Considerations for English Language Learners

Recent articles
(e.g., Scott, Hauerwas, & Brown, 2014) have summarized research and state regulatory provisions and guidance pertaining to the use of Response to Intervention (RtI) for the identification of students with specific learning disability (SLD) who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) and who may additionally be English language learners (ELLs).1 The process for determining whether students’ difficulties are due to the normal process of English language acquisition or limited opportunity for acculturative knowledge acquisition rather than a disability is neither well understood nor applied by school personnel, and students acquiring English often display similar characteristics to students with an SLD (Collier, 2011). Information in the following five areas provides guidance for the instruction of students who are CLD and for making valid decisions for determining special education eligibility.

  1. Expertise/knowledge of team and informed parent participation
  2. Effectiveness of Tier 1 core instruction
  3. Effectiveness of Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions
  4. Effectiveness of academic assessments and interpretation
  5. Comparisons to populations and normative samples

Expertise/Knowledge of Team and Informed Parent Participation

There are various team members that are involved as part of the RtI, the review of special education evaluation referrals, the evaluation process, and determination of special education eligibility. It is important that team members involved with CLD students have expertise relevant to cultural and linguistic differences. Most commonly, states recommend that an ELL teacher be part of the teams and that team members have training in CLD issues. Team members also need to recognize the complex relationship between developing language proficiency in the second language, literacy development in both languages, and acquiring culturally bound knowledge (e.g., learning the names of the states or capitals; national holidays; vocabulary words, particularly those that are idiomatic and colloquial in meaning and usage; or humor) (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2005).

Typically, personnel providing support for ELLs and students with IEPs are different and have separate personnel, policies, and funding sources. These differences often result in separate screening and service-delivery systems. When ELL and special education/related services professionals read and understand their respective guidance or policies, which indicate that those in each personnel area should discuss student strengths and needs with those in the other personnel area (and vice versa), each group is likely to do so in practice. Fully integrated processes require professionals to work together and use their expertise to provide appropriate services to CLD students in a transdisciplinary manner. When documents encourage communication and collaboration across disciplines and reference other documents (e.g., a special education document referencing a Title III document) and there is inclusive professional development to address the educational needs of all students, teams are more likely to be aware of and incorporate each other’s areas of expertise.

Finally, it is important that parents of students who are CLD provide consent to participate and be provided with meaningful opportunities to be involved in the team processes, and be able to contribute important information about their children and family needs, values, and culture.

The following questions help guide teams regarding inclusion of knowledgeable participants, particularly parents of CLD students and including ELLs (as age appropriate):

Does the school data–informed problem-solving team have all stakeholders involved, including the general education and English as a second language (ESL) teachers?

  • Is there a cultural liaison that can link the school and community contexts and parental rights for the parents?
  • Is the family informed of the student receiving preventive, tiered intervention in addition to ESL services as part of the school’s RTI/multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) model?
  • Are the parents involved in the process, problem solving, and monitoring of the educational plan’s (instruction and intervention) efficacy and response before the student is referred for special education evaluation?
  • Is the parent’s consent to a special education evaluation based on an informed understanding of the process and, when necessary, with the support of the cultural liaison, cultural navigator, or translator?2
  • When appropriate, are parents provided with the opportunity to report on surveys (adaptive, ecological, etc.) with the support of a cultural liaison, cultural navigator, or translator?
  • Have the student’s parents/guardians participated in the eligibility determination as partners and do they understand how the child will continue to receive the tiered, ESL, and specially designed instruction if eligible for special education services?

Tier 1 Core Instruction


ELLs without learning difficulties have been shown to demonstrate gains in phonemic awareness and phonics skills when provided systematic Tier 2 instruction in foundational literacy skills (Vaughn et al., 2006). However, because reading also involves age-expected development in vocabulary and grammar, ELLs need sufficient time to develop comparable levels of language proficiency beyond phonology and generally need support for years as part of general education. Thus, English instruction for CLD students, or ESL instruction, is best understood as another component of Tier 1 rather than being part of more temporary tiered interventions in RtI. Students who are ELLs require ongoing and sustained instruction in English language, ESL, as part of the core areas for as long as possible (Dixon, Zhao, & Shin, 2012).

The following characteristics apply to effective Tier 1 instruction for CLD students.

  • There is evidence that universal (core) instruction is effective with most students who share the student’s same cultural characteristics and/or stage or level of English language proficiency.
  • Instruction/intervention implemented was determined to be culturally and/or linguistically appropriate and was delivered using evidenced-based instructional practices (e.g., see Council for Exceptional Children, 2014; International Reading Association, 2002).
  • Limited opportunities for acquiring culturally bound knowledge, culture itself, ethnic diversity, and the normal process of developmental language acquisition can be ruled out as a primary cause of the student’s difficulties.

The following questions can be used by teams to address common challenges involved with the implementation of Tier 1 core curriculum for CLD and ELL students, and for the assessment of universal screening and progress monitoring.

  • Is there adequate instruction in reading and math, including in the five critical areas of literacy (phonemic awareness; phonics; vocabulary development; reading fluency, including oral reading skills; and reading comprehension strategies) identified in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, §1208(3), the National Reading Panel (2000) report, and the National Literacy Panel report (August, Shanahan, & Escamilla, 2009)?
  • Is the core curriculum for ELL students reflective of academic standards specific to bilingual education and ESL programs (e.g., World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment standards)?
  • Is there evidence of differentiation in the core Tier 1 curriculum by classroom teacher and ESL teacher?
  • Is the core instruction of high quality and delivered with fidelity?
  • Is there a difference in the student’s performance by subject area?
  • Are the universal screening and progress-monitoring instruments that have been selected culturally responsive for the learners who will be taking them? For example, are there items on the tests that would be easily understood based on the target student’s English language proficiency levels?
  • Was progress monitoring conducted in the language of intervention, when appropriate, and in English?

Tiers 2 and 3 Interventions

Explicit instruction in phonological awareness and/or vocabulary that builds on literacy skills in the primary and secondary languages has been demonstrated to be effective (Pollard-Durodola, Mathes, Vaugh, Cardenas-Hagan, & Linan-Thompson (2006). However, culturally responsive intervention practices must be validated for the targeted populations of students (Klingner et al., 2005). When students do not appear to be responding to interventions at the same rate or to the same degree as expected, the extent to which the interventions have or have not been validated for CLD students should be taken into account when considering referring an ELL student for a special education evaluation or considering assessment results for eligibility.

The following questions can be used by teams to address common challenges involved with the implementation of Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions for CLD and ELL students.

  • Was the instruction/intervention implemented in a culturally, linguistically, and developmentally appropriate manner?
  • Does the intervention include explicit academic intervention in the area(s) of learning difficulty?
  • Is there evidence that interventions were implemented with high fidelity as intended (i.e., by a qualified educator the specified number of times, for the time allotted, the number of weeks, and with regular progress monitoring)?
  • Do Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions supplement core instruction (not replace it)?
  • If students did not make sufficient progress with Tier 2 intervention, are the Tier 3 interventions delivered with higher intensity (i.e., qualified educator, more frequency, longer duration, and smaller group delivery [e.g., group sizes of 1 to 1 or 1 to 3])?

Culturally Responsive Assessments and Interpretation

To address concerns about the assessment and interpretation of achievement and progress results for CLD students, the professional literature reflects the following best practices:

  • Assessment in native language and English language when necessary and where appropriate;
  • Reliable instruments and procedures validated for intended use;
  • Credit for correct responses in either language only when permitted by the standardization protocol;
  • Use of authentic and curriculum-based measures and procedures;
  • Measuring language proficiency and acculturative knowledge acquisition in both languages;
  • Adaptation of measures for qualitative evaluation,3 describing patterns of strengths and needs; and
  • Determination of eligibility by a team that includes an expert in educating CLD students (see Collier, 2011; A. A. Ortiz & Artiles, 2010; Wagner, Francis, & Morris, 2005).

In addition, the following practices should be followed:

  • A language survey is complete and data are available to the team for problem solving. Examples of information gathered during the language survey include the following:
  • The native language of the parent/guardian;
  • Language(s) spoken in the home;
  • Language the child learned first;
  • Language the child uses most frequently at home;
  • Language the parent frequently speaks to child;
  • Other language the child knows;
  • Language(s) the student reads; and
  • Whether the student’s environment (school and community context) discussed as part of the referral process (e.g., the student’s home language is L1, a combination, or English) demonstrates a microcosm of the minority culture or whether the student’s experiences lie on an English dominant experience.
  • The teams, including the ESL teacher, meet regularly to analyze universal-screening and progress-monitoring data and make an instruction plan and tiered intervention for the target student not making progress.
  • The student’s language proficiency data are formally part of the universal-screening and progress-monitoring processes in each of the following areas: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
  • The universal-screening and progress-monitoring instruments used are culturally responsive and developmentally appropriate for the learners (i.e., items on the test should be easily understood by the target student because of his or her English language proficiency levels [instructional and grade level]).
  • The problem-solving team knows the student’s background and ecologies (i.e., first and second language proficiency and use in various settings, educational history, mobility patterns, parental socioeconomic status, ethnic background, years of residence in the United States, generational status and acculturative knowledge development, medical history, social history/significant life events).
  • Multiple evaluation instruments that are reliable and validated for the intended purpose are used, and the results are combined with those from universal screening, progress monitoring, and diagnostic, language proficiency, and other data sources to make an eligibility determination.

The following questions can be used by teams to address common challenges involved with the assessment and interpretation of data used for the referral, evaluation, and special education eligibility processes for CLD and ELL students.

  • Was the student’s development in English and the native language (when necessary and appropriate) evaluated?
  • Do the special education referral forms include a place for current level of performance that includes language proficiency data, school history, and data from universal screening and tiered interventions?
  • Did the team evaluate the linguistic demands and cultural loading4 of any test used in the evaluation and for making decisions?
  • Did the student get credit for responding in the native language as appropriate, where permitted by the standardization protocol?
  • Was the assessor completing the evaluation competent in both languages when any portion of the evaluation necessitated use or knowledge of the native language?
  • Were multiple evaluation instruments used that are reliable and validated for the intended purpose, and were the results combined with universal-screening, progress-monitoring, diagnostic, language proficiency, and other data sources to make an eligibility determination?
  • Were results described based on equitable and nondiscriminatory interpretation of assessments that have been systematically examined for potential bias relative to cultural and linguistic factors?
  • Does the team have sufficient, fair, and unbiased data and information to make decisions?

Comparing Populations and Normative Samples

While using curriculum-based measurement (CBM) data over time increases the reliability and validity of measures, as with other assessments, using CBM norms without establishing a normative sample of CLD peers to interpret the data may lead to biased interpretation (A. A. Ortiz & Artiles, 2010).

The following questions can be used by teams to address common challenges involved when using CBM data for CLD and ELL students in comparison with their peers.

  • Do student progress-monitoring data reflect a comparison to age- and grade-level state norms that represent the school population and comparison to a “true peer5”?
  • Is there evidence that a student’s achievement (e.g., basic skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking) differs significantly on grade-level standards from that of a true peer?
  • Is there evidence that the rate of progress differs significantly from that of a true peer?
  • Has the student failed to develop expected native language and English skills reasonable for developmental experiences and background despite appropriate instruction for the numbers of years the target student has received ESL supports as part of the general education?


  The resources below provide additional information about the cultural- and linguistic-sensitivity of assessments:

Figueroa, R. A. (2006). The diagnosis of LD in English learners: Is it nondiscriminatory? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 206–214.

Valdes, G., & Figueroa, R. (1994). Bilingualism and testing: A special case of bias. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Ochoa, S. H., Rhodes, R., & Ortiz, S. O. (2005). Assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse children: A practical guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Sotelo-Dynega, M., Ortiz, S. O., Flanagan, D. P., & Chaplin, W. (2013). English language proficiency and test performance: Evaluation of bilinguals with the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Cognitive Ability. Psychology in the Schools, 50, 781–797.

State Departments of Education Resources:

Colorado Department of Education Exceptional Student Services: SLD Topic Brief: Cultural and/or Linguistic Diversity & SLD   

Connecticut Department of Education: Scientific Research-based Interventions for English Language Leaners: Handbook to Accompany Connecticut’s Framework for RTI 

Oklahoma State Department of Education: Identifying and Assessing English Language Learners with Disabilities 

Vermont Department of Education: English Language Learners in Vermont: Distinguishing Language Difference from Disability: A Resource Guide


1The authors explained that they chose the term CLD as a broader term to capture the range of diverse learners across the country who are frequently referred to as English language learners, students with limited English proficiency, native language speaker, dialect speaker, and student who is learning English as a second language.

2Cultural navigator refers in the education workforce to individuals who “demonstrate how to possess both dominant and non-dominant cultural capital and how to be adept at movement through various sociocultural settings” (Carter, 2005).

3 Often, standardized tests are administered not because the end is the derivation of scores, but for the purpose of evaluating the examinee’s approach, response processes, attention, error patterns, and other “qualitative” aspects of performance that are not captured via standard scores. For example, a child who does not comprehend the instructions may well perform poorly on a test not because of lack of ability but because he or she didn’t catch or understand the meaning of “work as quickly as you can.” Or, an examinee might respond to a vocabulary picture prompt in his or her own language but not know the word in English—this is an incorrect response; however, noting that the child is in fact able to recognize the picture and name it in his or her own language, but not English, is valuable qualitative information.

4Cultural loading refers to the sample of normative tests (i.e., intelligence and achievement) that are not generally normed for ELLs; the results may demonstrate lowered measures and incorrect conclusions about a student’s scores (S. O. Ortiz, 2004 ).

5“True peer” represents students who can be used for comparison to the target student; students have similar language proficiency, culture, and experiential background (i.e., age, time in the United States and acculturation in adapting to a new environment, use of L1 and L2 at home, school and community, socioeconomic status, gender, educational programming or language service plan such as dual language instruction, transitional bilingual instruction, ESL services, or sheltered-English instruction)(Brown & Doolittle, 2008).



August, D., Shanahan, T., & Escamilla, K. (2009). English language learners: Developing literacy in second-language children and youth: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Journal of Literacy Research,41, 432. doi: 10.1080/10862960903340165


Carter, P. (2005). Keepin’ it real: School success beyond Black and white. Harvard Education Review, 77 (2). Retrieved from


Collier, V. (2011). Seven steps to separating difference from disability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Council for Exceptional Children (n.d.). Standards for evidence-based practice in special education. Retrieved from


Dixon, L. Q., Zhao, J., & Shin, J. (2012). What we know about second language acquisition: A synthesis from four perspectives. Review of Educational Research 82, 5–60. doi:10.3102/0034654311433587


Esparza, J. B, & Doolittle, J. (2008). A cultural, linguistic, and ecological framework for response to intervention with English language learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40 (5), 66–72.


Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2005). English language learners in U.S. schools: An overview of research findings. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10, 363–385. Retrieved from


Higgins-Averill, O., Baker, D., & Rinaldi, C. (2013, September 26). Research brief: The nexus of response to intervention (RTI) and the identification of specific learning disabilities (SLD): Guidelines for district-level implementation. Retrieved from

International Reading Association (n.d.). What is evidence-based reading instruction? Retrieved from
Klingner, J. K., 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, Article 38. Retrieved from

National Reading Panel. (2000). Retrieved from

Ortiz, A. A., & Artiles, A. J. (2010). Meeting the needs of ELLs with disabilities: A linguistically and culturally responsive model. In G. Li & P.A. Edwards (Eds.), Best practices in ELL instruction(pp. 24-272). New York, NY: Guilford.

Ortiz, A. A., Robertson, P. M. , Wilkinson, C. Y., Liu, Y., McGhee, B. D., & Kushner, M. I. (2011). The role of bilingual education teachers in preventing inappropriate referrals of ELLs to special education: Implications for response to intervention. Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education, 34, 316–333. doi: 10.1080/15235882.2011.628608

Ortiz, S. O. (2004). Comprehensive assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse students: A systematic, practical approach for nondiscriminatory assessment. Retrieved from

Parker, C. E., Avery, M. P., Fuxman, S., Lingan, A., Rinaldi, C., Sanchez, M.T., & Schmaberg, M. (2012). English language learners with disabilities in Massachusetts: Identification, instruction, and challenges. A report to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Malden, MA. Available from

Pollard-Durodola, S. D., Mathes, P. G., Vaughn, S., Cardenas-Hagan, E., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2006). The role of oracy in developing comprehension in Spanish-speaking English language learners. Topics in Language Disorders, 26, 365–384. Retrieved from
Scott, A. N., Hauerwas, L. B., & Brown, R. D. (2013). State policy and guidance for identifying learning disabilities in culturally and linguistically diverse students. Learning Disability Quarterly August 2014 vol. 37 no. 3 172-185.

Stuart, S. K., & Rinaldi, C. (2012). Response to intervention for English language learners. Journal of Multiculturalism in Education, 7(4). Retrieved from

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

Wagner, R. K., Francis, D. J., & Morris, R. D. (2005). Identifying English language learners with learning disabilities: Key challenges and possible approaches. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20,6–15. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2005.00115.x




Read the next article in this series >>


Back To Top