Using RTI Effectively with English Language Learners

Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders

Administrators play an important role in shaping the policies and procedures for identifying the language and academic needs of English language learners (ELLs), particularly those that might have disabilities. In this excerpt from Chapter 7 of Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders, Debbie Zacarian explains what makes Response-to-Intervention effective or ineffective for meeting English language learners' needs.

What Is RTI?

RTI is a means by which school systems systematically provide interven­tions when they are needed to prevent students from failing. The intent of an RTI model is to offer levels of interventions for addressing student failure as it is occurring and without waiting for a special education evalu­ation (Hamayan et al., 2007). Generally, an RTI model includes three levels of intervention (see Figure 7.1). The first two occur in the general class­room, and the third, the most intense, occurs when a student has been identified as having disabilities and special education services are pro­vided. Li was provided with the first two tiers of interventions. These were part of the general classroom and included various specialists’ responses to what was believed would be effective.

Figure 7.1 Three-Tiered Response to Intervention Model

According to the National Center on Response to Intervention (2010), there are four components to an RTI model:

  • a school-wide, multi-level instructional and behavioral system for preventing school failure
  • screening
  • progress monitoring
  • data-based decision making for instruction, movement within the multilevel system, and disability identification in accordance with state law (p. 1)

At the heart of an RTI model is making decisions that are based on actual data about individual student progress. The purpose of using actual data is to determine the students who may be at risk of doing poorly and, more important, providing them with interventions that are known to be effective. In this sense, an RTI model is intended to be a quick, deliberate, and proactive means for addressing potential failures before they occur by using interventions early on. It is also a means for better identifying stu­dents with disabilities so that appropriate interventions are applied tothe students who need them. An RTI model also uses increasing levels of supports whereby students who indeed have disabilities receive the mostsupport.

Many RTI models provide two levels of screenings at the beginning of the school year, or in the case of kindergarten, a prescreening, to identify the students who may be at risk of doing poorly (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010). When the first level of screening is com­pleted, a second screening occurs for those who have been identified in order to gather more information about students and to determine which ones are the most likely to struggle. In addition, some schools conduct this type of screening at different intervals during the same school year to best ensure that students at risk of failing will be identified before failure occurs and that appropriate interventions may be applied as needed. Student progress, in this sense, is monitored throughout the school year, and inter­ventions are provided when needed. A true RTI model must ensure that its tests and measures of student progress and behavior are reliable and valid.

An RTI model must also utilize interventions that have been scientifi­cally proven to be sound. They must be research based and known to be effective for the students for whom they are being used (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010). When a student does not appear to respond, additional interventions must be applied. Generally, RTI models use increasing levels of intensity of support, from Tiers 1 to 3, as they are needed. Tier 3 support is used for students with identified learning dis­abilities (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010).

As seen in Li’s case example, her teacher and others provided interven­tions without referring Li for a special education evaluation. In addition, her programming for learning English was evaluated and strengthened. The following interventions or rapid responses were provided in Li’s general education classes:

  1. A bilingual translator was employed to help Li communicate with her peers and teacher.
  2. Li had been receiving 20 minutes of ESL per week. Recognizing this as inadequate, the school increased the amount to an hour per day.
  3. The school counselor worked with Li’s parents.
  4. The school counselor and psychologist provided support within Li’s classroom to help her interact more appropriately with others.

Each of these responses supported Li in learning English and content and matriculating successfully to the first grade.

Factors to consider when using an RTI model with ELs

On the face of it, RTI may seem like an ideal model for providing the kind of individualized help that is needed when it is needed. It allows schools to provide interventions to students without the obstacle of having to wait for a special education evaluation to occur and be completed. This alone should make schools relieved, especially those that find waiting to refer an EL to be detrimental to the overall success of students. With all of these good reasons, why should schools be concerned about applying an RTI model with ELs? The viability of applying an RTI model with ELs demands our attention for many reasons:

  • Some schools and states don’t offer instruction or support in a stu­dent’s primary language, have eliminated bilingual education pro­gramming, or have even abolished any programming in students’ primary languages, making English the only language of instruction that is available for its ELs.
  • Many schools have limited programming and resources for ELs. Rather than providing the most basic of programming for English language and content development, schools with limited services and staff provide much less than what is needed. As a result, ELs are not getting the type of programming that they should and do poorly because they are not provided with the type of basic educational programming to which they are entitled.
  • Many of the actual interventions that are applied are not enough and/or do not address the specific needs of students from diverse linguistic and cultural experiences.
  • Many ELs have had limited or interrupted prior schooling and are not afforded the time or specific instruction that is needed to learn literacy and grade-level content skills.

Thus, there are four primary reasons why English learners might not be any better off with an RTI model than without one. This is not to say that RTI is an ineffective model, rather, that it must be applied appropri­ately for ELs. Moreover, teaching ELs should mean that schools have a solid grounding in second language development and differences, the needed resources for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse stu­dents, and a depth of understanding about the specific cultures and cul­tural ways of being of students (Hoover et al., 2007). Fundamentally, schools’ general education programming must be responsive to the varied linguistic and cultural representatives found among their ELs so that the students who struggle are not struggling due to inadequate programming.

A Tier 1 response is high-quality, scientifically proven general education programming

One of the core elements of Tier 1 of an RTI model is that the general educational programming for all learners is effective. An RTI model is heavily dependent on high-quality services being provided in the general education classroom and schools taking time to ensure that this is occur­ring. English language education (ELE) programming is not considered special education; it is part of the general education model. Creating effec­tive programming for individual students means providing ELE program­ming that is scientifically known to be sound and effective with the supports that are needed for the ELs who are struggling. Most teachers have not been trained to teach ELs, and therefore, the decision to refer an EL for a special education evaluation is most likely being made by a teacher who has had little training to work with ELs. In addition, as seen earlier in this book, programming is often dictated by the availability of limited resources and not necessarily the needs of ELs. Indeed, programming for learning English and content may be inadequate.

A quick response sequence that is effective for the ELs who are strug­gling should be a top priority. As stated earlier, an RTI model must include a systematic gathering of data to determine the reasons why a student is experiencing challenges and identifying a set of individualized responses for addressing the challenges effectively. More important, rather than pro­vide one type of intervention, multiple intervening steps, such as the ones employed with Li in the second example, can and should occur using an RTI model. However, how is a school to know what is best for ELs?

Gathering data to understand the effectiveness of ELE programming for the general population of ELs

Determining whether a student’s difficulties are due to second language learning, a disability, or both is challenging for many districts. An important step is for a school to examine the effectiveness of its ELE programming.

Leaders must implement ELE programming models that are scientifically based and known to yield the best results. Chapters 2 and 3 provide school leaders with a synopsis of the related federal laws, regulations, and legal decisions (including the seminal Castañeda v. Pickard); programming models that have been found to be the most effective; and a means for selecting and applying the model that is the most appropriate for individual school cir­cumstances. Leaders must also gather data about ELs who are struggling to learn in order to determine whether the difficulties that students are experi­encing are due to the typical developmental process involved in learning English while also learning academic content or an underlying learning dis­ability that occurs in both the home language and English. When difficulties are only seen in an English-only instructional context and not in the stu­dent’s primary or home language, it is less likely that there is an underlying disability. When difficulties occur across all settings and in both languages, it is more likely that a referral for a special education evaluation may be an appropriate course of action (Hamayan et al., 2007).

Schools must examine the likelihood of ELs being referred as a result of inadequate programming or lack of understanding about the process of second language acquisition. That is, when students are placed in pro­grams without, or with less than, the proper resources, it is far more likely that they will be referred for a special education evaluation and diagnosed with a special education disability. In Li’s case, she had been provided with 30 minutes of weekly instruction in ESL—many times less than what was needed. Inadequate ELE programming is commonplace and must be remedied, if for nothing else, to relieve the disproportionate number of ELs who are misdiagnosed as having disabilities.

Examining the effectiveness of ELE programming and RTI with ELs

Careful examination of the frequency and reasons that ELs are and are not being referred can be very helpful. Such an evaluation greatly aids in understanding whether ELs are being referred due to external causes, such as ineffective programming or individual disabilities. Resource 7.1 pro­vides school leaders with a format for this process.

School leaders should not wait for ELs to fail to launch into a tiered RTI model. There are many initial steps that leaders should routinely use to ensure that ELs are receiving effective programming.

Creating a data analysis team of ELE and special education staff

Implementing programming models that are scientifically proven to be sound is no guarantee that all students will do well or that a school will appropriately refer and evaluate students for potential disabilities. A sys­temic team approach is needed. School leaders should gather a team of specialists, special educators, ESL teachers, bilingual teachers, and parents for the purpose of analyzing the school’s prereferral, referral, and disabil­ity services (see Resource 7.1). Using the results gathered from this evalu­ation, the team may discover that over- or underidentification is occurring because the ELE programming is underresourced (Hamayan et al., 2007). Remedies for this may involve doing the following:

  • increasing professional development so that more teachers and spe­cialists are trained and have a better understanding of the school’s EL population from a cultural and linguistic perspective
  • implementing daily ESL instruction so that students receive a greater continuum of English language development
  • offering instruction or support in the student’s home language so that students have increased access to the curriculum
  • hiring more specialists who are bilingual and bicultural in students’ home languages and cultures
  • creating a districtwide approach to curriculum planning and deliv­ery that includes an understanding of English language develop­ment and the importance of ELs’ culture, language, and world experiences
  • using a systemic team approach for evaluating the learning environ­ment for ELs

Conducting an ongoing evaluation of the school’s special education referral, identification, and services process for ELs and making modifica­tions to ELE programming is an important means for strengthening the effectiveness of any ELE program. The purpose of the evaluation is to bet­ter ensure that students receive appropriate and effective programming for learning English and content, address the problem of a disproportion­ate number of ELs in special education, and ensure that ELs are more properly referred for special education evaluation and diagnosed with a special education disability. Once this is done, the immediate application of the following kinds of interventions, if warranted, is critical:

  • providing help to individual students when they first appear to struggle to learn
  • identifying the students who have disabilities
  • supporting individual students with interventions that are proven to work
  • evaluating the success of the supports and interventions so that additional or more intensive interventions may be applied if needed
  • providing special education referral and service delivery

Ensuring equality for all students

When students are receiving quality core instruction and interventions as needed, they are more likely to be successful. The application of effective programming improves the outcomes for ELs. When these students are seen to be making progress, they are much less likely to be referred. Key to any quality program is collaboration. The rate of referral for ELs should be the same as it is for the general population of students. When students require a much higher level of intervention or modification, a special edu­cation referral may be needed. This should occur as a Tier 3 response.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA; 1985) recognizes that not all speech and language therapists have the training and skills needed to serve ELs. It suggests that districts use a variety of strate­gies for evaluating and working with ELs. ASHA’s suggestions are helpful for any specialist who is charged with evaluating and working with ELs.

First, reach out to schools, associations, and institutions to secure spe­cialists that can be employed to evaluate and work with ELs. Colleges and universities are fine sources and resources for this work, as are profes­sional associations, such as ASHA and the American Association for School Psychologists, as well as their state affiliates. Schools may find that recent graduates who are bilingual and bicultural can help with this important work. They may also find bilingual bicultural graduate students who need practicum experiences. This can be an ideal pairing for schools in need of this type of support. Reaching out to others is especially helpful for schools that need bilingual bicultural specialists who represent the same home languages as the schools’ ELs.

Second, develop a collaborative or cooperative of districts. Collabora­tives can be a fine means for finding specialists who can identify and work with ELs with disabilities. Educational service agencies can be particularly helpful in establishing collaboratives.1

Third, it may be helpful to secure a bilingual bicultural professional who is knowledgeable about the process of identifying and working with ELs with disabilities and can work closely with specialists. It is important for the specialist to review the testing that will take place and to receive input about its appropriateness for students from the particular language group for which it will be administered.

Finally, remediation or providing special education services should be considered an extension of the spectrum of interventions that have been provided to the student. It is important that the interventions provided be research based and known to be reliable for the ELs in question. The mod­els that have been found to be the most successful, as stated in Chapters 2 and 3, are those that include the use of students’ native language and respect for cultural differences and students’ backgrounds.

Key to identifying and working with ELs with learning differences and learning disabilities is the quality of the programming and the means by which districts evaluate the effectiveness of that programming. In the next chapter, we will discuss making data-driven decisions based on effective measures of student performance.


Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Framework for School Leaders. (2011). Zacarian, Debbie. Chapter 7: Identifying and Working With English Learners With Learning Differences and Learning Disabilities. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA.  pp. 129-146.


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Donovan, S., & Cross, C. (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Esparza Brown, J., & Doolittle, J. (2008). A cultural, linguistic, and ecological framework for response to intervention with English language learners. Tempe, AZ: National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems.

Fuchs, D., Mock, D., Morgan, P. L., & Young, C. L. (2003). Responsiveness-to-intervention: Definitions, evidence, and implications for the learning disabilities construct. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18(3), 157–171.

Haager, D., Klingner, J. K., & Vaughn, S. (Eds.). (2007). Validated reading practices for three tiers of intervention. Baltimore: Brookes.

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Haynes, J., & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English language learners across the content areas. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hoover, J., Klingner, J., Baca, L., & Patton, J. (2007). Methods for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional learners. New York: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

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National Center on Response to Intervention. (2010). Essential components of RTI: A closer look at response to intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention. Retrieved December 23, 2010, from

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1. For information on educational service agencies in your area, visit the Association of Educational Service Agencies website at


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