Podcast Series

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

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
Dr. Susan Smartt
Dr. Susan Smartt

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
Release Date: Thursday, July 20, 2023

What happens after a formative literacy assessment? How can educators translate the results into targeted interventions and improved reading outcomes? This applicable and informative presentation from Dr. Susan Smartt, a respected literacy expert, helps educators make sense of what to do after the assessment and how to best use the valuable data gleaned from those assessments to inform intervention—and move all students toward literacy success.

To help educators address the challenging literacy needs of their diverse learners, our discussion will cover appropriate approaches to intervention and how to determine what approach is best based on assessment results.

Dr. Smartt will explore:

  • Dyslexia and other reading challenges, and best practices for the right intervention at the right time
  • Explicit instruction and Structured Literacy, and the reasoning behind these instructional approaches
  • Designing Tier II and Tier III small-group instruction and monitoring student progress
  • The importance of integrating five essential components of reading during instruction
  • Ways to effectively target the specific "trouble spots" literacy assessments have identified
  • How to take the guesswork out of intervention and transform struggling students into skillful readers

Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360. 

Dr. Susan Smartt: We've got to make sure that what we're doing is effective and is working, and if not, we have to determine what's the next best step for the student based on the data.

Narrator: You just heard from author and reading expert, Dr. Susan Smartt. Dr. Smartt is our guest today on EDVIEW360.

Pam Austin: Hello, this is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you with us today. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, LA. Today, we are excited to welcome a respected educator, researcher, and author who has dedicated her career to reading success for every child, Dr. Susan Smartt.

Let me tell you a bit more about Dr. Smartt before we get started with our conversation. As a senior research associate at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Smartt engaged in research, writing, and teaching focused on improving teacher preparation in reading. Previously, she was a national literacy consultant with state departments, teacher preparation programs, and local school districts focusing on school reform, reading intervention for low-performing schools, using data to inform practice, developing Response to Intervention initiatives, and implementing scientifically based literacy programs.

Dr. Smartt owned and directed a reading clinic for more than 20 years. She has been a classroom teacher, a reading coach, a reading specialist, and a principal. She was an early contributor to the development of LETRS® and past president of the Tennessee branch of the International Dyslexia Association®. Currently, Dr. Smartt tutors and provides advocacy services for students with dyslexia. Welcome Dr. Smartt.

SS: Thank you, Pam. Great to be with you.

PA: It's awesome to have you. Let's get started. In your experience, you've worked with countless students in classrooms in your quest to help all students learn to read, with an emphasis on those with reading challenges including dyslexia. Tell us a bit about your career path and why in your opinion, accurate assessment is the essential tool to seeing every student succeed. 

SS: Oh, that's a great question, Pam. Thank you. It's loaded. You know I like to talk about myself, so I will go back five decades and tell you the beginning of this literacy journey. I started in the early '70s. In my early teaching experience, I had a fifth-grade class with 43 students in it, and of those 43 students, five could read on a pre-primer level. Back then, we used the Dolch word list and we could sort through flashcards and find out exactly how many words our students could recognize, and five of my students only knew five sight words or Dolch words. That started this journey. I had been educated at one of the best teacher prep universities and was ready to go and change the world, and yet when I got these 5, 10, 11, and 12 year olds who couldn't read, that started this entire journey. Since then, I've always asked: Why do some kids have so much trouble learning to read and how do we determine the best way, the most effective way to teach struggling readers?

That was the beginning and since that time, I've asked that question and learned more and more and the research has enlightened us to begin to get more direction and assessment has been, I think the key that helps us identify where those kids are struggling and why they're struggling, and then being able to pinpoint exactly where the intervention comes.

So, I started in that classroom. I decided that more degrees would help me understand how kids learn to read better. So, I did a master's degree in reading and special ed and spent my time doing miscue analysis, counting those and getting in trouble for answering the wrong questions when asked how to help struggling readers because I would say: "Well, let's have them read nonsense words." And my professor would say: "Oh, Susan, Susan, if reading for meaning is the answer, why would you have them read nonsense words?"

That was probably in the maybe later '70s when whole language was so prominent, and that's the way that I was trained at that time, even though I had gotten phoneme correspondence classes at Florida State before that. So, I went through that period of time. I finished that degree, went over to Vanderbilt Medical Center, worked in child psychiatry. My job there was to do assessment. So, all of the students who came in to be inpatients needed to be evaluated. I started and continued my journey and assessment there.

After my time at Vanderbilt University in that kind of setting, I went into private practice and I began to see kids, all kinds of students with reading difficulties, and I continued my quest to try to understand it more and more each year, each decade that came along. And then probably around 2003, I got exposed to DIBELS. I got to go down to Florida. At that time, Florida was doing a statewide training of all their teachers in DIBELS. So, I got that training and that seemed to clarify some of my questions. If we could have a really quick instrument to screen all kids and identify those who were at risk and then pinpoint the instruction, gosh, that made a lot of sense.

After that, I went and did The Reading First and went around the country doing training, both in assessment and intervention, helped with the beginning of LETRS with assessment. And so, all of those years together have brought me to this point where I write books about it now, and I have written some books trying to help early teachers understand the importance of assessment and how it can provide a road map for what we do in the classroom.

That's a quick overview of the five decades, Pam, how I got started and where I am now, and how I'm just convinced that assessment gives us a really clear road map and the best way to help kids.

PA: Wow. Susan, that was five decades in a nutshell.

SS: Yeah.

PA: The beginning only wanting to know why, why some of your students struggling and continuing to ask the why. Only to discover that assessment is the key, right?

SS: Absolutely. Helps us with so much.

PA: Right, definitely. You mentioned DIBELS is that avenue, which is now Acadience® with Dr. Roland Good and Dr. Ruth Kaminski. I can see you've had experience with that form of assessment myself. You recently shared a quote from Charles Dickens as you described the landscape of literacy across America today by saying, and I quote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," from The Tale of Two Cities.

SS: Yes.

PA: Tell me why this resonates with you and how it applies to reading instruction.

SS: Well, Pam, you probably experienced this too. When we talk to educators, we hear their excitement about there's so much we know now. We know so much more about how the brain learns to read. We've got brain imaging. We've got five decades of research that's consensus research. So, we've got so much more information than we've ever had. It's at our fingertips on social media anytime of the day. But on the other hand, the worst of times we have unprecedented challenges as educators. We have growing workloads, we have less time to provide the students with individual attention. We have politicians who've never studied literacy or the science of learning telling us how we can teach. We are trying to accelerate from the learning loss that we've had.

We've got summer school going on, we've got lots of tutoring going on, students with such divergent needs, too few resources, and teacher shortages. So, on the one hand, it's the best of times because of the knowledge that we've acquired. It's a really challenging time for educators as well. Sec.  Cardona (U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona) said a few weeks ago, although we've got all of this going on and divisiveness as well politically related to educators, all through it all, you as educators focus on what matters most. Educators are continuing to focus their attention on their students, and I think that captures it really well, and it's a difficult time for teachers.

PA: Yes. I would have to agree with you because now we have the knowledge, but a clear path for applying that knowledge is not directly there.

SS: No.

PA: How do you see educators moving into a more positive place, thinking about all those challenges you just discussed, for them to feel more confident that they are providing an evidence-based reading instruction for all their learners, especially for our struggling readers?

SS: Well, recently, Deb Glaser and I revised the Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions that we wrote back in 2010, and in this version, we just narrowed all of the chatter down into two primary focuses that we think will make the biggest difference for teachers. One is Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and the other is Structured Literacy. I think those are the two, gosh, methods, approaches that educators could lean into and see that they're getting better outcomes for their students.

PA: Great. I like the term narrow the chatter. It gives a laser focus for teachers. Could you define or elaborate on those two concepts there?

SS: Yeah. Probably a better description would be two proven practices, and I think of these as game changers as we sort through that chatter. Let's talk first about what is Structured Literacy. We've got decades of reading intervention research with compelling evidence that teaching phoneme awareness and phonics, orthography, morphology, syntax, semantics in an integrated and woven simultaneous manner through explicit instruction and lots of opportunities to read connected texts will improve reading outcomes for all students who are struggling to read, including those students with dyslexia. This body of research comes together, this evidence makes up Structured Literacy, and it's the foundation for the science of reading as we hear a lot about today.

PA: So, the research says foundation, and then MTSS?

SS: Multi-Tiered Systems of Support is the framework for implementing the Structured Literacy. Structured Literacy, you might think of as the content or what of the big puzzle and then MTSS or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support is the how, how do we do that? It's the framework for implementing it, and it includes three tiers of instruction, which are all given to students with varying levels of support that they may need. With Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, it requires a comprehensive system of assessments. We look at screening, we look at progress monitoring, we look at diagnostic assessment and outcome evaluation, and the goal of assessment under MTSS is then to guide the instruction and the intervention so that we match the instruction to the assessment data to the individual student's needs. Those are the two things that I think will make a tremendous difference in some of the noise or chatter we talked about if teachers can begin to move into Structured Literacy and MTSS.

PA: Understanding the what and the how. As simple as that, right?

SS: Yeah. Yeah.

PA: Let's talk a bit about the results of an assessment in the next step. What exactly is an educator looking for and where does he go from there?

SS: Well, one of the things that we've done in this book is provide what's called the Oral Reading Fluency Decision Tree. In that decision tree, we help teachers take their assessment data from a curriculum-based measure, Oral Reading Fluency, take the screening and then drill down depending on how the student performs on the screener. We talk about a diagnostic measure, and then we talk about the importance of progress monitoring. So, that is included, and I think your participants have access to that Oral Reading Fluency Decision Tree when they listen to the podcast and they can follow along. I can go into more detail with that, Pam. Would that be helpful to tell listeners how to use that decision tree?

PA: I think so, because understanding what to do next, having your finger on the pulse of where students are so that you can take that next step with confidence.

SS: Yeah, and next step is right, but the first step of the next step, which would be to do a formative assessment and to use this Oral Reading Fluency Measure to do that, and then we look for trouble spots in there. For example, if you have a student read and a student scores below 95 percent, it's time to dig deeper. If the student scores above 95 percent on the Oral Reading Fluency measure, you congratulate your student and you celebrate. That student would appear to be on track for reading success. But as we go down deeper into the decision tree, we look at what would you do if the child was not reading on the path to be successful?

So, if you have a student whose accuracy is below 95 percent, the first thing you would do is ask the student to read, listen to the student read. Are the errors of result of reading too fast? Then, talk to the student about when we read to learn something, we redefine out what the author wants us to learn, and that means we need to read every word carefully. So, keep up your pace while you're reading to help you remember, read carefully. That's an example of if you listen to the student, what you might find out. You might find out that they're having trouble decoding. They're just not recognizing the words. If the student is more below benchmark and you're concerned about the type of errors that they make, then you know that intervention on word recognition or decoding would be the focus of your instruction. Sometimes, students can read the words accurately and they just read slowly. Then, you would begin to consider improving the fluency of the reading and maybe not need so much to work on the decoding.

Those are the kinds of things we would ask first, and then we would dig deeper and say: "Well, perhaps we need to do a phonics assessment." We would recommend, and in the decision tree, you'll see the different routes to go depending on how the students perform. In the phonics assessment, you may use the Acadience® Nonsense Word Fluency or Letter Naming and begin to ask, are they reading sound by sound? Are they reading only the first word? Are they reading final words? And then there are phonic surveys that can dig deeper. Some are free. We talk about those in the book, some can be purchased. Then, we follow up that diagnostic query and assessment with systematic, explicit, cumulative scope and sequence, and corrective feedback.

So, if phonics is where the area of weakness is, that gives you a road map of what to do. Sometimes, it's phoneme awareness. So, we talk about if it looks like it's a phoneme awareness issue and you can diagnose that, and then we talk about the instruction needed for phoneme awareness. Are the students not segmenting yet? Do they just know initial sounds? Are they inconsistent? We, of course, progress monitor, and that's part of the decision tree and the road map. We've got to make sure that what we're doing is effective and is working, and if not, we have to determine what's the next best step for the student based on the data.

The other thing would be we talk about how frequency words as part of that. Is that where the breakdown is for this student? Does it have to do with those, as we call them Dolch and Fry words back in the day that we think of today as high-frequency words? And so we have screening diagnostic measures also to help teachers pinpoint which of those words they need to focus their instruction on. So, that's a quick summary, Pam, of this tool that we think is going to cut out, decrease the chatter and some of the frustration as teachers begin to look at their data and make decisions about how to plan effective instruction.

PA: Right. What you've just done for us is using that decision tree. You've walked through many of those trouble spots in literacy. You mentioned fluency, phonemic awareness, the phonics. It sounds like these are major important parts that instruction for literacy needs to fit in. And if we're thinking about all the five components, where does vocabulary and comprehension fit in as well when we think about integrating all five of those essential components of reading during instruction for all students, not just during intervention, correct?

SS: Exactly. We're talking about all students. We're talking about Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III. We're talking about small-group instruction, but the need to integrate or weave together, all five of those essential components happens all day and every day. I can give you an example. If we were teaching kindergartners, when we were teaching phoneme awareness and we were saying, "We're going to learn a new sound today. It's the /m/ sound. Everybody make that /m/ sound. Rub your tummy as you have a delicious treat, /m/ sound." And we could talk about how it resonates in their nose and their lips and so forth. And then we could say, "This letter represents the /m/ sound." Then, we could talk about a word "map" and we could write a sentence and show them how the /m/ sound is represented by the M grapheme and what the word map is. We could build in conversations about what is a map, who's seen a map, what's an example of a map or a mop or whatever the word may be.

So, we could talk about vocabulary there. We could ask the kids to turn to their buddy and give them a sentence with a word with that /m/ sound in it. So, throughout teaching phoneme awareness or phonics, we are also integrating language and vocabulary. It's woven together. The last page and then the last slide when we would present this training across the country was a woven slide that showed all of the five components woven together. Pam, it looked a little bit like the pot holders. Remember back in the day when we had a loom and we could take these different pieces of fabric and weave them together to make a potholder. This may be before your time, but that's the graphic, that's the image that we use to try to help represent the interrelatedness of the five components. They are simultaneously taught, they are woven together throughout the day. It's interactive with kids talking to each other.

Mark Seidenberg, a few years ago, wrote about the silos and what are the outcomes of the National Reading Panel in 2000 was, yes, we got these five essential components of reading identified, and yes, we went around the country in Reading First, teaching all those five components, but many of us lacked the focus on integration and synthesis and weaving together simultaneously. I think that's another takeaway is that yes, we have to teach, it's essential, we teach all five of the components, but throughout our instruction throughout the day, we weave them together. So, we're building the oral language, the comprehension, as well as those foundation skills.

PA: So, integration is the key. Would you say that, Susan?

SS: I would. I'm trying to think of other words. Integration, simultaneously, weaving together. We try to think of as many ways as we can to make that point of not isolation. You just don't do phoneme awareness and then go do something else. Or you don't just do phonics and then go do something else. Throughout your lesson, you're integrating.

PA: Getting back to assessment, in a nutshell, tell our listeners how to take the guesswork out of intervention and transform those struggling students into skilled readers.

SS: Yeah. Assessment, formative assessment, which are typically curriculum-based measures, are typically one-minute quick assessments that are a flashlight, a guide light. The information you get from that provides the map for the intervention, and it helps you pinpoint exactly where your instruction needs to be. The other part you must do is progress monitoring to ask: "Is this working? Am I doing effective intervention?" So, if we just had the map and all we did, Pam, was identify the area and provide intervention, that's only half the ball game. We have to know and document and measure if our intervention is working and change it if it's not working. Try something that might be more effective.

PA:  Are we doing the right things and are we doing the things right?

SS: Yes. Brilliant. Can I quote you?

PA: Well, it didn't come from me. I'm not sure who I am quoting, but I just love that saying.

SS: Yes, I may borrow that.

PA: Definitely. So, just as a reminder, you have provided a handout called Oral Reading Fluency Decision Tree that you walked through with us just a little while ago. Listeners can download this handbook from our website. I do want to say thank you for joining us today, Dr. Smartt. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. It's been inspiring, and I know I speak for educators everywhere when I say we thank you for your dedication to literacy learning through appropriate reading intervention. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about you, your research, and the new edition of your book, Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Intervention.

SS: Thanks, Pam. The new book will be published. It's Brookes Publishing. It should come out in September of this year. The title is Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction: Connecting Assessments to Effective Intervention, and Deb Glaser is my co-author on that. So, look for that. The other claim to fame in 2020, Marty Haugen and I published a textbook for literacy instruction for those 18-, 19-year-old young people who want to be teachers, and the name of that book is Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction & Assessment. This time, when we did this revision in 2020, it was also identified as exemplary by the National Council on Teacher Quality. So, my hope is that we're catching teachers early and helping them understand the importance of assessment with intervention and effective instruction.

PA: Thank you, Dr. Smartt, for sharing such high-quality resources, and yes, we want to catch teachers early.

SS: Yes.

PA: Great. Thank you once again. This is Pam Austin, bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you. Please join us next month for another great EDVIEW360 podcast.

Narrator: This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast. For additional thought-provoking discussions, sign up for our blog, webinar, and podcast series at voyagersopris.com/edview360. If you enjoyed the show, we'd love a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts and to help other people like you find our show. Thank you.