English Language Learners and RTI
This Talk is now concluded.
Please scroll down to the bottom of this page to view the questions that were asked and Dr. Lesaux's answers.
English language learners (ELLs) constitute the fastest growing segment of the school-age population. Many ELLs experience reading difficulties and may benefit from prevention and intervention approaches consistent with Response to Intervention (RTI). Considering that high-quality reading instruction in the general education classroom provides the foundation for the RTI framework, important questions arise regarding ELLs. What do we really know about effective reading instruction for ELLs? Are the curricula, practices, and assessments used with non-ELLs as effective with ELLs?
Join Nonie Lesaux, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Human Development and Urban Education Advancement at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, during our next RTI Talk as she answers your questions about effective literacy and English language instruction for English learners in the elementary and middle school grades.
Read more about Nonie K. Lesaux, Ph.D.
- The curricular approach is cohesive and designed with big ideas and concepts that will engage students and build up their background knowledge, critical thinking skills, and literacy skills.
- This curricular approach takes a “less is more” tack; spend more time on fewer concepts and ideas in the service of deep learning, tying concepts across the school day (in elementary schools) and working on vocabulary words that cut across the curriculum (at all grade levels).
- The same cohesion holds for the Tier 1- Tier 2 relationship; Tier 2 must build upon Tier 1 in ways that makes sense for the student and targets their relative weaknesses.
- Students, not teachers, do most of the talking. In many classrooms across the country, teachers do most of the talking. To think critically, and develop good language and reading skills, all students, but especially ELLs, need structured opportunities to talk and to reason verbally. Students need to discuss, interview, and debate to promote their language and thinking.
- The instructional environment, routines, and materials are predictable and familiar to students as the year progresses.
- Explicitly and systematically builds English language skills during reading instruction as well as outside of reading instruction, especially when dealing with content areas (science, social studies, etc).
- Explicitly teaches English letter/sound correspondences, word patterns, and spelling rules
- Ongoing assessment is in place and early intervention opportunities are provided
- Teachers are knowledgeable about second language instruction; receive ongoing professional development opportunities,
- Teachers use culturally responsive and inclusive practices (behavior management, instruction) that respect students’ learning styles and backgrounds
- Promote and value a variety of communicative styles and literacy practices 12. Include, learn from and empower parents and families in direct and indirect ways; build positive relationships culturally and linguistically diverse families and communities.
While more than 10% of ELLs have reading difficulties, these are not likely due to a reading disability, but to the need to really match their learning environment with their needs. For example, most ELLs need increased opportunities to develop their language skills—especially in the academic domain—and more effective, explicit instruction in reading comprehension from pre-kindergarten through to 12th grade.
The great majority of ELLs (speaking all different native languages) develop word reading skills that are equally as accurate and fluent as their classmates, without any significant delays. However, these same children often have low English vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension skills. See accompanying slide titled, "The Gap between Reading Words & Comprehending Text for Many English Language Learners," in the additional resources section. A group of Spanish-speaking children, enrolled in US schools in Kindergarten, were followed in our study from 4th to 6th grade. Notice the big gap between their ability to read words and their word knowledge help them make meaning from text. This is an important profile to keep in mind when designing effective Tier 1 instruction.
I have one student in particular whose classroom teacher is furious because this ELL student is with me, his ESL teacher, during prime blending instruction and this is why he is failing his benchmarks, she says.
How does phonics instruction work with ELL learners? I have a hard time with its strong focus; it doesn't seem to work. I look forward to hearing from you.
There are many resources that provide teachers with excellent ideas for their classroom teaching to integrate into their overall lesson planning. For example, research-practitioners Kate Kinsella and Robert Marzano have each published excellent resources for classroom instruction in vocabulary and academic language. Outside of packaged programs, there are also approaches like Reciprocal Teaching that can support students’ language and comprehension development. There are also many core published Reading Language Arts programs already in use in your classrooms that do place an emphasis on vocabulary and reading comprehension, but need to be used in ways that are consistent and comprehensive to really benefit children.
In some communities with high numbers of at-risk learners, including ELLs, who are thriving, it’s actually just the teacher is following the curriculum very closely, has used it for many years and therefore knows it inside out, and makes use of the print materials that go with it. I want to highlight here that it takes a few years to become really good with any one program and the program’s effects lie in the hands of the teacher, not just the program itself. We need to support teachers with continuity in our curricular approaches.
Finally, if you are interested in packaged programs or curricula, I would say that generally I look for programs that are systematic (for the sake of our learners) and go deep on building up background knowledge and language skills—not just vocabulary but also understanding language structures and the way you transform words. It’s always dangerous to provide suggestions because I haven’t personally used all of the programs I suggest and I might have overlooked some.
To provide some suggestions off-hand: Avenues, Inside and other programs published by Hampton Brown, developed for ELLs are promising programs that feature the language demands of text, rather than just the (word) reading demands. These are ELL programs that are beneficial for the many native English-speaking children who also need vocabulary and comprehension support. On the flip side, there are programs not specifically developed and packaged for ELLs, but are very appropriate possibilities for engaging these students in systematic, rigorous instruction to focus on their language development.
Words Their Way is a program that engages students in word study; Text Talk (Scholastic) by Beck & McKeown (the authors of Bringing Words to Life, which is an excellent book) is a promising approach to explicit vocabulary instruction for at-risk children. Voices of Reading (Zaner-Bloser) is a Reading Language Arts curriculum that draws heavily rich text with big ideas to work on language development and build up background knowledge. The same is true of Opening the World of Learning (Pearson) a curriculum for pre-K classrooms, which starts with rich science concepts to build language and reading skills.
As for classroom composition, it’s important not to group all low-performing ELLs in one classroom, but rather try to have classrooms of students with varying abilities and proficiency in English. If there is a reading coach or ESL specialist in the building, s/he can provide some classroom-level support (the push-in as opposed to pull-out model) on a regular basis, understands second language acquisition, and has expertise in working with this population. The classroom teacher and support should be discussing the learning objectives and corresponding curriculum on a regular basis to promote continuity for students.
There are at least a few ways to think about how to use this person’s “push-in” support: 1) to aid with lesson planning and delivery for the whole classroom, particularly when small group work is part of the plan and different groups will need different levels of support; 2) to provide more intensive instructional support that builds off the curriculum for small groups of children who are struggling; or 3) provide time for the classroom teacher to run the small group(s) instruction with .
Some teachers have significant expertise in second language acquisition and may just need more time, especially focused time, with their ELLs who are struggling. In every school, the role of the principal is key and this applies here as well. The principal must value and promote shared expectations for instruction across the grade levels, collaborate and communicate that s/he expects to see it implemented, and also provide time for staff and teams to meet. Marilyn Friend’s work on work on collaboration is recommended by colleagues: Friend, M., & Cook, L. (1992). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals. New York: Longman. Please see responses to other questions for further information about effective Tier 1 models.
The content is very cohesive and in developing the program they weren't going for "coverage" – it moves at a pace that really promotes deep learning and the activities are all linked substantively (in a unit or across lessons). Far too often, children are exposed to curricular approaches that don't have enough cohesion from hour-to-hour or day-to-day to really build up their knowledge and solidify their learning. Ultimately, we have to think about building up background and conceptual knowledge – that’s one of the major goals of schooling. When we do observations in classrooms across the nation, however, we actually see very little, if any, instructional time devoted to vocabulary and reading comprehension instruction. But these are two extremely important routes to good readers and thinkers.
We talk about the big 5 (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) but we're actually not that serious about the vocabulary and comprehension components. For example, in a study conducted in Reading First Classrooms, Russell Gersten and his team identified that the average classroom—with a reading block of up to 2 hours—was spending less than 15 minutes a day on instructional activities in the domain of vocabulary and comprehension. This is a gaping wound in Tier 1 instruction, especially when we’re talking about ELLs. Basic skills work (phonological awareness, phonics, word reading fluency) needs to happen, for sure, but it needs much less instructional time than do vocabulary and reading comprehension, particularly as children get older.
- All children must first experience intensive, explicit instruction to support their language development in an instructional environment that is both predictable and staffed by people who understand second language acquisition. In many classrooms across the nation, there is explicit attention to reading instruction, but not to language instruction. Opportunities to develop language should take many forms, such as structured opportunities to talk, through experiences that combine reading and language to build up children’s background knowledge and language skills, and using different modes to work on their language and concepts (e.g., drawing, role play, drama, etc.). ELLs (and many of their classmates) need multiple exposures to words and concepts across contexts that are provided in systematic, deliberate ways over time in order to promote their language learning. For the child who is not doing as well as we would like, even more intensive classroom-based support should be provided (Tier 2) over a period of time, with a focus on the skills that they are working on in the whole class and need further work for the ELL. It is also important to keep in mind that second language acquisition is an uneven developmental process. Some skills might develop more quickly than others; for example some ELLs with good vocabulary knowledge might still have difficulty with grammar.
- Any professional team overseeing the case of an ELL who is suspected of having a language impairment must include an individual with expertise in second language acquisition. The team members should also have some information about the cultural background of the student. Members of the child’s family should be included fully in the process and meetings, as well as general education teacher(s) and special education teacher(s), in addition to an administrator, psychologist, and the speech-language therapist who might be on the committee.
We also need to be sure that this student was participating in a multi-tiered model and had been given additional support in Tier 1 but still demonstrates significant difficulties. That said, you didn't note what the referrals have been for. In some cases, the L2 learning period is not reason to wait for Tier 3 services in the domain of word reading, particularly for young children.
We also need to get serious about K-12 literacy instruction, because children with weak comprehension skills cannot access content area textbooks and even children with well developed comprehension strategies in the primary grades need support to use informational and other sophisticated text to access the curriculum. So while you note the student you are thinking of is doing well in all subjects except reading, this is not likely to be the case after the primary grades, when successful reading is central to school success.
NOTE (from another expert talk on ELLs): Phonological awareness is a good predictor of reading success, but it is important to keep in mind that in some languages students are taught to read using syllables (as in Spanish), not onset and rime. And English includes some phonemes not present in many other languages—when students are asked to distinguish between phonemes they don’t know, this becomes a more difficult task.
Boyson, B. & Short, D. (2003). Secondary School Newcomer Programs in the United States. Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence
Even in the absence of Newcomer Programs, ESL teachers can collaborate with academic course teachers so they can support the content of the academic course. (Teaching them English terms that will come up in Chemistry, for example.) In exchange, the ESL teacher can suggest ways the content teachers can make sure their instruction is more comprehensible.
A promising approach to promoting the ELL’s success via collaboration between the ESL and mainstream teacher is The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, which has thirty components and is supported by research as effective for use in concert with any curriculum for students at any age level or level of English proficiency. http://www.cal.org/siop/about/index.html
See also: Boyson, B. & Short, D. (2003). Secondary School Newcomer Programs in the United States. Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.
Even in the absence of Newcomer Programs, ESL teachers can collaborate with academic course teachers so they can support the content of the academic course. (Teaching them English terms that will come up in Chemistry, for example.) In exchange, the ESL teacher can suggest ways the content teachers can make sure their instruction is more comprehensible. A promising approach to promoting the ELL’s success via collaboration between the ESL and mainstream teacher is The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, which has thirty components and is supported by research as effective for use in concert with any curriculum for students at any age level or level of English proficiency.
- Whether your district/school has a program that supports native language (L1) instruction as a method to build language and literacy skills as a bridge to English instruction and academic success, L1 instruction is used in some classrooms across the country. If that's the case and the target student is a good candidate for the program, and his/her parents agree, then you may want to build L1 skills before teaching L2.
- The age of the child you are referencing. If this student is an adolescent, then the window for learning English language and literacy is relatively short and the likely supports are in English. In this case, it would make sense to consider a Newcomer Program, if available, designed to help newly arrived immigrants learn English for success in the mainstream classrooms. Visit ERIC Digest and the Center on Instruction for more resources.
For more information also see: Boyson, B. & Short, D. (2003). Secondary School Newcomer Programs in the United States. Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.
If the student is K-8, then it will depend upon what is available in the school/district and what programs are in place. An effective model that is gaining traction is to have regular education and ESL teachers collaborating to provide support for the student with limited proficiency in English thrive in the mainstream classroom. As far as suggestions for an instructional approach, the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol is a model to promote effective ESL instruction alongside the regular curriculum and is effective for use in concert with any curriculum for students at any age level or level of English proficiency.
2)What standardized tests do you recommend that give a good indication of language acquisition levels- ie BICS & CALPS to assist with choosing appropriate interventions for instructional match?
The English Language Proficiency Tests (EPTs) being developed around the US are criterion-referenced and representative of a set of English language proficiency standards. They target academic language proficiency rather than only general social English, which traditionally has been the focus of most English language proficiency tests. That's very good -most ELLs develop conversational English with relative ease but have much more difficulty acquiring academic English and need support to do so. In these tests, items are often grouped around themes rather than presented in isolation. Unlike some older EPTs, these new instruments are usually aligned both vertically and horizontally; a score on one tier means the same as that on the adjacent tier and a score for one grade level cluster means the same as any other grade level cluster. This continuity in assessment is critical as these assessments will document the growth of ELLs' from year to year and teacher to teacher and allow schools to accurately measure the progress and attainment of proficiency of their ELLs.
Examples of EPTs (from "Handbook of English Language Proficiency Tests" by Ann Del Vecchio, PhD & Michael Guerrero, PhD New Mexico Highlands University):Basic Inventory of Natural Language (BINL)- K-12 oral language proficiency using large photographs to elicit unstructured oral responses. Scores based on fluency, level of complexity, and average sentence length.
Bilingual Syntax Measure (BSM) I (K-2) and II (3-12) - Oral language proficiency using cartoon drawings with specific questions. Scores based on whether student gave desired grammatical structure in their answers.
Idea Proficiency Tests (IPT)- Oral proficiency and reading and writing ability K-adult. Discrete-point, measures content such as vocabulary, syntax, and reading for understanding.Language Assessment Scales (LAS)- Oral proficiency and reading and writing ability K-adult. Discrete-point and holistic, measures content such as vocabulary, minimal-pairs, listening comprehension, and story retelling. Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey- Measures cognitive aspects of language proficiency for oral language as well as reading and writing for ages 2+. Discrete-point, measures content such as vocabulary, verbal analogies, and letter-word ID.
That concludes our RTI Talk for today. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful questions and thanks to our expert, Dr. Nonie Lesaux, for her time today.
Related Reading from RTINetwork.org:
- Response to Intervention in Reading for English Language Learners by Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D., and Alba Ortiz, Ph.D.
- Response to Intervention and the Disproportionate Representation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students in Special Education by John L. Hosp, Ph.D.
- Classroom Reading Instruction that Supports Struggling Readers by Carolyn A. Denton, Ph.D.
- Colorín colorado
- Reading to Learn: ELLs in Grades 4-6, Colorín Colorado Webcast
- The International Reading Association
- National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems
- National Center on Response to Intervention
- National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition
- The Gap Between Reading Words & Comprehending Text for Many ELLs