Abstract. This experimental/comparison study of secondary-level, small-group instruction included 318 first- and second-grade students (170 ELL and 148 English-only) from six elementary schools. All schools served high numbers of ELL students with varying school SES in urban and suburban communities. Experimental schools implemented a three-tier model of intervention. In addition to primary-tier reading instruction, the second-tier, small-group experimental interventions included use of (a) evidence-based direct instruction reading curricula that explicitly targeted skills such as phonological/phonemic awareness, letter-sound recognition, alphabetic decoding, fluency building and comprehension skills; and (b) small groups of 3 to 6 students. Students at comparison schools were not exposed to a three-tier reading program but received (a) an ESL intervention using balanced literacy instruction with a focus on word study, group and individual story reading, and writing activities; and (b) small groups of 6 to 15 students. The ESL/balanced literacy intervention was generally in addition to primary reading instruction. Results indicated generally higher gains for ELL students enrolled in direct instruction interventions. Implications for research and practice are discussed.
The percentage of public elementary and secondary school students in the United States who were identified as English language learners (ELL) rose from 5.1% in the 1993-94 school year to 6.7% of the total school population in the 1999-2000 school year (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). This represents an increase of over 920,000 ELL students in our public schools in a six-year period. Although there is not a direct correlation between ELL students and ethnicity, the large percentage increase of the ELL school population is due to growth in the Hispanic subpopulation.
This growing school population has an impact on the instructional environment across America's schools. As a group, Hispanic students traditionally perform poorly on national assessments. According to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (U.S. Department of Education, 2005), only 13% of fourth-grade Hispanic students and 15% of eighth-grade students meet proficiency reading standards. At the same time, the statement of purpose in No Child Left Behind legislation notes "that all children will have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments" (Section 1001, p. 15). That statement includes ELL populations, and as ELL populations increase so do the pressures on teachers, schools, districts, and states to increase the numbers of ELL students who meet state-governed reading proficiency (Anderson et al., 1998).
The specific skills students need to learn to become good readers and perform adequately on assessments are well established. These skills include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency (National Reading Panel, 2000). The National Reading Panel suggests that teachers working with ELL students must be sensitive to the fact that the sounds of English and other phonetic languages are not exactly the same and that these differences may constitute an area of difficulty for students in learning English word structures. Additionally, challenges in vocabulary proficiencies affect comprehension. However, existing ELL research suggests that all children, regardless of primary language, must learn these essential reading skills and that English-driven reading instruction with these skills is linked to reading success (Baker & Gersten, 1997; Garcia, 2000; Gersten & Geva, 2003).
For students who have reading challenges, intervention research suggests that instruction should be (a) evidence-based and (b) explicitly taught, and that (c) the curricula should include a scope and sequence of essential reading skills (Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998). One such program that has a long history is direct instruction (DI, Adams & Englemann, 1996).
DI teaches beginning reading word recognition skills by explicitly and systematically teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary skills. Numerous DI studies with non-ELL students and with Hispanic and Asian ELL populations have reported medium to strong effect sizes (Becker & Gersten, 1982; Gersten, 1985; Stebbins, St. Pierre, Proper, Anderson, & Cerva, 1997). For example, in an experimental-control group study of 122 kindergarten to third-grade Hispanic and non-Hispanic struggling readers, Gunn, Biglan, Smolowski, and Ary (2000) found that after two years of small-group instruction with Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading, the experimental group significantly outperformed the controls on letter identification, word attack, fluency, reading vocabulary, and passage comprehension. These findings demonstrate that a systematic curriculum is a critical component of interventions for both ELL and non-ELL students who struggle learning to read.
In addition to the specific reading skills one needs to learn to read, research suggests that factors such the instructional environment (Arreaga-Mayer, Utley, Perdomo-Rivers, & Greenwood, 2003; Haager & Windmueller, 2001; Kamps & Greenwood, 2005) and instructional dosage such as intensity and duration are also critical components to improve instruction for students who have difficulty learning to read (Torgesen, 2000; Torgesen et al., 2001; Vaughn, Mathes, Linan-Thompson, & Francis, 2005).
Haager and Windmueller (2001) studied student and teacher outcomes with ELL learners in a high-risk school. They concluded that in addition to using evidence-based reading practices, ongoing teacher support with student monitoring, while challenging, is essential for improving student outcomes. Torgesen (2000) suggested that the gains made with the lowest performing students can be attributed in part to the number of hours the intervention lasts and the intensity of learning. Intensity consists of instructional changes such as a more parsed sequence of skills, double doses of daily intervention, and/or smaller grouping sizes. Haager and Windmueller (2001) and others (e.g., Torgesen, 2000; Torgesen et al., 2001; Vaughn et al., 2005) reported that such a process may require long-term intervention.
In summary, the National Reading Panel's recommended reading skills for learning to read English are essential for all children, regardless of ethnicity, primary language, or socioeconomic status (SES). Additionally, for all students, but especially for student populations who traditionally struggle to meet minimum academic standards, appropriate instructional intensity and consistent progress monitoring are critical to improving student outcomes.
One proposed approach that integrates and organizes these critical components for all learners is a three-tiered model of primary, secondary, and tertiary instruction (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006). Within the three-tiered system, a response-to-intervention (RTI) model addresses the specific educational process of implementing increasing tiers of targeted instruction. RTI provides guiding parameters to decide academic placement and instruction based on student progress. This keeps the focus on the student's learning and the educational environment, and tracks the extent to which academic and instructional goals are met.
In a three-tier model, the first tier is primary instruction provided in general education, using evidence-based strategies to promote learning to read for the majority of students. All students are part of this tier of instruction. Formative academic screening of all students identifies the Tier-1 response to instruction. Students who fail to reach academic benchmarks are assigned to additional second-tier instruction.
The second tier, characterized by small-group intervention, can be provided by general educators and/or by a reading specialist and is designed to provide targeted intervention to enable students to "catch up" on critical reading skills. Within this tier, students' response to intervention is monitored beyond the screening measure. A continual system of academic progress monitoring is in place. This monitoring may measure percent toward benchmark or mastery of specific skills. Students who fail to make sufficient progress with Tier-2 inventions are moved into Tier 3.
In the third tier, long-term tertiary instruction is provided by reading or special education instructors in individualized grouping. In Tier-3 intervention, progress is further monitored, and the length of intervention increases (Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003). Students in this tier of instruction are likely to fail to reach benchmark.
In an RTI environment, in addition to measuring academic success by benchmark, change in slope on students' intervention assessments provides a measure of student academic response to treatment. The difference in slope lines between different treatment conditions yields a comparative analysis of which treatment might work better over extended periods of time.
There are several advantages to implementing a three-tier/RTI system (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003). Since ELL student achievement is, by national standards, lower than non-ELL student achievement, changing the emphasis of student progress from …