• Research & Practice, Our Take

Underreacting to Struggling English Language Learners: The Problem With Delaying Intervention in the Early Years

by Nonie Lesaux and Joan G. Kelley
June 4, 2014

by Nonie Lesaux and Joan G. Kelley
Harvard Graduate School of Education
June 4, 2014

In Mr. Nardone’s 1st grade class, Thanh struggles to read aloud from the Three Little Pigs script while practicing for the end-of-year class production. “He still has a lot of trouble sounding out English words he knows,” Mr. Nardone thinks to himself. “I know he was born in the U.S. and went to the neighborhood preschool, but he's still negotiating two languages. That has to make early reading harder, but surely it will get easier as time goes by.”

Diagnosing reading difficulties is a nuanced process. For example, educators have to discern whether students struggle with skills-based competencies (at the word level) and/or whether they are having problems with the knowledge-based competencies (e.g., vocabulary, conceptual understanding) that are necessary to comprehend text. When teaching English Language Learners (ELLs), the process can be even more complicated, and today’s prevailing response presents a dilemma.

We know that many ELLs have a long way to go to develop grade-level literacy skills—after all, they have the dual challenge of both developing English and learning to read in a language in which they are not yet proficient. Often, when serving young ELLs who are struggling to “crack the code,” schools and teachers wrestle with an essential question: Is the early reading acquisition problem due to the child’s developing proficiency in English, or is there some underlying reading or language difficulty that goes beyond the student’s natural struggle to learn this new language?

We make a mistake when we spend much time wrestling with whether to remediate or not, or when we decide that reading will come along when English language proficiency does. In fact, many ELLs do not receive the early, targeted intervention that their struggling classmates receive. But research tells us that when it comes to skills-based competencies—those associated with cracking the code—young ELLs can achieve at a level consistent with their English-only speaking classmates (Chiappe, Siegel, & Wade-Woolley, 2002; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003; Limbos & Geva, 2001; Samson & Lesaux, 2009), and therefore should be supported as readily as their native English-speaking peers. Instead, many well-intentioned teachers wait until their ELLs become more fluent and more facile with English before recommending them for code-based support services. This relatively common practice inadvertently works against the ELLs’ reading progress when the children need additional, targeted support to develop their phonological awareness and word-level level reading skills.

In the end, here’s today’s dilemma: Recent studies confirm that ELLs are less often identified as needing specialized support in kindergarten and first grade, and thus they are not signed on for support services. For example, in a study conducted with a nationally representative sample, the data shows that only 4% of kindergarten-age ELLs were receiving special education services—a proportion that is significantly less than the proportion of ELLs in the total population and is significantly less than the proportion of English-only students identified for special education services (5.5%). However, by third grade, the proportion of ELLs identified for special education services increased by 305%, compared with an increase of 132% for English-only students. In other words, although starting out underrepresented, by third grade ELLs were over-represented in the special education population. Research and clinical experience show that with early identification of ELLs’ underlying language and/or reading difficulties, the support needs will not mushroom in the late elementary years.

When educators hear oral language inconsistencies from students, blaming English reading-skill difficulties on English language-learning issues is hardly surprising, but with a better understanding of the research, we would see the two as distinct. Fortunately, we are encouraged by the introduction of the Response-to-Intervention (RTI) model in many schools across the country, which should help change this inadequate approach and allow every ELL—whether struggling with code-based, or meaning-based competencies, or both—to receive timely and appropriate instructional supports.


Chiappe, P., Siegel, L. S., & Wade-Woolley, L. (2002). Linguistic diversity and the development of reading skills: A longitudinal study. Scientific Studies of Reading6(4), 369-400.

Lesaux, N. K., & Siegel, L. S. (2003). The development of reading in children who speak English as a second language. Developmental psychology39(6), 1005.

Limbos, M. M., & Geva, E. (2001). Accuracy of teacher assessments of second-language students at risk for reading disability. Journal of learning disabilities34(2), 136-151.

Samson, J. F., & Lesaux, N. K. (2009). Language-Minority Learners in Special Education Rates and Predictors of Identification for Services. Journal of learning disabilities42(2), 148-162.


Nonie Lesaux is a member of the International Reading Association’s Literacy Research Panel. Reader response is welcomed. E-mail your comments to


1 Comment

  1. 1 Tara 03 Sep

    Dear Ms. Lesaux and Ms. Kelley,

    While I do not doubt there are probably just as many ELL's needing reading services, maybe more because a lack of reading exposure in the home, I do not believe early intervention is the best or only cure. If we really want to see the best success in ELLs and the 'best bang for your buck' if you are a policy maker, ELLs need to learn to read in their first language before tackling English. As you said, it's a double challenge to learn the code and the meaning in a new language. There is a body of research supporting mother tongue based multilingual education. However, most of these ELLs are immigrants and therefore their language is not protected by the US government.

    Since we cannot change the way we service our ELLs overnight, what we can do is encourage literate parents to read to their children at home in their native language. In Oklahoma, there are lots of story books in Spanish at public libraries. I am sure many other densely Hispanic regions also have children's books in Spanish. And hopefully, other minorities are represented at the libraries in other areas, though I am not so confident. I am not ignorant enough to believe this approach will reach all struggling ELLs (as parents could be illiterate and books might not be available or even printed in their language), but this would go a long way in preventing reading stress and struggle for our ELLs whose bilingualism is a gift not a burden.

    Over my years as a first grade teacher in a school with many Hispanic ELLs, I watched as the oldest siblings always struggled the most as they paved the way in navigating reading without support from home. Usually the younger siblings had little to no trouble because the older siblings served as tutors for them. Should the older siblings have to suffer like this? Is there nothing we can do to get the parents to partner with the school? Often, these parents came to America to provide better education for their children. I think they would be willing to help if they knew how.

    Yes, reading intervention is important, but these students are usually already being pulled out of class for English intervention, and are struggling to understand math and science concepts in English as well. If we simply pull them out for yet another intervention, I don't think it is the best option, though it is better than overlooking them.

    Thank you for not forgetting our ELLs, and for helping them succeed as well!


    Tara Huberty


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