Helping English Language Learners Succeed with a Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS)

Teacher working in small group of students

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Claudia Rinaldi of Lasell College provides an introduction to the Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework and what MTSS means for English language learners (ELLs). She also explains how the relationship between MTSS and Response-to-Intervention (RTI) and includes guidelines for identifying effective interventions for ELLs who need extra support.

Many schools across the country use a Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework to target instruction and interventions based on students' needs. The MTSS model can be particularly powerful in determining what kinds of supports are most appropriate for English language learners (ELLs), who are frequently over- and under-identified in special education.

MTSS: An Overview

What is MTSS?

Webinar: MTSS & ELLs

What Is MTSS and How Can It Support ELLs' Success?

This free webinar from Colorín Colorado and Share My Lesson is available on demand.

Related resources and videos are also available.

MTSS refers to a recommended framework that organizes instruction and interventions in a data-informed tiered system of support. The goals of MTSS are to ensure that all students have access to the instruction and interventions they need to be successful, as well as to improve special education identification/referral practices. This is particularly important for ELLs who are sometimes placed mistakenly in special education classes (over-identification) or whose learning differences are overlooked because they are learning a new language (under-identification). MTSS can offer a roadmap for problem-solving and finding the appropriate approach for each student.

Every state office of education has provided guidance and requirements around the implementation of MTSS. The framework addresses a preventive approach rather than the "wait to fail" model. MTSS uses quick assessments (also known as universal screeners) as indicators of:

  • academic skills in reading, math, and writing
  • social skills and behavior.

The goal is for teachers to use the universal screening results to:

  • work together in order to problem-solve
  • develop better and responsive instructional practices in the classroom
  • design data-informed interventions
  • establish cycles of progress monitoring over the year
  • adjust instruction and intervention to address student needs and growth.

These instructional practices are delivered using a 3-tiered system:

For more information on research-based factors that indicate the difference between Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions, see Table 1 in this article from RTI Action Network.

Tiers of intervention can address academic, social, and behavioral needs that are monitored for progress monthly and weekly. This monitoring is also called progress monitoring. Progress monitoring cycles provide teachers an opportunity to identify students' strengths, review and re-evaluate students' response to instruction and intervention, and keep track of progress towards grade-level achievement.

What is the connection between Response to Intervention (RTI) and MTSS? What is the same and what is different?

Response to Intervention (RTI) is the first framework that focused on preventively using data to guide instruction and intervention in reading. After roughly 15 years of implementation all over the country, we learned some key components to make it more effective. Essentially, we needed to find ways to address the needs of the whole child and not just students' reading skills. MTSS has become the standard now and has been widely adopted by state departments of education for public schools because it provides a framework that allows schools to look at the whole child.

RTI model

The components of the RTI model (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Johnson, Mellard, Fuchs and McKnight, 2005) are:

  • Universal screening and continuous progress monitoring
  • Research-based, evidence-based instruction and intervention in tiers of increasing support
  • Data-informed instructional decision-making for instruction and interventions development and delivery
  • Collaboration in data-informed decision-making
  • Implementation fidelity of instruction and interventions.

MTSS model

The added components in MTSS include all of the above and the following (Higgins and Rinaldi, 2011):

  • Culturally Responsive Instruction (CRI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles for instructional planning and delivery in all tiers of instruction and intervention (e.g. Tier 1, 2 and 3)
  • a focus on the whole child addressing student engagement in terms of academic engaged time and active learning opportunities across all tiers
  • social emotional learning and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as part of the framework components.

MTSS and English Language Learners

How does MTSS address the needs of ELLs?

Increasing student talk time

ELL expert and blogger Valentina Gonzalez shares strategies for increasing student talk time in the following posts on MiddleWeb:

  • Based on the components of the MTSS framework, high-quality, research-based instruction or Tier 1 grounded in culturally responsive instruction and UDL will provide greater access to the general curriculum and integrate more coherently with English as a second language (ESL) services provided for all ELLs.
  • Student engagement focused on time on-task and active learning will support more oral language development and academic language development in the classroom. Research suggests that teachers currently teach at students or lecture an average of 80% during instruction (Echevarria and Graves, 2015). The goal of this component is to reduce directed teacher instructional talk and increase student-mediated learning around academic tasks using research-based strategy instruction (e.g. reciprocal teaching, peer assisted learning, class-wide peer tutoring, cross-age peer tutoring, problem-based learning, cognitive strategy instruction, metacognitive strategy instruction, language of instruction, etc.).
  • The components of collaboration additionally support ELLs by bringing together the expertise of general educators and specialists who work with these students including ESL teachers, special education teachers, speech and language specialists, etc. As a result, planning for data-informed problem-solving, instruction, and intervention capitalizes on various teacher expertise delivery in a variety of instructional methods from whole class instruction, small group, and 1 to 1 or 1:3 as research recommends in academic and social emotional areas.
  • By looking at social, behavior, emotional learning and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), this component ensures that we look ecologically at the whole child and use the tiered system of support, universal screening, and progress monitoring to develop positive instruction and intervention in social and academic behavior. These components ensure that teams look at the child's social-emotional history (e.g. educational, familial, health, immigration, trauma, etc.)

By ensuring that this MTSS framework and each of its components address effective research-based instruction of all students, teachers make a more precise decision in whether to refer a student for special education evaluation and services. This is illustrated in the following example.

Example: Progress monitoring

Let's look at a class where 75-80% of student are benefitting or learning from Tier 1 core instruction using the components addressed above. How are we going to address the needs of the 20-25% who need extra support? The students that are not making progress should be the ones receiving Tier 2 strategic intervention and Tier 3 intensive intervention with weekly or monthly progress monitoring.

At this point, the team can move forward with a comprehensive evaluation process that includes substantial information on instruction and intervention that will yield a more comprehensive decision for eligibility for special education services.

Comparison with a "true peer"

An additional step that may also be helpful is to compare a student who is struggling with a "true peer," another student who can be used for comparison because both students share the following:

  • language proficiency, culture, and experiential background
  • age and time in the United States and acculturation in adapting to a new environment
  • use of L1 and L2 at home, school, and community
  • education experience and services such as dual language instruction, transitional bilingual instruction, ESL services, or sheltered-English instruction (Esparza & Doolittle, 2008).

For example:

  • Javier is a 4th-grade student from Mexico City who has had regular, consistent schooling in Mexico and comes to the U.S. with strong literacy skills in Spanish.
  • Joaquin is a 4th-grade student from a rural part of Mexico who came to the U.S. as a toddler. His parents are migrant farmworkers and he has moved around to many different schools in the U.S. Sometimes he has attended bilingual programs and sometimes he has been in English-only programs.

Even though Javier and Joaquin are both the same age, speak Spanish, and come from Mexico, their educational, language, and life experiences are very different. If Javier and Joaquin are given the same assessments of language and literacy in (whether in English or Spanish), they are likely to perform differently in both languages. Therefore, they are not "true peers" and comparing their performance is inappropriate. However, if other students share some of the characteristics described above, it may be easier to see patterns among students and to use those commonalities as a benchmark for evaluating individual or group progress.

What does effective Tier 1 instruction look for ELLs?

Videos: Do ELs have access to good instruction?

Before describing the interventions, which are a great way to conceptualize support, it is worth underscoring the following: it is critical to ensure that English language learners have access to the general education curriculum and appropriate ESL supports based on language development levels. Not only should the ELLs receive the general education curriculum, but it should be accessible to most students (75-80% of students) as an indicator of effective high quality instruction that has the recommended components of MTSS.

Although this seems basic, many schools have ELLs taken out of the Tier 1 general education curriculum (i.e ELA, Math) to receive ESL services. If ELLs are taken out for ESL, intervention, or other services during the general education curriculum, they miss out of the richness of the curriculum content, vocabulary, oral language practice, and basic skills learned in ELA and math in exchange for supplementary education supports that are developed to provide access to Tier 1.

Moving into interventions is the next step. Many schools every day provide students with interventions. They send students, including ELLs, to see different professionals including teachers, interventionists, and volunteers; sometimes there is a plan, and sometimes there is no plan. This may also be the only option for students to get one-to-one or small group support. First, educators must agree on what all students receive or what we define as Tier 1. We can then design, define, and deliver an intervention, Tier 2 and Tier 3 (as needed) and monitor its effectiveness for each child every 4 to 6 weeks.

Students' schedules

It is worth taking a look at students' daily and weekly schedules to see how much time students are spending on transitions and missing classtime. This can be especially problematic (and stressful!) for ELLs who are referred to multiple specialists because they are struggling, have experienced trauma, and/or are newcomers to the country. ELL administrator Kristina Robertson writes,

Think about what kinds of supports are available in the school environment if students have had very little school experience or if they've experienced trauma. These students may benefit from a lot of structure and attention from the same small group of people on a regular basis and a regular schedule.

For elementary students, this may mean reducing the number of transitions and classroom switches throughout the day, which can be overwhelming – this is a particular challenge for ELLs who are struggling and being pulled out for multiple kinds of services and support. For secondary students, consider connecting students with adult mentors that can provide a check-in each day, as well as a place to take a break when needed.

One approach that schools are using is to revisit staff and student schedules in order to find creative ways to provide support. You can learn more about some of these approaches from the recommended resources below.

What are the recommended Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions for ELLs in the MTSS framework?

An effective Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention can be better defined as having the following qualities:

  1. It supplements and intensifies the general education curriculum or Tier 1 (in the case of English language learners, does Tier 1 include ESL? Will the tier interventions also include ESL support?)
  2. Does the intervention lay out a plan for implementation and is it captured somewhere to review if it was delivered as it was intended (e.g. fidelity of implementation)?
    • For example, the target student will received a 15-minute fluency intervention with ESL strategy support 3 times per week using instructional level text.
  3. For ELLs, is the intervention using information based on the English language proficiency level and co-developed with the support of an ESL teacher/coach expert?
  4. Is the intervention research-based or evidenced-based? This refers to an instructional approach that has been proven effective through rigorous research and, when implemented with fidelity (as designed), improves the performance of students (Torres, Farley, Cook, 2012)?
  5. Is there a criteria for successful response to the intervention?
    • A student can read a number of words per minute with fluency and accuracy increasing about 1 word per week toward grade level expectation.
    • The student is able to match vocabulary words from the curriculum with 90% accuracy.
  6. Is there an assessment that is feasible and quick to indicate progress that can be used monthly for students receiving Tier 2 and weekly for students receiving Tier 3? Has the team decided to monitor progress in English language development and academic skills, and perhaps even in their native language?
    • Curriculum-based measures such as Aimsweb, Dibels, FastBridge are good tools that provide you an indication of progress, but teacher-made ones using the curriculum used are a good option if designed appropriately.
    • Packaged interventions may also either have an assessment tool to monitor progress or may do so by default, moving from one lesson to the other after students meet a 90% or higher level of accuracy. For more information of research-based/evidenced-based interventions, visit the National Center on Intensive Intervention.

Closing thoughts

There is a lot of useful information about using MTSS with bilingual learners now available to schools. I encourage you to use the resources throughout this article to learn more. By using MTSS to take a careful look at our expectations for students, the instruction and interventions we are using, and our methods of delivery, we can help greater numbers of students reach their potential and achieve higher levels of success throughout their educational careers.


For the complete interviews with these featured experts, see our video resources related to special education.

Guidelines for ELLs

Articles and books

Resource pages

About the Author

Professor Claudia Rinaldi focuses her work and research on the implementation of comprehensive school reform efforts using evidenced-based models including Response to Intervention, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, and Multi-Tier System of Support. Her experience engages educators on how to improve systems and instructional practices for students with reading difficulties who may be at-risk for failure, or those who are English language learners and who may have mild and moderate disabilities.

Rinaldi serves as member of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Board of Directors, as a member of the Advisory Board for the Response to Intervention (RTI) Action Network at the National Center of Learning Disabilities, and as a reviewer for the National Center on Response to Intervention and the National Center of Intensive Interventions.
She is also an advisor for, a partner of Colorín Colorado.



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