Technology-supported three-tier reading instruction

Bette Chambers describes a three-tier ‘response to intervention’ program for struggling readers

THE READING ACHIEVEMENT of poor and minority children has changed little over the past decade. Several comprehensive school reform strategies have significantly improved reading performance at scale, but more effective models are necessary to offer educators tools capable of significantly reducing gaps in reading achievement. One important challenge for reform programs is to achieve greater consistency of effects across different school systems.

What we know
An integrated, technology-supported literacy program that has the potential to help all children learn to read includes these research-proven components:
● Core classroom instruction presented on interactive whiteboards;
● Computer-supported follow-up small-group remediation; and
● Computer-assisted one-to-one tutoring for the most severely struggling readers.

Over a number of years, I have been involved in developing a promising response to intervention (RTI) model. This has been a collaboration between:

  • The Success for All Foundation;
  • The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University;
  • The Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University in Montreal; and
  • The Institute for Effective Education at the University of York.

RTIs are early interventions for children who are having difficulty learning. This technology-based RTI approach has the potential to dramatically improve young children’s reading abilities. It is called Reading Roots Interactive (RRI), and it integrates core classroom instruction with follow-up small-group support and one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers. RRI is presented on interactive whiteboards, and supported by two computer-assisted tutoring programs, Team Alphie and Alphie’s Alley, for struggling readers.

Core instruction – Reading Roots Interactive (RRI)

RRI is based on the Success for All (SFA) comprehensive reform program. SFA has been researched in at least 50 experimental studies, and these have found statistically significant positive effects on reading achievement. Researchers have concluded that due to its extensive training, follow-up, and clear structure, SFA typically is able to obtain implementation fidelity. That is, schools deliver the program as it was designed to be delivered. Consequently, positive effects are seen even in the often difficult environments of disadvantaged schools.

To improve implementation, the underlying concept for RRI is to use technology to enhance and support the performance of teachers and tutors, not to replace them. Brief video vignettes integrated into teachers’ lessons provide students with clear images of the concepts they are supposed to be learning. For example, 30-second animations provide mnemonic cues for the children to remember the sounds that letters make. So when learning the /t/ sound, the children see a woodpecker tapping out the shape of a ‘t’ and hearing /t,t,t,t/. In lessons involving cooperative learning, the RRI videos show four puppets working effectively, demonstrating for teachers, as well as students, exactly what teams of students are expected to be doing.

RRI is presented on an interactive whiteboard. All lesson elements are loaded into the computer and shown on the whiteboard. This provides compelling visual aids at exactly the right time to facilitate teaching of exciting, varied, and effective lessons. Teachers can also access video demonstrations of teachers modeling effective teaching of the skills.

Small group tutoring – Team Alphie

The next level of our RTI model addresses the needs of children who are not keeping up with the class in their reading. Our development team created a small-group supplementary reading intervention called Team Alphie, closely linked to RRI, the core reading program.

Team Alphie combines cooperative learning, computer-assisted instruction, embedded multimedia, and tutoring. Groups of four–six students work in similar-ability pairs – within groups of struggling readers, Team Alphie pairs students working at about the same level. Each pair works on a computer, taking turns as “reader” and “coach.” The computer presents questions, and after the “reader” has answered, the computer gives the correct answer and the “coach” indicates whether or not the “reader’s” response was correct.

Team Alphie provides daily 45-minute lessons in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The program has three components: assessment, planning, and computer activities, all supported by embedded professional development.

Based on the pair’s assessment, Team Alphie presents targeted activities that are designed to reinforce skills taught to students during core reading. When students provide incorrect answers, the computer gives them progressive scaffolding until they can reach the right answer. Students engage in 12 types of game-like activities that focus on the following skills:

  • Letter identification and writing;
  • Auditory blending and segmenting;
  • Word-level blending;
  • Sight words;
  • Spelling;
  • Tracking;
  • Fluency; and
  • Comprehension.

Team Alphie also provides video performance support for tutors. For example, if a tutor determines that a child has a problem with auditory blending, then the tutor can watch video vignettes of other tutors modeling ways to help children improve that skill.

Team Alphie was compared to regular one-to-one non-technology tutoring in 33 disadvantaged SFA schools in the U.S. The first-grade Team Alphie group significantly out-performed the one-to-one tutoring group on a standardized reading measure. And of course, because students were tutored in groups, schools using Team Alphie were able to tutor many more struggling readers than comparison “control” schools.

However, in some classes there may be a small number of students with serious reading difficulties. These students still struggle with reading, despite well-designed core instruction and small-group tutoring, and will need individualized instruction to help them master those initial reading skills. For those students, there is Alphie’s Alley.

One-to-one tutoring – Alphie’s Alley

In a review of programs for struggling readers (see Robert Slavin’s article on page 4 for a summary), Slavin and his colleagues found phonetic one-to-one tutoring by qualified teachers to be the most effective method for supporting struggling readers. Yet tutoring by teachers is expensive, so if provided at all, it is often conducted by paraprofessionals. The effects of tutoring by paraprofessionals are much weaker than for qualified teachers, but the answer may be to support them with technology.

The solution our development team came up with was Alphie’s Alley, a software program to help tutors make effective use of individual tutoring sessions and help at-risk children catch up in reading. Alphie’s Alley is aligned with RRI and Team Alphie to provide a comprehensive three-tier model for teaching reading. Alphie’s Alley assesses children, and suggests individually tailored plans based on the assessments. It provides students with 12 types of activities similar to Team Alphie, except that they receive one-to-one support from a tutor. The tutor guides and encourages the child, assesses ongoing progress, and modifies plans in light of the child’s needs. Like Team Alphie, Alphie’s Alley also has a performance support system for tutors, including video clips showing expert tutors implementing the activities with children with different learning challenges. Alphie’s Alley contains a complex database that suggests interventions to teachers based on the individual performance of each student. The computerized diagnostic and assessment activities make record-keeping simple and reduce paperwork, allowing the tutor to focus on working with the student.

Two year-long randomized controlled trials found that when well implemented, Alphie’s Alley was more effective than the regular SFA tutoring without technology.


This technology-assisted three-tier model of initial reading instruction includes a core reading program delivered on the interactive whiteboard; a small-group computer-assisted tutoring intervention; and an individualized computer-assisted tutoring program. All three components have evidence of effectiveness shown by randomized experiments. Putting them together provides the kind of integrated instruction necessary for ensuring the reading achievement of all children.

About the author

Professor Bette Chambers is Director of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, a professor in the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and also directs the development and dissemination of the early childhood programs for the Success for All Foundation. Her current work focuses on developing and evaluating replicable programs that use cooperative learning and embedded technology, particularly in early childhood education and early literacy.

Further reading

Chambers B et al (2011), Small-group Computer-assisted Tutoring to Improve Reading Outcomes for Struggling First and Second Graders, Elementary School Journal, 111(4).

Chambers B et al (2008), Computer-assisted Tutoring in Success for All: Reading Outcomes for First Graders, Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 1(2), pp. 120–37.

Slavin RE, Madden NA, Chambers B, and Haxby B (2009), Two Million Children: Success for All. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


November 2011