Instructional Match as an Effective Behavioral Intervention

By Elaine Gould, M.Ed.
November/December 2013

Instructional techniques that increase student engagement increase the likelihood that students will be actively involved in instruction and engaged in appropriate on-task behavior (Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver, & Wehby, 2010). When students are off-task, they lose instructional time, do not complete assignments, and often disrupt the learning momentum of their classmates. One instructional variable that can be manipulated to influence on-task behavior is the level of difficulty of the academic task the student is asked to complete (Hulac & Benson, 2011).

Students may experience repeated academic failure when lacking the sub skills or cognitive strategies needed to complete assignments. Consequently, many become unmotivated to complete or to even attempt future assignments and may resort to engaging in disruptive behavior (Hulac & Benson, 2011; Intervention Central, n.d.). When teacher-collected data verify that a student’s behavior is the result of a miss-match between the academic task and the student’s readiness to complete the task, teachers can implement techniques to ameliorate the problem. These techniques can increase on-task behavior while providing opportunities for students to practice new and previously mastered skills.

Hulac and Benson (2011) suggest the use of “interspersal techniques” to “manipulate the percentage of known to unknown items in an activity” (p. 30). Also referred to as incremental rehearsal, these strategies enable teachers to control the difficulty of the presented academic task by interspersing items that require the student to apply both newly learned skills and previously mastered sub skills that may be required for future learning. This technique is most effective when used at the acquisition phase of learning (Hulac & Benson, 2011). Figure 1 illustrates examples of the two types of interspersal techniques.

Figure 1. Substitutive and Additive Interspersal Techniques

Interspersal Techniques
Substitutive: Substituting new skills
with already mastered skills
Additive: Adding simpler problems to
a worksheet that includes newly learned problems
  • substituting 1-digit x 1-digit multiplication facts for ½ of the 3-digit x 2-digit problems that require practice of new skills
  • adding 1-digit x 1-digit problems that require practice of new skills multiplication facts to a  worksheet of 3-digit x 2-digit
  • substituting easier to answer questions for ½ of the questions that require multiple steps
  • putting easier problems at the beginning of a worksheet
  • replacing 5 of the week’s new spelling words with 5 known words
  • mixing known sight word cards in with words that the student has not yet mastered

Adapted from Hulac & Benson, (2011).

Research suggests that using interspersal techniques can increase student motivation, accuracy, fluency with academic tasks, persistence to complete assignments, and on-task behavior (Hulac & Benson, 2011; Intervention Central, n.d.). The number and difficulty of items interspersed into the student’s independent seat work will depend on the student’s instructional needs. For example, because students approach tasks at multiple instructional levels, they do not all benefit from the substitution or addition of previously mastered tasks. Additionally, students with greater academic needs will require a higher percentage of known vs. unknown items.

When teachers build into instruction ways for students to be successful with academic tasks, students have the opportunity to answer a higher number of questions and problems correctly and, therefore, are more likely to engage in academics. The techniques mentioned above empower and reinforce struggling students while also increasing their engagement in the curriculum.

Check out the following resources to find step-by-step ways to implement interspersal techniques in math and reading.

Math Computation: Promote Mastery of Math Facts Through Incremental Rehearsal includes steps to implementing this intervention from Intervention Central

Incremental Rehearsal includes step-by-step strategy instructions to increase student fluency with vocabulary and sight words as well as simple math facts.

Click here to see a video demonstration of incremental rehearsal for reading.


Hulac, D., & Benson, N. (2011). Getting students to work smarter and harder: Decreasing  off-task behavior through interspersal techniques. School Psychology Forum: Research in Practice, 5(1), 29-36.

Intervention Central. (n.d.). Motivation challenge 1: The student cannot do the work. Retrieved from

Partin, T., Robertson, R., Maggin, D., Oliver, R., & Wehby, J. (2010). Using teacher praise and opportunities to respond to promote appropriate student behavior. Preventing School Failure, 54, 172-178.