Early Reading Intervention for English Language Learners At-Risk for Learning Disabilities: Student and Teacher Outcomes in an Urban School

By Haager, Diane; Windmueller, Michelle P. | Learning Disability Quarterly, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Early Reading Intervention for English Language Learners At-Risk for Learning Disabilities: Student and Teacher Outcomes in an Urban School


Haager, Diane, Windmueller, Michelle P., Learning Disability Quarterly


Abstract. Student and teacher outcomes following the first year of implementation of an early reading intervention project designed to improve literacy outcomes in one urban school are described. The intervention was delivered through ongoing supplemental reading instruction for English language learners (ELLs) at-risk of reading failure. Students at-risk for reading-related learning disabilities were identified using the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), a performance-based reading assessment. Students at-risk and students with learning disabilities (LD) received supplemental small-group reading instruction provided by the classroom teacher and support personnel implementing an inclusive special education program. Results indicated positive growth for ELLs, with a disproportionately large percentage of students falling into the risk range. At-risk and LD students showed steady improvement, supporting the coupling of an inclusive special education program with reading intervention in the primary grades. Teacher reports indicated that professional development should be grounded in the reality of classroom experience.

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Recently, the failure of many children to develop early reading skills that lead to academic and social success has led to national concern. Poor reading skills lead to lower overall academic achievement and first grade seems to be a critical developmental period (Chall, 2000; Juel, 1988). Multiple and complex factors contribute to poor reading outcomes in urban schools, including a lack of qualified teachers and students who come from poverty (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Students who experience early reading difficulty often continue to experience failure in later grades and later in life. Stanovich (1986) describes the "Matthew Effect," a "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer" phenomenon, wherein those who acquire early literacy skills have the tools to exponentially grow in their knowledge and skills while those who fail to develop early skills fall further and further behind. By the later elementary years, those who experience severe reading failure are often given a learning disabilities (LD) label and placed in special education services.

English language learners (ELLs), or students whose primary language is other than English and are learning English as a second language, often experience particular challenges in developing reading skills in the early grades. According to the 1996 U.S. Census data, approximately one third of California's population is of Hispanic origin. In addition, 25% of California's K-12 students are limited-English proficient, and 80% of these students speak Spanish as their primary language (Gandara, 1997). With the passage of Proposition 227 in California requiring mandatory English language instruction in the public schools unless the parents specifically request native language instruction, the implementation of effective strategies to teach reading skills while supporting second-language learning has become a paramount concern. Conducting instruction in English, regardless of whether it is students' native language, makes it critically important to develop strategies for addressing English Language Learner (ELL) students' unique literacy learning needs. There is a considerable urgency to develop teaching strategies for all students within English immersion programs and provide appropriate professional development for teachers.

Of particular interest to this study were intervention strategies for ELL students showing early signs of reading failure and being identified as having learning disabilities and the resulting professional development concerns of teachers. There is little agreement in the research literature on how to effectively teach reading to ELL students (Gersten & Baker, 2000). Continued research efforts must specify how best to provide intervention for students at-risk for reading difficulties.

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