School & District Management

Study: How One School Carried Out RTI for ELLs Badly

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 07, 2010 2 min read
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A case study by researchers about how one Midwestern elementary school did a poor job of implementing “response to intervention” raises red flags about whether the approach is a good idea for English-language learners. It comes as some school districts are rushing to carry out RTI.

Two researchers specializing in bilingual education describe in the recent issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities how the implementation of RTI in this one school, in which 35 percent of students are Spanish-speaking English-language learners, seemed to be a hindrance rather than a help to ELLs. The researchers credit only one of the six teachers participating in the study with consistently carrying out effective lessons for ELLs. (The article about the case study is free only to journal subscribers.)

In RTI, educators carry out three “tiers” of instruction in an attempt to meet the needs of struggling students and prevent referrals to special education. Tier 1 equals general instruction. Tier 2 includes supplemental interventions for struggling students. Tier 3 refers to instruction at a very intense level. (Some researchers say it should only be one-on-one with the most expert of educators).

The implementation failed in this one district mostly because everything developed, implemented, and practiced by the majority of participants focused on the deficits of ELLs rather than their assets, the researchers wrote. They characterize the majority of participants as having a very limited knowledge of effective pedagogy for ELLs. They say that teachers used assessments and reading principles that didn’t help ELLs to learn. They tended to view their Latino students through a white middle-class lens and didn’t bridge the home-school cultural and linguistic differences to create a better climate for Latino students. And the teachers didn’t have adequate training in ELL strategies, the researchers say.

“RTI is a beautiful concept,” Michael John Orosco, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside and a researcher for the study, told me over the phone today. But he added that for the approach to work, educators need to receive high-quality and on-going training in ELL pedagogy.

Orosco contends that though some school districts have had large numbers of ELLs for decades, they still haven’t figured out how to instruct ELLs well in general education. So it’s not a surprise that adding Tiers 2 and 3 in the RTI process doesn’t make matters better, he said.

Earlier this week, I moderated a chat with two researchers who made a similar point that the first step to improving instruction for ELLs should be focusing on the quality of general education.

One bright spot in the case study is the fact that a bilingual teacher who took part was deemed by the researchers to be effective with ELLs. Orosco told me today that she isn’t a Latina but had lived in northern Mexico and fell in love with the Spanish language and Mexican culture. She’d figured out how to give lessons that were relevant to students’ Latino culture, he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.