Multi-Tiered System of Supports for Reading: The Intersection With Special Education

Teacher helping student on tablet

Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports not only provide extra help to students in the general education classroom, but also can be used to determine a student's eligibility for special education services.


Posted on: November 28, 2017

The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allowed states to use Response to Intervention (RTI) as an alternative to the discrepancy model (i.e., finding a significant difference between a student’s scores on a test of general intelligence and those on an achievement test) for determining students’ eligibility for special education services. RTI is a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) that focuses on academic supports of increasing intensity that are offered based on how students are performing. In the area of literacy, MTSS can be part of the process for identifying students with a reading or writing disability.

What is MTSS in Iowa?

In place since 2013, the MTSS framework for the state of Iowa consists of five components (Iowa Department of Education, 2017):

  1. Evidence-based curriculum and instruction at the universal level (Tier 1).
  2. Universal screening of all students.
  3. Evidence-based, instructional interventions at the targeted (Tier 2) and intensive (Tier 3) levels provided to each student who needs them.
  4. Progress monitoring for learners below expectations.
  5. Data-based decision-making throughout the system.

This post will explain how Iowa’s MTSS framework is applied to literacy instruction in elementary schools and under what circumstances referral to special education may occur.

Three Tiers of Instruction

MTSS is part of the literacy learning process for each elementary student in Iowa. There are three tiers of support available, as some students require more support based on how they respond to the universal instruction provided.

Tier 1: Universal Instruction for All Students

High-quality core reading instruction is provided to all students and is delivered in the general education classroom (Reschly, 2014; RTI Action Network, 2017). This instruction would include the content and pedagogical practices that have evidence of effectiveness at helping students develop their reading and writing abilities. Examples of important literacy content include: oral language, phonological awareness, phonics, spelling, syntax, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and the writing process (Foorman et al., 2016; Graham et al., 2012). Effective pedagogical practices include: explicit and systematic instruction, flexible grouping of students, multiple opportunities to respond, specific feedback, and application of skills to authentic reading and writing (Connor et al., 2011; Puzio & Colby, 2013).

The purpose of Tier 1 instruction is to prevent reading difficulties and unnecessary referral to special education. Without early identification and appropriate instruction in the general education classroom, students may fall behind their peers and not achieve grade-level literacy benchmarks (Connor et al., 2011). 

Universal screening is a key component of Tier 1. The Iowa Department of Education describes universal screening as being able to predict future academic success and identify students who are at risk for reading difficulties (Iowa Department of Education, 2013). Universal screening is conducted three times per year for all students, using assessments that do not take long to administer and score. For example, individually administered oral reading fluency measures require about 5-15 minutes per student. Computer-delivered assessments require about 30 minutes, but a full class can be taking the test at the same time.

Universal screening data are combined with other state or district assessment data to identify students who might profit from supplemental instruction within Tier 1. Guidance from the RTI Action Network (2017) suggests the in-class intervention typically should not last longer than 8 weeks. Progress monitoring data (see next section) is used to evaluate whether the student makes sufficient progress or needs to be provided targeted, supplemental intervention in Tier 2.

Tier 2: Targeted Instruction for Students at Risk for Reading Difficulties

Targeted interventions may be considered when the student is not making adequate progress with Tier 1 universal instruction alone. These supplemental interventions are more intensive, in part, because specially prepared teachers deliver them to smaller groups of students who share a need to develop particular reading skills. They do not replace Tier 1 instruction. Rather, they are provided as a daily supplement to the core literacy block. Tier 2 generally last longer than in-class interventions in Tier 1, but the RTI Action Network (2017) advises that targeted intervention should not exceed a grading period. Tier 2 typically is not considered a trigger for special education referral. Rather, offering targeted intervention is a way to get students assistance quickly and to rule out a lack of appropriate instruction as the source of students’ difficulties. 

During this time, students’ progress is monitored to determine the rate of growth and level of reading performance students are achieving. Iowa Code 279.68 requires the data be collected weekly. Progress monitoring assessments are shorter in length than universal screening assessments, and frequently rely on measuring students’ oral reading fluency (Burns, Pulles, Helman, & McComas, 2016).

Tier 3: Intensive Instruction for Students with Insufficient Response to Targeted Intervention

When a student does not demonstrate adequate progress with targeted intervention, they are moved to Tier 3 interventions. These are made more intensive by increasing the frequency or duration of the supplemental reading instruction, making the lessons more individualized, and providing more opportunities for students to respond with more specific feedback (Stevenson & Reed, 2017). Progress monitoring continues during Tier 3 in the same fashion as in Tier 2 and may indicate that students are making sufficient progress to move to an intervention of less intensity.

Placement in Tier 3 may coincide with referral to special education, but referral is not automatic. Students may need to try intensive intervention before being evaluated for a reading disability, particularly if it is determined that additional data are needed to make a sound decision.

Data-Based Decision Making

Throughout the tiers of MTSS, educators use data on students’ performance to make instructional decisions. However, weekly progress monitoring can be cumbersome in schools with high percentages of students not meeting grade-level benchmarks. In addition, teachers may be limited on how frequently or substantively they can alter instruction based on the kind of data collected (Stebbe Rowe, Witmer, Cook & daCruz, 2014). These are issues with which the research and policymaking communities continue to grapple.

Not a Substitute for Special Education

It is important to note that providing tiers of support cannot be used to deny a student special education services. Under IDEA, schools still have an obligation to identify and evaluate all children suspected of having a disability so they may receive the educational supports they need, even if a student is performing comparably to peers and “advancing from grade to grade” (34 CFR 300.11(c)). MTSS is supposed to ensure that students do not have to experience serious or prolonged reading failure before they receive appropriate instructional support, including a free and appropriate public education with special education services.


Burns, M. K., Pulles, S. M., Helman, L., & McComas, J. (2016). Assessment-based intervention frameworks: An example of a Tier 1 reading intervention in an urban school. In S. L. Graves, & J. J. Blake (Eds.), Psychoeducational assessment and intervention for ethnic minority children: Evidence-based approaches (pp. 165-182). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., Fishman, B., Giuliani, S., Luck, M., Underwood, P. S., . . . Schatschneider, C. (2011). Testing the impact of child characteristics × instruction interactions on third graders' reading comprehension by differentiating literacy instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 46, 189-221. doi:10.1598/RRQ.46.3.1

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., . . .  Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D’Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012- 4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Iowa Department of Education. (2017). Iowa’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Retrieved from

Iowa Department of Education. (2013, March 6). Response to Intervention Updates [Webinar]. 

Puzio, K., & Colby, G. T. (2013). Cooperative learning and literacy: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6, 339-360. doi:10.0180/19345747.2013.775683

Reschly, D. J., (2014). Response to intervention and the identification of specific learning disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 34, 39-58. doi:10.1097/TLD.0000000000000003

RTI Action Network. (2017). What is RTI? Retrieved from

Stebbe Rowe, S., Witmer, S., Cook, E., & daCruz, K. (2014). Teachers’ attitudes about using curriculum-based measurement in reading (CBM-R) for universal screening and progress monitoring. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 30, 305-337. doi:10.1080/15377903.2014.938793

Stevenson, N., & Reed, D. K. (2017). To change the things I can: Making instruction more intensive. Intervention in School and Clinic, 53, 74-80. doi:10.1177/1053451217693365