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Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation


Research-Based Strategies


A nagging question arises when ELLs receiving intervention fail to make adequate progress. Is this evidence of a disability, or is it the second-language learning process? It is not a simple process to sort out. According to Klingner, “The single greatest source of inaccurate diagnoses of learning disabilities in the ELL population is misinterpreting second-language acquisition as a language disorder or learning disabilities.”

The difficulty in identifying learning disabilities in ELLs is related to the defining features of this disorder. By definition, learning disabilities is a language-based disorder. Students with learning disabilities have inherent difficulties with cognitive processing, most often evident in language-dependent skills. Educators must decide whether a delay in acquiring English is impacting academic learning, or a true disability is impacting both academic and language learning. The RTI process provides important data that will significantly improve the accuracy of diagnosis. Knowing how a student responds to high-quality intervention is valuable diagnostic information to be used along with more formal diagnostic tests.

Collaborative Teams

The RTI process puts decision-making into the hands of a collaborative team earlier in the process than would happen without the RTI process. Collaborative teaming in the RTI model is a proactive and preventive approach to intervening when students experience difficulties, whether or not the cause is a disability. In contrast, past models are a more reactive approach of waiting until a student is severely behind to make a formal referral. Though IDEA is the law that mandates special education, the RTI process is conceptualized as a function of general education. Universal screening assessment and tiered intervention models are not just for students with identified disabilities. It is meant to provide timely intervention for any student who experiences difficulty to prevent extreme achievement gaps. Of course, some students who receive tiered intervention will have a true disability, and that is where collaborative teams function well with a data-based decision-making process. The law permits the use of data showing a student’s response to intervention, as an alternative to, or in addition to, the achievement-ability discrepancy approach for determining eligibility under the category of Specific Learning Disabilities. If the child responds positively, indicating a positive trend toward closing the achievement gap, this is evidence that the student’s difficulties are attributable to a disability. If we see a non-responsive pattern, indicating that there is no growth or very slow growth, we know a disability is possible, warranting further investigation.

Establishing an “RTI Management Team” is critical to effective implementation. Whether the RTI team is an existing team or a newly formed team, the function of the team needs to be clearly defined and have systematic ways of operating. Typically, schools have a pre-referral team that works with teachers and staff to monitor students who experience difficulty. This type of “watch” team has various names, such as Student Study Team or Student Assistance Team, and such a team could take on the role of RTI management. Members of the team should include classroom teachers, intervention teachers, and other support staff. For ELLs, the RTI management team should include an ESL specialist.

Team responsibilities include design, implementation and monitoring of the school-wide RTI intervention model and assessment process. The main team responsibilities include:

  • Universal Screening Assessment: selecting screening tools, scheduling, assessment process, data management, data analysis and data-based recommendations
  • Intervention Implementation: consultation with interventionists, scheduling, and supporting intervention implementation
  • Progress Monitoring Assessment: ongoing monitoring of individual data to determine responsiveness and intervention adjustments
  • Consultation: with interventionists and teachers to adjust intervention for individuals and make recommendations when a referral is warranted

Assessment and Identification of ELLs for Special Education

The referral process is tricky. Educators are often confused about whether to make a referral or not. Many educators fear misidentification and choose to err on the side of caution by waiting for the student’s language proficiency to develop. We know that this is harmful–it delays or denies specialized services for students who really do have a disability. Still, we do have a responsibility to ensure we are making accurate decisions and avoiding mislabeling a student. Many educators have a false belief that an ELL cannot have both ESL and special education services. Some think it is illegal; others may view it as conflicting or confusing for the student. Whatever the reason for the misperception, it is simply not true. If we can accurately identify a student’s disability, the specialized instruction and support should be coordinated with language support services.

The law says that testing should occur in students’ native language, using valid and reliable assessment tools. There are few assessments with established reliability and validity in languages other than English. A few tests are available in Spanish and should be administered by a bilingual tester who can administer a test appropriately. Thus, assessments used in the RTI process serve as alternate sources of data. When a student’s response to intervention is not sufficient, the RTI team may recommend moving forward with a referral and parent consent for a comprehensive evaluation. The chart below provides guidelines for evaluating responsiveness.

Student Response Levels of Response
Positive response Gap is closing
Can estimate timeline for meeting goal
Questionable response Gap is no longer growing or rate falling behind is slowing
Poor response Gap continues to widen with no change of rate

The timeline and guidelines of IDEA govern the eligibility process. In addition to formal testing, the IEP team can use progress monitoring data, observations, interviews, and work samples as evidence for the presence of a disability. For an ELL, the team should also consider language proficiency testing. Classroom and intervention teachers, parents, ESL specialists, and other professionals provide vital information about the student and the context for learning.

Understand the similarities and differences between learning disabilities and language acquisition

The chart below, adapted from Klingner and Eppolito (2014), shows behaviors that teachers may notice in the classroom as indicators of a problem and how they may be attributed to either learning disabilities or the language acquisition process. An ELL experiencing one or more of these difficulties may receive intervention as part of the RTI process. Progress monitoring data provides important evidence of the student’s responsiveness academically. However, the academic data will tell only part of the story. It is important to observe the student’s progress with second-language acquisition and classroom engagement. The process of scaffolding student learning and carefully observing the outcome provides additional information regarding the root cause of the student’s difficulties.

Observed Behavior Why?
Learning Disabilities
Language Acquisition
Difficulty following directions Short-term memory issues or lack of attention Lack of understanding of language or vocabulary used. It is more difficult to remember directions in 2nd language.
Phonological awareness difficulties Underlying phonological processing difficulties Sounds that are unfamiliar in the 1st language or occur in different order than in 1st language.
Confusion with letter-sound relationships Due to inherent learning disorder Some sounds are unfamiliar in 1st language, or difficult to pronounce if they do not occur regularly in 1st language.
Difficulty learning sight words Underlying processing difficulties Sight words often have abstract meanings and irregular spelling patterns, grammatical structure may differ in 1st language.
Difficulty retelling a sequence of events in a reading passage Short-term memory difficulties or retrieval skills Retelling requires expressive language skills, which develop slower for ELLS than receptive language.
Confusion with figurative language, idioms, and words with multiple meanings Students with LD tend to interpret meaning literally. These features of language are often difficult in a 2nd language.
Slow to process challenging vocabulary or complex language structures Inherent language processing difficulty Difficult to understand in 2nd language
Difficulty with unfamiliar words and sounds Difficulty with auditory processing or short-term memory Sounds and words are unfamiliar in 2nd language.
Difficulty with concentration and attention Inherent learning disorder Learning in a 2nd language is mentally exhausting.
Student is easily frustrated or discouraged Inherent learning difficulties, impulsivity Learning in a 2nd language can be frustrating.
Establish responsibilities of the RTI Team prior to referral

Oversight and management of the RTI model is the responsibility of the RTI team. In regularly scheduled meetings, the team monitors and discusses:

  • Screening data and intervention placement decisions
  • Students’ opportunities to learn in core instruction
  • The quality and process of intervention, using progress monitoring data showing trends and patterns
  • Movement of students across tiers (move out of intervention, from Tier 2 to Tier 3, from Tier 3 to referral)
  • Support services such as ESL, speech and language
  • Parent communication and involvement
Provide sufficient time for the intervention to work

The RTI team uses progress monitoring data to make decisions about individual students on a case-by-case basis. It is important to adjust and fine-tune the intervention to meet students’ individual learning needs before making a referral decision. This data-based decision-making process takes time. For ELLs, an important consideration is language proficiency growth in addition to academic progress.

How much time in intervention is enough? Research has shown that students with significant reading difficulties in Tier 3 need 100-150 sessions of intensive intervention to make significant growth. ELLs acquiring English while learning to read in English may require more time (Vaughn, et al., 2009; Torgesen, et al., 2003).

Several cycles of diagnostic assessment, intervention adjustment and progress monitoring should yield evidence of a consistent non-response pattern that would warrant moving forward with a referral for ELLs. Additionally, the team should consider typical areas of concern for students with learning disabilities (processing difficulty, extreme difficulty with phonological awareness/decoding, etc.).

Develop a comprehensive assessment plan for ELLs

We typically rely on a set of academic and behavioral assessment tools and processes to determine whether an individual student manifests the defining characteristics of a disability. However, assessment of ELLs in English, a non-native language, limits our ability to make interpretations from test scores. Determining eligibility for ELLs is an elimination process, ruling out alternative explanations for the learning difficulties. When evidence warrants a referral to special education for ELLs, it is important to use a wide lens to gather evidence of the presence of a disability. Experts recommend using multiple sources of evidence, including progress monitoring data. It is not only important to examine within-child factors such as language, experience and educational history, but also external factors that impact the student’s opportunities for learning.

Possible Data Sources:

  • Language proficiency testing
  • Standardized reading assessment that addresses multiple areas of skills (Consider reliability and validity)
  • Psychological processing tests
  • Classroom observation
  • Parent and teacher interviews
  • Work samples
  • RTI progress monitoring data
  • Evidence that learning difficulties are due to inherent learning disorder

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