RTI and ELLs: A System of Support to Ensure Success

Alan Matan is the Department Chairman for ELL and Foreign Languages at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, Illinois. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, he explains the process by which his team created and implemented an RtI model designed to meet the needs of long-term ELLs.

In 2009, the staff of our English language learner (ELL) department and I sat down to discuss the changes we had seen in our ELL Program over the last ten years. One of the most dramatic changes we were noticing was a new kind of ELL. Traditionally, the majority of our students in the program were newcomers, arriving to the United States just recently. But in the previous three years, more and more long-term English language learners were entering through the middle schools and into our program because they had not yet met the exit criteria of our state ELL proficiency assessment: ACCESS.

The staff voiced concerns such as, "The needs have changed," and "We cannot continue to teach the same curriculum," — and they were right. Gradually, our ELL program was beginning to serve a new kind of English-language learner, one that was not fully literate in their native language or in English. The department was in agreement that we had to find ways to meet the literacy needs of our new ELL population, and we realized that we had a new challenge in front of us: to provide these students with the necessary skills to develop their English proficiency and improve their academic achievement.

Asking the Right Questions

Our ELL department has always strived to improve our program, whether through better instruction, improved assessments, or more relevant curriculum. Formal and informal discussions are the norm among our colleagues. After putting our heads together, our first approach was to try various programmatic changes, from separating the long-term English language learners from the new arrivals and providing them with a different curriculum to giving them extra resource periods in a structured guided study setting. Unfortunately, our students continued to show minimal gains in language proficiency as well as academic achievement. Once again, we felt that we had hit a wall.

The turning point came when one of our ELL teachers, also a reading specialist, was given a new responsibility in the school. She became the school's instructional coach and her main objective was to look at the school's literacy output, create a restructuring committee, and revamp the freshman level courses around College Readiness and Common Core skills. Being an avid reader of research, she began generating questions that turned on the light bulbs above our heads:

  • "Do we really know what academic skills they are lacking?"
  • "Is it reading comprehension or decoding?"
  • "Can they make inferences or do they have poor organization skills in writing?"

We could not answer those questions. All we knew was that the students were not consistently doing homework, their work output was poor, and they were not doing well on assessments. Beyond that, we just did not know why they could not find academic success. But, we decided, we were going to find out.

It didn't take too much effort to persuade the staff that we needed to do things differently if we wanted to prepare these students for mainstream classes and post-secondary opportunities. A whole new door opened in front of us and we were about to enter it with the hope that we could help our life-long English language learners find success.

A New Model

With this opportunity came the realization that we needed a system to identify struggling students early enough to then be able to provide appropriate instructional interventions - while remaining in their current class placement. During the first quarter of the 2009-2010 school year, the ELL Reading Specialist and I began to develop a plan that would identify the needs of our struggling students. After researching RtI models and speaking with colleagues in neighboring districts, we decided that the multi-tiered system of support would be the best fit for our program. We also felt the multi-level prevention system would provide our staff with the right tools to monitor student progress. Teachers would be able to identify students that were at-risk and not successfully achieving compared to peers in their classes.

The first step was to create an ELL System of Support (SOS) Team that would review each student case and make recommendations for intervention. I felt strongly that, since each staff member on the team brings a different perspective to the table, having a couple of key roles represented on the team was crucial to the process. We created teams comprised of the ELL Director, a Reading Specialist, ELL counselor, a bilingual school social worker, and a bilingual school psychologist, which allowed us to discuss the student's progress through an academic lens, a social-emotional lens, and administrative lens.

When we first initiated the new program, the team met once every two weeks to discuss student concerns. During heavier times, we would meet more frequently. Our goal was to ensure student success based on the specific academic needs of each struggling student. The ELL staff and teachers working with our English language learners were on-board with the idea and accepted the process in a very positive way.

ELL SOS Referral Form

The next step involved developing a referral form with specific questions that would provide the SOS Team with valuable information about a struggling student and Tier 1 research-based interventions the teacher has implemented in the classroom. The referral form asks specific reasons of concern, academically, behaviorally and task-related.

Academic Concerns

Social Emotional Concerns

Task-Related Concerns

Reading decoding

Family concerns


Reading Comprehension


In-class work completion

Oral fluency

School anxiety

Difficulty transitioning between tasks

Written expression (organization, production)


Understanding verbal directions

Writing mechanics (spelling, punctuation)

Physical aggression

Homework completion

Math Computation

Verbal aggression

Lack of motivation

Math problem solving/reasoning


Inability to verbally express thoughts

Quality of in-class work


Difficulty getting started

Performance on assessments

Difficulty retaining or processing information

Computer skills

The Referral Process

Once the SOS team and the Referral Form were in place, we began to focus on the referral process. This is the process that we have developed thus far.

1. Completing a Student Problem Solving Profile Referral Form

When a teacher becomes concerned with a student who continually performs lower than his peers in the classroom and does not meet benchmarks, she completes a Student Problem Solving Profile Referral Form In addition to these concerns, the ELL SOS Team asks that the teachers provide narrative information on the individual student.

  • What are the student's strengths? (academic, behavior, social/emotional)
  • Please elaborate on any concerns by providing specific examples where possible.
  • Prioritize concerns and provide ELL SOS Team with desired outcomes after intervention.

2. Holding a Problem-Solving Meeting with the SOS Team

Once the form is submitted to the ELL Director, he then reviews the form and gathers information from the other teachers that share the struggling student. If there are assessments and diagnostic information in the student's file, that information is gathered in preparation for the meeting. At the meeting the team comes together to review the information regarding the student. Discussions take place based on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) Tier 1 research-based instructional strategies to promote both language development and academic achievement within the classroom.

  • Has the student made linguistic and academic gains similar to those of his peers based on formative and summative assessments?
  • Is teacher instruction appropriate to the level of the students?
  • Are the majority of the students in the particular class succeeding?

Based on the information from the teachers and assessment results, the team decides whether further assessment needs to completed and analyzed. The ELL reading specialist may conduct a Bader Reading and Language Inventory, Attitude Survey, or fluency measurement based on the information discussed at the ELL SOS meeting. After these assessments are given and analyzed, an intervention plan is developed for the student.

3. Implementing a Intervention Plan: A Move from Tier 1 to Tier 2 Supplemental Instruction

Based on the data presented and ELL SOS discussions, an intervention plan is developed and carried through. Each intervention plan is tailored to the needs of the struggling student. For example, the team may recommend that the teachers provide specific Tier 1 instructional strategies and monitor student progress measuring the specific skill the intervention is targeting. For students needing more intense support, Tier 2 small-groups or one-on-one tutoring interventions may take place with teacher assistants or ELL Resource Teachers outside of class time. These sessions may last 20 minutes a day, three days a week to 45 minutes a day, five days a week depending on the intervention plan. The duration of the Tier 2 intervention may also vary depending on the skill being mastered. The key pieces to the intervention plan are to:

  • (1) match the intervention with the skill deficiency
  • (2) monitor student progress
  • (3) adjust intervention when necessary.

The intervention sessions are not meant to help a student with homework or help study for a quiz or test. Interventions are carried out to help a student master a specific skill. For example, if a student is struggling with reading comprehension, an intervention such as repeated readings or Question-Answer-Relationship strategy would be implemented.

Once the student shows gains through progress monitoring and has improved on the specific skill, the Tier 2 intervention stops. But if a student continues to show no gains during the Tier 2 intervention, the ELL SOS Team then discusses possible alternatives, which could include a Tier 3 referral to Special Education if it is determined that the student has received an adequate opportunity to succeed.

Moving from Tier 2 to Tier 3 Support

If a student continues to show very minimal gains compared to peers after small-group and one-on-one tutoring, the ELL SOS Team would consider referring the student to the School SOS Team for possible assessment for Special Education eligibility. The ELL SOS Team would provide the School SOS Team with valuable information regarding the interventions attempted, the progress of achievement, the duration of the interventions, the level of current performance compared to his peers, and other factors. Once all the information is presented to the School SOS Team, it continues the process to best meet the needs of the student.

Final Thoughts

In the past two years, the referrals of English language learners to Special Education have declined. In addition, the students who have been referred to Special Education have been eligible to receive services. Our RtI process is a framework towards improved Tier 1 and Tier 2 intervention. By developing a systematic approach to intervention, we are confident that we are providing our English language learners with proper instructional services to improve language proficiency and academic achievement. By constant collaboration with teachers, social workers, psychologists, and counselors, we are able to paint a clearer picture of the types of services a student needs academically and emotionally.

We must realize that in today's world of education, our curriculum must meet the needs of our multi-leveled students. The days of having all materials and activities prepared at the beginning of the school year are over. Our curriculum must be dynamic, and our instruction must be research-based. Our assessments must monitor skill development and mastery. We have the opportunity to do what our students need: prepare them for post-secondary opportunities.

No matter if you are an ELL teacher, content teacher, or administrator, evaluate your current ELL program and ask, "Are our ELLs succeeding in our program and in the mainstream curriculum? Are they achieving academically? Are they prepared for the next level?" If they are, fantastic! If not, what can be done to ensure academic success? All of our students have the potential to succeed, but it is up to us to create a system of support that helps them reach the agreed-upon curriculum benchmarks. We are proud that the Maine West ELL Program strives to ensure academic success for all English language learners. Most importantly, however, we believe that we are doing our best to realize our goal of giving our students the tools to be able to succeed beyond high school and be productive global citizens in the 21st century workplace.

About the Author

Alan Matan is the Department Chairman for ELL and Foreign Languages at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, Illinois. He has been in education for 21 years working in language instruction. He is also the founder of Core 4 All, LLC, dedicated to helping teachers create curriculum around the Common Core State Standards. He is the co-author of the book Implementing the Common Core.


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This is an excellent model and an extremely well written article. We should all learn from your experience. Thanks for sharing it with us. Your students and colleagues are fortunate to have such an insightful department chair. Best of luck with this.

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