Building a Structure for Literacy Part II: Pairing a Solid Intervention Program with Screening for Dyslexia
Jamie Williamson, EdS

To read the first article in this three-part series: Building a Structure for Literacy Part I: Pairing a Solid Core Reading Program with Reliable Screening Measures

“Short, sweet, and simple science. Science tells the truth” (McKay, 2021). In the film Don’t Look Up, one character makes this statement in a bid to help scientists convince the public that a planet-killing comet is on a collision course with Earth. In this biting satire, despite herculean efforts of astronomers to alert the population to impending disaster, the establishment is increasingly obtuse to the reality of the situation. The result is both predictable and unfortunate.  

For those who study the science of literacy, this scenario may feel painfully familiar. For decades, researchers have contended that learning to read does not come naturally; rather, it is the product of systematic instruction in the Big Five Components of Reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000). The science is clear and has been for a very long time.  

Yet, although roughly two-thirds of our nation’s fourth graders continue to score below proficient in reading (NAEP, 2019)—a number that has remained stagnant since reporting began in the 1990s—the status quo of reading instruction persists. The discrepancy model, or “wait to fail” approach, is a relic that deserves to be buried permanently. It is long past time for educators to universally adopt programs that adhere to the Science of Reading, a methodology grounded in the mountain of research that shows how students acquire literacy.  

In the first article of this series, “Building a Structure for Literacy Part I: Pairing a Solid Core Reading Program with Reliable Screening Measures,” I outlined the first two elements of an effective framework for reading instruction. This article in the three-part series will explore pairing evidence-based interventions with screeners for dyslexia.  

What Does Intervention Look Like in a School-Wide Model? 

We know, based on dismal reading scores for the last 30 years (NCES, 2019), that difficulties in learning to read, while most pronounced for students with dyslexia, are not limited to those students with learning disabilities. The first step in improving reading outcomes for all students is recognizing that most learners will struggle at some point in their academic journeys, and there must be supports in place to address learning gaps as they occur.  

The first step in improving reading outcomes for all students is recognizing that most learners will struggle at some point in their academic journeys, and there must be supports in place to address learning gaps as they occur. 

Within an effective framework, intervention is integrated with core (Tier 1) instruction for all students, woven into program implementation school wide. Educators deliver an evidence-based foundational reading program with purpose and fidelity, continually monitoring students’ progress to adjust instruction accordingly. In this model, because students are screened early and often for reading difficulties, skills deficits are identified on an ongoing basis, and interventions are implemented before any students fall behind. Teachers deploy targeted interventions (Tier 2) as needed, in “small-group instruction designed to support skills taught in the core instructional program in a way that is more responsive to students than typical classroom instruction” (The IRIS Center, 2015). Educators then assess students’ responses to intervention in real time through continual progress monitoring. This setting serves up to 90% of students through the core instructional program and targeted interventions, and students progress on grade level.  

For the remaining students, however, more intensive interventions may be needed. “The quality and fidelity of Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports, the use of valid and reliable progress monitoring measures, and the implementation of data-based decision rules...set the foundation for successful implementation of intensive intervention” (National Center on Intensive Intervention, 2016).  

Effective intensive intervention begins with having school-wide screening protocols in place and an established, validated intervention program, paired with a close examination of the data on student outcomes. (For an in-depth analysis, see my previous Head Lines article, Through the Looking Glass: Examining Data to Inform Instruction.) In these cases, once data reveals a need for intervention that is not being met by the Tier 1 and Tier 2 program supports, educators must establish and monitor appropriate levels of intensity, frequency, and duration of interventions. 

Intensity, Frequency, and Duration 

Determining intensity of intervention is a fluid exercise. That is, supplemental instruction designed to remediate areas of deficit becomes “increasingly intensive to respond to the instructional needs of the students” (Vaughn, 2013). This is a process, not a static strategy or program, which relies on continuous evaluation of the data on a student’s progress.  

This is a process, not a static strategy or program, which relies on continuous evaluation of the data on a student’s progress.

There are both quantifiable and observational approaches of intensifying instruction, which can range from least-intensive methods—such as changing time spent on instruction and adjusting the learning environment for maximum attention and engagement—to most-intensive methods—such as adding supports for cognitive processing strategies and modifying delivery of instruction (The IRIS Center, 2015). 

As previously noted, the determination for how and when to intensify instruction should be grounded in student data, the importance of which cannot be overstated. If educators don’t know exactly where their students’ skill deficits lie, or how they are responding to intervention, it is impossible to adjust instruction to remediate these areas of need. Coyne et al. conducted an extensive, multi-year study on adjusting reading intervention based on student performance, and they found a statistically significant difference in both short- and long-term outcomes for those students whose instruction was adapted based on progress-monitoring data collected (2013). When you follow the data, a clear picture emerges of what is working, what is not working, and what should be changed to improve outcomes. 

A process for modifying intensity of intervention is shown in the following flowchart, which is adaptive based on students’ remediation requirements. Some steps of the process may proceed linearly, while others may require reverting to a previous step to gather additional data and potentially adjust instruction. 

Intensive Intervention Flowchart


One quantifiable approach to intensifying intervention is simply changing the dosage and time spent on instruction. This can include increasing the frequency of intervention, increasing the length of instructional time (for example, from 30 minutes to 45 minutes), or increasing the overall duration of the intervention. This enables educators to increase student engagement in the material, as well as cover additional skills and strategies, with opportunities for practice that include corrective feedback.  

How do educators decide how much additional time will move the progress needle in the right direction? Practitioners can guide their decision-making by following a self-questioning process, which may entail asking questions such as: 

  • How far beneath grade level is the student performing? 

  • Is the rate of student’s progress slower than necessary? 

  • How much intervention time is currently being devoted to this student, and how complex are the skills being taught? 

Based on answers gleaned from this self-questioning process, the intervention team may also need to revisit the prescribed duration of intervention, (for example, increasing from 10 weeks to 20 weeks), based on snapshots of student progress obtained from regular progress monitoring. 

Another quantifiable method worth examining, which is tied to increasing instructional time, is examining the educational environment to make changes as needed.  

“Teachers can change the learning environment by 

  • reducing group size (e.g., from six students to four); 

  • grouping students with similar abilities (i.e., homogenous grouping) rather than grouping students of varying abilities (i.e., heterogeneous grouping); 

  • reducing classroom distractions like noise, and otherwise promoting academic engagement” (The IRIS Center, 2015). 

Screening for Dyslexia 

For a small percentage of students, the measures described above will not be sufficient for them to progress on grade level with their peers. These are the cases that may require more extensive screening for language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, as well as more robust interventions. It is important to make the distinction that screening for dyslexia is not the same as universal screening to identify students at risk of reading failure. The latter is a key component in an effective instructional framework, and it should be applied to all students, both early and often. The former, however, is a critical element within a response to intervention model, as it will help identify those students for whom more drastic intervention is necessary.  

It is important to make the distinction that screening for dyslexia is not the same as universal screening to identify students at risk of reading failure.

What Constitutes a Good Dyslexia Screener?  

A dyslexia screener is also not a formal evaluation for the purposes of diagnosis. Rather, it is an interim step that will more clearly illuminate areas of challenge and may lead to a recommendation for an educational psychologist’s assessment. 

Components of a good dyslexia screener include the following: 

  1. Comprehensive The screening should include the key domains, including phonological awareness, phonological short-term memory, letter (sound) knowledge, rapid automatized naming, receptive vocabulary, listening comprehension, and family history. 

  1. Developmentally appropriate For the targeted age range, the methods of assessment must be developmentally appropriate. 

  1. Neurobiology/Genetics Dyslexia occurs in up to 50% of individuals with a first-degree relative who has the disorder. The risk level rises when both parents have dyslexia. 

  1. Evidence-Based To ensure accuracy of the results, the screening tool should be evidence based, and it should be prepared, delivered, and interpreted by qualified individuals. 

  1. Time-efficient and cost-effective As the purpose of screening is to determine whether in-depth assessment is required, it should be quick, reliable, affordable, and easy to administer.  

(Petscher & Gaab, 2017) 

At a glance, a dyslexia screener shares many elements with universal screeners that identify students at risk of reading failure. A key differentiator is that students with dyslexia will show very low scores in certain markers, (for example, RAN, letter (sound) knowledge, and phonological processing) which are persistent and severe despite ongoing supplemental interventions that the student receives.   

Additional Methods for Intensifying Intervention  

For those students revealed through screening as being most at risk for a language-based learning disability, observational approaches should be considered to intensify intervention. In these cases, educators should implement the most intensive measures, such as including supports for cognitive processing difficulties or modifying delivery of instruction.  

Students with executive function deficits, for example, may struggle with organizing tasks in a multi-step assignment. They may have delays in processing information, struggle with retaining or recalling lesson content, or have issues with managing their time. In these instances, educators need to provide explicit instruction in how students can strategically approach academic tasks. Instructing students in note taking, utilizing graphic organizers, mnemonics, and verbal rehearsal are all strategies that help alleviate challenges related to executive function. Modeling, repetition, and review are also key areas of focus. Difficulties in executive function are neurobiological in origin, and thus it cannot be “taught”; however, these strategies can ameliorate processing differences that would otherwise impede academic progress. 

If all the steps outlined previously do not result in adequate student progress, educators must re-evaluate their delivery of instruction and make modifications. The most effective intensive intervention frameworks align with Windward’s pedagogy; that is, in a successful model, educators 

  • align instructional content with student needs as revealed by data; 

  • provide systematic, sequential instruction that includes scaffolding and reinforcement; 

  • use direct, explicit instruction in daily lessons to introduce, reinforce, and review skills and concepts; 

  • prioritize the language of instruction to ensure students comprehend what is being taught; 

  • continuously monitor students’ understanding; 

  • offer specific, positive, corrective feedback; and 

  • provide multiple opportunities for both guided and independent practice. 

Of course, none of these intervention considerations exist in a vacuum. They rely on the delivery, with fidelity, of an effective core reading program, on the implementation of universal screenings, on the placement of multi-tiered supports for students who struggle, on the use of data to inform instruction, and, most importantly, on the willingness of educators to approach challenges with curiosity and a passion to get it right. 

Those of us who can see a structure for literacy that serves all children—as clearly as one might see a comet streaking across the night sky—implore those who don’t to look up.  

For Further Learning:


Coyne, M. D., Simmons, D. C., Hagan-Burke, S., Simmons, L. E., Kwok, O.-M., Kim, M., Fogarty, M., Oslund, E. L., Taylor, A. B., Capozzoli-Oldham, A., Ware, S., Little, M. E., & Rawlinson, D. A. M. (2013). Adjusting beginning reading intervention based on student performance: An experimental evaluation. Exceptional Children, 80(1), 25–44. 


READ Podcast, Episode 32: Language and Reading Comprehension with Mindy Bridges, PhD, CCC-SLP 


Learn more about how about how Mississippi invested in the Science of Reading: 

Kristen Wynn, “A Roadmap to Success: Mississippi’s Journey To Improve Literacy Outcomes,” 2021 Fall Community Lecture