Language acquisition and disorders

Preventing learning disabilities

Research project: the response to intervention



     Teachers are faced with an increasing number of pupils with learning difficulties from the very start of primary schooling, particularly in basic learning skills such as reading, writing and mathematics. Response to Intervention (RàI) is an innovative approach that aims to offer (1) universal screening for learning difficulties after just a few months of formal teaching of the basics of written language and mathematics, and (2) early and intensive pedagogical intervention for all students who present difficulties in developing these skills. RàI is widely used beyond our borders, particularly on the North American continent and in the UK, but remains little-known in Switzerland. It is based on several elements: the quality of initial teaching, universal screening of children in difficulty, pedagogical differentiation via gradation of interventions and progress monitoring. This approach particularly concerns the teaching of written language and mathematics, which are the areas affected in developmental learning disorders as defined in the WHO's International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11, 2018).

      In recent years, such an approach has been implemented in pilot establishments in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Valais. Following these initial trials, we are now looking to more formally test the effectiveness of this approach in identifying and helping the most troubled students. With this in mind, a study has been planned by representatives of the University of Geneva, the Haute Ecole Pédagogique of the Canton of Vaud and the General Directorates of Compulsory Education of the Cantons of Geneva and Vaud, to investigate the impact of implementing such an approach on the academic skills of children in difficulty during the 3rd year of Harmos, a particularly important year for basic learning in the areas of written language and mathematics.

         The aim of the study is to compare the written language and mathematical skills of two groups of special needs students who will be given an RàI-type approach. One group will study written language, the other mathematics, with each group acting as a control for the other. All 3P pupils in the selected schools will be tested in both areas on three occasions: before the intervention, after the intervention, and one year after the intervention. This assessment will be carried out by research assistants under the responsibility of university researchers. The target groups will consist of students who are experiencing difficulties (usually around a fifth to a quarter of the class) in each area, and with whom the intervention will be carried out. The intervention will be carried out in small groups of students under the responsibility of members of the teaching staff (teachers and/or ECSP), with 3 30-minute sessions per week for 14 weeks. For methodological reasons (standardization of the intervention), teaching tools specifically created for the needs of these interventions will be made available to teachers. They incorporate the elements that research has shown to be effective in promoting learning in the areas of written language and mathematics.

The aim is to ensure that :


- for the majority of students with learning difficulties, early and intensive intervention is sufficient to give them the impetus to continue learning without further support, thus ultimately reducing the need for specialized intervention,

- for children with limited response to intervention, referral to specialists (speech therapists and psychologists) for a more detailed assessment and individualized intervention plan. This would enable intervention to start much earlier than is currently the case, which is likely to increase its effectiveness and reduce the secondary consequences of these difficulties (academic failure, demoralization, difficulties in socio-professional integration).