Q&A with literacy experts Laura Stewart and Susan Adelmann

Recently we had an in-depth conversation with Laura Stewart, Chief Academic Officer, and Susan Adelmann, Vice President, Digital Platforms. They gave us a look into the future of literacy instruction and unveiled exciting information about a breakthrough technology: the new 95 Literacy Intervention System™. Laura and Susan offer insights on why it is so important today for schools and how it will transform literacy education for teachers and their students.

What is the 95 Literacy Intervention System™?

The 95 Literacy Intervention System combines assessment data, grouping tools, and resource recommendations into one powerful system designed to bring about systemic improvement in literacy outcomes. Identifying and closing skill gaps early is essential and provides a strong foundation for reading success.

What does the 95 Literacy Intervention System do?

The 95 Literacy Intervention System powers evaluation and intervention within a classroom, grade, or school. Teachers can quickly diagnose phonemic awareness and phonics skill deficits, and effectively group students at similar skill levels to deliver precise intervention instruction to maximize student outcomes. It ensures help and resources are targeted right when and where they’re needed.

Why is this new intervention system such an important game changer for schools?

One of the biggest challenges faced by teachers and school systems is how to identify exactly when and where to intervene with a student. To solve that effectively, you need to have an evidence-based, predictable progression of skill development in place for students. And then you need a tool that allows you to assess each child to determine exactly where that point of entry is for intervention when needed. Diagnostic assessment is one of the things that all teachers need and all systems need.

The second big challenge is: What do I do with that information? How can I act upon it? So how can we provide teachers with links that go directly to instruction because assessment without instruction is not helpful?

The third challenge is: How do I group my students? What’s the process for grouping students? If you don’t have a diagnostic assessment, then your chance of grouping students and really effectively providing interventions is pretty slim. I’ll give you an example. Without a diagnostic screener, you might have children who are above benchmark, at benchmark, below benchmark. But those children—let’s take the below benchmark group—all have unique needs. They’re not just below benchmark for all the same reasons.

So how am I managing the grouping—the process of putting those learners in groups? And how am I using progress monitoring tools to ensure that they don’t stay in those groups forever? Because I’ve got this predictable progression—I diagnose students here; I want to intervene to here; and then get them out of intervention. And the only way I can do that is if I have good diagnostics and good progress monitoring.

The last problem we’re trying to solve for is: reporting to multiple stakeholders. We want teachers to have visibility into how not just individual students are doing, but how the groups are doing, how their classrooms are doing. At a school-wide level, we want to provide visibility into how the grade level is doing, how the school is doing; and at the district level, how each school is doing and how collectively we’re doing. I think of it as like nesting dolls. We have to have visibility at all those levels.

In addition, we want students to be reflective of their own progress. How are we showing students what their progress is? How might we have visibility for parent reporting so the teacher can report accurately to parents? It’s not enough for a teacher to say “Your child’s below grade level” or “Your child’s a level G.” What does that mean? So we have to be able to report accurately on what a child’s strengths are as a reader, what are we working on to ensure they’ll become a proficient, fluent reader who will continue to reap the benefits of literacy?

These are the pain points that teachers and systems face that we’re trying to solve.

Who is the primary audience for the 95 Literacy Intervention System?

The audience is K-5, but can be used in higher grades, depending on how mature a school’s focus is on intervention for those higher grades. It connects to the 95 Phonics Lesson Library® and to the 95 Phonics Core Program®, which can be used to support older students as needed.

Can you talk about the 95 Literacy Intervention System’s skills-based grouping of students? 

In the past before we had real visibility into skills-based grouping, students were grouped one of two ways. One, they were grouped by general categories, for example, the Eagles, the Bluebirds, and the Magpies. And everybody knew what group you were in. You were either a high flier, or you’re just a basic reader, or you’re a struggling reader. That was one way that grouping used to happen because teachers really didn’t have insight into skill development.

It was based on generalities—how well students read aloud and how they could answer basic comprehension questions. Then we had this next wave of grouping which was based on leveled text. How the children did in this particular level of text determined what level reader they were. What’s problematic about that is leveled texts are very arbitrary in how they’re leveled. And they literally have nothing to do with reading skills. It’s very fuzzy. It’s about sentence length, word complexity, paragraph complexity, and some vague things that really don’t pinpoint what skills a child has to have to be able to read that passage.

The 95 Literacy Intervention System lets us think about skills-based grouping which allows us to pinpoint student needs, get in, and get out. Students’ groupings are very flexible, right? One group of students might need to get to work on a long vowel pattern. When they master the skill, they move out, and they move on to their next piece. The next piece of instruction they may get is in Tier 1. They might not need to go into intervention. There’s abundant research around the fact that we need to pinpoint student need to accelerate growth.

With the 95 Literacy Intervention System, we’ve created an effective and efficient process for the teacher and the tools to make that data visible. It enables an instructional cycle—we instruct, we assess, we instruct. We’ve made that process much more tangible, transparent, and easier to manage.

How would you sum up the leading benefits for educators?

The leading benefits are: pinpoint diagnostic assessment followed by the link from assessment to instruction, the process for managing groups, and the multiple layers of reporting.

The data insights are particularly important. You’re not just looking at the student level data which helps you understand what to do with the individual child. You’re also looking at the system level, the next level up. And you can then ask, “Where are the pockets of excellence across your school? And how do you then optimize against opportunities where maybe some teachers aren’t having as much luck?” So you’re using that data in a systematic way.

How would you describe the leading benefits for students? 

One of the benefits is that students are not caught forever in a group. Because the groups are skills-based, you can get in there, do the instruction to mastery, and then move them out of the group. In the past, students would get caught in a “cul-de-sac of intervention” and part of it was because we grouped inappropriately.

There was a saying: “Once a blue bird always a blue bird.” It is the Matthew effect. If we had students in the high group, they were always getting enrichment and being pushed forward. If students were in a low group, the teacher was always teaching toward the common lowest deficit. And so the children who were in that group could be in that group temporarily just to shore up some skills, but they weren’t given opportunities to really accelerate back into core instruction. The 95 Literacy Intervention System model is designed to make sure that students do not get caught in that vicious cycle.

Can you talk a little more about the benefits of the grouping tools within the context of MTSS?

In a school that has an MTSS management model, this is really helpful because it maximizes the movement of students into their groups. MTSS is a school-wide system in which students are moving to intervention groups en masse. And by having really pinpointed skill-based groups, it provides the benefit of helping move students quickly into instruction.

How is professional learning organized around the 95 Literacy Intervention System? 

The 95 Literacy Intervention System includes professional learning on how to use the product—in particular, how to enter the data. Then it becomes pretty intuitive for the teacher. For professional learning this covers: “How do you best instruct students in intervention?” That question leads you to instruction around our models in the 95 Phonics Lesson Library and 95 Phonics Core Program, which are explicit, systematic instruction. The professional learning starts with “How do you use the system?” Then it leads you to another set of questions:

  • What deeper understanding do I need to know about?
  • What is that predictable progression of skills that children go through?
  • What are the phonic skills?
  • When it points to the children that have a gap in long vowel silent e, do I know what to do with that information?
  • Do I as a teacher know that or do I need to further my professional learning in this area?

And because the 95 Literacy Intervention System points you to our resources—the 95 Phonics Lesson Library and 95 Phonics Core Program—we want to make sure that our teachers have professional learning around how to use these because at the end of the day, 95 Literacy Intervention System does not instruct children. The system is helping the teachers do their job. So the professional learning is focused more about instruction and use of the instructional resources.

We designed a lot of capabilities in the software to help people who did not receive formal training. For example, for scoring an assessment, we have common error marks so that we are helping a teacher who might not be that experienced in observational assessment to understand what he or she might hear. We’ve tried to bring more knowledge into the system. The resource recommendations directly connect errors or gaps a child might have to resources so a teacher or reading specialist doesn’t have to be a completely experienced pro—they can begin to use the system effectively with less knowledge.

What is the relationship between screeners such as DIBELS and Acadience to the 95 Literacy Intervention System?

DIBELS and Acadience are universal screeners. They go broad. And they give you enough information to tell the teacher these are your lowest performers, these are your highest performers, here are a few literacy skills that they have challenges with. So you get major categorical signals on fluency, on some parts of reading skill, but you don’t get enough to actually help a child close the skills gap. We’re going an order of magnitude deeper in diagnosing what is actually stopping a child, or blocking a child from moving forward and becoming a proficient reader.

So diagnostic is the categorical difference here. A diagnostic screener says two things. We are going to a low level to understand where there are challenges. But also we’re going a little bit broad to try to figure out and pinpoint across that matrix of things that could be challenges where exactly those challenges are located.

Tell us about the data that educators see. How does it impact what they do next?

Here’s the main thing that we’re trying to change with the 95 Literacy Intervention System. When people assessed a child’s decoding skills or early literacy skills in the past, they didn’t do it in a tool. Even DIBELS is typically a verbal tool. So you’re listening—it’s an observational assessment. Where does the data go? That teacher hears a child and comes away with an understanding of how well they’re doing in a broad sense or maybe even in a specific sense. Maybe that gets recorded on a sticky note or an index card, put in a folder, and brought to a PLC discussion where all teachers bring all their stickies and notes and sit and try to figure out what to do with students.

By keeping a teacher in the loop and having an observational assessment that is fairly deep but capturing that data right from the moment of assessment, we’ve taken away the burden of those sticky notes and “sneakernets” and lost information. And we’ve eliminated what used to happen when a student moves to another school and it might take three months for that data to ever catch up with the new teacher. Now, that student’s data is in the system from the beginning. And we can do something with it. We can use it to understand specifically what this child needs now. And we can come back, and in that progress measurement, decide what they need next month. All that information is there.

We’ve built in a privacy and security layer that allows us to establish different roles for different users. A reading coach might be able to see learners that are not rostered to a classroom. They have a specific view of students that they might be able to see, students under their care, whereas teachers should maybe only see the students in their classroom. It depends on their intervention model and on the ways they’re set up, but there’s a lot of flexibility there.

How does it help teachers who don’t know how to do this? I think it makes the data immediately visible and valuable and usable. You don’t have to go someplace else and figure out: what is that data telling me in a giant table? We use something called the spark line. There are 15 different skills in our phonic screener that we do. It’s just a little graph that shows one line for each of those skills. Red, yellow, green. And I can look at 25 learners at one time and immediately see who is struggling where. You can drill down into that child and understand exactly what’s happened to them in previous assessments—where they scored well, where they didn’t score well. It’s all there.

And with that information, you have 25 views of data that you could look at together and go down into the lower-level skills to ask, “Who has the same challenges?” That’s what skills grouping is about. It’s about saying which children have common needs so that I can help them in a small group without having to spend individual time with everyone. I can be efficient about my time. Once that diagnostic assessment is given, that data is visible at the child level, and it could be visible at the class level or at a group level. That dictates what you do next. At the end of the assessment, any of the skills that were in error are directly linked to the intervention resources and the core classroom resources that we have for a teacher to address those skills. So right in that moment, or when they’re ready, a teacher can see what they can do to help a child.

So what do schools need to do next if they want to implement this system?

Think about the different maturity levels you may have in delivering core phonics instruction and interventions across your district. Do you have one starting point or several? Are all your teachers comfortable teaching decoding skills in a structured literacy context? Are teachers comfortable with students using devices or paper? Identifying an early adopter vanguard that can map out specific improvement goals and guide broader implementation is a good strategy. Reach out to the 95 Percent Group team at sales@95percentgroup.com and connect with the right resources that can understand your needs and help you think this through.

To sum up, how does the 95 Literacy Intervention System help to fulfill our mission of empowering educators to unlock literacy?

95 Percent Group is all about empowering teachers with knowledge, resources, and support. The 95 Literacy Intervention System ticks all the boxes. It gives you knowledge or insight into students’ development as readers. And that in and of itself is essential to teaching. It gives you the resources because it’s an ecosystem approach using a diagnose/instruct/monitor/diagnose/cyclic process. So that’s the resources along with professional learning. And it empowers teachers with support because it provides a system for the teachers to work with consistency. It’s not a one-shot deal. They don’t go in there, give students a test, get some scores, they’re done. It continues to build and provide insight into students over time. That supports teachers in making those instructional moves with their groups.

Learn More

For more information on the new 95 Literacy Intervention System, please visit our press release. 95 Percent Group brings over two decades of thought leadership in research on the science of reading and evidence-aligned assessment and instruction.

We have worked with school districts and educators across the country to unlock the power of literacy for every child. We look forward to sharing with you what we’ve learned, along with best practices and resources you can bring to the classroom. Stay up to date on the latest research, insights, and resources in our field at thescienceofreading.com.

Contact our team to learn how the 95 Literacy Intervention System can transform your reading instruction.