Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Considerations for Including English Language Learners in a Response to Intervention System


Julie Esparza Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education, Graduate School of Education, at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon. She may be reached at or 503/725-4696

Education has long been considered the great equalizer. However, current data indicate that English language learners (ELLs) are achieving far below their English-only counterparts in reading and math. It is obviously in the best interest of our nation to ensure that all students reach proficiency standards.

Beyond the obvious linguistic diversity, ELLs differ in culture, educational backgrounds, immigration status, socio-economic status and life experiences, challenging schools to provide appropriate and effective instruction for them. Recent changes in federal policy, however, outlined a framework of instructional support where struggling learners are identified, and teams (which may include general and special educators) plan instruction matching the level of student need and monitor progress to determine student response (IDEA, 2004). This framework, known as Response to Intervention (RTI), has changed the focus from identifying within-child weaknesses to first ensuring the provision of appropriate evidence-based instruction and intervention. However, appropriate instruction and curriculum cannot be assumed for ELL students because very few curricular programs have included them in their research base (Sanford, Brown & Turner, 2012). To address their specific instructional needs an overview of RTI will be provided here and then four questions posed that can guide the provision of instruction and intervention for ELLs. 

RTI is conceptualized as a three- or four-tiered system of support where each tier aligns with the intensity of support needed (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010). Across all tiers, evidence-based instruction and intervention are delivered with fidelity. In general, Tier 1 is the general education classroom using the core curriculum. Approximately 80% of students should be successful in this scenario. Tier 2 provides a “double dose” of intervention for the 15-20% of students moved from Tier 1 to Tier 2. Tier 2 instruction is generally a small group pull-out and may use specific intervention programs not used in the classroom but targeting the same grade-level skills. Tier 3 provides the highest level of support for the approximately 5% of students below grade level. Tier 3 may or may not include evaluation for and provision of special education services. In four-tiered models, Tier 4 is special education services.

Missing from the above descriptions of RTI is the inclusion of culturally, linguistically and experientially responsive instruction. Without instruction that is adjusted to meet each ELL student’s language needs, incorporate cultural views and beliefs of the students, and build requisite background knowledge of the content, they are not likely to fully benefit from instruction nor make expected gains (Orozco & Klingner, 2010).

There is an additional caution when identifying students needing support. If all of the students scoring at the bottom 20% are ELL students, the problem is likely an ineffective and inappropriate curriculum for ELLs rather than a within-student problem.

Posing the following four questions will guide educators in considering each ELL student’s ecology when planning instruction and interventions:

  • Have you had the opportunity to fully know your students?
  • Has the student had sufficient opportunity to learn grade level skills and content?
  • How can the family support their child’s education?
  • Is your system culturally responsive?

These will be discussed in the remainder of this article.

First, teachers need to know their ELL students. Information is best gathered through home visits, file reviews, and collaboration with the district bilingual/ bicultural staff identified to work with specific cultural communities. For example, a foreign-born student who moved to the U.S. just prior to kindergarten would likely have developed age-appropriate first language abilities in their home country. Thus, the child can build on a firm first language foundation to develop their second language (Goldenberg, 2008). On the other hand, ELL students born in the U.S. often have limited exposure to standard English, particularly if their parents are also acquiring English skills. They may hear a mixture of languages from birth. Lack of exposure must not be confused with a language-based disorder. Consultation with the ELL specialist for instructional strategies is highly recommended as well as seeking professional development opportunities.

Of course, there will be ELL students with intrinsic language disorders. For example, if a child did not begin to speak any language until age three, this delay may signify a disorder (Kohnert, 2008). In this case, a team meeting that includes a speech and language specialist would be appropriate. Below are examples of information to gather in order to know your students:

  • Student Information– Country of birth– Immigration history (if relevant)– Health status– Developmental milestones– Does the student receive free and reduced lunch?
  • Language Development– What was the first language spoken and at what age?– What was the second language? Is there a third language? When was the second language introduced? At what age was the second language spoken?
  • Language Use in the Home– What language does the child prefer to speak at home? In the community?– What language(s) is/are used in the home by parents?– What language(s) is/are used in the home by siblings?
  • Current Language Proficiency Data– Proficiency in first language– Proficiency in second language

Second, it’s important to ask whether the student has had sufficient opportunity to learn grade level skills and content. All students are screened annually to identify those needing additional support. In an RTI framework, it is assumed that the evidence-based core instruction taught with fidelity is effective and appropriate for all students, and the lowest achievers likely have learning challenges (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010). The curriculum used within the classroom, however, may not be specifically designed for and researched on ELL students. Thus, it may not provide enough language support and may assume knowledge of uniquely American concepts.

Further, many teachers with ELL students in their classrooms have little or no preparation in teaching ELLs (Giambo & Szecsi, 2005) and consequently are unfamiliar with the concept of adjusting instruction to match these students’ language proficiency. Another consideration is a student’s language(s) of instruction. For example, if students have received native language literacy instruction in a bilingual program, they may have skills only in that language and score very low on English-only screeners and assessments. Thus, native language assessments must be administered to identify the knowledge already developed in their first language. Research is clear that most literacy skills transfer from first to second language with explicit instruction (Durgunoglu, 2002). Finally, but perhaps the most critical, is the cultural relevancy of the instructional materials (Sleeter, 2012). Below are examples of information to gather regarding instructional experiences:

  • Educational Background– Preschool experiences– Grades attended in native country (if applicable)– Grades attended in U.S.– If child was enrolled in a bilingual program in the U.S., identify the model: Dual language, Late exit, Early exit, ESL push-in, ESL pull-out
  • Language of Instruction– What is the student’s proficiency in the language of instruction?– How is classroom instruction adjusted to the student’s language proficiency level?
  • Culturally Responsive Instruction– Is the student’s culture reflected in the curriculum?– Are instructional groupings aligned to student cultural learning preferences?– When instructional groupings and practices are unfamiliar to students, does the teacher offer explanations and modeling?– Does the teacher bridge the student’s background experiences to assumed knowledge in the curriculum?

Third, we know that students achieve higher success when their parents are partners in the educational process. Because of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, diverse parents and families are sometimes reluctant to take part in school activities. Understanding each family’s cultural beliefs, family constellation, and ways in which they can support their children’s learning will help facilitate stronger partnerships. For example, knowing parents’ literacy levels will allow teachers to ask the parents to support their child in appropriate ways. Many ELL families come from cultures with strong oral traditions. Storytelling and helping their children memorize family and traditional tales is one literacy practice most families would enjoy. Below are examples of information that can be gathered to help teachers learn about each family:

  • Literacy Use in the Home– Father’s highest grade attended– Mother’s highest grade attended– What reading materials are available in the home (e.g., newspaper, magazines, books)?
  • Culture– What is the family constellation and structure?– What are the roles and duties of the student at home?– What does the family believe their role is in the education of their children?– What cultural group does the family identify with?– Does the culture focus on individual or group achievement?

The fourth area, sometimes overlooked, is the cultural responsiveness of the educational system beyond just the classroom. This demands that educators evaluate their own response to cultural and linguistic differences and work from a platform of reciprocity. Below are examples of questions to pose regarding your system:

  • Have you ever conducted home visits? If not, what are the barriers and how can they be overcome?

  • Does your school have a community liaison/broker who is bilingual and bicultural to allow parents to communicate with administration and teaching staff?

  • Do parents feel welcome at the school when they enter the door?

  • How effective is the front desk staff at welcoming diverse families? Does the office staff need professional development opportunities?

  • Does your school have a parent group for families whose primary language is not English? Does this group have a voice in school decisions?

  • Does the curriculum include assignments that allow students to share their own history and culture?

  • Does the administration provide cultural immersion events and reading lists/book groups for all staff?

Final Thoughts

At first glance, gathering the above information may seem overwhelming to a busy teacher. Yet, when ELL students struggle, it is imperative that their teachers understand their backgrounds in order to plan instruction that is responsive to their unique needs. Once we deliver appropriate instruction we can collect data on a student’s response to rigorous instruction. If the student shows good growth, we can monitor to ensure the growth continues. On the other hand, if after providing effective instruction in targeted areas that student shows minimal or no growth, a team that includes an ELL specialist can discuss the need for further evaluation. This will also ensure that all children truly receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment and will achieve to their potential. In the end, we all benefit when education is truly an equalizer.

  • Durgunoglu, A. Y. (2002). Cross-linguistic transfer in literacy development and Implications for language learners. Annals of Dyslexia, 52, 189–204.

  • Giambo, D., & Szecsi, T. (2005). Opening up to issues: Preparing preservice teachers to work effectively with English language learners. Childhood Education, 82(2), 107–110.

  • Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does – and does not – say. American Educator, 32(2), 8–42.

  • Individuals with Disabilities Educational Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et. seq. (2004).

  • Kohnert, K. (Ed.). (2008). Language disorders in bilingual children and adults. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.

  • National Center on Response to Intervention. (2010). Essential components of RTI – A closer look at Response to Intervention. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

  • Orozco, M. J., & Klingner, J. K. (2010). One school’s implementation of RTI with English language learners: “Referring into RTI.” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(3), 269–288.

  • Sanford, A. K., Brown, J. E., & Turner, M. (2012). Enhancing instruction for English learners in response to intervention systems: The PLUSS model. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(1), 1–15.

  • Sleeter, C. E. (2012). Confronting the marginalization of culturally responsive pedagogy. Urban Education, 47(3), 562–584.