Response to intervention and instruction for ELLs
By Erick Herrmann
In an effort to meet the needs of all students and to prevent students from falling behind academically, many schools have adopted response to intervention (RTI) and instruction. According to the RTI Action Network, “Response to intervention is a multitier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs.” RTI works from two key, foundational premises: that all students can learn if they are provided appropriate, effective instruction, and most academic difficulties can be prevented or remedied when there is early identification and immediate intervention.
Which is the most important aspect to the success of RTI?
These premises apply to all students, including English learners. When working with English learners, however, some special considerations need to be addressed. Effective, appropriate instruction for English learners includes features not always implemented in mainstream classrooms. Interventions that are appropriate for students learning English must also be carefully considered and implemented.
Tiers of Instruction
RTI uses a multitiered approach to instruction. While there is no set number of tiers, many schools utilize a three-tiered model. Within each of the tiers, the needs of English learners must be carefully considered.
Tier I involves high-quality instruction provided by qualified personnel. This is often considered “mainstream” instruction, in that all students receive Tier I instruction in the classroom in mathematics, literacy, science, social studies and other subject areas. Tier I instruction is designed to meet the needs of the vast majority of students, and so may be considered the most important of the three tiers.
For English learners, Tier I instruction should include two essential components: English language development (ELD) and sheltered content instruction. ELD involves explicit language instruction based on students’ proficiency levels. Teachers trained and licensed in English language development should teach ELD, as they clearly understand the language acquisition process and can facilitate students’ progress of developing English, including English forms and grammatical structures, vocabulary, reading, writing, listening and speaking skills.
Coupled with ELD, English learners need high-quality instruction in the content areas designed to be comprehensible, while also developing academic language proficiency of the subject area(s) being studied. The components of effective instruction for English learners in the content areas have been described by several researchers and are present in a number of instructional models, including the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP Model) and in the Guided Language Acquisition Design model (Project GLAD).
Each of these models is designed to teach academic content while developing academic language proficiency by building background knowledge for students as well as linking to prior knowledge, explicitly teaching key vocabulary, using techniques to make content comprehensible and accessible to students at all proficiency levels, teaching students specific learning strategies, having students interact with each other in a variety of ways, having students apply the content knowledge, and assessing student progress in terms of content knowledge and language acquisition.
As part of Tier I, each student is assessed to determine is he or she is at risk of struggling academically. This universal screening should take into account the proficiency levels of the students being assessed. While some universal screen assessments have been found to effectively identify English learners at risk of academic failure, multiple measures should be used to determine if an ELL needs more intensive instruction.
Tier II instruction is short-term, intensive instruction for students not responding to Tier I instruction as expected. Students are identified as needing Tier II instruction through progress monitoring, teacher observations and other assessments.
When considering ELLs, careful attention must be must be paid to students’ proficiency levels. Progress monitoring should take into account the progress students are making in terms of the content knowledge and skills as well as progress in learning language. Students should not be placed in Tier II interventions just because they are still learning English; however, if they are not learning English at the expected rate or are struggling with content knowledge and skills even when provided Tier I instruction that is appropriate for ELLs, the student may be considered for Tier II.
The goal of Tier II instruction is to remedy any areas students have been struggling with so they can benefit from Tier I instruction alone. Tier II instruction is given in addition to Tier I, and should include appropriate instruction for the student’s proficiency level, including the components previously mentioned. While Tier II instruction is more intense than Tier I, the instruction should be comprehensible to ELLs, include opportunities for interaction, link to students’ background knowledge, etc. If Tier II instruction does not remedy the issue students are having, they may be considered for Tier III.
Tier III instruction is the most intensive and sometimes takes the place of Tier I and II instruction. It is designed for students who are not making progress in Tier II instruction and who need even more intensive intervention in order to be successful. In some schools, this includes students with specific disabilities and IEPs, while in other schools students in Tier III do not have an identified disability but need an intensive focus on a specific skill.
Instruction for ELLs in Tier III should include the components of effective instruction mentioned earlier. Tier III is generally delivered in a smaller group format, and may include both English learners and native English speakers.
Core Components of RTI
The California Department of Education identifies 10 core components for implementation of a strong RTI program. Under each of these components, considerations for English learners have been added.
- High-quality classroom instruction. Students receive high-quality, standards and research-based, culturally and linguistically relevant instruction in their classroom setting by highly qualified teachers.It is imperative that teachers receive training and implement high-quality instruction for ELLs. Teacher licensure programs in most states do not require training in effective practices for English learners. Teachers may receive training in effective instructional models for EL, including the SIOP Model, Project GLAD or other research-based models that have been shown to be effective with English learners.
- High expectations. A belief that every student can learn including students of poverty, students with disabilities, English learners and students representing all ethnicities are evident in the school and district cultures.Teachers must hold high expectations for English learners. This includes knowledge of how people learn language, and expecting that students practice language and content skills in the classroom on a daily basis. Instruction for English learners should include scaffolding of content knowledge and skills as well as use of language structures. Students should be supported in, and held accountable for, using appropriate academic language in the classroom.
- Assessments and data collection. An integrated data collection and assessment system includes universal screening, diagnostics and progress monitoring to inform decisions appropriate for each tier of service delivery.Assessments that are utilized should be research based for use with English learners. English learners should be assessed on their language proficiency, and this information should be included in determining appropriate interventions. Progress monitoring should take into account students’ proficiency levels, and multiple measures should be used to determine if students need intervention.
- Problem-solving systems approach. Collaborative teams use a problem-solving systems process and method to identify problems, develop interventions and evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention in a multitiered system of service delivery.Collaborative teams should include an EL specialist and people with knowledge of language acquisition must be present on the team. This will help ensure the student’s linguistic needs are represented and that the language acquisition process will not be mistaken as a learning issue.
- Research-based interventions. When monitoring data indicate a lack of progress, an appropriate research-based intervention is implemented. The interventions are designed to increase the intensity of the students’ instructional experience.Interventions used with English learners should be researched and proven effective to work with English learners. While there is much research to be done in this area, some interventions have been developed and proven to work with EL.
- Positive behavioral support. School staff members use schoolwide and classroom research-based positive behavioral supports for achieving important social and learning outcomes.Positive behavioral support can be integrated with appropriate classroom instruction for EL. Project GLAD has behavioral strategies built into the training teachers receive. Behavioral objectives can also be added in any lesson and made explicit to students, in addition to the content and language objectives.
- Fidelity of program implementation. Student success in the RTI framework requires fidelity of implementation in the delivery of content and instructional strategies specific to the learning and/or behavioral needs of the student.Studies of the implementation of the SIOP Model have proven that higher fidelity of implementation leads to higher levels of achievement for English learners. A study is currently underway measuring the effectiveness of Project GLAD and its impact on increased achievement for EL.
- Staff development and collaboration. All school staff members are trained in assessments, data analysis, programs and research-based instructional practices and positive behavioral support. Site grade level or interdisciplinary teams use a collaborative approach to analyze student data and work together in the development, implementation and monitoring of the intervention process.Professional development on the needs of EL, language acquisition and culturally responsive teaching is also needed for all teachers who work with EL. This training should be integrated with the professional development teachers receive on other topics.
- Parent/family involvement. The involvement and active participation of parents/families at all stages of the instructional and intervention process are essential to improving the educational outcomes of their students. Parents/families are kept informed of the progress of their students in their native language or other mode of communication, and their input is valued in making appropriate decisions.Parental outreach must include working with culturally and linguistically diverse families. Because attitudes towards parental involvement differ in various cultures, special considerations must be made to involve parents. Training programs are available in this area, and members of the communities schools serve are excellent resources.
- Specific Learning Disability determination. The RTI approach may be one component of Specific Learning Disability determination as addressed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 statute and regulations. As part of determining eligibility, the data from the RTI process may be used to ensure a student has received research-based instruction and interventions.Over- and under-identification of EL in SPED has historically been a problem in education. The RTI process, when it takes into account the special considerations for English learners, may help to give students the resources they need to achieve at higher levels academically.
Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Academic Language Learning Institute, Inc. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.