Printer Friendly

School Counselor Experiences of Response to Intervention With English Learners.

Since 2002, students identified as English learners (ELs) in U.S. schools increased by 7.3% (Mavrogordato & Harris, 2017) and now comprise 9.4% of the total public-school population (U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 2016). The increased population of ELs does not inherently pose a problem. The challenges lie in the persistent disparate educational outcomes for ELs and factors related to immigration, acculturation, and language acquisition. Many of the challenges persist because educators have not successfully differentiated learning challenges based on language acquisition from challenges associated with learning disabilities (Hoover & Erikson, 2015). Researchers have noted the persistent disparities for ELs and subsequent over-referral for special education for more than 40 years (Klingner et al., 2005). In Lau v. Nichols (1974), the Supreme Court ruled that school districts must take "affirmative steps" to educate ELs (Robinson-Cimpian, Thompson, & Umanky, 2016, p. 129). Those steps vary by state and school district, but one framework to address the disparate outcomes has gained prominence: response to intervention (RTI; Cramer, 2015; Patrikakou, Ockerman, & Hollenbeck, 2016).

School counselors often serve integral roles within the RTI process as interveners, supporters, facilitators, and advocates (Ockerman, Mason, & Hollenbeck, 2012; American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2018). They often attend meetings, analyze data, make recommendations, and inform school stakeholders about the RTI process overall (Ryan, Kaffenberger, & Carroll, 2011; Ziomek-Daigle, Goodman-Scott, Cavin, & Donohue, 2016). Ockerman, Mason, and Hollenbeck (2012) argued that school counselors also must advocate within the RTI process for students with diverse needs.

Although prior literature illustrates school counselor activities within RTI, we found no research depicting school counselor engagement in RTI for ELs. By exploring these experiences, we hoped to highlight how factors such as linguistic diversity and language acquisition may impact the RTI process. We also sought insights to help improve educational outcomes for ELs and RTI overall. Using a phenomenological approach, we examined the experiences and perceptions of school counselors (N = 12) engaged in the RTI process for ELs.


For this article, we use the term English learners (EL). ELs are students whose first language is not English, who live in a locale where the prevalent language is English, and who may not have achieved English proficiency (DOE, 2016; Kim & Garcia, 2014; Sullivan, 2011). Different states and school districts refer to these students by terms such as "second language learners (SLL)," "English as a second language (ESL) students," "limited English proficient (LEP)," "language minority student," and "culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD)" (Webster & Lu, 2012, p. 84). Other terms used by study participants were "English language learners (ELL)" and "English for speakers of other languages (ESOL)."

ELs have varied backgrounds with diverse cultural, linguistic, academic, developmental, and familial strengths and challenges (Kanno & Cromley, 2015; More, Spies, Morgan, & Baker, 2016). Approximately 85% of elementary-age ELs and 62% of middle/high school-age ELs were born in the United States (Jimenez-Castellanos & Garcia, 2017). Although the majority of ELs are legal residents or U.S. citizens, undocumented students make up a smaller but important percentage of this group (Kanno & Cromley, 2015). Often, ELs receive instructional support services including ESL, bilingual education, or language immersion programs (Trainor, Murray, & Kim, 2016).

Over the last decade, public schools have struggled to provide adequate instructional supports for the increasing population of ELs (McFarland et al., 2018). The struggles range from the anti-immigrant climate and resultant policies that limit access to educational opportunities (Cebulko & Silver, 2016; Liggett, 2014; Ratts & Greenleaf, 2017) to the geography of migration, causing states in the Midwest and South to see increased enrollments of ELs (Hopkins, Lowenhaupt, & Sweet, 2015). Unlike jurisdictions with longer histories of migrations (e.g., California, Texas, Florida, New York), the newer gateway states often have less infrastructure (e.g., highly qualified education personnel) to support the education of ELs (Hopkins et al., 2015).

Regardless of state context, ELs have experienced persistent academic disparities (Elfers, Lucero, Stritikus, & Knapp, 2013). When compared to their English-native peers, ELs tend to be overrepresented in remedial or lower level courses and underrepresented in advanced placement, honors, or upper tier courses (Callahan & Shifrer, 2016; Robinson-Cimpian et al., 2016). Other academic disparities for ELs include higher risks for exclusionary discipline and special education placement and lower high school completion and college-going rates (Belser, Shillingford, & Joe, 2016; Carter, Skiba, Arredondo, & Pollack, 2017; DOE, 2016).

Citizenship status also affects academic outcomes for ELs. Students in liminal legal status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA]) or without U.S. citizenship are subjected to different policies in their respective state/local jurisdictions (Hopkins et al., 2015). Jurisdictions with longer histories of migration often grant more privileges (e.g., access to in-state tuition or driver's licenses) than do newer gateway immigration destinations, such as southern states, that actively work to constrain opportunities (Cebulko & Silver, 2016; Liggett, 2014). To mitigate the academic challenges faced by ELs and other students, federal lawmakers and educators reauthorized the Every Student Succeeds Act to explicitly address academic success by incentivizing the use of evidence-based instructional practices and interventions (Callahan & Shifrer, 2016).


RTI has a long history in public schools, but the use of RTI frameworks gained popularity after the reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in 2004 and 2008 (Belser et al., 2016; Patrikakou et al., 2016). The frameworks offer the potential of early identification of and interventions for struggling learners through a multi-tiered model paired with continuous progress monitoring (Artiles, Bal, & King Thorius, 2010; Brown & Doolittle, 2008; Burns, Jacob, & Wagner, 2008).

RTI models vary across states and school districts, but many schools use a three-tiered model of academic and/or behavioral support (Brown & Doolittle, 2008; Harris-Murri, King, & Rostenberg, 2006; Klingner et al., 2005; Montalvo, Combes, & Kea, 2014). In most three-tiered models, Tier 1 involves evidence-based assessment, instruction, and progress monitoring for all students. Tier 2 provides targeted group interventions and supports for students who appear at risk due to lower scores on benchmarks or assessments administered in Tier 1. If students continue to miss targeted scores on benchmarks, they are moved to Tier 3 and they receive intensive, individualized instruction of increased frequency, a referral for special education evaluation, or a recommendation for special education placement (Brown & Doolittle, 2008; Klingner & Edwards, 2006; Sanford, Esparza Brown, & Turner, 2012).

Some researchers have questioned the efficacy of the RTI process for ELs (Artiles et al., 2010; Cramer, 2015; Orosco & Klingner, 2010; Xu & Drame, 2008). Few studies have investigated the assessment and progress-monitoring instruments used with ELs (Linan-Thompson, 2010). Furthermore, schools underidentify ELs in early grades and overidentify students beginning in fifth grade (Garcia & Ortiz, 2008; Hernandez Finch, 2012). School counselors receive training to address systemic inequities, and this positions them to respond to challenges faced by ELs.

School Counselors and RTI

Recent studies showed that school counselors positively impact EL college-going rates and develop partnerships with linguistically diverse families through data-informed programming (Aydin, Bryan, & Duys, 2012; Cook, Perusse, & Rojas, 2012). School counselors' skills in advocacy, leadership, collaboration, and data-informed decision-making (Chen-Hayes, Ockerman, & Mason, 2014; Ryan et al., 2011) lay the groundwork for counselors' potential impact within RTI. In a 2018 position statement, ASCA recognized school counselors' distinct contributions and potential roles within multitiered systems of support. ASCA recommended that school counselors participate in the RTI process and adjust their comprehensive school counseling programs to include prevention and intervention to improve students' academic, social/emotional, and behavioral outcomes (Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016).

Ockerman et al. (2012) identified school counselors as both supporters and interveners at all tiers of RTI and noted that social advocacy is infused into each of these roles. At Tier 1, school counselors provide support by attending team meetings (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ockerman, Patrikakou, & Hollenbeck, 2015; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016) and sharing information about students, school culture, or community resources. Highlighting the needs of underserved groups and posing critical questions are forms of advocacy in the supporter role. As interveners, school counselors collaborate and consult with teachers about curriculum or classroom management (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). School counselors also identify student needs through the collection and analysis of academic, behavioral, attendance, and discipline data. Other intervening strategies include the delivery of preventative core curriculum lessons that emphasize tactics for student success (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016).

At Tiers 2 and 3, school counselors continue to attend RTI meetings, where they make recommendations regarding the use and intensity of interventions (Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). This leads to more specialized intervention including small group counseling for identified students or the coordination of student-based services such as tutoring or mentoring. Moreover, school counselors use data analysis to measure the impact of specialized interventions on RTI-related outcomes (Ockerman et al., 2015; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). Analyzing and using data to inform direct services is a form of advocacy in the intervener role (Ockerman et al., 2012).

Scholars have documented school counselor perceptions of RTI and made recommendations about diverse school counselor roles in the process (Ockerman et al., 2015; Ryan et al., 2011; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). School counselors reported low self-efficacy in their abilities to carry out RTI roles (Ockerman et al., 2015). School counselors also noted changing roles in RTI, including increased collaboration, data collection, and data management (Patrikakou et al., 2016).


We employed a phenomenological framework to examine the experiences and perceptions of school counselors working with ELs in the RTI process. Phenomenology allows participants to share their experiences related to the phenomenon under investigation (Moustakas, 1994). Phenomenological research is prevalent in school counseling literature (e.g., Goodman-Scott, Carlisle, Clark, & Burgess, 2016; Grimes, Haskins, & Paisley, 2013) due to the relevance and focus of participants' lived experiences (Moustakas, 1994) in school settings. Moreover, phenomenology aims to identify commonalities across participant stories and capture the essence of the phenomenon, which couples with a constructivist theoretical framework (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Hays & Singh, 2012). The constructivist paradigm allows researchers and participants to co-construct the meaning of a phenomenon through interactions and observations during data collection and analysis (Creswell & Poth, 2018). A phenomenological method partnered with a constructivist theoretical framework allowed us to detail school counselor involvement in RTI for ELs. The research question that guided this study was, "How do school counselors describe their experiences of RTI for ELs?"

Research Team

Our research team included three assistant professors with school counseling experience and one current school counselor. Each team member earned a doctoral degree in counselor education from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). All team members also had experience in conducting qualitative research, working as school counselors with ELs in schools, and participating in the RTI process as supporters, interveners, and/or facilitators. For this study, any biases and assumptions based on previous experiences as school counselors working with ELs were bracketed to examine participants' experiences through their stories (Hays & Singh, 2012; Moustakas, 1994).

Participants and Recruitment

We used purposeful criterion sampling to recruit school counselors engaged in RTI with ELs (Creswell, 2014; Hays & Singh, 2012). Criterion sampling is used to identify participants with abundant experience with the phenomenon under study (Creswell, 2014; Hays & Singh, 2012). We posted a recruitment flyer detailing the research study on school counselor-related social media platforms. The flyer indicated that participants would receive a US$10 gift card as an incentive for their participation. The study also was publicized through a state school counseling association website and e-mails (Hays & Singh, 2012). Study volunteers recommended and shared the project with other school counselors, resulting in snowball sampling (Hays & Singh, 2012).

Polkinghorne (1989) recommended recruiting 5-25 participants for a phenomenological study. For this study, we recruited participants from each school level and with varied years of experience and backgrounds. Twelve school counselors from one Southeastern state in the United States took part in this study. The participants had school counseling experience at the elementary, middle, or high school levels. Their work experiences ranged from 2 to 21 years, and their involvement in RTI with ELs ranged from 2 to 14 years. Ten participants identified as female and two as male. Seven participants racially identified as White. The other participants racially identified as African American, African American and Latina, Asian/Pacific Islander, multiracial, and White and Latina. Nine participants spoke English, two spoke English and Spanish, and one spoke English and three additional languages.

Data Collection

Prior to data collection, participants received an online informed consent that included information on the research study and participant rights, specifying that they could discontinue the study without repercussions. We employed two data sources: a demographic survey and semistructured interviews. After participants agreed to the terms of the informed consent, they completed the demographic survey. Each participant then took part in two semistructured interviews conducted by phone due to distance and time constraints and recorded. Each participant selected a pseudonym to maintain confidentiality.

Demographic survey. Participants completed the demographic survey prior to the semistructured interviews. The survey sought information such as gender identity, racial identity, years of experience as a school counselor, grade level, and years of experience in the RTI process. This practice aided us in confirming participant eligibility for the study and building rapport during the semistructured interviews.

Semistructured interviews. Participants took part in two semistructured interviews. We developed the interview questions based on the literature (Ockerman et al., 2015; Ryan et al., 2011) and the phenomenological research framework that focuses on participants' lived experiences (Moustakas, 1994).

We started the initial interview with a prompt: "Try to remember the last time you were involved in the response to intervention process for an English learner. Tell me anything you can about the experience." During the first interview, we clarified participants' responses and asked follow-up questions. The interview protocol consisted of 10 questions that included, "What incidents connected with the RTI experience stand out to you?" "How did the RTI experience for ELs affect you?" and "How did your training impact your experience of RTI with ELs?" (see Appendix A for first semistructured interview questions.)

We conducted the second semistructured interview after the first interviews were transcribed and coded. During the second interview, we posed follow-up questions and asked participants for any further information about their experiences they wanted to include (See Appendix B for second semistructured interview questions.).

Data Analysis

During the data analysis phase, we engaged in the data spiral process, which involved taking notes, writing memos, coding, identifying emerging themes, analyzing interpretations, and reporting the data (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Moustakas, 1994). We consistently bracketed our assumptions and immersed ourselves in the data to minimize bias in the data analysis process (Hays & Singh, 2012). We met as a team to discuss the emerging codes and themes and to create a codebook (Hays & Singh, 2012). We reviewed the data from the transcripts and used horizontalization to list nonrepetitive statements to give value to each statement (Hays & Singh, 2012). After identifying themes and subthemes, we captured the essence of the phenomenon via the textural and structural descriptions (Moustakas, 1994). The textural description highlighted what the structural description emphasized and how participants experienced RTI for ELs (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Hays & Singh, 2012; Moustakas, 1994).


We employed several methods to ensure trustworthiness. These included fact-checking by participants, written interview summaries, an external auditor, and research team meetings (Hays & Singh, 2012). Participants received a copy of their interview transcripts to review for accuracy in how they were portrayed (Hays & Singh, 2012).

An external auditor experienced in qualitative research and school counseling reviewed the data to verify that the data collection and analysis accurately reflected phenomenological research and depicted participants' experiences (Hays & Singh, 2012). The external auditor did not take part in the data collection and analysis processes and had no prior connection to this study. After reviewing the transcripts, codebook, and themes, the external auditor verified that the research and themes captured the essence of participants' experiences with ELs in the RTI process.


Three themes emerged in terms of school counselor experiences and perceptions of RTI with ELs: (a) key stakeholders impacting RTI for ELs, (b) school counselors advocating for ELs in RTI, and (c) challenges distinguishing language from learning.

Key Stakeholders Impacting RTI for ELs

Participants identified key or critical voices whose perspectives or presence were especially relevant during the RTI process with ELs: (a) English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers (participants used a variety of terminology for this role), (b) parents/guardians, and (c) bilingual personnel. Without these individuals, RTI proved more difficult when making decisions for ELs.

ESOL teachers. Participants identified EL teachers as vital to the RTI process. Joyce said, "I really do appreciate our ... English language learner teacher coming to the meeting. She always provides great insight and information." Although participants saw the ESOL teacher perspective as beneficial to the RTI process, many encountered challenges when including ESOL teachers in meetings. Wonderwoman said, "Whenever possible ... we can have ... their ESL teacher join us ... but it's tricky because for every meeting that they're in, they're not serving their children." Cindy said, "Unfortunately, our ESOL teacher often teaches Spanish connection but she's not in those [RTI] meetings because it's during that connection's time."

Parents/guardians. School counselors described parents/guardians as being key to the RTI process. Participants remarked that the parents of ELs had varied levels of involvement in RTI. Some parents/guardians were engaged and open to the process while others resisted. Joyce explained:
   You know we have two extremes.... We have some parents that come in
   ... and they're willing to listen to whatever we have to say ...
   and other parents, they are resistant.... They'll come to the
   meeting but they don't want to go any further, they don't want
   their child labeled ... they don't see the problems that we see at
   school at times.

Despite the differences in involvement, school counselors believed parents/guardians were often concerned about the success of their children but were unsure about the process needed to get help. Casey described a parent who sought support for her child: "She [the mother] came and brought me some data from like elementary school.... [The mother] wanted more support for her son ... but she didn't really know what that was or what it looked like."

Participants believed that limited understanding of the RTI process often led to parent reliance on the RTI team members to make decisions. Casey explained that "a lot of them [EL parents] ... kind of give us autonomy over their babies and they trusted us to do ... whatever we thought was best." EL parent/guardian reliance on other RTI stakeholders to fully understand the RTI process amplified the need for bilingual personnel in RTI.

Bilingual personnel. Many participants identified bilingual personnel as essential to the RTI process for ELs in terms of translating during RTI meetings and interpreting correspondence. Joyce said,
   I know in the past we've had translators come because ... the
   parents don't speak English. That's always been amazing and
   helpful.... It's very necessary and it really helps us communicate
   with those parents when we're not able to otherwise.

Bilingual personnel were essential to fostering communication during the RTI process and participants identified different school stakeholders who met this need. Some school systems provided bilingual personnel. Cindy said, "In the county that I'm in, we have a big ... international newcomer center ... and lots of people that work there that end up being interpreters." Other participants noted that while district-based resources were helpful, they were not always convenient, so the team relied on school-based personnel. Jack said,
   We actually just used our Spanish teacher as an interpreter....
   We're not really [supposed] to do that but it's a lot easier to
   just grab a Spanish teacher and say "come interpret," than go
   through the international center.

Participants without school system-based resources also relied on school personnel. Isabella said, "So you have to explain things to parents.... So then there was the need to bring in our parent liaison so that she can do some interpretation for the parent."

Although school-based personnel were convenient to access, using them did present challenges. Some bilingual personnel had limited RTI training. Hailey said, "The parent liaison that had to translate the RTI meetings several times, or all the RTI in our school, she didn't have any training of what RTI meant or what RTI was."

To ensure understanding by parents/guardians, several participants worked to secure interpreters in RTI meetings. Penny said, "I try to make sure that we have an interpreter available and that there is someone who can speak the language for them [EL parents]." Mia said, "Anything that goes home I try to get translated either by the county or by someone at the school that can translate." Securing interpreters highlights a frequent experience of all participants in this study--advocating within the RTI process.

School Counselors Advocating for ELs in RTI

School counselors have been described as supporters and interveners in the RTI process (Ockerman et al., 2012). Advocacy is infused into both support and intervention, and school counselors can potentially assist historically underserved populations through these activities (Ockerman et al., 2012). The second theme of the study detailed how school counselors advocate on behalf of ELs and their families in the RTI process: They explain, connect, and question.

Explain. Participants explained the RTI process to stakeholders and took steps to ensure that EL parents/guardians could understand what was happening. Hailey said,
   There is lots of information that is given to parents about the RTI
   process and what it means; it's so confusing. Not only is the
   language difficult overall, but ... parents do not understand what
   special education services are.

To make the process clearer, participants worked to simplify the language. Mia said,
   I know in school that ... we go into teacher speak and so ... I'll
   try to make it [RTI] as basic as possible to explain to them in
   terms that anyone would be able to see and understand.

Participants also explained the school and cultural contexts of ELs to key stakeholders during the RTI process. Jim stressed the importance of "getting a whole picture of the student and not just ... the label of being an ELL student." Participants noted that school counselors have access to information about students that other team members may not. Hailey said, "It's easier for us as school counselors to find historic information versus the teacher.... We can ... look at enrollment records ... transient records, permanent records, or any other information." School counselor access to information allowed participants to provide schooling contexts to the RTI team.

Participants also described the cultural contexts of ELs to RTI team members. For example, Mia shared:
   [The teacher] said that she felt like when the student was talking
   to her ... or when she was talking to the student, the student
   wouldn't make eye contact, which to me was not really a concern of
   whether or not the student ... would need a behavior RTI.

Wonderwoman said,
   We [school counselors] ... are aware of the ... different cultural
   aspects that might be influencing ... the family and particular
   [sic] the student's learning. And so, I ... feel as the school
   counselor, that's ... a big part of my job.

Connect. School counselors advocated within the RTI process by identifying resources for ELs. Wonderwoman said, "A lot of my role is to sit in the meetings and to offer resources and help." Many participants noted that they push for more services for ELs. Wonderwoman said that her job often was "connecting them [ELs] with academic interventions which I don't implement, but I can advocate for." She also indicated that "they [ELs] might be invited to one of my small groups." Similarly, Penny said, "It is more about me trying to find services that will help our students out and making sure that they're getting the interventions that they need."

Question. School counselors advocated for students by posing questions in meetings. Hailey said, "If I don't understand why there is incongruent data in one class ... I ask 'Why?'" Mia said,
   The teacher give[s] them extra time to take a test but they're not
   completing their test. So then [I am] asking ... can I have a copy
   of the test? Are [you] giving them a different test based on their
   language level?

Participants also asked questions to support EL parents/ guardians, who often were not vocal in RTI meetings. When describing her role in meetings, Isabella said, "I think that's very helpful in the meeting to have someone ... that will speak up, because oftentimes our parents won't. They'll just sit there and listen." At times, participants asked questions on behalf of parents. Hailey shared that she "ask[ed] more leading questions to the RTI coordinator that would further explain the process or the data to the parents as well as the students." In other instances, participants asked parents/guardians about their needs. Jim said, "It's simple as asking them [parents] if they need an interpreter.... Did they understand?" Participants explained, connected, and questioned to help address school-related issues brought to the RTI team. Team members, however, often had difficulty determining the root cause of those issues.

Challenges Distinguishing Language From Learning

The third theme of the study highlighted participant difficulty in determining whether an EL's schooling issue is due to the student's level of language acquisition or the student's unique learning needs. School counselors described the complexity deciphering these concepts and varying EL policies.

Confusion. Participants explained that RTI stakeholders had difficulty understanding how language acquisition influenced EL academic performance. Mia said, "I don't know ... that people understand what to do with the overlap of ELL and the RTI process, and how to identify students in RTI outside of their language acquisition issue." Counselors reported that the confusion makes developing interventions difficult. Mia said,
   With the ELL students, the teachers don't ... seem to have an
   understanding of what the difference is between an accommodation
   that they would do for an ELL student and an intervention that they
   would do for any student.

Varying EL policies. Participants were conflicted by school policies that informed RTI, EL, and special education decisions. These policies often limited EL access to the RTI process. Mia said, "At our school, if it's an ELL student, it ... takes a lot more effort to get them into the RTI process just because they're typically not identified." Other participants illustrated the frustration that varying policies can bring to the process. Wonderwoman said, "They say 7 years and you're like, 'Wow. So are you saying that none of my kids will have learning issues?' We know that's not true. So sometimes I guess there's a conflicted feeling." Casey said, "Because they are in the ELL program, they will not be tested.... That just bothers me ... because ... everything is attributed to the language barrier, and I think that's unfair."


The findings of this study provide a phenomenological description of school counselor experiences in the RTI process for ELs. In prior literature, conceptual guides and frameworks were proposed regarding school counselor engagement in RTI and other multitiered systems of support (ASCA, 2018; Ockerman et al., 2012; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). A few scholars have captured components of school counselor activity in RTI, such as in areas of confidence and experiences developing RTI programs (Ockerman et al., 2015; Ryan et al., 2011). In this study, however, we explicitly examined school counselor experiences of RTI for ELs. The results provide additional insight about school counselor involvement within RTI and magnify unique factors relevant to RTI with ELs.

In prior literature, scholars described collaboration and consultation with teachers, administrators, and other school personnel as part of the RTI process (Ockerman et al., 2012; Ockerman et al., 2015; Ryan et al., 2011). Researchers have argued that individuals who know or provide services to ELs and their families, such as ESOL teachers, parents/ guardians, or bilingual personnel, should be involved in RTI (Kashima, Schleich, & Spradlin, 2009; Movit, Petrykowska, & Woodruff, 2010). Our findings confirm the importance of key personnel but suggest that those voices are not always included.

The second theme illustrates advocacy for ELs in the RTI process. Ockerman et al. (2012) contended that school counselors must advocate for diverse populations in RTI by ensuring proper communication between all parties, reviewing data, and asking hard questions (p. 22). Our findings support these arguments and detail how school counselors advocate for ELs within RTI: They explain, connect, and question.

The final theme highlights challenges that team members face when distinguishing language development from learning concerns. Orosco and Klingner (2010) noted that many educators have difficulty differentiating between language acquisition and learning disabilities. Our study supports Orosco and Klingner's (2010) findings and provides new details suggesting that school policies can add layers of confusion to the RTI process. Perplexity occurs when deciding if or when ELs should be referred to multiple tiers of RTI. This theme illustrates a nuance that may be encountered within RTI for ELs. Although discerning language or learning concerns has been discussed in EL and special education literature, school counseling literature does not detail this challenge within RTI. Our findings yield suggestions for practice, training, and research.


Our study highlights the experiences of school counselors engaged in RTI for ELs. The findings yield imperatives for school counselor practice and training. To gain optimum results for ELs, school counselors must utilize effective strategies. First, school counselors must ensure that key voices in the lives of ELs, such as ESOL teachers and parents/guardians, are involved in RTI (Movit et al., 2010). Our study reveals that these perspectives are not always included in RTI. School counselors can use their roles as conduits with administration and school staff to describe the critical roles of ESOL teachers and safeguard their inclusion in meetings. Further, school counselors can collaborate with ESOL teachers and parents/ guardians to include their voices. For example, if ESOL teachers cannot attend RTI meetings, school counselors may capture their perspectives beforehand (Johnson, Tuttle, Harrison, & Shell, 2018). Counselors also can develop literature or programs to explain RTI to parents/guardians (Boyd, 2011; Johnson et al., 2018).

Bilingual personnel are also key to RTI with ELs. Interpreters allow EL parents/guardians to access the RTI process (Paone, Malott, & Maddux, 2010). Counselors can advocate for trained interpreters in all RTI meetings (Paone et al., 2010). If interpreters are not available, counselors may collaborate with community stakeholders to solicit and train interpreters for RTI (Paone et al., 2010; Tuttle & Johnson, 2018).

Next, school counselors can advocate as they help teams decipher language acquisition and/or learning challenges. Encouraging ESOL teacher presence may help teams navigate this issue. School counselors also can work with school stakeholders to examine policies that impact ELs in RTI (ASCA, 2018). School counselors can collect data about these policies and examine the outcomes for potential inequity (ASCA, 2018). Findings should be shared with school leadership to address misconceptions and/or to adjust policies.

School counselors and other stakeholders need training to effectively assist ELs in RTI. Training or resources explaining language acquisition may be beneficial (Orosco & Klingner, 2010), and school counselors may collaborate with ESOL teachers to provide relevant training to RTI stakeholders about language acquisition, EL cultural contexts, and relevant policies. School counselor training programs should also address the needs of ELs and RTI. Findings in this study demonstrate that RTI stakeholders rely heavily on school counselors to explain EL cultural contexts, pose questions, and connect ELs to resources. Therefore, quality training about these topics is imperative for school counseling students during their coursework and field experiences (Orosco & Klingner, 2010). Exposure to the roles and expertise that key stakeholders bring to RTI may be useful for school counselors in training, who also may benefit from engaging in advocacy-based activities connected to ELs and RTI. To reinforce their observation or participation in meetings as supporters or interveners during their field experiences, school counseling trainees also may (a) identify school and community resources for ELs, (b) explore and evaluate the availability of trained interpreters, (c) develop literature or programs that explain RTI- or EL-related processes or policies to school stakeholders, (d) and collect, analyze, and share data about the impact of those policies on ELs or other groups (Ockerman et al., 2012).

Finally, several research implications emerged from this study. Exploring obstacles to the inclusion of relevant voices, such as ESOL teachers and bilingual personnel, would be beneficial. The development, implementation, and review of frameworks to include these voices also would be helpful. Research exploring the training and needs of school counselors related to RTI and ELs would provide additional insights for training programs.


The findings of this study must be viewed in relation to its limitations. First, the study included school counselors from only one Southeastern state in the United States. The experiences of counselors from other locales might have provided different results. Participants were recruited through social media, state school counselor associations, and snowball sampling. This recruitment method may have restricted awareness of the research study to school counselors who are not members of social media sites or the state school counselor association. Although researchers included school counselors from elementary, middle, and high school levels, the study did not explore their specific experiences at each level. A focus on one school level may have yielded different findings. Finally, participants worked with ELs in their school settings and individually volunteered for this study. The descriptions they shared may have been influenced by their close work with and interest in this population.


Through this study, we captured the experiences of a sample of school counselors engaged in RTI with ELs. This snapshot provides details about the nuanced activities school counselors take on in the course of this engagement. The findings also highlight factors that may contribute to more equitable RTI outcomes for ELs: ensuring the presence of key stakeholders, explaining RTI to parents/guardians and colleagues, providing cultural context, and advocating for culturally relevant intervention and policies. Further research, training, and implementation of these factors may lead to more equitable outcomes for ELs in schools.

DOI: 10.1177/2156759X19859486

Appendix A. First Semistructured Interview Questions.

1. Guiding question: How do school counselors describe their experiences of response to intervention (RTI) for English learners (ELs)?

2. Opening: Try to remember the last time you were involved in the response to intervention process for an English learner. Tell me anything you can about the experience.

3. What incidents connected with the RTI experience stand out for you?

4. What people connected with the RTI experience stand out for you?

5. What aspects of the RTI experience stand out for you?

6. How did the RTI experience for ELs affect you?

7. What feelings were generated by the experience?

8. What thoughts stood out for you during the experience?

9. How did the RTI experience affect the ELs involved?

10. How did the RTI experience affect the stakeholders involved (parents/guardians, educators)?

11. How did your training impact your experience of RTI with ELs?

12. Have you shared all that is significant regarding your experience of RTI for ELs?

Note. Research questions constructed based on the literature and phenomenological research tradition.

Appendix B. Second Semistructured Interview Questions.

1. Before moving forward, is there anything you would like to add to what you shared during the first interview?

2. Since our first interview, have you had any additional experiences with English learners (ELs) in the response to intervention (RTI) process that you would like to share?

3. It sounds as if you use your role as a school counselor to be an advocate during the RTI process for ELs. If that is accurate, can you tell me more about that part of your experience?

4. Can you say more about your experiences with RTI interventions for ELs?

5. If an opportunity was provided for training about the RTI with ELs process, what would you share about your own experiences?

* What would have been useful to you?

* What would have enhanced your experience?

6. Suppose you were in charge and could bring about one change to the RTI with ELs experience. What would you do?

7. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences about RTI with ELs?

Note. Research questions constructed based on the literature and phenomenological research tradition.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


American School Counselor Association. (2018). The school counselor and multitiered systems of support. ASCA Position Statements. Retrieved from

Artiles, A. J., Bal, A., & King Thorius, K. (2010). Back to the future: A critique of response to intervention's social justice claims. Theory into Practice, 49, 250-257. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2010.510447

Aydin, N. G., Bryan, J. A., & Duys, D. K. (2012). School counselors' partnerships with linguistically diverse families: An exploratory study. School Community Journal, 22, 145-166. Retrieved from

Belser, C., Shillingford, M., & Joe, J. (2016). The ASCA model and a multi-tiered system of supports: A framework to support students of color with problem behavior. The Professional Counselor, 6, 251-262. doi: 10.15241/csmo.6.3.v

Boyd, S. E. (2011). Educating and involving parents in the response to intervention process. Council for Exceptional Children, 43, 32-39. doi: 10.1177/004005991104300304

Brown, J., & Doolittle, J. (2008). A cultural, linguistic, and ecological framework for response to intervention with English language learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40, 66-72. doi: 10.1177/004005990804000509

Burns, M. K., Jacob, S., & Wagner, A. R. (2008). Ethical and legal issues associated with using response-to-intervention to assess learning disabilities. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 263-279. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2007.06.001

Callahan, R. M., & Shifrer, D. (2016). Equitable access for secondary English learner students: Course taking as evidence of EL program effectiveness. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52, 463-496.

Carter, P., Skiba, R., Arredondo, M., & Pollack, M. (2017). You can't fix what you don't look at: Acknowledging race in addressing racial discipline disparities. Urban Education, 52, 207-235. doi: 10.1163/2210-7975_HRD-9978-2014001

Cebulko, K., & Silver, A. (2016). Navigating DACA in hospitable and hostile states: State responses and access to membership in the wake of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. American Behavioral Scientist, 60, 1553-1574. doi: 10.1177/0002764216664942

Chen-Hayes, S. F., Ockerman, M. S., & Mason, E. C. M. (2014). School-wide and multi-systemic intervention solutions. In S. F. Chen-Hayes, M.S. Ockerman, & E. C. M. Mason (Eds.), 101 solutions for school counselors and leaders in challenging times (pp. 233-246). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Cook, A., Perusse, R., & Rojas, E. D. (2012). Increasing academic achievement and college-going rates for Latina/o English language learners: A survey of school counselor interventions. The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 4, 24-40. Retrieved from

Cramer, L. (2015). Inequities of intervention among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 12. Retrieved from

Creswell, J. W. (2014). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Creswell, J., & Poth, C. (2018). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Elfers, A., Lucero, A., Stritikus, T., & Knapp, T. (2013). Building systems of support for classroom teachers working with English language learners. International Multilingual Research Journal, 7, 155-174. doi: 10.1080/19313152.2012.665824

Garcia, S. B., & Ortiz, A. A. (2008). A framework for culturally and linguistically responsive design of response-to-intervention models. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 11, 24-41.

Goodman-Scott, E., Carlisle, R., Clark, M., & Burgess, M. (2016). "A powerful tool": A phenomenological study of school counselors' experiences with social stories. Professional School Counseling, 20. doi: 10.5330/1096-2409-20.1.25

Grimes, L. E., Haskins, N., & Paisley, P. O. (2013). "So I went out there": A phenomenological study on the experiences of rural school counselor social justice advocates. Professional School Counseling, 17, 40-51. doi: 10.1177/2156759X0001700107

Harris-Murri, N., King, K., & Rostenberg, D. (2006). Reducing disproportionate minority representation in special education programs for students with emotional disturbances: Toward a culturally responsive response to intervention model. Education and Treatment of Children, 29, 779-799.

Hays, D. G., & Singh, A. A. (2012). Qualitative inquiry in clinical and educational settings. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Hernandez Finch, M. E. (2012). Special considerations with response to intervention and instruction for students with diverse backgrounds. Psychology in the Schools, 49, 285-296. doi: 10.1002/pits.21597

Hoover, J. J., & Erickson, J. (2015). Culturally responsive special education referrals of English learners in one rural county school district: Pilot project. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 34, 18-28. doi: 10.1177/875687051503400403

Hopkins, M., Lowenhaupt, R., & Sweet, T. M. (2015). Organizing English learner instruction in new immigrant destinations: District infrastructure and subject-specific school practice. American Educational Research Journal, 52, 408-439. doi: 10.3102/0002831215584780

Jimenez-Castellanos, O., & Garcia, E. (2017). Intersection of language, class, ethnicity, and policy: Toward disrupting inequality for English language learners. Review of Research in Education, 41, 428-452. doi: 10.3102/0091732X16688623

Johnson, L. V., Tuttle, M., Harrison, J., & Shell, E. M. (2018). Response to intervention for English learners: A framework for school counselors. Journal of School Counseling, 16. Retrieved from

Kanno, Y., & Cromley, J. G. (2015). English language learners' pathways to four-year colleges. Teachers College Record, 117, 1-46. Retrieved from Id=18155

Kashima, Y., Schleich, B., & Spradlin, T. (2009). The core components of RTI: A closer look at evidence-based core curriculum, assessment and progress monitoring, and data-based decision making. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation & Education Policy. Retrieved from

Kim, W. G., & Garcia, S. B. (2014). Long-term English language learners' perceptions of their language and academic learning experiences. Remedial and Special Education, 35, 300-312. doi: 10.1177/0741932514525047

Klingner, J. K., & Edwards, P. A. (2006). Cultural considerations with response to intervention models. Reading Research Quarterly, 41, 108-117. doi: 10.1598/RRQ.41.1.6

Klingner, J., Artiles, A., Kozleski, E., Harry, B., Zion, S., Tate, W., & Riley, D. (2005). Addressing the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education through culturally responsive educational systems. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13, 1-39. doi: 10.14507/epaa.v13n38.2005

Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).

Liggett, T. (2014). The mapping of a framework: Critical race theory and TESOL. The Urban Review, 46, 112-124. doi: 10.1007/s11256-013-0254-5

Linan-Thompson, S. (2010). Response to instruction, English language learners and disproportionate representation: The role of assessment. Psicothema, 22, 970-974.

Mavrogordato, M., & Harris, J. (2017). Eligiendo Escuelas: English learners and access to school choice. Educational Policy, 31, 801-829. doi: 10.1177/0895904817724226

McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Wang, K., Rathbun, A ... Bullock Mann, F. (2018). The condition of education 2018 (NCES 2018-144). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Montalvo, R., Combes, B., & Kea, C. (2014). Perspectives on culturally and linguistically responsive RtI pedagogies through a cultural and linguistic lens. Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 4, 203-219. Retrieved from

More, C. M., Spies, T. G., Morgan, J. J., & Baker, J. N. (2016). Incorporating English language learner instruction within special education teacher preparation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 51, 229-237. doi: 10.1177/1053451215589183

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research design: Choosing among five approaches methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Movit, M., Petrykowska, I., & Woodruff, D. (2010). Using school leadership teams to meet the needs of English language learners. Retrieved from

Ockerman, M. S., Mason, E. C. M., & Hollenbeck, A. F. (2012). Integrating RTI with school counseling programs: Being a proactive professional school counselor. Journal of School Counseling, 10. Retrieved from

Ockerman, M. S., Patrikakou, E., & Hollenbeck, A. F. (2015). Preparation of school counselors and response to intervention: A profession at the crossroads. The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 7. doi: 10.7729/73.1106

Orosco, M., & Klingner, J. K. (2010). One school's implementation of RTI with English language learners: "Referring into RTI." Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 269-288. doi: 10.1177/0022219409355474

Paone, T. R., Malott, K. M., & Maddux, C. (2010). School counselor collaboration with language interpreters: Results of a national survey. Journal of School Counseling, 8. Retrieved from

Patrikakou, E., Ockerman, M. S., & Hollenbeck, A. F. (2016). Needs and contradictions of a changing field: Evidence from a national response to intervention implementation study. Professional Counselor, 6, 233. doi: 10.15241/ep.6.3.233

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1989). Phenomenological research methods. In R. S. Valle & S. Halling (Eds.), Existential-phenomenological perspectives in psychology: Exploring the breadth of human experience (pp. 41-62). New York, NY: Plenum.

Ratts, M. J., & Greenleaf, A. T. (2017). Multicultural and social justice counseling competencies: A leadership framework for professional school counselors. Professional School Counseling, 21, 1-9. doi: 10.1177/2156759X18773582

Robinson-Cimpian, J. P., Thompson, K. D., & Umanky, I. M. (2016). Research and policy considerations for English learner equity. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 129-137. doi: 10.1177/2372732215623553

Ryan, T., Kaffenberger, C. J., & Carroll, A. G. (2011). Response to intervention: An opportunity for school counselor leadership. Professional School Counseling, 14, 211-221. doi: 10.1177/2156759X1101400305

Sanford, A. K., Esparza Brown, J., & Turner, M. (2012). Enhancing instruction for English language learners in response to intervention systems: The PLUSS model. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13, 56-70.

Sullivan, A. L. (2011). Disproportionality in special education identification and placement of English language learners. Exceptional Children, 77, 317-334. doi: 10.1177/001440291107700304

Trainor, A., Murray, A., & Kim, H. (2016). English learners with disabilities in high school: Population characteristics, transition programs, and postschool outcomes. Remedial and Special Education, 37, 146-158. doi: 10.1177/0741932515626797

Tuttle, M. S., & Johnson, L. V. (2018). Navigating language brokering in K-12 schools. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. doi: 10.17744/mehc.40.4.05

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Nonregulatory guidance report: English learners and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://

Webster, N. L., & Lu, C. (2012). "English language learners": An analysis of perplexing ESL-related terminology. Language and Literacy, 14, 83-94. doi: 10.20360/G28593

Xu, Y., & Drame, E. (2008). Culturally appropriate context: Unlocking the potential of response to intervention for English language learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35, 305-311. doi: 10.1007/s10643-007-0213-4

Ziomek-Daigle, J., Goodman-Scott, E., Cavin, J., & Donohue, P. (2016). Integrating a multi-tiered system of supports with comprehensive school counseling programs. The Professional Counselor, 6, 220-232. doi: 10.15241/csmo.6.3.v

Author Biographies

Leonissa V. Johnson, PhD, is an assistant professor of school counseling and director of HBCU C.A.R.E.S. at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, GA.

E Mackenzie Shell, PhD, is an assistant professor and clinical mental health counseling coordinator, also with Clark Atlanta University, GA.

Malti Tuttle, PhD, is an assistant professor with the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling at Auburn University in Auburn, AL.

LaVonna Groce is a school counselor with Gwinnett County Public Schools in Lawrenceville, GA.

Leonissa V. Johnson [1], E Mackenzie Shell [1], Malti Tuttle [2], and LaVonna Groce [3]

[1] Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, USA

[2] Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA

[3] Gwinnett County Public Schools, Lawrenceville, GA, USA

Corresponding Author:

Leonissa V. Johnson, PhD, Clark Atlanta University, 223 James P. Brawley Dr SW, 329 Rufus E. Clement Hall, Atlanta, GA 30314, USA.

COPYRIGHT 2018 American School Counselor Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Featured Research
Author:Johnson, Leonissa V.; Shell, E. Mackenzie; Tuttle, Malti; Groce, LaVonna
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Sep 1, 2018
Previous Article:Integrating Yoga into a Comprehensive School Counseling Program: A Qualitative Approach.
Next Article:Measuring Classroom Climate: A Validation Study of the My Child's Classroom Inventory-Short Form for Parents.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters