MTSS: The key to success

Access to literacy isn’t one straight line. It’s more like a multi-dimensional structure with tiers, scaffolds, and layers (not to mention numbers). That’s why students—and teachers—can benefit from an MTSS: Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Let’s see how an MTSS can help position all students for literacy success.

By Amplify Staff | December 4, 2023


What helps students succeed in reading? It’s not just one tool, or even one toolkit. Ideally, they’ve got a whole ecosystem—from the latest science to bedtime stories—supporting them in learning to read.

So it makes sense that a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is critical to literary instruction in the classroom. 

What exactly is an MTSS? How does it align with the Science of Reading? And how do they help you support your students?

MTSS, literacy instruction, and the Science of Reading

First, a broad definition. 

A Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a comprehensive framework designed to provide systematic and differentiated support to all students. The tiered approach includes universal interventions for all learners, targeted interventions for those at risk, and intensive interventions for students with specific needs. The goal of an MTSS is to use data-driven decision-making and personalized support to improve academic, behavioral, and emotional outcomes for every student.

And that’s exactly what an MTSS does in the context of literacy instruction. An MTSS operates on the premise that readers have diverse requirements, and it aims to proactively identify and address these needs through a multi-tiered approach.

That’s where it intersects with the Science of Reading. As you know, the Science of Reading refers to the pedagogy and practices that extensive research has found to be most effective for teaching children to read. When implemented in a classroom, the Science of Reading is part of a system—one that aligns with a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

What’s the difference between an MTSS and RTI? 

MTSS vs. RTI: You’ve probably heard these systems mentioned in similar contexts. But just like new readers, we’ve got to learn our letters. 

RTI stands for Response to Intervention, so its very name shows that it’s a response to an identified problem. Actually, it’s a series of academic responses that use data to pinpoint and address the specific challenges of struggling students.

An MTSS and an RTI are similar in that “they are both problem-solving models,” notes Brittney Bills, Ph.D., elementary school principal at Blair Community Schools, speaking with host Susan Lambert on Amplify’s Science of Reading: The Podcast.

And they can be intertwined. But they are not interchangeable. In fact, an RTI is part of an MTSS framework—not the other way around. Also: 

  • An MTSS starts with all students. “With the MTSS model, the universal tier is the first intervention for all students,” says Bills, referring to the curriculum, instruction, and assessments provided to all students at a given grade level. Bills says we can ask: “What does our data demonstrate that our students need within that universal tier? And how can we apply evidence-based practices, as they relate to the Science of Reading, to beef up opportunities for our students there first? Then it’s a layering-on of supports and problem-solving at those other layers, the targeted and intensive tiers, after that.”
  • An MTSS supports prevention. Again, we start universal, then identify issues. Though an RTI is necessary and effective, an MTSS has the aim, and the capacity, to both get at-risk readers back on track and prevent the need for intervention down the line.

The four defining parts of an MTSS

Now, let’s break down the four key components that define an MTSS:

  1. Screening: An MTSS begins with screening to identify students’ proficiency in foundational literacy skills. Screening helps you pinpoint potential challenges in literacy early on, making it possible to tailor interventions for individual students and head problems off at the pass.
  2. Progress monitoring: An MTSS helps you regularly assess and track students’ literacy progress, allowing you to adjust instructional strategies based on real-time data and evolving needs.
  3. Establishing a multi-level prevention system: The multi-level prevention system allows you to adapt to accommodate diverse learning styles and precise learning needs. This personalized approach both supports those at risk and helps build an inclusive classroom where every reader can thrive.
  4. Making data-based decisions: An MTSS gives you the data you need—and guides you in analyzing it—to make the precise adjustments that support every student’s literacy journey. 

An MTSS is a dynamic approach that recognizes that every student is different—and that to provide each with what they need to learn to read, teachers need systems of support, too. 

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