Special Education

Minimum Requirements of a Response to Intervention Program (RtI)

VI.   Considerations when Implementing RtI with Limited English Proficient/English Language Learners (LEP/ELL)

Appropriate Instruction for LEP/ELL Students

For students identified as LEP/ELL students, appropriate instruction includes instruction that is linguistically and culturally responsive.  This means that instruction and interventions must consider and build upon a student’s cultural background and experiences as well as their linguistic proficiency (in both English and the native language). (Esparza Brown and Doolittle: NCCREST, 2008)

Culturally Responsive

Culturally responsive teaching means that the student’s prior experiences, including funds of knowledge (González, Moll, Floyd-Tenery, Rivera, Rendón, Gonzales, & Amanti, February 1994), home language background, and socio-cultural background are considered.  A review of the student’s socio-cultural background should address culturally and linguistically-based issues of motivation and the student’s prior knowledge of the material being learned or studied.  For example, students with different cultural backgrounds may be motivated to a greater degree by rewards for collaborative, group efforts than for individual efforts. All of these variables help to determine how the student learns best, in what settings, and under what teaching direction.  In some cases, a student may not benefit from a specific learning strategy simply because he/she needs a different learning or teaching approach, not because he/she cannot comprehend the content of the lesson.

Considerations for Reading Instruction

Prior to making decisions about a student’s reading fluency, teachers should consider the relationship between the student’s language proficiency and his/her literacy skills.  In the case of LEP/ELL students, reading fluency and comprehension may be strongly determined by vocabulary comprehension and linguistic proficiency in both the first and second language (Slavin & Chung, 2003).

Considerations for Math Instruction

The issue of linguistic proficiency and vocabulary comprehension is also important when collecting data and measuring math skills.  Vocabulary comprehension has been identified as a major variable in the understanding of math concepts (Kemp & Partyka, 2009).  Computational concepts, algorithms, numerical concepts, measurement concepts and the structure of word problems are not necessarily universal (Secada, 1983).

When designing the school district’s RtI process, three major variables should be considered when assessing and planning appropriate instruction for students who are LEP/ELL:

  • language (literacy and oracy in both native and second languages),
  • culture, and
  • educational history.

These variables remain consistent across all tiers; what changes is the intensity of instruction, possibly the instructional setting (e.g., instruction in another classroom with students who have similar concerns), and depending on the Tier, some of the key instructional staff may vary.  It is also important to ensure consistency in the language of instruction among tiers: students receiving core reading instruction in the home language who also need Tier 2 instruction should receive Tier 2 instruction in the home language. (Linan-Thompson and Ortiz, 2009)


When reading instruction occurs in a language other than English, it is strongly recommended that schools administer screening instruments in the language of instruction in addition to English.  It is important that the screening tools used to identify students who are struggling and not meeting benchmarks should be tools that have been validated on the populations to be screened. 

As a result of screening, LEP/ELL students who have been identified as struggling and/or not meeting benchmarks may need further language screening and assessment.  In this case, educators should use standardized and/or informal tools.  Language assessments should be conducted in both the native language and English in all four language areas – listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 

“When an ELL student becomes the focus of concern, the instructional program itself must be examined to determine the match between the demands of the curriculum and the student’s current proficiency in the language of instruction.”  It is important to examine the achievement of the student’s “true peers” (i.e., students with similar language proficiencies and cultural and experiential backgrounds) to see if they are excelling or not.  If a majority of “true peers” within the school are struggling, this is an indication that the instruction is less than optimal for that group of students.  (Esparza Brown, 2008)

Instruction Matched to Student Need

As for all students, differentiated instruction should be used to meet the diverse needs of all students.  NYSED’s Proficiency Levels for English as a Second Language (ESL) describes the growth stages for the four language arts areas:  listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  These stages and the New York State (NYS) Teaching of Language Arts to LEP/ELLs:  Learning Standards should guide instruction for ESL. 

Areas of Differentiation

In addition to differentiation of instruction that is recommended for all students, differentiated instruction for LEP/ELL students should consider the student’s level of English proficiency and prior educational experiences to address cultural and linguistic differences.  In particular, differentiated instruction should consider grouping to address the student’s levels of proficiency in the native language (L1) and English (L2) and the knowledge and skills that are to be learned (e.g., grouping with L1 peers, other LEP/ELL students or with native speakers of English).

When determining appropriate instruction/intervention at all levels for LEP/ELL students:

  • Consider the amount and type of ESL instruction the student received in the past and is currently receiving.
  • Consider the amount and type of native language instruction the student received in the past and is currently receiving, if applicable.
  • Ensure that the language(s) used for interventions matches the language(s) used for core instruction.  
  • Consider the impact of language and culture on instruction and learning.
  • Contact the family to receive feedback and guidance regarding the student’s strengths, interests, and needs.
  • Ensure that bilingual and/or ESL personnel serve on the instructional decision-making team.

Tier 1:  Core Instruction for LEP/ELL

The following guidelines (adapted from Ortiz, Robertson, & Wilkinson, 2009) should be used when differentiating instruction to meet the needs of second language learners at the Tier 1 level:

  • Analyze assessment/screening data to determine performance levels in both L1 and L2.
  • Use this assessment data to plan instruction.
  • Differentiate this instruction based on academic performance levels; the student’s L1 and L2 levels; and the cultural background of the student.

Base the L2 performance levels on the NYSED Proficiency Levels for English as a Second Language.

Tiers 2 and 3:  Strategic and Intensive Levels of Intervention for LEP/ELL Students

As is the case with students who are native speakers of English, LEP/ELL students who continue to struggle with the academic material will need further intervention. If using a problem-solving model, the student data and the classroom instructional data should be provided to the instructional decision-making team for analysis to determine an appropriate instructional plan. If using a standard protocol model it is recommended that districts develop a protocol for LEP/ELL students which includes a menu of interventions that have been validated with LEP/ELL students (for further information, see Rivera, Moughamian, Lesaux, & Francis, 2008) in addition to the set of interventions that have been validated with native speakers of English.

The problem-solving team should:

  • Review and analyze the data collected in Tier 1 documentation and conduct further assessments as needed, and make recommendations for Tier 2 intervention(s).  For LEP/ELL students, the documentation should include the:
  • explanation of how instruction was differentiated to address native and second language issues and cultural differences;
  • amount and type of ESL instruction; and,
  • amount and type of native language instruction (as appropriate).
  • Select the instructional areas that need further, more intense intervention.
  • Determine the extent of ESL instruction and/or native language instruction needed during Tiers 2 and 3 interventions to ensure the student will benefit from the intervention.

Progress Monitoring

When monitoring the progress of LEP/ELL students:

  • If instruction is being provided in L1 and L2, all on-going assessments should be conducted in both L1 and L2.
  • When evaluating instructional programs for students in either L1 or L2, the results of instruction should be compared to results for “true peers” (i.e., students with the same native language and culture and similar educational histories).  The performance of true peers should be used to benchmark progress and decide whether the student is responding adequately to the intervention or needs more intensive intervention.
  • Whenever possible, the comparative sampling of true peers should be large enough for making educationally valid decisions. (S. Ortiz, personal communication.)
  • Knowledge of typical second language development and the student’s history of first and second language use should be considered when setting benchmarks and interpreting progress.

Language  Difference or Disability

When conducting assessments and developing instructional programs for a LEP/ELL student, care must be taken that issues of language differences are not confused with language disorders and that patterns of performance related to the student’s socio-cultural background or interrupted schooling are not mistaken for signs of a disability.  Assessments in both L1 and L2 should be conducted for comparison before appropriate educational decisions can be made (Ortiz, 2009; Roseberry-McKibbin, 1995).

Table 1 provides an overview of the areas of language development which may be assessed to differentiate between linguistic differences and possible speech or language disability.  As with judgments regarding reading development, judgments concerning the “appropriateness” of a student’s language should be based upon comparison with speakers who have similar linguistic backgrounds. Although “the literature suggests a high correlation between speech-language impairments and reading disorders [Schoenbrodt, Kumin, & Sloan, 1997; Gerber, 1993; & Sawyer, 1992; cited in Linan-Thompson & Ortiiz, 2009], best practice dictates that assessments be administered to determine the nature of reading difficulties and to guide the design of reading interventions” (Linan-Thompson & Ortiz, 2009, p. 107) before a student is identified as having a learning disability in the area of reading. 

Differentiation Between Language Differences vs. Language Disability

Table 1

The rules governing social interactions (e.g. turn taking, maintaining topic of conversation).
Social responses to language are based on cultural background (e.g., comfort level in asking or responding to questions) Pauses between turns or overlaps in conversation are similar to those of peers with the same linguistic and cultural background. Social use of language or lack thereof is inappropriate (e.g., topic of lesson is rocks and the student continues to discuss events that occurred at home without saying how they relate to rocks).
The rules governing the order, grammar, and form of phrases or sentences
Grammatical errors due to native language influences (e.g., student may omit initial verb in a question—You like cake?  (omission of Do)). Word order in L1 may differ from that of English (e.g., in Arabic sentences are ordered verb-subject-object while Urdu sentences are ordered subject-object-verb). Grammatical structures continue to be inappropriate in both languages even after extensive instruction (e.g., student cannot produce the past tense in either Spanish or English indicating difficulty with grammatical tenses).
Semantics: The rules pertaining to both the underlying and the surface meaning of phrases and sentences A student whose native language is Korean may have difficulty using pronouns, as they do not exist in his/her native language.  A student may use words from L1 in productions in L2 because of his inability or unfamiliarity of the vocabulary in L2 (e.g., “The car is muy rapido.”  In this case, the student knows the concept as well as the needed structure but cannot remember the vocabulary). Student is demonstrating limited phrasing and vocabulary in both languages (e.g., his/her sentences in both languages demonstrate limited or no use of adjectives and adverbs and both languages are marked by a short length of utterance).
The rules concerning the construction of words from meaningful units
Native speakers of Russian may not use articles as they do no exist in that language.  A student whose native language is Spanish may omit the possessive (‘s’) when producing an utterance in English (e.g., “Joe crayon broke” or he will say “the crayon of Joe broke,” applying a structure that is influenced by the rules of his/her L1.  He/she still demonstrates understanding of the morphologic structure for possession but is demonstrating errors in structure that are directly influenced by his/her L1.) Student’s productions in both languages demonstrate a lack of the possessive form indicating that he/she has not acquired this morphologic structure by the appropriate age.  Again, both languages may be marked by a short length of utterance.
Flowing speech that is not marked by excessive interruptions, interjections, and/or repetitions
Student’s language does exhibit more interruptions, interjections, and/or repetitions for his/her age, but there are no physical concomitants marking the speech (physical strain or repeated physical actions), and the student does not seem to exhibit a consciousness of his/her dysfluency.  Students learning L2 may exhibit interruptions, interjections, and repetitions as they are searching for words while speaking. Major reliance on gestures rather than speech to communicate in both L1 and L2, even after lengthy exposure to English.  The student exhibits not only interruptions, interjections, and/or repetitions, but also demonstrates physical concomitants that accompany these behaviors such as facial grimacing, leg stomping, or blinking that indicates physical struggle in producing speech.  In addition, these students may demonstrate recognition of their dysfluency and try to avoid specific sounds or words.  These behaviors will occur in both languages.
The rules for combination of sounds in a language
Student may omit specific sound combinations or have difficulty producing certain sounds in the L2 that do not exist in the phonology of the L1 (e.g., student may have difficulty producing the /r/ /l/, /f/, /ch/, or /th/ in L2, or a Tagolog speaker might say “past" instead of “fast” or add a vowel before words that begin with clusters (“I go to eschool.”) Students will demonstrate a delay in the development of the age appropriate sounds in both languages (e.g., a student may consistently have difficulty producing vowels in both language or by middle school the student will still demonstrate initial consonant deletion in both languages).

Developed by Sarita C. Samora and Idalia Lopez-Diaz. (unpublished – adapted and printed with permission)

Quality Indicators for Implementing RtI with LEP/ELL students

  • Personnel with bilingual and ESL certification (teachers, related service providers, school psychologists, and administrators) are members of a district’s RtI design team and instructional support teams.
  • ESL is an integral part of core instruction for all LEP/ELL students, not an “intensive intervention” or additional tier in the RtI process. (Refer to Part 154 of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education for required units of ESL and ELA instruction.)
  • In districts that have sufficient numbers of LEP/ELL students who speak the same language to require bilingual programs, bilingual instruction is an integral part of core instruction (Tier 1) for those LEP/ELL students. (Refer to Part 154 of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education for required units of ESL, native language arts and ELA instruction.)
  • ESL methodology is employed in all three tiers and native language instruction or support is provided when needed to help rule out limited English proficiency or lack of appropriate instruction as causes of learning difficulties.
  • Culturally responsive instruction is employed in all three tiers.
  • Evidence-based practices/interventions shown to be effective and validated for LEP/ELL students are used.
  • Interventions are adapted to reflect cultural and linguistic considerations; adapted intervention protocols are standardized, implemented with fidelity, and revised as needed based on sufficient data reflecting student results and program efficacy.
  • The performance of “true peers” (i.e., students with the same native language and culture and similar educational histories) is considered when setting benchmarks, monitoring progress, and deciding whether a LEP/ELL student is responding adequately to instruction or needs more intensive intervention. 
  • Research on second language development and the student’s history of first and second language development are considered when setting benchmarks, monitoring progress, and deciding whether a LEP/ELL student is responding adequately to instruction or needs more intensive intervention.

Last Updated: November 9, 2010