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Cheryll Duquette and Mary Land

A young girl learning to read

Description of practice, approach or strategy:

Changing demographics within society (and therefore within schools) has resulted in an increased number of students in English-language schools who do not speak English as their first language (Ortiz, Wilkinson, Robertson-Courtney, & Kushner, 2006). A variety of terms have been used to describe these students, such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and limited English proficient (LEP) students (Chu & Flores, 2011), but currently the term English Language Learner (ELL) is used most often. In the following summary of evidence-based strategies, ELL is defined as a student whose first language is not English, but is in the process of acquiring the language and has not yet achieved full English proficiency (Orosco & Klingner, 2010).

Because of the challenges that are universally experienced when trying to learn a new language, it can be difficult to determine if a student is simply struggling with the language, or if the student also has learning disabilities (LDs). There are many shared characteristics between ELLs and students with LDs, including weak oral language skills, poor motivation, and low self-esteem (Ortiz et al., 2006). They often lead to ELLs being “misdiagnosed” with LDs and disproportionately represented in special education programs (Linan-Thompson, Vaughn, Prater, & Cirino, 2006).

Response to Intervention (RTI) is an evidence-based strategy that may be used to (a) distinguish between ELL students with LDs and their peers who are struggling with English and (b) improve the reading scores of both groups (Kamps, Abbott, Greenwood, Arreaga-May, Wills, Longstaff, Culpepper, & Walton, 2007; Haager & Windmueller, 2001; Linan-Thompson, et al., 2006; Orosco & Kingner, 2010; Vaughn, Mathes, Linan-Thompson, & Francis, 2005). In Ontario, RTI is known as the tiered approach and it makes use of “tiers” or levels of instruction differentiated by the content and intensity of the intervention (large group, small group, individual) accompanied by continuous assessment of student progress (Expert Panel, 2005). The use of second tier interventions with small groups of students has been shown to improve reading achievement among ELLs at risk of developing LDs (Linan-Thompson, et al., 2006).

Reciprocal teaching strategies have been shown to be effective in teaching reading comprehension strategies to ELLs with LDs (Klingner & Vaughn, 1996; Sáenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2005). Using this approach, teachers instruct students in specific reading comprehension strategies and when students are proficient in them, they take turns leading peers in discussions on texts using the comprehension strategies.

RTI/tiered approach and reciprocal teaching strategies as used with ELLs who are at-risk for LDs and ELLs with LDs are described below.

Objective of practice, approach or strategy:

Response to Intervention/Tiered Approach

Given the language barriers that exist when testing ELL students for LDs, it can be difficult to determine if the language is the issue, or if the student has other challenges as well. The Response to Intervention (RTI) strategy or tiered approach seeks to eliminate the need for additional student testing and instead considers the extent to which students respond to valid instruction when determining whether they may have LDs (Orosco & Klingner, 2010; Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003). With this approach, tiered instruction is used. The first tier involves regular reading instruction based on successful practice in general education classrooms. The teacher monitors the progress of the class and students who do not meet the benchmarks are assigned to additional second tier instruction. Second tier instruction is delivered in small groups by the classroom teacher, educational assistant, or a specialist. Progress continues to be monitored and if a student does not make sufficient progress with second tier support, then third tier intervention is used. In the third tier, reading or special education instructors provide individualized instruction (Kamps et al., 2007). Students who are still not meeting academic benchmarks after second or third tier instruction are referred for special education support. With this method, the data provided by consistent monitoring of reading progress are critical to informing decision making about intensifying instruction to support learning. The tiered instructional model also allows interventions to occur quickly, which can further improve student achievement in reading (Orosco & Klingner, 2010).

Research by Linan-Thompson and her colleagues (2006) demonstrates the effectiveness of using RTI with ELL students who are at-risk. Thirty-nine ELLs in the first grade in four different schools who had been identified as at-risk for reading problems were provided with a second tier intervention. The intervention included the critical elements of beginning English reading (phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondence, word recognition, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension) and was delivered to small groups in the regular classrooms for 50 minutes a day over a seven-month period. The researchers described it as an “explicit, systematic, and intensive” (p. 396) intervention provided in addition to the traditional classroom reading instruction. Reading progress was assessed regularly and adjustments to the intervention were made as required. Students were tested at the end of the first grade, and then again at the end of the second grade to determine if they were still at-risk for reading problems. The control group consisted of the other students in the classes (ELL students not at-risk for reading problems) and they received the regular reading instruction.

At the end of this two-year study, 91% of students who had originally been deemed at-risk for reading problems successfully met the benchmark measures, as compared to 41% of the control group (Linan-Thompson et al., 2006). This high success rate indicates that RTI may be used to (a) identify with a high degree of accuracy those ELL students requiring special education services and (b) provide interventions that are effective in helping at-risk ELLs meet academic benchmarks.

The use of second tier strategies with ELLs at risk for reading disabilities is also documented by Vaughn and her team of researchers (2005, 2006) and Kamps and her colleagues (2007). Although not identified as a second tier strategy, Haager and Windmueller (2001) describe their research with 335 ELLs in grades 1 and 2 using small group reading instruction that was also provided in addition to the regular reading program. Among the participants were 7 first grade students and 24 second graders with LDs. This intervention focused almost entirely on vocabulary development, phonics, spelling instruction, and the use of decodable text. Generally, student achievement (for all learners, including those with LDs) improved by the end of the study; however, ELLs with LDs did not always attain the grade-level benchmarks. The researchers recommend that systematic, small-group intervention that supplements the regular reading instruction be an important part of every school that has a large ELL population, since the needs of these students can be so diverse.

Classroom Use:

Instructional Practices used with ELLs in Second Tier Intervention:

  1. Use of visuals to reinforce concepts and vocabulary
  2. Use of gestures and facial expressions to teach vocabulary and to clarify the meaning of content
  3. Use of direct instructional strategies, teacher modeling and “think-alouds”, multiple activities and repeated practice
  4. Use of a balanced literacy approach (i.e., small-group instruction using literature and instructional level readers; word study using groups of words with similar components such as vowels, blends, beginning sounds etc.; comprehension; and writing activities)
  5. Provision of opportunities to give elaborate responses (Kamps et al., 2007, p. 157; Vaughn et al., 2005, p. 61)

Steps to Promote Oracy Development through Story Read-Alouds among ELLs in Second Tier Intervention:

  1. Provide an overview of the theme and selected story
  2. Teach the two to three identified vocabulary words
  3. Read aloud to the students of 200-250 words of text, addressing literal and inferential comprehension
  4. Re-read the same text asking students to listen carefully for the new vocabulary words
  5. Select students to lead the summarizing of what was read
  6. Ask questions and provide a scaffold to process key words and comprehension of text
  7. Connect key vocabulary words and concepts each day so that students increase their understanding and recall (Vaughn et al., 2005, p. 63).

Reciprocal Teaching Strategies

Reciprocal Teaching Model with Cooperative Learning and Cross-Age Tutoring

For ELL students with LDs, there is usually a major focus on improving word identification and literal comprehension, rather than on the development of higher level comprehension strategies that are needed across all subject areas, particularly in the higher grades (Klingner & Vaughn, 1996). Reciprocal teaching strategies address this problem by helping students internalize concepts first learned through social interactions. Palincsar and Brown’s (1984) reciprocal teaching model consisting of the four strategies of prediction, summarization, question generation, and clarification was used by Klingner and Vaughn (1996) to teach reading comprehension to ELLs with LDs. Using this approach, the teacher first models the use of these comprehension strategies through think-alouds while reading the text. The teacher then leads students in a text-related discussion, guides them in practicing strategy use, and provides corrective feedback. When students become proficient at using these strategies, they take turns leading their peers in discussions about texts.

Reciprocal teaching was used by Klingner and Vaughn (1996) with 26 seventh- and eighth-grade ELLs with LDs in combination with cooperative learning and cross-age tutoring. The teacher modeled the use of the four strategies listed above for the first two days. Cue sheets on the strategies were distributed to the students and they took turns leading the discussions in the role of the “teacher”. The students were then randomly assigned to either a cooperative learning or cross-age tutoring group.

Cooperative learning group: These students met in groups of 3 to 5 for 12 days for 35-40 minutes/day. They followed the same procedures learned in reciprocal teaching without the assistance of the teacher to facilitate.

Cross-age tutoring group: Students in this group tutored grade 6 students in comprehension strategies for 12 days, for 35-40 minutes/day. They modeled the four strategies and later took turns “being the teacher” with the younger students.

Klingner and Vaughn (1996) found that reciprocal intervention strategies improved reading comprehension for both groups of ELLs with LDs. The students who profited the most from the reciprocal strategies had higher initial reading ability (decoding at grade 4 and above) and oral language proficiency. They also suggested that a wide range of students can benefit from this strategy (i.e., students who have low decoding skills, students who have low comprehension skills, students still gaining proficiency in English, etc.), and that the benefits to students continued even outside of the limits of this study. One of the reasons that reciprocal strategies work is the high level of student engagement, as it is the students who are “teaching” each other when discussing text passages on their own. Once this is achieved, the teacher does not need to remain constantly with one group to ensure progress – he or she can circulate and monitor all groups as needed.

Classroom Use:

Steps in Teaching Reciprocal Teaching to ELLs with LDs:

  1. Ask students to predict what a passage will be about
  2. Brainstorm what students already know about the topic
  3. Clarify words and phrases students do not understand while reading
  4. Have students identify the main idea of the passage
  5. Have students summarize the main ideas and important details
  6. Ask and answer questions about the passage (Klingner & Vaughn, 1996)

Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS)

Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) is a reciprocal class-wide peer-tutoring strategy that has been established as being effective for English-speaking students with LDs in regular education classrooms (Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, & Simmons, 1997). Positive results with this type of reciprocal teaching were seen with ELLs in a study conducted by Sáenz, Fuchs, and Fuchs (2005) involving 132 students in grades 3 to 6 over a course of 15 weeks. Twelve classes of ELLs with at least two students identified as having LDs in each were randomly assigned to the PALS or contrast group. The PALS intervention was conducted during regularly scheduled reading instruction for 35 minutes three times a week for 15 weeks. Pairs of students rotated every three to four weeks and each student in a pair served as the tutor and tutee. Students in contrast groups did not receive the PALS intervention and had a higher reliance on teacher-directed instruction and much less peer-instruction. The results show that ELL students with LDs in the PALS groups made strong improvements on their pre- and post-test reading comprehension scores. The authors note that between grades 3 to 6 reading comprehension is an important developmental milestone and development of skills in this area has implications for achievement in other subject areas.

Classroom Use:

Steps in the PALS Reading Comprehension Intervention:

  1. Partner reading with story retell – Each student reads aloud for 5 minutes beginning with the stronger reader. Students are taught to listen for different types of errors (e.g., saying the wrong word). Story retell begins with the weaker peer who tells the sequence of what was read and is prompted by the stronger reader.
  2. Paragraph shrinking – Each partner reads for 5 minutes and after each reading the student summarizes what was read and focuses on a single main idea expressed in 10 words or less.
  3. Prediction relay – The reader predicts the content before reading, reads half a page, checks the prediction, and summarizes the half page using the paragraph shrinking strategy. (Sáenz, et al., 2005, p. 238)

Please click here for more information about peer assisted learning strategies.

Summary of level of evidence:

A comprehensive search was conducted to find research in peer-reviewed journals that (a) involved ELLs with LDs and (b) used an experimental design with a control group or a single-subject design. Articles were read and studies meeting the above criteria were retained. Some studies were related to identifying students with LDs within a population of ELLs. Others focused on two different strategies used to improve the teaching of ELLs diagnosed with LDs. It may therefore be concluded that RTI/tiered approach and reciprocal teaching are evidence-based strategies.


Chu, S., & Flores, S. (2011). Assessment of English language learners with learning disabilities. The Clearing House, 84, 244-248.

Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6. (2005). Education for all: The report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education.

Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L., Mathes, P., & Simmons, D. (1997). Peer-assisted learning strategies: Making classrooms more responsive to diversity. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 174-206.

Haager, D., & Windmueller, M. (2001). Early reading intervention for English language learners at-risk for learning disabilities: Student and teacher outcomes in an urban school. Learning Disability Quarterly, 24, 235-250.

Kamps, D., Abbott, M., Greenwood, C., Arreaga-Mayer, C., Wills, H., Longstaff, J., Culpepper, M., & Walton, C. (2007). Use of evidence-based small group reading instruction for English language learners in elementary grades: Secondary-tier intervention. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30, 153-168.

Klingner, J., & Vaughn, S. (1996). Reciprocal teaching of reading comprehension strategies for students with learning disabilities who use English as a second language. The Elementary School Journal, 96(3), 275-293.

Linan-Thompson, S., Vaughn, S., Prater, K., & Cirino, P. (2006). The response to intervention of English language learners at risk for reading problems. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(5), 390-398.

Orosco, M., & Klingner, J. (2010). One school’s implementation of RTI with English language learners: Referring into RTI. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(3), 269-288.

Ortiz, A., Wilkinson, C., Robertson-Courtney, P., & Kushner, M. (2006). Considerations in implementing intervention assistance teams to support English language learners. Remedial and Special Education, 27(1), 53-63.

Palincsar, A., & Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.

Sáenz, L., Fuchs, L., & Fuchs, D. (2005). Peer-assisted learning strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 71(3). 231-247.

Vaughn, S., & Fuchs, L. (2003). Redefining learning disabilities as inadequate response to instruction: The promise and potential pitfalls. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 18(3), 137-146.

Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., Linan-Thompson, S., & Francis, D. (2005). Teaching English language learners at risk for reading disabilities to read: Putting research into practice. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 58-67.

Vaughn, S., Cirino, P., Linan-Thompson, Mathes, P., Carlson, C. Hagan, E., Pollard-Durodola, S., Fletcher, J., & Francis, D. (2006). Effectiveness of a Spanish intervention and an English intervention for English-language learners at risk for reading problems. American Educational Research Journal, 43(3), 449-487.

Other relevant resources

Calhoon, M., Al Otaiba, S., Cihak, D., King, A., & Avalos, A. (2007). Effects of a peer mediated program on reading skill acquisition for two-way bilingual first-grade classrooms. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30, 169-184.

Dobbins, N., & Draper Rodriguez, C. (2013). Providing support for English language learners with behavioral needs. Intervention in School and Clinic, 48(3), 152-158.

Kim, W., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2013). The effects of self-regulation on science vocabulary acquisition of English language learners with learning difficulties. Remedial & Special Education, 34(4), 225-236.

Klingner, J., Artiles, A., & Barletta, L. (2006). English language learners who struggle with reading: Language acquisition or LD? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(2), 108-128.

Liasidou, A. (2013). Bilingual and special educational needs in inclusive classrooms: Some critical and pedagogical considerations. Support for Learning, 28(1), 11-16.

Linan-Thompson, S., Vaughn, S., Hickman-Davis, P., & Kouzekanani, K. (2003). Effectiveness of supplemental reading instruction for second-grade English language learners with reading difficulties. The Elementary School Journal, 103(3), 221-238.

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), 1-5.

Ortiz, A. (1997). Learning disabilities occurring concomitantly with linguistic differences. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(3), 321-332.

Wagner, R., Francis, D., & Morris, R. (2005). Identifying English language learners with learning disabilities: Key challenges and possible approaches. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 6-15.

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Cheryll Duquette’s research in the area of special education reflects her interest in the experiences of students with exceptionalities in inclusive classrooms. As a former teacher, she focuses particularly on strategies that may be used by classroom teachers to facilitate inclusion. Dr. Duquette is also the author of Students at Risk (2nd ed.), a book containing practical suggestions for working with students with exceptionalities and their parents. She teaches teacher education and graduate courses in special education at the Faculty of Education.

Mary Land is currently a graduate student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. She worked for a several years as a high school teacher before returning to pursue graduate studies full-time. Her experiences in the classroom have encouraged her varied interests in the field of education, including literacy and language arts instruction for all students.