Data or Philosophy: Choose a Master!

If all students learn differently, teaching approaches must differ too

By Joanne Allain

Since my first day of teaching, educators have agreed on one thing: All children learn differently. It seems logical, then, that we would also agree that a variety of approaches and philosophies are necessary to reach all students. Unfortunately, when educators focus more on designing the instruction they prefer than on the needs of the children receiving the instruction, logic is not always part of the equation. Curious how “all children learn differently” quickly turns into “all children must learn the way I teach.

Historically, teaching reading has been fraught with disagreements about content, emphasis, and approach. Should we instruct explicitly or implicitly? Should we employ whole group or small group or both? Should we teach from whole to parts or parts to whole? Should we spend more or less time on decoding? Do we really need to teach spelling? Do students really need explicit skill instruction to comprehend text? Does explicit skill instruction destroy the love of reading or make text accessible for more students? Will surrounding students with more books and more time really do the trick for all of them? Whichever the philosophical approach, we tend to apply it like a blanket over all children in a state, district, or school. The unintended and undesirable outcome: Children who do not respond to a specific approach are often considered to be at risk of failure.

Enter Response to Instruction/Intervention (RtI), a promising system designed to use data (not philosophy) to identify the best instruction and intervention for individual students. RtI seeks to label the need and not the child. It is widely recognized as having the potential to address the needs of all, not just some, by ensuring that students receive excellent first instruction (i.e., Tier I) as well as any additional services required to perform at or above grade level.

Across the country, district and school RtI teams engage in data analysis using sophisticated problem-solving methods to determine the needs of the students under their care. What happens next? Does the team choose instruction and intervention that meets the instructional needs of the student regardless of philosophy? Or, is the team restricted to a specific paradigm of reading instruction adopted by the state, district, or school? Can we say we are fulfilling the intent of RtI if we disregard the findings from data in favor of a philosophy of instruction that most likely contributed to poor student performance?

Let’s look at some scenarios and ask ourselves—Should we continue within the existing instructional approach (philosophy) or use another approach that would meet the needs of the students in front of us?

  • If proficient and advanced students demonstrate that they have mastered content, do they need extensive explicit instruction? Do we persist with more samples to complete or move to more in-depth tasks?
  • If the majority of students in a classroom perform below grade level with an instructional approach based on implicit skill acquisition and cooperative groups, do we continue these methods? Do we continue to refer students to intervention (Tiers II and III) or make the initial instruction (Tier I) more explicit, with adjustments in pacing and gradual release?
  • If many students require Tier II intervention for spelling, do we adjust our first instruction to include focused, explicit spelling instruction? Or, do we lament the poor spelling skills of children and continue to schedule more Tier II sessions?

Clearly, no one has found the perfect answer for all children. If they had, the nation’s reading scores would be better, and states would not be struggling with the requirements of No Child Left Behind. We have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: If we agree that all children learn differently, why do we continue to gravitate toward teaching them all in the same way?  

If we embrace RtI as the framework we use to educate our students, then we must also unequivocally select data over philosophy as the driving force behind our instructional choices. It is time to put the “reading wars” aside and act on the reality that all students learn differently and, therefore, we cannot limit what we offer to one philosophy. We must strive to match the right philosophy (approach) with students’ needs in order to reach all of the students all of the time.

Joanne Allain, M.A., serves as a national consultant and founder of 3T Literacy Group, where she specializes in the planning and implementation of RtI systems. She is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention: A Planning Guide for Middle and High School (2007) and Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools (2008) and coauthor with Nancy Eberhardt of RtI: The Forgotten Tier (2012). Joanne can be contacted at or

About Joanne Allain

Books by Joanne Allain: Logistics Of Literacy Intervention

Categories: Literacy, Professional Developement | Leave a comment

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