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Getting 'Response to Intervention' Right for ELLs

Two articles in a special issue on "response to intervention" just published by the education journal Theory Into Practice provide advice on how to carry out the education approach for English-language learners. With response to intervention, or RTI, schools provide interventions to struggling students with the aim of preventing their being referred to special education.

An article in Theory Into Practice by Manuel Barrera, a research associate at the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, and Kristin Kline Liu, a senior research fellow at the same center, cautions educators that response to intervention may be a risky approach for ELLs unless educators properly assess such students. They note that the track record of schools in assessing ELLs who also have disabilities is not good as schools often don't take into consideration the great diversity of such students.

The researchers list a number of pitfalls for the typical reading assessments used in RTI when applied to ELLs. "Whether data are collected in English or a different language, one cannot know from the data whether fluency and accuracy scores result from lack of reading experience, language, content experience, or suspected disability," they write.

The researchers say that with the implementation of RTI with ELLs, educators must include accurate and current assessment of students' language acquisition and "some form of cross-cultural probing" as part of assessment.

The researchers say that "dynamic testing" is a promising tool for assessing ELLs in RTI. It assesses students on how well they learn a specific learning task that is new to them rather than assessing what a student already knows (or doesn't know). In other words, the point is to get away from outcomes testing with ELLs because that kind of testing might test their prior knowledge more than their ability to learn.

In sum, the researchers say that with RTI, which typically encompasses three different "tiers" of instruction, "one has to ask, 'What happens when the student doesn't 'fit' neatly into any tier?' "

The second article about ELLs in the special issue is about how RTI can be used in a culturally-appropriate way. In it, Michael J. Orosco, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, argues that for RTI to be effective with ELLs, teachers carrying it out must have received professional development in how to provide culturally relevant instruction. That means they must understand how children learn two languages and how that affects their reading in two languages. The instruction also needs to build on ELLs' experiences, he writes. Orosco's article echoes some of the same themes he included in a case study published last spring in the Journal of Learning Disabilities that described how one Midwestern elementary school carried out RTI for ELLs badly.

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