What should educators take into consideration when instructing English Language Learners, particularly in an RTI framework?

Question: What should educators take into consideration when instructing English Language Learners, particularly in an RTI framework?

Alfredo Artiles: So we’re living at a time in U.S. history in which we are seeing some very important trends in terms of the composition of the student population and specifically with regards to English Language Learners. We have seen an unprecedented growth of this population in the last two decades, but more significantly, in the last ten years or so. Not only in areas that have been traditionally populated by these communities, such as the southwest, but we’re also seeing an unprecedented growth of this population in places that historically have never had any experience with these students specifically the South and the Midwest, some areas of the Midwest I should say. These changes are creating very critical demands on school systems in those regions because they have little experience working with these students and need to build capacity to address the needs of some of these and just as we see changes in the demographic composition of the population we’re also seeing changes in the policy world. Educators, leaders, teachers, are working under very intense conditions, under a lot of pressure, to address multiple policies that demand many different things that typically push them in very different directions that include demands for being more inclusive, mandates to design systems of education that are based on the Response to Intervention model, policies about bilingual education, about discipline, Reading First, and so forth and all of these things are creating a context in schools that really complicates how they can think in an integrated way about the needs of these students. Unfortunately we are also seeing changes in some regions of the country where states are being asked to ignore differences and some sad examples we have in Massachusetts with Question 3, proposition 227 in California, and Proposition 203 in Arizona that eliminated substantial support for English Language Learners. This is happening at a time then that schools are trying to make sense of the needs of these students and we are seeing some troubling trends about what’s happening. For example, there is research we’ve done in the Southwest showing that English Language Learners have a higher risk of placement in Special Education and the question in those context is to what extent is this happening because of the changes I just outlined, demographically speaking and policy wise. We’ve seen that typically districts tend to approach the work with the students, especially those who are struggling, in what I will call a sequential order. They first address the needs of language learners and they say let’s provide some language support before we even get to address the needs in other areas and that might delay responses from districts to serve the needs of students who are English Language Learners with disabilities and we have seen this in a number of states and regions that our service, showing that English Language Learners stay in English as a second language support programs for a long time before the system will decide let’s now look at disability as a potential explanation for low performance. This is an equity issue because it might be also shaping over as well as under-representation of these students. It’s interesting to think that sometimes some of these districts with smaller numbers of English Language Learners tend to have a higher risk of placing English Language Learners and this is only in certain regions of the country, it’s not a national pattern but it’s happening. Now, the placement of English Language Learners is a difficult question because behind the decision is whether the student is struggling due to language differences or to disabilities and Response to Intervention can provide some needed supports in terms of access to opportunities for learning, especially in tier 1, as long as those interventions are setup in a way that respond to linguistic differences. But, at the same time, we know from data disseminated in the last 5-7 years, that when English Language Learners are placed in special education they tend to receive significantly less language support services, and the instruction they’re receiving in special ed, once they are identified, tends to be mostly in English immersion programs so that neglects, to a large extent, the needs they might have for language supports. The question arises as to whether this decision of placement in special ed might be contributing further to their getting behind in different areas due to the lack of support to language services. This is something that has not been studied by the way. Unfortunately, often times people don’t necessarily understand the difference between struggling academically due to language differences versus ability differences. And as we see this political, technical, and social landscape that complicates the work with the students there are a number of important consequences and implications for the work that is done with RTI. First of all, it is important to begin to dig deeper into the English language learner community and understand that there are substantial differences within this group, that there are important differences, for example, in terms of the different dialects that are used within, even groups like Latino-English Language Learners, that there are significant differences in generations, that it’s not the same to have a student consider English language learner that is a second or third generation versus someone who has just arrived, whether they are members of family of migrant workers, and so forth, and each of those considerations will have implication for how you design interventions and support systems, not only for the student but also for the families and the way they get involved in that education. Nationality also can make a significant difference sometimes depending on where they coming from and the region in those countries. It’s not the same to come from Mexico City than from Oaxaca, Mexico where you have deep differences in terms of ethnicity, language, and socio-economic status within the regions of Mexico for example. One of the questions that has been increasingly raised around RTI, particularly in tier 1 and to some extent tier 2, is to what extent are interventions sensitive to some of these considerations and language differences and cultural differences. To what extent do we need to revisit the assumptions that those interventions use about ability differences and the way in which language differences might shape the way we approach the interventions and the same applies to assessment. How do we inform what we do around assessment for RTI purposes that takes into account some of these linguistic and cultural differences. Unfortunately, there are a number of assumptions that inform, typically, assessment and instructional decisions in RTI that we need to revisit. One of them is that all evidence-based assessment and intervention practices conducted with monolingual populations apply equally, or have equal relevance for students who are English Language Learners, that’s something that is not true, it’s important to inform this work with some of the technologies developed in bilingual education and English as a second language over the years. Another important assumption that needs to be revisited is the fact that English Language Learners that have been exposed to mainstream instruction, that is through instruction that is for monolingual learners, have had adequate opportunity to learn. We assume that if interventions have been offered to these students in tier 1, even though those interventions were for monolingual learners, that those students continue to struggle and therefore they should move to second tier because they had enough opportunities, when in reality, by providing those interventions that were not responsive to the language needs and cultural needs might have not been offering them opportunities for learning. The fact that also when you have a low response rate from English Language Learners in, say, tier 2 interventions, we don’t stop and think what are some of the potential factors that might have shaped or mediated the way in which English Language Learners engage with tasks that are typically used in phonemic awareness intervention, or in vocabulary interventions, and so forth. That might be related to, for example, the nature of, in the case of English Language Learners from Latin America, the Spanish language. To what extent the discrimination of sounds in phonemic awareness tasks might be shaped by the fact that these students have little exposure, understanding of phonemes in English or that certain words that might seem equal in Spanish and English might mean things rather different in the two languages and therefore might be penalizing the way they are getting graded or marked in some of these tasks. So, the low response rate in certain tiers of, in all tiers of RTI should be careful in examining some of these potential mediators, not to justify low performance but to be conscious about the need to stop and consider some of these issues. So these are examples, there are a number of publications in the last five years that have been raising similar issues in greater depth and I’ll be happy to provide some of these resources for the RTI Center. But it is important then that we think about interventions as ways in which we provide opportunities for students who are English Language Learners in which they not only develop specific skills but also broaden, and situate, and place those interventions and the practice of those skills in context that makes sense, that are relevant, for the cultural practices of those students so they have a better understanding and increase the motivation level of those students. That means that’s another implication that as you approach the design of interventions in RTI for ELL that the view of the curriculum is also broadened, that the curriculum used in interventions is broadened to account for the funds of knowledge that these students bring, the practices and ways in which they engage with literacy, the way they use language to communicate, the way in which oral history might be playing a role in how they relate to print material and so forth. That means that the curriculum will have to expand and take into considerations some of those aspects and dimensions. The fact that sometimes the way we set up interactions in classrooms when they are implementing interventions might be requiring students to participate in classrooms in ways that are completely foreign to them based on the way they are used to relate to adults and peers. So we rarely stop in schools to think about those potential differences and whether we need to be making some adaptations to the way in which participation structures are set up in classroom instruction. Probably the most demanding implication is for the research community in terms of designing interventions that will be, in turn, provided to practitioners that are ecologically valid interventions that take into account some of these practices that allow enough flexibility for practitioners and leaders in schools that use some of the practices that these students can relate to and perform in better shape.