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:
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:
In turn, there are two important, positive consequences of RtI implementation:
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 http://www.tesol.org/s_tesol/sec_document.asp?CID=219&DID=10698