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Determining the Right Literacy Intervention:  Using Assessment to Guide Your Course

Author of Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions, and former senior research associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University
Updated on
Modified on August 24, 2023

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens. (A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)

These century-and-half-old words describe what it is like being an educator today.

On one side, educators say, “It is the best of times” because we know more now than ever about how students learn to read…brain imaging, consensus research, sharing on social media, increased funding for education, technology…on and on

However, on the other hand many educators today say, “It is the worst of times!”

Educators are facing unprecedented challenges:

  • Growing workloads and less time to provide students with individual attention educators know they need
  • Politicians who’ve never studied the science of learning trying to tell educators what they can and should teach
  • The push to deal with learning loss
  • Required summer school and tutoring
  • Divergent needs including ALL students
  • Conflicting messages and approaches from ever-present social media

And despite all the demands, U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona recognizes the challenge and recently commented, “And through it all, you’re focused on what matters most—your students.”

No truer words!

How can educators sort through the noise and ease their angst, and begin to feel more confident about the decisions they make each day in planning instruction for their students?

How do educators make the best use of assessment resources and results to plan effective evidence-based instruction for all students?

There are two proven practices educators can feel confident about utilizing in their classrooms to ensure positive outcomes and literacy success for all students:

  1. Structured Literacy–The Science of Reading
  2. MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports)

Structured Literacy–The Science of Reading

Decades of reading intervention research provides compelling evidence that teaching phoneme awareness, phonics, orthography, morphology, syntax and semantics in an integrated, woven, simultaneous manner through explicit systematic, cumulative interactive practice with opportunity to read connected text results in improving reading outcomes for all students struggling to learn to read, including those with dyslexia (Al Otaiba, Rouse & Baker, 2018; Torgesen et al., 2001; Vellutino et al., 1996; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Lyon, 2000). This body of evidence makes up Structured Literacy and provides a solid foundation for reading instruction known as the science of reading.

MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports)

Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is the framework for implementing the Structured Literacy practices in the science of reading. MTSS includes three tiers of instruction in which all students are given the type and amount of instructional support they need to be skilled readers.

Implementation of MTSS requires a comprehensive system of assessments to address four purposes: screening, diagnostic, progress monitoring, and outcome evaluation. The goal of assessment is to guide instruction and intervention…matching intervention to assessment data.

In the revision of the book I coauthor, Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessment to Effective Intervention, these practices are highlighted, and we include the Oral Reading Fluency Decision Tree, which you can download when you visit the EDVIEW360 podcast, on which I am the guest. This figure gives educators an easy-to-use framework with the steps/flow chart for analyzing student data to plan effective instruction.

For example, when educators use the Oral Reading Fluency Decision Tree, they begin to ask questions as they review student data:

Step 1

  • Is the student’s score at benchmark level with accuracy 95% or above?
  • If the student’s accuracy score is below 95%, or if the score is below benchmark, it’s time to dig deeper.

Answers to these two initial questions lead to planning purposeful effective intervention.

Step 2

  • Dig deeper: Are there specific diagnostic assessments to help answer questions about how and why the problem is happening?

Assess phonics:

  • Example: Acadience® Reading K–6 Nonsense Word Frequency provides insight into the student’s phoneme-grapheme knowledge and ability to blend graphemes into nonsense words. Look for patterns (e.g., sound-by-sound, slow and accurate, fast and inaccurate, initial sound only, long vowels instead of short vowels…)
  • Phonics Survey—Examples:  Acadience® Reading Diagnostic, (Phoneme Awareness and Word Reading), Key Phonics, Free online–NCII Phonics Inventory, CORE Phonics Screener, Really Great Reading Decoding Survey, Quick Phonics Screener -3

Provide focused instruction and regular progress monitoring.

Assess phoneme awareness:

  • Example: Acadience® Reading K–6 Phoneme Segmentation Fluency provides insight into phoneme awareness development. Look for patterns (e.g., no segmentation, initial sound only, inconsistent, final sound)
  • Example: The Quick Reveal Phoneme Awareness Tool(Next STEPS-Revised). Look for patterns (isolate first sound, final sound, all sounds, blending all sounds?)

Provide focused instruction: Systematic, explicit, cumulative, scope and sequence, corrective feedback with regular progress monitoring.

Assess High-Frequency Word knowledge:

  • Screening High-Frequency Word List Top 248 (Read and Spell) (Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions, Smartt & Glasser, 2023)
  • CORE Graded High Frequency Word Survey (Assessing Reading Multiple Measures-Diamond & Thorsnes, 2018)

I hope you’ll join me for next week’s EDVIEW360 podcast, Determining the Right Literacy Intervention: Using Assessment to Guide Your Course, where I will discuss this in more detail.



Al Otaiba, S. Rouse, A. G., & Baker, K. (2018). Elementary grade intervention approaches to treat specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49, 829-842.

Dickens, Charles. (1859). A Tale of Two Cities. London: Chapman & Hall

Diamond, L. & Thorsnes, B.J. (2018), Assessing Reading Multiple Measures, (2nd ed.rev.) Novato, CA: Arena Press

Smartt, S. M. & Glaser, D. R., (2023) Using Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction Connecting Assessment to Effective Intervention – 2nd ed. Baltimore: Paul H, Brookes Publishing

Torgesen, J., Alexander, A, Wagner, R., Rashotte, C., & Voeller, K. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 34. 33-58.

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(4), 601.

Vellutino, F. R., Scanlon, D. M., & Lyon, G. R. (2000). Differentiating between difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: More evidence against the IQ– achievement discrepancy definition of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(3), 223–238

About the Author
Dr. Susan Smartt
Dr. Susan Smartt
Author of Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions, and former senior research associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University

Susan Smartt, Ph.D., is a former senior research associate at the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality at Vanderbilt University. She holds a doctorate in school psychology from Tennessee State University and a master’s degree in special education and reading from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. In her research at Vanderbilt, Dr. Smartt studied improving teacher preparation for reading teachers. She also provided educational consulting services and teacher training to states and local school districts focusing on school reform, reading intervention for low-performing schools, using data to inform practice, developing response to intervention/MTSS initiatives, and implementing scientifically based literacy programs. Dr. Smartt owned and directed a reading clinic for more than 20 years, where she provided comprehensive psychoeducational assessments, dyslexia evaluations, and tutoring services. She has been a classroom teacher, a reading coach, a reading specialist, a principal, a university faculty member, and a researcher. She was an early contributor to the development of LETRS® and past president of the Tennessee Branch of the International Dyslexia Association®. Her publications include authorship and co-authorship of journal articles, edited volumes, and books about research-based reading intervention and policy initiatives, including Fundamentals in Literacy Instruction and Assessment (Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2020), with Martha Hougen, Ph.D. In retirement, Dr. Smartt tutors students with dyslexia, provides advocacy services for students, and volunteers as a mentor for the TN Achieves Initiative.

Learn more about Dr. Susan Smartt