Nonie K. Lesaux is the Thompson  Professor of Education and Society at the  Harvard Graduate School of Education and  leads a research program guided by the  goal of increasing opportunities to learn for  students from diverse linguistic, cultural,  and economic backgrounds.  Lesaux’s  research and teaching focus primarily on  the cognitive and linguistic factors that  enable children and adolescents to read effectively.  Her research has included longitudinal studies investigating reading and language development among English language learners as well as experimental evaluations of academic vocabulary instruction.  She is currently a Principal Investigator of a longitudinal study investigating the interrelated dimensions of linguistically diverse children’s cognitive, socio-emotional, and literacy development. Her research on reading development and instruction, and her work focused on using data to prevent reading difficulties, informs setting-level interventions, as well as public policy at the national and state level. The practical applications of this work are featured in several publications written for education leaders and practitioners, including one book and one widely circulated state-level literacy report, the latter of which forms the basis for a Third Grade Reading Proficiency bill passed in the state’s House of Representatives.  Lesaux’s scholarship has resulted in two prestigious early career awards—the William T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholars Award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the U.S. Government.

It was inevitable that Janette and I would cross paths, as two scholars deeply committed to increasing opportunities-to-learn for children whose home language(s) include languages other than English–a population of children commonly referred to as English learners (ELs).  But I was even luckier than that.  I had the privilege of collaborating with Janette on some key projects.  Most recently, our work together revolved around an instructional approach that holds great promise for improving outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students and reducing their disproportionate representation in special education: The Response to Intervention (RtI) model.   Together, Janette and I designed guidance, resources, and professional development modules to support educators as they shifted their instruction and assessment practices to fit this approach, using RtI as a platform for increasing learning outcomes for ELs.  We first tried this out with a large group of educator teams in the New York City schools and then wrote up some of this work for wider dissemination. I hold these memories dear, and am still engaged in initiatives to support the implementation of RtI in linguistically diverse settings, continuing to cultivate the progress toward equity that Janette championed.

Here, I describe the RtI model and how it holds promise as a way to provide ELs with high-quality, appropriate instruction. I draw on what I’ve learned from Janette, the work we engaged in together, and my continued reflections about the ways in which RtI can help us improve the match between school practices and the needs and strengths of today’s large and growing population of linguistically diverse students.  Many of the ideas featured here are described in more detail in a chapter Janette and I, along with our colleague Lucinda Soltero-González, wrote together for Lipson and Wixson’s book, Successful Approaches to RTI.

What is Response to Intervention (RtI)?

The RtI model takes a systematic approach to determining whether ELs who are struggling and in need of special education services have difficulties well beyond those involved in second language learning and/or opportunities-to-learn.  This is especially important in the context of a discussion about equity; to the dismay of many, myself included, too many of today’s ELs are inappropriately referred for and placed in special education due to inadequate opportunities to learn.

The RtI model is a tiered system of instruction and assessment; within this system, students are provided with increasingly intensive, targeted instruction designed to match their learning needs, as demonstrated in ongoing, assessments—assessments designed for and validated with the student population served. Central components of the Rti Model include:

  • High quality, targeted learning opportunities
    • Daily classroom instruction (i.e., core instruction, or Tier 1), driven by patterns in students’ learning profiles, to ensure a match between daily teaching, learning and the students in the classroom
    • Supplemental, intensive interventions driven by individual student needs (i.e., Tiers 2 and 3)
  • Data-based decision-making about students’ needs and growth
    • Screening, progress monitoring, and formative assessment practices are central to its efficacy and implementation

Because this instructional model is organized around preventing learning difficulties and timely intervention, students are referred for special education assessment and services only when they demonstrate insufficient progress over time despite targeted, high-quality, classroom-level instruction and additional supplemental supports; such progress is measured against established, culturally and linguistically appropriate, outside benchmarks.

How can we use the RtI model as a platform for promoting equity, increasing learning outcomes for ELs?

The RtI model is a particularly culturally and linguistically responsive practice; after all, responsiveness is at its core.  First and foremost, to be “high-quality,” irrespective of the tier or location, when RtI is implemented as designed, all ELs’ learning opportunities are:

  • provided by educators who are knowledgeable about the second language process and how learning to read in English as a second or additional language is similar to and different from learning to read in English as one’s first language;
  • situated in positive and developmentally sensitive learning environments where cultural and linguistic diversity are upheld as assets;
  • characterized by instructional approaches known to be effective with similar students in similar contexts—they match the students’ or student’s learning strengths and challenges.

In turn, there are two important, positive consequences of RtI implementation:

  1. Assessment is closely linked to instruction.
    • Assessment results steer practice, letting us know how we might better tighten the link between the learning profiles of students in our classroom or school and what we offer by way of learning opportunities. Specifically, data is used to:
  1. inform decisions about daily instructional content and supports for all learners, based on trends and patterns in classrooms and grade levels (Tier 1);
  2. identify those learners who are in need of supplemental supports (Tier 2);
  • determine which students need even more individualized and intensive supports to address their significant and persistent difficulties (Tier 3).
  1. An emphasis is placed on school contexts and the quality of instruction. Within the RtI model:
    • we bear in mind that students’ development, their learning environments, and daily opportunities to learn are inextricably linked, combating even implicit beliefs that disparities in outcomes can be explained by deficits present in an individual learner or a group of learners.

In summary, when fully and effectively implemented, the RTI model is designed to determine whether students are benefiting from an instructional program; build more effective instructional programs for students who are not benefiting; compare the efficacy of different forms of instruction; and design more effective, individualized instructional programs. My work with Janette, and my ongoing work with school and district leaders, push me to continually problem solve around the implementation of RtI in the linguistically diverse setting.  It is through her example that I continue to facilitate and encourage action-oriented conversations about classroom- and school-level models of prevention to meet the needs of today’s diverse populations of learners.







August, D. & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Baca, L. M. (2002). Educating English language learners with special education needs: Trends and future directions. In A. J. Artiles & A. A. Ortiz (Eds.), English language learners with special education needs: Identification, placement, and instruction (pp.191- 202). Washington D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Klingner, J.,  Soltero-Gonzalez,L,  & Lesaux, N. (2010). RTI for English-language learners. In M.Y. Lipson & K.K. Wixson (eds.), Successful approaches to RTI: Collaborative practices for improving K–12 literacy (pp 134-163.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lesaux, N.K., & Harris, J.R. (2013). Linguistically diverse students’ reading difficulties: Implications for models of LD identification and effective instruction. In, H.L. Swanson, K.R. Harris, & S. Graham, (Eds.), The handbook of learning disabilities (2nd Ed; pp. 69-84.). New York: Guilford Press.

McCardle, P., Mele-McCarthy J., Cutting, L., Leos, K. & D’Emilio, T. (2005). Learning disabilities in English language learners: Identifying the issues. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20, 1-5.

Nieto, S. & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical context of multicultural education (5th ed.). Boston, NY: Allyn & Bacon/Longman.

Ortiz, A. A. (2002). Prevention of school failure and early intervention for English language learners). In A. J. Artiles & A. A. Ortiz (Eds.), English language learners with special education needs: Identification, placement, and instruction (pp. 31-48). Washington D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.


Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) (2008). TESOL/NCATE Standards for the recognition of initial programs in P-12 ESL teacher education. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved on June 2, 2009 from

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One Response to “Cultivating Equity in Linguistically Diverse Settings: the Promise of Response to Intervention by Nonie Lesaux (In honor of Janette Klingner)”

  1. Debbie Zacarian on 12/4/14 5:53 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Janette Klingner and information about the promise of using RtI with English Learners. I had the honor of Janette reading and providing feedback on a book manuscript I wrote about how schools can be transformed when leaders take into account English learners. Janette was an amazing scholar and supporter. Your collaboration with Janette and scholarship brings much to us all. Many thanks!

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