“[MTSS] offers a way to look at the whole child. MTSS says we're looking at the social emotional learning of the students, how their language and cultural considerations are impacting accessing the curriculum. We're looking at math and literacy and looking how all these things kind of integrate together to create the most effective and more high quality instruction or experience for the student.”
The term English Language Learners (ELLs) refers to students whose first language is not English, and encompasses both students who are just beginning to learn English (often referred to in federal legislation as "limited English proficient" or "LEP") and those who have already developed considerable proficiency.
The term underscores the fact that in addition to meeting all the academic challenges that face their monolingual peers, these students are mastering another language. Branching Minds takes students' ELL level into account when collecting the Branching Minds Insight Survey, as well as recommending interventions and accommodations matched to their needs.
Considerations When Supporting ELLs Through MTSS
A Multi-Tiered System of Supports is a powerful tool in meeting the needs of students, and in particular students who may need targeted support, whether that be in reading, math, or even language learning. However, there are specific ways to ensure that students learning English as a second language are being supported and not overlooked or even over-identified.
It's helpful to consider the following things when supporting ELLs through an MTSS model:
Culturally Responsive Teaching: The student's prior experiences should be considered, including home language background and socio-cultural background.
Interplay of English Language Learning & Reading Instruction: Teachers should consider the relationship between a student's language proficiency and his/her literacy skills. Reading fluency and comprehension may be strongly determined by vocabulary and linguistic proficiency of both the first and second language.
Interplay of English Language Learning & Math Instruction: Linguistic proficiency and vocabulary comprehension are important when understanding math concepts. Several concepts of math are not necessarily universal.
English Language Learning: Core instruction for all LEP/ELL students must always include English language learning as well.
Assessment: In order to better understand the needs of LEP/ELLs students
Home Language Questionnaire: To identify if a language other than English is spoken at home.
Interview: To assess the relationship between their 2+ languages and the extent of formal education the student received in any other language.
Initial ELL Placement State Assessment: Based on the interview results students are identified on their level of proficiency. It will identify the initial placement within ELL. ELL State Assessment: End-of-the-year assessment to determine next year's placement. It decides a student's proficiency level. Monitor: Proficient students who have exited the ELL program based on ELL State Assessment scores.
Within MTSS, problem-solving, literacy and oracy (in both home and new languages), culture, and educational history are variables to be considered when assessing and planning instruction for ELLs. In all three tiers, these variables stay consistent.
Matching Instruction to Student Need: Differentiated instruction should be used for ALL students; however, differentiated instruction for ELLs should consider the student's level of English proficiency and prior educational experiences in addressing cultural and linguistic differences. When determining appropriate instruction/intervention, the following list applies to all levels of ELL students:
Consider the amount and type of ELL instruction the student received in the past and in the present.
If applicable, consider the amount and type of home language instruction in the past and in the present.
Ensure that the language(s) used for intervention matches the language(s) used for core instruction.
Consider the impact of language and culture on instruction and learning.
These considerations are a place to start when making decisions about how to build out the MTSS process to meet the needs of your English Language Learners. Inviting ESL instructors and families to participate in these initial conversations is vital in providing the services students need.
What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?
Supporting English Language Learners in the classroom often means working hard to build relationships across cultures and languages. Gabrial Graham, a Branching Minds Sales Development Representative, is a former Dual Language Elementary Teacher and brings deep insight into how to nurture relationships with students and families to help students feel like they belong and can bring their whole selves to school each day.
In Gabi’s role, she often welcomed students new to the country in her classroom, and we asked her to provide insight into how educators can help English Language Learners feel supported and welcome.
What has your experience shown you about the connection between mental health and student outcomes, particularly those students who are learning a new language or are new to the US?
I spent 10 years in the classroom, working with dual language students, students of all different abilities. I was an inclusion teacher as well, and being in the classroom, we see every day how mental health, and that social-emotional component affects academics. If the student walks into the classroom and they're having a really bad day, they're not going to focus. I'm not going to be on task. Their mind is just not where the teacher wants them to be, and so it's really important.
Whether you are a paraprofessional, a teacher, or even a school administrator, it's important to build relationships with the kids from the ground up. Finding out where they're from, what their families are like, and recognizing when they have bad days. Then on those bad days, communicating to them that they're accepted, they're welcome.
When those relationships are strong, their academics will start to parallel their mental stability. This is important to building their ability to handle hard days and to still engage in learning. I think also teachers need mental health support. Working with students that are dealing with big issues can be overwhelming, and it does impact student outcomes.
What was different or more challenging when it came to students who were learning English?
One of the biggest roadblocks was building relationships to families from other cultures. A lot of the students that I worked with came from Kuwaitis, Mexico and in that culture you have to be strong. You put on a straight face. And so it was sometimes difficult to get through to them, not just the students, but their families. It took a lot of work to let them know that we are here to help and support their child.
What kind of culturally sensitive strategies did you use with students who are learning a new language or those that have newly arrived in the country?
One of the biggest things I would do is get to know the families first. When I knew that they were coming to the classroom, whether it was beginning of the year, middle of the year. I made it a point to talk to the families just to really get to know what the student likes. I would ask questions about their school experience. This helps set the tone for the rest of the year.
As well, in certain lessons that contained information about more Americanized holidays or food, I would make a point to compare it to something similar to them. With my own multi-cultural background, including Hispanic, I know a lot about that culture, so I made sure to bring that with my lessons, with familiar foods. For example, in Mexico, currency is different, so I had to switch up the context so students could understand a lesson on values. Those small things can make a difference in helping students know that they belong and don’t have to do the work to make connections, I can do that for them.
And that goes with the language, too, you know, from Spanish to English. You try to find those cognizance that the students can relate to in the words and that they develop their language for sure.
Addressing the whole child is what MTSS was designed to do. Students do not check their emotional or cultural needs at the school door, they bring with them all of it every day, and they should feel safe to do so. Part of the work in implementing the MTSS framework requires each district and school to determine their specific demographic needs. This will influence resource allocation and what particular interventions or the core curriculum looks like. Doing the necessary work in this process will empower educators to help all students succeed, including those with ELL needs.
Learn more about how MTSS addresses the whole child:
Larissa Napolitan is the Digital Content Creator for Branching Minds and the host of Branching Minds' podcast "Schoolin' Around." As a former middle school English teacher and instructional coach, she has over 13 years of experience building systems for improvement, training and coaching teachers in new technology and instructional methods, and leading efforts to build curriculum and literacy initiatives. She holds Masters's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Emporia State University. Not only is she passionate about using her experience and academic knowledge, but loves to use her writing and voice to make a broader impact on education, teachers, and students.