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Promises and cautions regarding using response to intervention with English language learners.

Abstract. This article provides a commentary on issues regarding the use of response to intervention (RTI) with English language learners (ELLs). The commentary draws on current literature on reading instruction, ELLs, RTI, and students with learning disabilities and highlights key points from the articles in this special issue. The discussion includes future directions for research.

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Using a response-to-intervention (RTI) approach to identifying students with learning disabilities has been a welcome shift in policy and practices that have otherwise largely relied on arbitrary discrepancy criteria in determining eligibility for special education. Several potential benefits of RTI hold promise for improving educational outcomes for children. First, early screening assessment and intervention for struggling readers raise the possibility of identifying learning disabilities early and avoiding a prolonged wait for students to qualify for special education services. Second, early identification may lessen the impact of a learning disability by keeping the achievement gap as narrow as possible. Third, the use of RTI may contribute to improving literacy rates by providing intervention for all students who experience difficulty with reading, not just those whose difficulties are severe enough to warrant special education. How we define learning disabilities and operationalize the criteria for eligibility has been a controversial topic for decades. Consider, for example, how many times a multidisciplinary panel such as the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities has raised critical issues in connection with defining learning disabilities (e.g., National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1987, 1991, 1998). Prominent authors and other panels have frequently raised similar definitional and procedural concerns (see, for review, Kavale & Forness, 2000; Keogh, 1987).

Several critical issues have been discussed at length in proceedings of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002) and a summit of learning disabilities researchers (Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002), both of which contributed greatly to recent changes in federal law. Subjectivity in teachers' referral of students, inaccuracy in assessment practices, and lack of consistency in the nature and quality of general education instruction prior to placement often result in a "wait-to-fail" phenomenon, whereby students who qualify for special education are placed long after entry to school (Gresham, 2002; Vaughn & Klingner, 2007).

Problems with a discrepancy approach are well documented, and the concept of RTI holds promise for addressing these problems (e.g., Gresham, 2002; Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003). The use of discrepancy criteria is dependent on accurate and valid measurement, an issue of particular concern when applying discrepancy criteria to English language learners (ELLs). Linan-Thompson and colleagues (this issue) suggest that other factors, such as language of instruction and the school context in general, need to be considered as well. Under the reauthorized IDEA legislation, P.L. 108-446, and accompanying federal regulations, a state may not require the use of discrepancy criteria to identify students with learning disabilities and must permit the use of a RTI approach. A multidisciplinary team that includes the child's parents must examine evidence regarding the child's progress toward grade-level standards and the child's responsiveness to scientifically based instructional practices. The team should examine evidence to identify patterns of strength and weakness in the child's academic or behavioral competence and use multiple measures and a comprehensive evaluation to make the final determination.

When the students under consideration for eligibility are also classified as ELLs, there may be additional factors to consider in determining eligibility, but these are not specified in the federal guidelines. The articles in this issue examine some of these factors, including the nature and quality of the general education reading program, the assessments used to determine students' responsiveness to instruction, and the content and procedures of follow-up intervention. In this commentary, I first provide an overview of critical issues in reading instruction and special education for ELLs and then attempt to draw from these articles some key principles regarding the use of RTI models with ELL students.

English Language Learners, Reading Instruction, and Learning Disabilities

The number of ELL students in schools around the nation has increased significantly in recent years, especially in urban centers (Donovan & Cross, 2002). Studies and databases continually demonstrate the pervasive academic difficulties of ELLs. Many students who enter school with a primary language other than English score below competency markers on various aspects of academic achievement; over 50% score in the bottom third in reading or mathematics (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005) with a continued gap between ELL and non-ELL reading achievement. The Hispanic population in U.S. schools has grown from 2% to 15% from 1950 to 2000, and an estimated 31% of students have difficulty speaking English, the language of instruction in most classrooms containing ELLs (Donovan & Cross, 2002).

The disproportionate representation of minority students, many of whom are classified as ELLs, in special education has been a nagging concern in the field. The 2002 National Academy of Sciences panel (Donovan & Cross, 2002) charged with examining disproportionate representation issues concluded that the most effective means of reducing the disproportionate representation of low-income, ethnic-minority students in both special education and gifted education programs would be to improve the core elements of classroom instruction in the early grades. This report makes a strong recommendation for research and development to "carry promising practices and validated practices through to classroom applicability" (p. 382), including research "on educational improvement, particularly in schools with large numbers of children from low-income families" (p. 383).

Considering that the RTI process begins with high-quality reading instruction in the general education setting, 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?

The research base on effective reading instructional practices for ELLs is fragmented and fraught with controversy. In the most comprehensive effort to date to examine the research on ELL literacy development, Snow (2006) summarized the work of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth: "The literature we reviewed reveals remarkably little about the effectiveness of different aspects of instruction, and provides only limited guidance about how good instruction for second-language speakers might differ from that for first-language speakers (p. 638) ... Most discouraging, the research we reviewed provides little basis for deciding whether or what kinds of accommodations or adaptations are most helpful to second-language learners" (p. 639). To some extent, the lack of answers from research may be related to constraints imposed by the politics of educational policy, most notably arguments over bilingual versus second-language instruction (Gersten, 2006; Gersten & Baker, 2000).

There is some evidence that word-level instructional components validated with native English-speaking children are also effective with ELLs, such as explicitly teaching phonological awareness, letter-sound relationships, and decoding, especially when done along with meaningful experiences in engaging text. We know less about how to effectively teach ELLs to gather meaning from text in their second language (Chiappe & Siegel, 2006; Chiappe, Siegel, & Wade-Woolley, 2002; Snow, 2006). Not only do we need to know what practices are effective, but as Klingner and colleagues noted, we need to know what works "with whom, in what contexts, and under what circumstances" (Klingner, Sorrells, & Barrera, 2006, p. 223).

The beginning of the RTI process, Tier 1, involves high-quality reading instruction in the general education classroom. A series of observational studies in first-grade classrooms with large proportions of ELLs investigated specific instructional practices that correlated significantly with ELL students' reading gains (Baker, Gersten, Haager, & Dingle, 2006; Gersten, Baker, Haager, & Graves, 2005; Graves, Gersten, & Haager, 2004; Haager, Gersten, Baker, & Graves, 2003).

Six clusters of observed teaching practices, or subscales, were found to relate significantly to beginning reading instruction for ELLs. One cluster, Explicit Teaching/Art of Teaching, included such practices as modeling, making instruction explicit, and prompting students, and correlated with reading gains (r = .62, Haager et al., 2003; r = .75, Baker et al., 2006). Only one item of this subscale truly seems unique to ELL students--the extent to which the teacher adjusts his or her use of English during a lesson to make it understandable to the students. The other items represent what would typically be considered simply good instruction (e.g., prompting, modeling). Instruction Geared Toward Low Performers (r = .65/.60), Phonemic Awareness and Decoding (r = .63/.49), Interactive Teaching (r = .57/.62), Vocabulary Development (r = .51 .64), and Sheltered English Techniques (r = .49/.67) also correlated significantly with reading gains for ELLs (Baker et al., 2006; Haager et al., 2003). Other significant findings came from contrasting high-gain classrooms with less effective classrooms (Gersten et al., 2005; Graves et al., 2004). That is, students in the high-gain classrooms had higher rates of accurate passage reading, or oral reading fluency. Effect sizes were large for all subscales except Sheltered English Techniques, where no difference was found. This is interesting, given the emphasis in teacher education and professional development on sheltered instructional techniques as a means of making instruction comprehensible for ELLs. Thus, sheltered English instruction may not be sufficient for truly starting ELLs off in beginning reading. To make significant reading gains, ELL students need teachers to be using effective instructional techniques in general, adjusting their instruction for individuals having difficulty, engaging their students in interactive and engaging vocabulary and comprehension development, and providing high-quality explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and decoding.

We know even less about effective instruction for ELLs with learning disabilities (ELL/LD), particularly in reading (McCardle, Mele-McCarthy, & Leos, 2005). The research base on effective reading instruction for students with LD in general must be extrapolated in designing instruction for ELLs with LD (Klingner et al., 2007; Vaughn, Mathes, Linan-Thompson, & Francis, 2005). What we know more about is preventing reading failure that might lead to later, unnecessary identification of learning disabilities in ELLs, as demonstrated by the articles in this special issue of the Learning Disability Quarterly.

Assessing Responsiveness of ELLs to Intervention

Any form of RTI must include assessment procedures to identify potential candidates for tiers of intervention and to monitor students' progress toward established goals. Curriculum-based measures (CBMs) are used extensively for both screening and progress monitoring (see Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006, for review). All of the studies in this issue used the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) in English as a form of CBM to measure the progress of ELLs who received intervention, but not all used the DIBELS assessments as a screening tool to identify potential candidates for intervention. Screening is generally viewed as a means of catching students who may be at risk for reading difficulties so that no child is allowed to slip through the cracks only to find much later that intervention would have helped.

Given that these assessments are conducted in English and in the early grades when ELLs are at the beginning stages of acquiring English competency, one might wonder about the validity of screening using tools that have not included ELLs adequately in norming samples and development procedures. False positives are a concern in general when using universal screening tools (Speece & Walker, 2007), and this concern might be greater when using these tools with ELLs.

Yet, some preliminary evidence suggests that screening assessments have some utility with ELLs for identifying students who may benefit from additional reading intervention, when interpreted and used with caution. For example, assessments in English of rapid letter naming and phoneme segmentation skills, using the DIBELS assessments at the middle of kindergarten, were highly predictive of end-of-kindergarten and end-of-first-grade reading outcomes (Oh, Haager, & Windmueller, in press). In first grade, nonsense word reading was a strong predictor at the beginning of the year, but by the middle of the year, oral reading fluency (passage reading) was the most predictive (Oh et al., in press). Similarly, Windmueller (2004) found that from first to third grade, nonsense word reading and oral reading fluency were strong predictors of reading outcomes.

Although the predictive value in using these tools is encouraging, it is important to be cautious about over-reliance on such measures for making high-stakes decisions (i.e., labeling students as "at risk" or "disabled," or trapping them into a remedial track that is difficult to escape). Nevertheless, the use of data to guide supplemental instruction for an ELL student who may need more practice with reading in English is valid. If it turned out to be a case of false positive identification, that is, a student who appears in the data to be below grade-level benchmarks but is actually achieving as expected, the use of effective progress monitoring, the second step of assessment, would quickly identify that there is no significant learning problem.

All studies included in this issue conducted a pre-intervention assessment for the purpose of pre- and post-comparisons, but not necessarily for the purpose of screening for intervention candidates. Only one study identified intervention candidates based on screening assessments (Kamps et al., this issue). The other studies were conducted in intact classrooms to examine the effects of instruction in general education classrooms.

How do CBM assessments fare as progress monitoring tools for ELLs? Progress monitoring assessment is a central component of RTI. In order to know if the intervention has the desired effect of bringing early-identified students up to grade-level expectations, there must be a way of measuring responsiveness. Some evidence suggests that CBM processes are useful with ELLs. First-grade ELL students made similar progress to non-ELLs using nonsense word reading and oral reading fluency measures (Graves, Plasencia-Peinado, Deno, & Johnson, 2005). Similarly, oral reading and maze CBMs were useful in measuring the progress of third- and fifth-grade ELLs (Wiley & Deno, 2005).

Linan-Thompson et al. (this issue) directly addressed the question of how best to do this by comparing three approaches to measuring responsiveness with ELLs. The discrepancy slope criteria were the best predictors of later performance. One question that arises here is the feasibility of school personnel being able to manage calculations and analyses of slopes. A critical issue in selecting a progress-monitoring tool is its sensitivity to growth with an ELL population. Linan-Thompson and colleagues noted that relatively few students met end-of-year criteria, partially due to the stringency of the criteria established with a largely non-ELL population and the low levels of language proficiency of the ELLs included in the study. With so few assessments tested with ELL populations, especially in the context of RTI, this study has taken a valuable first step in bringing this issue to the forefront.

Issues in Quality of Reading Instruction for ELLs in RTI

The studies in this issue provide macro- and microperspectives on general education teachers' reading instruction for ELLs in an RTI framework. Calhoon and colleagues included all ELLs in intact classrooms in a peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS) program designed for use in a general education classroom to improve learning for all students and did not identify or pull out any students to receive secondary intervention. The classrooms studied were two-way bilingual immersion programs, and teachers used the strategies with all students. Students in the PALS classrooms made significantly greater gains in reading than the control classrooms, providing some evidence that this flexible teaching approach may be useful with ELLs in Tier-1 instruction in RTI models. In this study, the ELLs most benefited in word- or letter-level processing. Reading fluency gains lagged somewhat, but this may be consistent with other studies showing that ELLs may be slower to develop skills beyond word-level processing (e.g., Chiappe et al., 2002).

Kamps and colleagues (this issue) followed 318 students receiving Tier-2 supplemental instruction. Most important, these authors demonstrated the benefits of providing Tier-2 intervention to ELLs by examining students' reading gains in both decoding and reading fluency. The scope of the study allowed for an examination of specific reading programs and approaches that led to the significant gains. Programs that followed the principles of direct instruction were found to be highly effective with ELLs of varying linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Looking within just four classrooms, Graves and colleagues (McIntosh, Graves, & Gersten, this issue) provide a close-up look at how two of the teachers not only provided high-quality tier-one instruction, but also supplemental Tier-2 instruction for struggling ELL readers. The two teachers received high-quality ratings on their overall reading instruction. The extra support and instruction that they provided for ELLs experiencing difficulty greatly contributed to these students' growth.

One important instructional issue that emerges from the studies in this issue is fidelity of implementation. Both Calhoon et al. and Kamps et al. included careful and systematic examination of fidelity in their studies, which greatly enhanced their ability to attribute outcomes to the treatment. Fidelity of implementation continues to be a research-to-practice issue, particularly when bringing practices developed in empirical investigations to scale (Denton, Vaughn & Fletcher, 2003; Sloane, 2005). RTI will only be as effective as the implementation of the intervention part of the equation. Therefore, in implementing any tier of the RTI model, school personnel must carefully consider the importance of monitoring and supporting teachers' use of the prescribed instructional procedures. Additionally, schools should plan for ongoing examination and support of their model to refine and adjust it.

Another issue that emerges is the nuanced and individualized nature of ongoing support that teachers will provide for struggling ELLs in RTI. McIntosh et al. provide vignettes of teachers skilled in not only knowing when a student needs support but also in knowing how to provide that support in that classroom and for that student. Contextual factors are critically important and include school-, teacher- and student-level variation.

Directions for Future Research

Though standards-based reading instruction and the use of reading programs that have a strong research foundation are quickly becoming the norm in today's elementary classrooms, research focusing on the reading development of ELLs has been lacking (Snow, 2007; Vaughn et al., 2006). How, then, does a school using RTI procedures determine that the reading instruction provided in any tier is, in fact, appropriate for an ELL population and that an individual student's response to the instruction is inadequate? Inherent in this question are several issues that warrant further investigation.

Continued large-scale research and development is needed regarding reading instruction at the whole-class and small-group levels for ELLs. What would be most practical for schools with heterogeneous populations--that is, most schools--would be research-based approaches that are deemed valid and effective for both ELL and non-ELL populations. It is not feasible or desirable to have one set of tools and procedures for non-ELLs and another for ELLs. Therefore, replication of studies conducted with monolingual English-speaking samples should include ELLs either exclusively or in mixed samples (as in Calhoon et al., this issue) to determine the dual utility of instructional tools and practices with both populations.

Contextual issues are also important as RTI practices are adopted widely. There may be no one-size-fits-all model of RTI that can be used across the diverse array of schools and communities that include ELLs. Little research has examined how RTI models might be adapted or modified based on cultural and contextual factors across different settings. Does a large school in an urban setting have similar RTI needs as a rural school?

Further development is also needed of the tools and procedures used for measuring student responsiveness to ensure they are valid and useful with ELLs, particularly in the early grades. CBM holds promise of fulfilling the role of progress monitoring in RTI approaches, but further research is needed. Additionally, further defining what constitutes responsiveness or nonresponsiveness, particularly with ELLs, is an important consideration. Until these questions are answered, it will be important for school personnel to act not on cut scores alone, but to also factor in teacher observation of students and their day-to-day performance.

Underlying all the above issues is the need for not only researchers, but also school administrators and officials, to consider the professional development and support needs of practitioners who will provide instruction and conduct assessment in implementing RTI. It is important that such training and support include how to adjust and enhance instruction and how to interpret or supplement assessments for ELLs. It is also important for practitioners to better understand the reading development and language development processes for ELLs in the context of a prevention and intervention approach.

REFERENCES

Baker, S. K., Gersten, R., Haager, D., & Dingle, M. (2006). Teaching practice and the reading growth of first-grade English learners: Validation of an observation instrument. Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 199-220.

Bradley, R., Danielson, L., & Hallahan, D. P. (2002). Identification of learning disabilities: Research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Chiappe, P., & Siegel, L. S. (2006). A longitudinal study of reading development of Canadian children from diverse linguistic backgrounds. The Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 135-152.

Chiappe, P., Siegel, L. S., & Wade-Woolley, L. (2002). Linguistic diversity and the development of reading skills: A longitudinal study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 6, 369-400.

Denton, C., Vaughn, S., & Fletcher, J. (2003). Bringing research-based practice in reading intervention to scale. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18(3), 201-211

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

Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (2006). The role of assessment in the three-tier approach to reading instruction. In D. Haager, J. K. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention (pp. 29-42). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Gersten, R. (2006). Introduction: Scientific research on English learners. The Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 133-134. Gersten, R., & Baker, S. (2000). What we know about effective instructional practices for English-language learners. Exceptional Children, 66, 454-470.

Gersten, R., Baker, S. K., Haager, D., & Graves, A. (2005). Exploring the role of teacher quality in predicting reading outcomes for first-grade English learners: An observational study. Remedial and Special Education, 26, 197-206.

Graves, A., Gersten, R., & Haager, D. (2004). Literacy instruction in multiple-language first-grade classrooms: Linking student outcomes to observed instructional practice. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 19, 262-272.

Graves, A., Plasencia-Peinado, J., Deno, S., & Johnson, J. (2005). Formatively evaluating the reading progress of first-grade English learners in multiple-language classrooms. Remedial & Special Education, 26(4), 215-225

Gresham, F. M. (2002). Responsiveness to intervention: An alternative approach to the identification of learning disabilities. In R. Bradley, L. Danielson, & D. P. Hallahan (Eds.), Identification of learning disabilities: Research to practice (pp. 467-547). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Haager, D., Gersten, R., Baker, S., & Graves, A. (2003). The English-Language Learner Classroom Observation Instrument: Observations of beginning reading Iinstruction in urban schools. In S. R. Vaughn & K. L. Briggs (Eds.), Reading in the classroom: Systems for observing teaching and learning (pp. 111144). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Kavale, K., & Forness, S. (2000). What definitions of learning disability say and don't say: A critical analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(3), 239-256

Keogh, B. K. (1987). Learning disabilities: In defense of a construct. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 3, 4-9.

Klingner, J. K., Sorrells, A. M., & Barrera, M. T. (2007). Considerations when implementing response to intervention with culturally and linguistically diverse students. In D. Haager, J. K. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention (pp. 223-244). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

McCardle, P., Mele-McCarthy, J., & Leos, K. (2005). English language learners and learning disabilities: Research agenda and implications for practice. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 20(1), 68-78.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1987). Issues in learning disabilities: Assessment and diagnosis. Retrieved June 12, 2007, from http://www.ncld.org/content/view/455/480/ National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1991, January). Learning disabilities: Issues on definition. Asha, 33 (Suppl. 5), 18-20.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1998). Operationalizing the NJCLD definition of learning disabilities for ongoing assessment in schools. Asha, 40 (Suppl. 18), 258a-258g.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2005). The nation's report card: 12th-grade reading and mathematics 2005. Washington, DC: Author.

Oh, D., Haager, D., & Windmueller, M. P. (in press). A longitudinal study predicting reading success for English language learners from kindergarten to grade one. Multiple Voices.

President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. (2002). A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Sloane, F. (2005). The scaling of reading interventions: Building multilevel insight. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(3), 361-366.

Snow, C. (2006). Cross-cutting themes and future research directions. In D. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing literacy in second-language learners (pp. 631-651). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Speece, D. L., & Walker, C. Y. (2007). What are the issues in response to intervention research? In D. Haager, J. K. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention (pp. 287-301). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Vaughn, S., & Fuchs, L. (2003). Redefining learning disabilities as inadequate response to instruction: The promise and potential problems. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18(3), 137146.

Vaughn, S., & Klingner, J. K. (2007). Overview of the three-tier model of reading intervention. In D. Haager, J. K. Klingner, & S. Vaughn (Eds.), Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., Linan-Thompson, S., & Francis, D. (2005). Teaching English language learners at risk for reading disabilities to read: Putting research into practice. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 20(1), 58-67.

Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., Linan-Thompson, S., Cirino, P., Carlson, C., Pollard-Durodola, S., Cardenas-Hagan, E., & Francis, D. (2006). Effectiveness of an English intervention for first-grade English language learners at risk for reading problems. Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 153-180.

Wiley, H., & Deno, S. (2005). Oral reading and maze measures as predictors of success for English learners on a state standards assessment. Remedial & Special Education, 26(4), 207-214

Windmueller, M. P. (2004). Early reading predictors of literacy achievement for English learners: A longitudinal study from first through third grade (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 2004). Dissertation Abstracts International, 65, 2543.

Please address correspondence to: Diane Haager, California State University, Los Angeles, Division of Special Education and Counseling, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032; dhaager@calstatela.edu

DIANE HAAGER, Ph.D., professor, California State University, Los Angeles.
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Date:Jun 22, 2007
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