box now. I'm tired, it's Friday night, and I have to go into school tomorrow to prepare for next week because there is never enough time in the day to get it all done.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 08:10 PM


I think the key is to take this less personally and shifting one's attention to what efforts would allow the levels of success being found in those NICHD studies that Dick Allington referred to. We do not teach children individually--it is a shared professional responsibility and we need systems of education that respond to students' needs intensively and energetically. Again, I would encourage readers to read Atul Gawande's the Bell Curve.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 08:11 PM


Can you please post a link to the NICH study?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 08:11 PM


That work is summarized here:
Fletcher, J.M., & Lyon, G.R. (1998). Reading: A research-based approach. In W. Evers (Ed.), What’s wrong in America’s classrooms (pp. 49-90). Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press.

And here are additional studies that support or extend those ideas:
Mathes, P.G., Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Anthony, J. L., Francis, D. J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skill of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 148-182.

Philips, G. & Smith, P. (2010). Closing the gaps: Literacy for the hardest-to-teach. In P.H. Johnston (Ed.), RtI in literacy—Responsive and comprehensive (pp. 219-246). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Vellutino, F. R., Scanlon, D. M., Sipay, E. R., Small, S. G., Pratt, A., Chen, R., & Denckla, M. B. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: Early intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between cognitive and experiential deficits as basic causes of specific reading disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 601-638.

Susan Jun 19, 2017 08:12 PM


I'll give you that one. I do take it personally. I'm working as smart and as hard as I can and the message I get from society seems to be that it's not enough.

Having someone from the district giving us a lecture on dismal test scores doesn't help. Spending one morning a week this year at staff meetings going over the new teacher evaluation system (which if the past is any indicator will be scrapped in two years) where half of my evaluation is based on student test scores doesn't help. Having someone that hasn't worked in a classroom for over 15 years tell me that research says if I do "this" everyone will learn to read doesn't help. Reading the comments in the local paper about teachers being worthless people that are just trying to steal more money from everyone else doesn't help.

I don't know of a single teacher that goes to school and plans on being a mediocre teacher. But I do know a lot of teachers that go to school and are over worked, beaten down, and getting minimal support. Even then they keep coming, they keep trying, and they don't quit. I know, I'm taking it personally again aren't I.

In my situation I have been either really lucky or really blessed. I work for a principal that does everything he can to shield us from as much nonsense as possible. He does what he can to support our efforts in the classroom and encourages us to push farther and reach higher than we thought possible. And in turn he expects us to do that with our students. He recognizes that I do a good job and that I'm passionate about what I do.

So for now I'll keep trying. I'll keep reading. I'll keep looking to improve my teaching skills.

I just wonder how much longer I can keep going until it becomes all too costly and sadly I'll have to throw in the towel.

Thank you for the list of articles. I'll add them to my reading list.

Anonymous Jun 19, 2017 08:13 PM


I'm curious where the classes in the study were that achieved a 95% success rate for grade level reading, what the make-up of the classes was, as well as demographics.

Margaret Jun 19, 2017 08:13 PM


As a first grade teacher (presumably qualified, with both undergrad and graduate degrees in learning disabilities and behavior disorders)I'd love to achieve a 95% success rate of teaching kids to read at grade level. In some years this has been possible, not most, but I teach in a low poverty district. Without having quick access to the recommended articles,I went looking for references to them. (See
While I'd still need to read the specifics of the study, a couple of points stand out. The 95% applies to students with average intelligence, not all my students. Presumably they are not counting other students with low incidence disabilities within that success rate either. Another point made in the reference is that they consider students above the 25th to 30th percentile to be within the average range. I would say that most teachers would be concerned about the success of the kids in the 25th to 35th or even 40th percentiles, because those kids often have a much more difficult experience in school that those more successful, particularly in in high performing districts, as well as taking into account the more challenging aspects of the Common Core Standards. My last point is that without the text of the original article, I can't be sure how they are determining that children are reading at grade level. In my own district our end-of-first grade benchmark has been a Reading Recovery level 20 for a number of years, while I believe the original Reading Recovery standard for first grade is 16. On MAP online achievement testing, I have had kids not reading at either benchmark who can still test above the 60-70th percentile because they have good listening comprehension and the primary MAP test is mostly read to them. It's difficult to have a meaningful discussion about the success of early readers without a universal measurement of reading success and a universally agreed upon standard. I don't think reading has become such an exact science that that can occur.

Susan Jun 19, 2017 08:14 PM


A group of us had an interesting discussion at our staff training last week about this post. We have decided that we want to work together and see if we can take our teaching to a higher level.

In an earlier comment you wrote that "we need systems of education that respond to students' needs intensively and energetically".

What would that be? What would it look like? How would we do that? What resources are available to us that we can use to guide us as we go forward?

I've been looking for a book as a starting point and I've found a few that sound interesting but the reality is that we are all on a budget. So we are wondering if you would be willing to share your recommendations. What would be your top two or three "must have" books for reading teachers?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 08:14 PM


That's a great commitment. It is the fundamental idea of RtI, and yet, it is rarely accomplished by RtI efforts which often get bogged down in check off systems. I don't know of a book that does what you ask, but I have a powerpoint shared on this site (use the index to find it) that suggests what some of the appropriate systems would be. The fundamental idea, however, is that learning is monitored and when students are not succeeding the amount/intensity/quality of response increases/improves until the student succeeds. It is an "all hands on deck" approach that worries more about whether kids are getting what they need to succeed rather than about who is delivering that service (is this a special educ child or a title 1 child or...?).

McKenzie Smith Jun 19, 2017 08:15 PM


i. I love this post on RTI and the inclusion of students with perhaps some slight special need in the general education classroom. Even though it seems like we are far behind where we should in the RTI, or Response to Intervention, process, we have really come a long way from where we use to be. For example, my mother worked as a Special Education Teacher in the early 1990’s. She taught students with severe behavior and emotional disorders in elementary schools in a rural southeastern school system in Georgia. She was also the special education testing coordinator for her school. Since the early nineties saw the foundations for high stakes testing, by mother bore the brunt of the elementary school teachers versus the special education teachers. Right around spring time, my mother would have stacks of special education referrals for testing from teachers who saw some students that could be considered outliers. The elementary school teachers, almost understandably, did not want those students to participate in their classroom during the high stakes assessments for fears that it would look badly upon them. My mom would patiently try to explain that although this student might be grasping the content at a slower pace, the student does not meet the criteria for special education. RTI, in my opinion, was implemented to combat this scenario my mother dealt with in special education. Students, no matter their disability or learning style deserve to receive the best education possible. I think RTI, when implemented correctly with give them this education.

Sc02050 Jun 19, 2017 08:15 PM


I think this article was very interesting, but I find myself conflicted. I am a special education teacher, and I teach students with developmental delays and students who have been identified as having learning disabilities. I do believe that RTI can be very effective, and the RTI teachers do a wonderful job of tailoring their instruction and strategies to meet the needs of their students. They do a wonderful job of taking the students where they are and getting them where they need to be. However, I do believe there are some students who fall between the cracks.
In kindergarten, the majority of students who receive special education services are qualified under the IDEA category of Significantly Developmentally Delayed (SDD). However, in the state of Georgia, a student cannot be given the label of SDD after the age of 7. This forces students who may be delayed to be evaluated for another IDEA category such as a learning disability. More times than not, the students will not qualify, because in the evaluation process, it seems that they fall in the average range of the test, when in all actuality, they are significantly below average. RTI is very effective, and I do not mean to take away from the intervention program at all, but I do feel some students are better suited to have individualized education plans developed that include accommodations that will help these students to compensate for their difficulties.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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To Special Ed or Not to Special Ed: RtI and the Early Identification of Reading Disability


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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