Creating Shared Language for Collaboration in RTI

The International Reading Association (IRA) Commission on Response to Intervention (RTI) has published a set of six principles to guide its members in the planning and implementation of RTI initiatives (IRA Commission on RTI, 2009). These principles revolve around (1) instruction, (2) responsive teaching and differentiation, (3) assessment, (4) collaboration, (5) systemic and comprehensive approach, and (6) expertise. The importance of collaboration is referenced throughout, for example:


  • A systemic approach to language and literacy learning within an RTI framework requires the active participation and genuine collaboration of many professionals, including classroom teachers, reading specialists/literacy coaches, special educators, and school psychologists.
  • There must be congruence between core language and literacy instruction and interventions. This requires a shared vision and common goals for language and literacy instruction and assessment, adequate time for communication and coordinated planning among general educator and specialist teachers, and integrated professional development.


For collaboration to be successful participants in the process have to create shared language for communication. The purpose of this article is to explore this issue.


Collaboration and RTI


Ideally, RTI is neither a general education nor a special education initiative, but rather a total school initiative with the goal of optimizing instruction for all students, including those who are struggling with language and literacy. Within this framework for identifying and supporting students who experience difficulties, collaboration among educational professionals and with students and their families is imperative for RTI to be successful.


The first step in professional collaboration is to recognize that traditionally held notions about who works with whom, and toward what end, may no longer apply. For example, in many schools across the country it is assumed that special educators teach students within a different range of academic performance than general educators. Special educators have often been viewed as educators with a specific set of skills and underlying knowledge who teach students requiring specialized instruction. Special educators may be expected to use interventions that may or may not be linked to the general education curriculum and they may be accustomed to monitoring progress with data that general educators do not understand or appreciate.


Within an RTI framework, however, general educators teach students who struggle at times, but whose struggles are viewed within the general educator’s realm of expertise, with or without support from other professionals. Thus, the special educator may work with the classroom teacher in supporting learners who struggle, regardless of their label or eligibility.


Ideally, RTI is carried out within a context of true collaboration and shared expertise. In this sense, RTI is a very different way of conceptualizing general and special education, the link between the two, and the roles of other teaching specialists. Whereas general and special educators may be used to working independently of one another, or in separate silos, RTI calls for deliberate, intentional, ongoing collaboration—not to be confused with cooperation, which can involve working together without a shared purpose. We define collaboration as joining of forces, pooling of resources, and sharing of expertise order to meet shared goals for instruction and assessment. Collaboration should be supported at district, state, and national levels and reflected in the establishment of common ground among professional associations, as well.


The key players in this collaborative effort are all of those who have expertise relevant to student learning, including, but not necessarily limited to:


  • General education classroom teachers
  • Special education classroom teachers
  • Title I and support personnel
  • Building level/district administrators
  • Reading specialists/literacy coaches
  • Speech language pathologists
  • School psychologists
  • ESL teachers
  • State and national agencies
  • Parents and families
  • Students

The Need for Shared Understanding


If collaboration is a key to successful RTI processes, then it is essential to define further the nature of productive collaboration. According to Schrage (1995) "Collaboration is the process of shared creation: Two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own" (p. 33). Following Schrage’s reasoning, we might ask: What is needed to create this type of shared understanding?


Those involved in RTI collaboration must have a common framework within which to work and communicate, including the same basic understanding of RTI and its essential processes, as well as a common language to discuss RTI. Language itself, then, is a critical tool for successful collaboration. Bean, Grumet, and Bulazo (1999) highlighted communication skills as one of the keys to collaboration among educators, along with mutual respect and flexibility. Language should be an asset, not a liability. Without intentional focus, however, language can interfere with productive collaboration. Professionals across disciplines do not always use the same language, nor are they always aware of how other professions use words. In addition, professionals do not necessarily always have much experience talking outside of their respective disciplines. They are used to the vocabulary of their professions and may not even be aware of the language used in other disciplines.


If collaborators do not have shared meaning for terms associated with RTI, confusion may result; for example, the terms Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 may mean very different things to different educators. Without shared meaning, educators may not be able to engage successfully in problem-solving and decision-making. For example, how can a reading specialist have a conversation with a speech-language pathologist about their complementary roles in assisting teachers with core instruction if they do not have the same understanding of core instruction? Perhaps more significantly, certain terms may alienate specific stakeholders.


Examples of Language that May Cause Confusion


Educators who have joined the initiative to use RTI may have different ways of referring to similar constructs; for example, some educators use the terms Response to Instruction or Response to Instruction/Intervention rather than Response to Intervention. The following section is about words or terms that are important for collaborators to discuss to reach a shared understanding of what they mean. This list is not meant to be exhaustive or prescriptive. Instead, it is meant to stimulate thought and discussion in local contexts for purposes of clarification and effective collaboration.


  • Progress monitoring, ongoing assessment, benchmarks, criterion-referenced assessments, or formative assessments
    • Underlying realities: We need to assess student progress continually. Effective assessment informs effective instruction; in other words, our teaching changes based on what we know about students' knowledge and skills.
    • Possible differences to discuss: Progress monitoring is a term used in many RTI initiatives. In some places, it involves standardized, group administered assessments, along with charting of progress trajectories. In other places, progress monitoring includes a variety of ongoing assessment activities, such as running records (Clay, 1985) and miscue analysis (Goodman, Watson & Burke, 2005). Assessment conducted in connection with progress monitoring may or may not parallel other assessment activities, such as state or district tests, or tests associated with published reading programs. Benchmarks and standards are terms that may be associated with some of these other assessments. These assessment-related terms are not mutually exclusive.
    • Conversation starters: Do you use multiple measures of literacy? Which aspects of literacy are included? What are the strengths and limitations of these assessments? How do these assessments guide your instructional practice?
  • Instruction, intervention, or differentiation
    • Underlying realities: We need to meet the instructional needs of students with a wide variety of needs. Different sets of knowledge, skills, and academic needs, as well as different ways of learning, require different methods of teaching.
    • Possible differences to discuss: The term intervention is used by some to capture support activities that go beyond differentiated instruction in intensity and beyond the scope of a busy classroom teacher to provide. On the other hand, some classroom teachers conceptualize their work with struggling students as intervention. In some places, intervention refers to a set curriculum, with a specific set of teacher behaviors, while in others it refers to the methods and materials designed by the teacher to meet the needs of a particular student (or group of students) at a particular point in time. Similarly, the terms instruction and differentiation may mean different things to different people.
    • Conversation starters: Who makes the decisions about what the students are taught and how they are taught in the classroom? How are instructional materials chosen? Who implements instruction/intervention and with which students? If more than one person implements instruction/intervention, how are their respective roles determined? How do educators ensure that students' diverse learning needs are met?
  • Fidelity of implementation
    • Underlying realities: We intend that our instruction is efficient and effective so that students will become fluent and independent readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Research from both experimental and other traditions, such as qualitative methods, helps us select and use the most powerful ways to teach.
    • Possible differences to discuss: Fidelity of implementation is considered by many to be a linchpin of RTI. They reason that it is not possible to know if students are responsive to scientifically-based instruction/intervention unless the instruction/intervention has been implemented with the key features identified in the research. For others, the term fidelity may be problematic because it is often interpreted as dedication to a scripted program that precludes the teacher from adapting to the needs of specific students. Further, there is the issue of generalizability of research findings to populations of students and conditions other than those specifically studied.
    • Conversation starters: What research supports the use of a particular approach in your setting? How do you balance fidelity of implementation with teacher flexibility to respond to specific students' needs?
  • Services
    • Underlying realities: Some students may need more support or specialized instruction than the general education classroom teacher can provide. In fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the provision of "special education and related services" for students identified with disabilities. Other types of assistance may also be needed for a host of reasons, for example, guidance services for students experiencing trauma or support for English language learners (ELLs).
    • Possible differences to discuss: The word services is often associated with special education and related services, although there are other types of services offered in schools, such as the guidance and ELL examples described above. Special service providers, such as special education teachers, school psychologists, and speech-language pathologists, are used to describing the work they do as "provision of services." Within many RTI frameworks these professionals are called upon to support teachers and students in a variety of ways at every tier of RTI. They may describe their expanded roles and responsibilities with students who do not have IEPs as "providing services," even though they are not providing special education.
    • Conversation starters: What is the nature of the support needed by the student? What are the skill sets of the RTI team members and how can they best contribute to the education of a student with a particular learning profile?

Maximizing Language as a Tool for Collaboration


How can stakeholders involved in RTI address the shared language issue? Suggestions include:


  1. Awareness - Be aware of and sensitive to the language issue.
    As educators plan and implement RTI, they should be alert to terminology that may be problematic. It is a given that they may be using terms that do not resonate, are unfamiliar, or have different meanings for professionals from other disciplines. Educators in leadership positions can raise the consciousness of those within their sphere of influence and help them deal effectively with the language of RTI.
  2. Clarification - Clarify our own use of terms and seek clarification of terms by others.
    In collaborative encounters, professionals might take the initiative to explain the terms they are using, especially those already described above as problematic. For example, "When I use the term intervention, let me tell you what I mean by that." As collaborators interact around RTI they can check for word meaning by frequently asking, "What do you mean by that?" or prompting, "Please elaborate on your understanding of that term."
  3. Common Ground - Find language that unifies rather than divides.
    Collaborators can identify language that signals common ground. For example, it may be that the term Response to Instruction/Intervention will resonate with stakeholders as including those who provide instruction as essential participants in the process, whereas other terms may not. In another example, the term child study team has historically been associated with the group of professionals who processes special education referrals. In the context of RTI, however, the professionals who look at students' progress, identify struggling students, and suggest teaching practices might be called by other names, such as the RTI Team, Problem-Solving Team, Data Review Team, or Assessment and Instruction Collaborative.



In this article we focused on the use of language among professionals as a tool for collaboration. However, language use in partnerships with parents and students are other areas of concern. RTI presents a whole new lexicon for parents. For students, understanding the processes of RTI is crucial to their active participation. For these reasons language as a tool for collaboration with parents and students is an important issue that deserves more in-depth treatment than can be addressed in this article.


As continued collaboration across diverse situations reveals new areas of confusion or misunderstanding, collaboration teams must revisit their language use and redefine their shared understandings. The tool in Appendix A, "Determining Our Language of Collaboration," can be used to get started. Ideally, this conversation will begin with a meeting designed specifically to discuss the issue of language use and shared understandings in RTI collaboration, but it will not end there. Instead, it will become an integral part of how collaborators work together.


Sometimes throughout this process, educators will stretch beyond their comfort zones. A commitment to shared understanding takes tremendous effort and a dedication to civil dialogue predicated on mutual trust and respect. We hope that within schools districts, states, and national forums, everyone will devote time and energy to the language of collaboration. Collaboration is a long-term investment in educators working together.



Bean, R. M., Grumet, J. V., Bulazo, J. (1999). Learning from each other: Collaboration between classroom teachers and reading specialist interns. Reading Research and Instruction, 38(4), 273–287. Retrieved February 12, 2006.


Clay, M. (1985). The early detection of reading difficulties (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Goodman, Y. M., Watson, D., & Burke, C. (2005). Reading miscue inventory: Alternative procedures. Katonah, NY: Richard Irwin.


IRA Commission on RTI (February/March 2009). Working draft of guiding principles. Reading Today, 26(4), 1–6.

Schrage, M. (1995). No more teams. New York, NY: Doubleday.


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