How to Develop an RTI Strategy for ESL Students

by | Mar 8, 2022


This month, we’re covering all kinds of questions about working with English as a Second Language (ESL) students and English Language Learners (ELLs) on our blog. So far, we have discussed:

This week, we’ll look at developing a Response to Intervention (RTI) strategy for ESL students who struggle with the general education curriculum.

What is Response to Intervention (RTI)?

The Response to Intervention Network defines RTI as “a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs.” Through an RTI system, educators are able to step in right away when students show signs of needing extra support. Students are assessed regularly to determine which level of support they require and track improvements in their progress.

How is Response to Intervention (RTI) different when working with ESL students?

If your school serves English Language Learners (ELLs), you may be tempted to move ESL students up into higher tiers as soon as their grades begin to suffer. However, it’s important to understand the differences between each RTI tier to ensure your school is providing enough support for ELLs at each level. If ESL students’ English language skills don’t match their peers’ yet, they may simply need better support in their English learning; not necessarily the programs required for higher RTI tiers.

The three tiers of RTI include:

  1. High-Quality Classroom Instruction — Lesson plans and learning activities should be directed by evidence-based best practices which lead at least 80% of students to reach academic standards. Keep in mind that Tier 1 instruction includes English learning. If less than 80% of your ESL students are succeeding in their English learning, it’s better to assume your Tier 1 instruction needs improvements than to assume your ESL students need to be moved up to the next tier.
  2. Targeted Interventions — Students work with teachers in small groups based on their skill levels to improve their performance in the specific areas of the curriculum where they struggle.
  3. Intensive Interventions and Comprehensive Evaluation —Students engage in individualized intervention activities and are evaluated to decide whether they should be placed in a special education program. In fact, the National Center on Response to Intervention states that Tier 3 is reserved for students with identified learning disabilities.

How can we improve Tier 1 Response to Intervention (RTI) support for ESL students?

If less than 80% of your ESL students are succeeding in their English learning, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your school offer instructional materials in each student’s first language?
  • Does your school offer programming specifically focused on teaching English to ESL students?
  • Are your ESL students given enough time and instructional support to learn English literacy skills that bring them up to their grade level?
  • Is your school’s general education program responsive to diverse cultural and linguistic needs in the surrounding community?
  • Does your school offer specific training for educators who need to learn the best practices for working with ESL students?

Your school may need to consider bringing in a consultant to implement a professional development program for educators who are new to working with ESL students. Schedule a free initial consultation call with CSAS to learn how our experts may be able to help your school improve its support of ELLs.

What types of Tier 2 Response to Intervention (RTI) support can we provide for ESL students?

If you are confident in your Tier 1 general education for ESL students, those who continue to struggle to meet prescribed standards should be moved to Tier 2. As with every RTI tier, the methods and interventions used in Tier 2 should be evidence-based. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to instruction, but schools have found the following Tier 2 tactics to be beneficial for ESL students:

  • Hiring bilingual specialists to work with students
  • Increasing professional development opportunities for teachers to learn new cultural and linguistic perspectives
  • Increasing the frequency and duration of ESL learning
  • Involving a school counselor and/or psychologist to help ESL students engage with their peers and educators
  • Involving the ESL students’ parents in the learning plan

How should we identify which ESL students should be moved to Tier 3 in our Response to Intervention (RTI) approach?

If your school categorizes Tier 3 students as those with learning disabilities, it’s very important that you don’t misdiagnose students who should not be referred to this top tier. Educators who lack experience working with students from diverse backgrounds may refer students to a special education program simply because they aren’t familiar with students’ various backgrounds and needs. Under these circumstances, Colorín Colorado recommends bringing in “a bilingual-bicultural professional who is knowledgeable about the process of identifying and working with ELs with disabilities” to help properly identify students who may need disability services.

Where can we find support developing our Response to Intervention (RTI) strategy with ESL students?

CSAS supports schools, districts, and local governments which want to provide equitable education for all students. We can work with your team to develop strategies (including RTI strategies) to support students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and close the achievement gap. Learn more about our professional development and school transformation services through a free consultation call with one of our experts.



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