Response to Intervention: Implications for Spanish-Speaking English Language Learners

The Census Bureau estimates that approximately 5.5 million students in the United States are English language learners (2000). They speak over 400 different languages but 80% of them speak Spanish in the home (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). The Hispanic population is projected to grow 166%, or 28 million persons, from 2005 to 2050 (Fry & Gonzales, 2008). They will represent every 1 out of 5 students in our public schools, and yet how much do we know about them? Who are our English language learners?

A simple definition of English language learners is students for whom English is a second language. However, there are specific classifications of English language learners based upon their oral language proficiency skills. That is, they may be classified as initially fluent English proficient, limited English proficient, or reclassified English proficient. Students who are reclassified English proficient are ready for mainstream English instruction classrooms (Rivera, Lessaux, & Francis, 2009). These classifications help us to better serve these students whose academic achievements have been below their monolingual English-speaking peers.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted in 2005 describes 73% of our English language learners as scoring below basic level in reading when compared to non-Hispanic whites (NAEP, 2005). In 2009, there was a 25-point score gap between white and Hispanic fourth-grade students' reading achievement that was not significantly different from the gaps in 2007, 2005, or 1992 (NAEP, 2009). To adequately address this longstanding gap, educators must be knowledgeable in best practices to help English language learners achieve their academic goals.

Response-to-Intervention Model for English Language Learners

The Response-to-Intervention (RTI) model is a pledge to address individual student needs and improve the outcomes of students who struggle with learning to read, especially language minority students. In fact, there is growing evidence that RTI can provide effective interventions for English language learners who struggle with reading (Linan-Thompson, Vaughn, Prater, & Cirino, 2006; Vaughn, Cirino, Linan-Thompson, et al., 2006; Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, Mathes, et al., 2006). General classroom instruction is analyzed and modified to address student needs before they are moved to the next level of a three-tiered model (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003).

Historically, Hispanic students have been over-represented in special education programs (Artiles, Trent, & Palmer, 2004). The RTI model may help to avoid over-and under-identification of language-minority students in special education programs (Bedore & Peña, 2008) because RTI recommends universal screening and high quality instruction for all students within the general education setting. In an RTI model, a special education referral is recommended only after the student has been provided with differentiated classroom instruction and intensive reading interventions.

Monitoring Progress

The RTI model requires ongoing progress monitoring tools to determine if a student is making adequate progress. If he or she is not, then supplemental, explicit interventions are provided within a small group setting, which is referred to as the second tier of instruction. The student's response to the intervention is measured to determine whether adequate progress has been made or if further intervention is necessary. It may also be determined that more intensive interventions are needed (Gersten et al., 2007).

For language minority students, progress monitoring helps to ensure that they have received adequate and appropriate educational opportunities for learning to read. The results of progress monitoring tools can be used to guide and design instruction for English language learners. However, it is important to keep in mind that English language learners should not be penalized for slight differences in their responses which might include their accents or a certain dialect. These are some modifications that are necessary when determining an English language learner's progress. It is clear that the language and literacy skills of English language learners are not static and require adjustments and enhancements. A response-to intervention model requires a careful match between the student’s weakness and the intervention instruction.

In the RTI model student strengths and weaknesses are assessed to determine the most effective instruction. For English language learners, assessment that includes testing across languages is the gold standard. If a student is only assessed in the second language, it is not clearly understood if the weakness is one of limited second language development or lack of knowledge of the particular concept. This is an important distinction for instructors to determine if the focus of instruction should be on second language development, concept development, or both. The challenge for English language learners is that they are acquiring a new language and learning new concepts at the same time.

Finally, during the assessment process, it is important to use multiple sources of data to determine the appropriate instructional program for the English language learner. Some examples include determining the student’s home language, cultural background, schooling, and language of instruction. It is also important for school personnel to take into consideration the reliability and validity of the measurement tools they have selected to measure a student's level of performance. States such as Texas have approved lists of assessment tools appropriate for language minority students (Texas Education Agency, 2009).


If during the RTI process, it is determined that English language learners require Tier 2 interventions, then it is necessary for educators to become familiar with the research on effective instruction for this population of students. For example, Developing Literacy in a Second Language: Report of the National Literacy Panel (August & Shanahan, 2006) includes a review of the research for literacy instruction among English language learners. The report suggests that what works for teaching struggling readers in English can also benefit English language learners, but with modifications. Careful planning is needed. Adjustments in curricular materials and instruction to address their educational needs are essential for their academic success. For example, it is observed that by the time English language learners are ready to transition to the English language or enroll in school, the general education classroom instruction is focused on reading to learn rather than teaching the mechanics of learning how to read.

Instructors must also be aware of the each individual’s second language development abilities as well as second language literacy skills. Therefore, when providing literacy instruction it is necessary to include both language and literacy opportunities. This is not always the case for monolingual English speakers.

Flanagan, Ortiz and Alfonso (2007) emphasize that it is also important for educators to remember that individuals who are bilingual are not simply two monolinguals in one head. Being bilingual carries with it important experiences that are very different from those with monolingual experiences.

Literacy in English Language Leaners

Languages that are alphabetic share many similarities when it comes to instruction. These similarities and differences can serve as a resource for instruction but must be understood fully to inform effective instructional practices. A discussion of the similarities and differences across the key components of literacy instruction: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension for English language learners will inform the use of RTI with this population.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is a key component of literacy instruction across many languages. Phonological awareness skills include the ability to process and manipulate the sounds of a language. If a student is able to process sounds in his or her native language, then it is possible to transfer these same skills to the second language. For example, the Spanish language consists of approximately 22 sounds as compared to English with approximately double the number of sounds, or 44. English language learners can benefit from exposure to the new sounds of the language. If a student is able to master phonological awareness skills in the first language then he or she is more likely to master this ability in the second language. In an RTI model, a teacher evaluates and determines the sounds an individual student can process and manipulate. Once this is determined, instruction is designed to focus on the new and unfamiliar sounds. For Spanish-speaking English language learners, unfamiliar sounds can include certain vowels, consonants, and diphthongs. Figure 1 lists some of the English sounds not present in Spanish.

Figure 1. Examples of unfamiliar English sounds for native Spanish speakers.


Another key component of literacy instruction is grapho-phonemic knowledge or phonics. For English language learners, phonics instruction can address the concepts of English that are not present in the native language. English language learners can transfer their phonics knowledge from one language to the second language. However, for the transfer to take place, the language must be similar in structure. For example, the Spanish and English languages are both alphabetic languages. Therefore, the transfer of knowledge between these languages is more likely to occur.
English language learners require explicit and systematic English phonics instruction. Teachers may want to consider the similarities across languages such as Spanish and English when designing reading instruction. For example, we can teach English language learners the similar letter and sound correspondences in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Spanish and English letter-sound correlations.

Spanish speaking English language learners are not likely to be familiar with English syllable types. Although, some of the same syllable patterns exist in the Spanish language, Spanish speakers do not rely on these patterns because vowel sounds are consistent and do not change. Therefore, these similar syllable patterns are not directly taught during Spanish literacy instruction. Once again, English language learners can benefit from explicit phonics instruction that includes learning the following six syllable types in the English language (see also Figure 3).

1) When an English syllable ends in a vowel and at least one consonant, the English vowel sound is short. This is a closed syllable.
2) When a syllable ends in one vowel, it produces a long vowel sound, which is called an open syllable.
3) A vowel, consonant-e pattern makes the vowel sound long and the e is silent. Spanish speakers tend to pronounce the final e sound because this pattern exists in Spanish.
4) English has syllables that consist of a vowel followed by the letter r.
5) English has diphthongs or vowel pair syllables.
6) English has final syllables that are stable, such as fle, sion, tion.


Figure 3. English and Spanish syllable types.

In summary, English language learners can benefit from learning which components of phonics knowledge transfer and what is similar or dissimilar about the two languages. Instructors must not assume that the transfer is automatic. It should be explicitly taught. It is also important to realize that teachers do not have to have mastery of the home language of the student to point out concepts that do or do not transfer. This can easily be researched and included in the core reading instruction (Tier 1) lessons as well as during reading intervention lessons (Tiers 2 and 3).

Remember, students who struggle with learning to read in their native language are likely to exhibit similar difficulties in the second language. Mastery of the native language literacy does not always ensure mastery of second language literacy. It is evident that students with native language literacy abilities are not at as high of a risk for second language literacy development as those students who exhibit native language literacy deficits. These students are considered at very high risk for second language literacy deficits.


There is less empirical evidence in the area of reading fluency among English language learners. There are some studies that pair monolingual English speakers with English language learners to practice and build fluency skills. Thus, giving the students excellent models of English reading fluency has helped to develop English reading fluency. The correlation of reading fluency to comprehension among this population has not been as well-established as it has been established for monolingual English speakers developing English language literacy. But, practices such as choral, partner, echo, and repeated reading are just a few of the practices that have assisted monolingual English readers (NICHD National Literacy Panel Report, 2000). These practices can be used with English language learners as we await further studies in the area of reading fluency skills among English language learners. Some studies report that English language learners can benefit from fluency practice (Kamps, Abbott, et al., 2007; Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, et al., 2006).


In the area of vocabulary development, it is well-established that English language learners lag behind their monolingual English peers (August, Carlo, et al., 2005). English language learners require explicit instruction in common every day words as well as academic words. One resource for native Spanish speakers is the fact that 60% of the English language is derived from Latin. Many common words in the Spanish language are high-level words in English. For example, facile in Spanish is the common word fácil and edifice in English is the common word edificio in Spanish. Teachers need to be aware of the similarities of words across languages and use this as a basis for teaching new words in English.

Instructors must also be aware that students do not spontaneously recognize cognates, or words in both languages that are similar as shown in Figure 4 (August, Carlo, et al., 2005). They need explicit and purposeful instruction in this area. Remember, words must be used in context and practiced extensively for English language learners to master the understanding and use of the new vocabulary words. It is important for instructors to assess word knowledge within and across languages to better understand English language learners' vocabulary knowledge. This information will also guide instruction for English language learners in all 3 tiers of instruction within an RTI framework.


Figure 4.  Examples of cognates or words from different languages that are similar.
English language learners also need assistance with understanding words with multiple meanings. The Spanish language has fewer words with multiple meanings than English, so English language learners need many opportunities to use these words in various contexts. Instructors should choose words carefully. For example, the word run has many meanings. Grammatically, it is typically a verb. However, the contexts in which we use the word run vary. I run to the store. I run copies of the handouts. Sam runs the senator’s campaign. The word run can also be used as a noun. For example, Sally will participate in the 5K run. The complexities involved in using and understanding the multiple meanings and grammatical functions of words such as run require explicit instruction for English language learners.
It is also important for English language learners to learn basic vocabulary words as well as academic vocabulary words. A few studies have described the use of graphic organizers with visual illustrations of key terms, vocabulary words, and the relationship among words as a method to facilitate comprehension among English language learners (Kim, Vaughn, Wanzek, & Wei, 2004; Merkley & Jeffries, 2001). In addition, having students play games such as charades whereby the students are acting out action words such as verbs is also helpful for learning the words. Having students make their own glossaries as shown in Figure 5, is another way to help students build their word repertoire. The glossaries can include the word, the word meaning, and a picture or sentence to further understanding of the word’s meaning. Finally, listing the word in the native language is also helpful. Students can use their glossaries as resources for reviewing words and their meanings.




Word in Native Language

musician The musician performed a concert last night. musician2


soloist The soloist sang two songs.



gleam My mother's pearls gleamed in the sunlight.


brillo o reflejo

flicker The flicker of the candles made shadows on the wall.



Figure 5. Sample student glossary for improving vocabulary skills adapted from August and Carlo, 2005.



In the area of reading comprehension, English language learners have great difficulty. Their reduced vocabulary levels may be a factor contributing to their difficulty with comprehension acquisition. There are few empirical studies on effective comprehension studies among English language learners. The National Literacy Panel Report (2000) cited strategies such as questioning, comprehension monitoring, and summarizing to be effective for monolingual English speakers. These same strategies can be integrated during instruction with English language learners. English language learners require intense and explicit instruction in this area. They may also benefit from native language support to increase the depth of their understanding.


English language learners respond to instruction that is designed to meet their individual language and conceptual needs. Designing that instruction is a challenge for a number of reasons (e.g., paucity of research, differences between languages). Research on interventions for English language learners has had positive outcomes when instructors teach new skills explicitly and intensely with minor modifications to general classroom reading instruction.

In the future we will have more research to help educators better understand the most effective methods for the assessment and intervention among our English language learners. Yet, we cannot wait for an abundance of research regarding the RTI model and its effectiveness among English language learners to be readily available. Instead, we must make informed decisions based upon what we do know. We do know the advantages of a model that emphasizes universal screening, identifies students who struggle with learning to read, and provides early and intensive reading interventions. RTI’s ongoing progress monitoring informs adjustments to instruction and programming, paving the way for all students to succeed in reading, including those who belong to the fastest growing population in our schools—English language learners.


Tips for Effective Instruction

As students are identified as requiring additional and more intensive instruction, it is clear that English language learners can respond to explicit and systematic instruction (Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, et al., 2006). However, it is important to consider the instructional modifications listed below:

1) Establish routines so that students understand what is expected of them.
2) Provide native language support when giving directions or when assisting the student in making connections across languages.
3) Provide opportunities for repetition and rehearsal so that the new information can be learned to mastery.
4) Adjust the rate of speech and the complexity of the language used according to the second language proficiency level of each student.
5) Provide opportunities for English language learners to practice using their new second language skills. This practice can be designed during small group instruction or during cooperative learning settings, which are less intimidating environments for the second language learner to use the newly acquired skills.
6) It is important to consider pairing an English language learner with a more proficient English speaker. In this way, the student is assured of receiving correct models of the second language.
7) English language learners need more time to process language during the early stages of second language development. They also need extra time to formulate their responses.
8) It is important to build upon what English language learners already know and expand upon their knowledge.
9) Teachers should provide excellent models of oral language. If an English language learner creates a simple sentence, then the instructor can build upon this and focus on adding new grammatical structures such as adjectives and adverbs.

10) Interventions are more effective when students new learning is introduced and practiced. They are also effective when both content and language skills are addressed.
11) English language learners respond better to text that includes familiar content. They also understand text with more ease when they have opportunities to preview, review, paraphrase, and summarize.


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This article was originally published in Perspectives on Language and Literacy, vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 2010, copyright by The International Dyslexia Association. Used with permission.

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