Connecting Research to Promising Practice For English Learners

A school district in Southern California models the application of response to intervention for all students with successful academic outcomes by LIBIA S. GIL AND DARREN W. WOODRUFF

The first thing visitors notice at Lauderbach, Harborside and Silver Wing elementary schools in the Chula Vista Elementary School District is the display of student writing covering the walls of every classroom and up and down each hallway.

A stroll down the school hallways reveals classrooms alive with the soft buzz of conversations, students who are on task and engaged with their teachers and peers, often through student-led discussions with interactive whiteboards. Classroom activities focus specifically on student development in the use of academic language through instructional strategies such as content-specific vocabulary and oral and written communication. Staff members expect all students to talk and write in complete sentences, and they reinforce that expectation schoolwide.

Libia GilLibia Gil (left) is managing director at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., where she co-leads the English Language Learning Center.

This active, language-rich learning environment is repeated throughout the school district in San Diego County. Nearly two-thirds of the 27,000 students are Hispanic, and approximately a third are English language learners. Chula Vista's strong commitment to addressing all students' needs using response to intervention, with particular attention to English language learners, has served the district and its students well.

In 2003, Chula Vista Elementary School District scored 689 on the California Academic Proficiency Index; in 2010, the district scored 848, exceeding the state goal of 800. During the same seven-year period, the percentage of English language learners scoring proficient or advanced in English language arts increased from 20 percent to 50 percent, and the percentage scoring proficient or advanced on math rose from 31 percent to 65 percent.

Four Themes
What prompted this success, and what can other districts learn from the Chula Vista experience?

District leaders attribute their success to a well-designed, school-based professional development model that centers on English language literacy development for all students and to a targeted focus on academic language development for English language learners to achieve proficiency. The district's professional development model for content-specific academic language focuses on four major themes: 

•  Planning for purposeful talk aligned to purpose and standards;

•  Creating an environment that encourages academic discourse, which includes scaffolding language to connect with previous knowledge, teaching routines of talk and attending to physical room arrangements;

•  Managing academic discourse through student grouping and collaborative activities; and 

•  Assessing academic language development continuously and addressing identified needs.

This model, along with implementation of a response to intervention approach that recognizes the importance of providing appropriate assessments and differentiated support, represents a systemwide approach and commitment to support the highest expectations for every child, including those learning English.

Leadership Actions
Chula Vista's efforts to reach all students are evident in every classroom. However, some of the behind-the-scenes leadership efforts that contribute to the district's success may not be quite as visible. Essential components for effective RTI implementation include thoughtfully designed teacher support programs for embedded, ongoing in-service opportunities.

For example, to promote the use of response to intervention for English learners, the district formed an instructional services and support team, led by the assistant superintendent for instruction. This team provides direction for establishing and implementing English language development goals for the district, as well as information and tools to achieve those goals. Supportive structures such as site-based instructional leadership teams and rubrics with quality indicators for principal-led instructional walk-throughs within and across schools promote ongoing assessment for continuous instructional improvement.

In addition, district leaders provide needed resources at the school and district levels, coupled with flexible scheduling, to facilitate teacher collaboration. These collaborations provide teachers with the support to analyze student work and other assessment data to inform instruction.

Chula Vista's use of the Gradual Release of Responsibility instructional model, described in "Lessons Scooped from the Melting Pot," by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and John Nelson (Journal of Staff Development, October 2010) aligns well with best practices identified for English language learners. The gradual release model is a widely recognized approach for scaffolded instruction that moves instruction from teacher-centered, whole-group delivery to student-centered collaboration and independent practice. The emphasis on mentoring relationships and two-way interaction between the teacher and student increases personalization for learning.

In addition, the combination of district- and school-level support for response to intervention through the work of the instructional leadership team has increased teacher buy-in and commitment to professional development. The emphasis on best practices for English learners allows each team to decide on which elements of a focus lesson, whether establishing purpose, modeling a desired behavior or teachers using metacognitive thinking, to use to demonstrate a particular skill they will bring back to the school for professional learning and use. Teacher ownership often follows.

Common Challenges
The success observed with these instructional strategies is particularly encouraging, because English learners who participate in bilingual education or English as a second language programs show dismal achievement outcomes as a group, according to national data.

On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average reading score for 4th-grade English language learners was 188 points out of a possible 500 (compared with 224 for non-ELLs). This 36-point gap in achievement outcomes is larger than the 26-point gap for Hispanic students and the 28-point gap for African-American students when compared with white students, and the 33-point gap for students with disabilities when compared with nondisabled students.

Darren WoodruffDarren Woodruff, a research analyst with the American Institutes for Research, observes a classroom in the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

Research points to several factors behind poor achievement among English language learners:

•  Ineffective or poorly trained teachers. ELLs are more likely than other groups to be taught by teachers who lack appropriate teaching credentials. Fifty-six percent of public school teachers in the United States have at least one English language learner in their class, but fewer than 20 percent of these teachers are certified to teach ELLs, according to Julie Esparza Brown and Jennifer Doolittle, in their Teaching Exceptional Children article, "A Cultural, Linguistic, and Ecological Framework for Response to Intervention with English Language Learners" (May/June 2008).

•  Insufficient access to appropriate instructional and assessment materials. Most states use curricula and assessments developed specifically for English speakers and make no accommodation for those students who lack proficiency in English. Therefore, instructional and assessment materials may not be valid or reliable as indicators of what ELLs know and can do academically.

•  Failure to incorporate students' language and culture into instruction. Teaching students to read in their first language promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English, and using reading passages with themes from students' cultural backgrounds improves comprehension. However, approximately 60 percent of English learners are in essentially all-English instructional settings with little differentiation for language proficiency and cultural backgrounds.

Research also identifies effective instructional supports for English language learners, including adapting instruction to reflect the communication styles of students; incorporating and valuing the use of diverse community practices in the curriculum; adapting instruction to accommodate the acculturation needs of students; developing linguistic competence through the use of functional and purposeful dialogue in the classroom; connecting students' prior experiences with current skills being taught; and contextualizing learning by reflecting and placing value on students' native cultural values, norms and languages in the curriculum.

Response to intervention strategies for English learners should include a review process to ensure teaching and learning activities are well-structured, are culturally and linguistically engaging, and allow students to be active participants in their acquisition of the English language and academic content. School-based instructional leadership teams should carefully review screening and progress monitoring data for ELLs to better match instruction to student needs and avoid inappropriate referrals to special education.

In light of these research findings, Chula Vista Elementary School District's decision to use RTI and incorporate proven instructional supports for ELLs was a sound one.

Instructional Framework
Response to intervention is a multilevel prevention framework intended to increase the proportion of successful learners through effective instructional strategies, including differentiated instruction, timely assessment of student needs and, at times, tiered interventions. RTI's focus on effective instruction in the general classroom setting emphasizes the importance of using a high-quality, research-based, and linguistically and culturally responsive core curriculum as the first level of intervention for learning or behavior challenges.

Comprehensive RTI implementation contributes to more meaningful identification of learning and behavioral problems, improves instructional quality, provides all students with the best opportunities to succeed in school and helps identify learning and other disabilities. In a well-designed system, primary prevention in the Tier 1 instruction should meet the learning needs of about 80 percent of the student population.

The National Center on Response to Intervention at the American Institutes for Research identified four essential components of RTI:

•  A schoolwide, multilevel instructional support system for preventing school failure;

•  Screening to determine current levels of student performance;

•  Progress monitoring to follow student achievement in response to instruction; and

•  Data-based decision making regarding appropriate instruction, movement across tiers and disability identification in accordance with state law.

The first three components are well-established in Chula Vista. Work is under way to strengthen and refine Tier 2 monitoring and assessments to provide accurate diagnosis and individualized supports for each student. Up until two years ago, some teachers provided differentiated instruction for students not meeting grade-level standards, but no accountability existed for evidence of progress.

Today, the best practices used across the district includes formative assessment every six to eight weeks followed by small-group instruction based on the results of formative assessments for a two-week period. Additional quizzes are provided for particular standards and additional time is provided for students who do not show evidence of mastery.

GilA Chula Vista student leads her classmates through a lesson.

The impact of implementing this model of teach, assess, reteach and reassess already has shown it is a strong mechanism for holding students and teachers accountable for meeting grade-level goals. Students now receive targeted and varied levels of instructional support to reach the expected level of performance rather than all students receiving the same amount of instructional support with varied results.

Systemwide Commitment
Data-based decision making is the essence of response to intervention use. It's essential for all components: screening, progress monitoring and multileveled instruction. Chula Vista Elementary School District serves as a strong example of an effective professional development model that's informed by student-needs data to drive targeted, content-specific goals.

The effort to increase achievement for all students, and in particular for English language learners, is a commitment to connecting research knowledge and the implementation of promising teaching and learning practices. Chula Vista Elementary School District is pursuing English language development for all students and has elected to concentrate its professional development efforts on improving the academic language necessary for all ELLs to achieve proficiency.

Libia Gil, former superintendent in Chula Vista, Calif., is a senior fellow and managing director at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., where she co-leads the English Language Learning Center. E-mail: lgil@air.org. Darren Woodruff is a principal research analyst with the American Institutes for Research and co-directs its National Center on Response to Intervention.