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RTI and English Language Learners – Disproportionate Representation


Key terms:

ELL: English Language Learner, sometimes referred to as linguistically diverse students.

RTI – Response to Intervention

CBM – Curriculum Based Measurement

GOM – General Outcome Measures

Basic RTI Description

Key Information

  • The number of students who are English language learners (ELL) in theUnited   States is increasing, and schools have difficulty distinguishing between students who have difficulties acquiring a second language and those who have a language‑based learning disability. (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008)
  • From 1950-2000, the Hispanic population in the U.S. has grown from 2% to 15%, and an estimated 31% of those students have difficulty speaking English, which is the language of instruction for ELLs (Hager, 2007)
  • There is a disproportionate representation of minority students in special education because linguistically diverse students are more often living in poverty, which statistically puts them at more risk for academic failure (Linan-Thompson et al, 2007)
  • Schools also report having  inadequate services for linguistically diverse students with disabilities (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008)
  • Linguistically diverse students need effective instruction that includes the features of effective instruction on the components of reading and the development of English language skills (Linan-Thompson et al, 2007)
  • Research provides limited guidance on how instruction for English language learners should be different for native speakers (Hager, 2007)
  • RTI data have not yet been disaggregated for ethnicity or linguistically diverse students (Linan-Thompson et al, 2007)
  • Tests and other evaluative materials must not be culturally biased and teacher should know whether or not the test is normed on a similar group of students (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008)
  • Using a norming sample as a benchmark is problematic for ELLs because they are  not included in the norming samples (Linan-Thompson et al, 2007)
  • Studies show that fluency GOMs only assess static knowledge. It’s difficult to tell whether a linguistically diverse learner does not do well because of lack of content knowledge, lack of reading experience, less language experience, or because of a suspected disability. (Barrera & Liu, 2010)
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution to RTI, but having two separate systems of support, one for native speakers who aren’t responding to instruction and one for linguistically diverse students, is not ideal. (Hager, 2007) Research suggest that English language learners may need different types of Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction (Harry & Klingner, 2007)
  • Teachers sometimes don’t refer students who are English language learners to special education because they want to give students time to learn English, but if a student has a learning disability, then early identification and intervention is important (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008)
  • General educators are obligated to make sure that ELL students have adequate evidence-based instruction and progress monitoring at every tier of RTI (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008)
  • Dual discrepancy combines student performance and growth and compares students to their peers (Linan-Thompson et al, 2007)
  • When it comes to RTI and linguistically diverse students, the focus should be on each individuals and meeting their needs (Linan-Thompson et al, 2007)
  • Few studies provide descriptions or data on levels of English proficiency and the effect on a students academic progress, and the few studies that do focus on Latino Spanish speakers (Barrera & Liu, 2010)
  • Problems with RTI include “lack of attention to differences in research sampling practices, unavailability of culturally responsive interventions, under-theorizing of the role of cultural-historical contexts in student learning, or lack of tools sensitive to ELL’s responsiveness” (Artiles, et. al, 2010, 251)
  • Language proficiency development may be different for English language learners versus native speakers, but interventions often treat these as the same process, and educators may determine a student who has a disability or refer him to the RTI process because he doesn’t behave like other children from the same background, and variations within a cultural group may complicate assessment and referrals even further (Barrera & Liu, 2010)
  • There are students who do not respond to intervention who may have been inappropriately identified as having a learning disability, and this includes students linguistically diverse students. These students are overrepresented within RTI and special education (NJCLD RTI)
  • Educators must ensure that students’ socio-cultural, linguistic, racial/ethnic, and other relevant background characteristics are addressed at all stages, including reviewing student performance, considering reasons for student difficulty or failure, designing alternative interventions, and interpreting assessment results (Garcia & Ortiz, 2002)

Classroom Connections

Four key elements of culturally and linguistically responsible pre-referral intervention  (Garcia & Ortiz, 2002)

Preventing School Underachievement and Failure

  • Teachers must share the philosophy that all students can learn and they must create environments that encourage socially and culturally diverse students to succeed by:
  • Making sure that language and content of the instruction is within the student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD)
  • Include guided participation and a variety of scaffolding techniques
  • Building strong relationships with families of linguistically diverse learners
  • Include culturally and linguistically diverse literature in the classroom, including

Early Intervention for Struggling Learners

  • Pre-referral practices must include meaningful instruction strategies; RTI cannot just be viewed as a hurdle to jump on the way to special education
  • Remedial instruction

Diagnostic/Prescriptive Teaching

  • Reteach using different strategies or approaches
  • Use of informal assessment strategies
  • Use of curriculum-based assessments (CBMs), and use the results to guide instruction
  • Professional development, including typical and atypical language and literacy characteristics of ELLs (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008)
  • Dynamic Assessment is needed to improve accurate RTI referrals for ELLS (Barrera & Liu, 2010)

Availability of General Education Problem-Solving Support Systems

  • Peer and expert consultations, including teacher assistance teams, which help select strategies, methods or approaches to make content more accessible to English Language Learners.
  • Schoolwide systems of support
  • Access for teachers to refer to one-on-one tutoring, family counseling, and family and student support groups
  • Supports must be known to be effective for linguistically diverse learners
  • Supports must have high expectations, equity practices, additive orientation, and resilience-focused

“Students shouldn’t need a false disability label to receive appropriate support.” (Harry & Klingner, 2007, 21)

Selected Resources

Website:  NationalCenter on Response to Intervention website:

Webinar: Smart RTI:  A Next Level Approach to Multi-Level Prevention by Doug Fuchs


What You Need to Know about IDEA 2004 Response to Intervention (RTI): New Ways to Identify Specific Learning Disabilities (

A Parent’s Guide to Response to Intervention (RTI) (

RTI for English Language Learners: Appropriately Using Screening and Progress Monitoring Tools to Improve Instructional Outcomes Brown and Sanford (

Questions to Consider

1. Based on the data presented and your own experience, do you think RTI is an adequate system of support for linguistically diverse students? Why or why not?

2.  Do you have suggestions for effective strategies for helping linguistically diverse students acquire academic skills during the RTI process?


Artiles, A.J., Bal, A, King Thorius, K.A. Back to the Future: A Critique of Response to Intervention’s Social Justice Views. Theory   Into Practice (49), 250-257.

Barrera, M., Liu, K.K. (2010). Challenges of General Outcomes Measurement in the RTI Progress Monitoring of Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Learners Theory into Practice, (49), 273-280.

Garcia, S.B., Ortiz, A.A. (2006) Preventing disproportionate representation: Culturally Responsible Pre-referral Interventions. National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, 1-20

Hager, D. (2007) Promises and Cautions Regarding Using Response to Intervention With English Language Learners Learning Disability Quarterly,(30), 213-218.

Harry, B., Klingner, J. (2007) Discarding the Deficit Model. Educational Leadership, 16‑21

Linan-Thompson, S., Cirino, P.T., Vaughn, S. (2007) Determining English Language Learners Response to Intervention: Questions and Some Answers, Learning Disability Quarterly (30), 185-195.

National Centers for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (

Rinaldi, C. , Samson, J. (2008) English Language Learners and Response to Intervention: Referral Considerations. Teaching Exceptional Children (40)5, 6-14.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 02/20/2013 7:29 am

    Reblogged this on

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