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English Language Learners Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey K-12 RTI/MTSS Social Emotional Learning

Exploring Models to Address Learning Gaps for ELs

Dr. Pedro Olvera
Written By Dr. Pedro Olvera
On Sep 23, 2021
6 minute read
The new school year has begun, and most children are eagerly returning to their classrooms. For most students, it’s been approximately eighteen months since they last stepped foot in a brick and mortar classroom. It’s easy to see that a lot has changed since they were last in the classroom: social distancing, face mask requirements, peers attending virtually, and sanitization stations are the norm. Given that we are still not out of the woods, what is not clear is the full scope of learning loss for English Learners (ELs). However, we do know that children of color, ELs, in particular, were already significantly behind their white, native English speaking peers before the pandemic, and the situation has only worsened (Office of Civil Rights, 2021, #). Educators face legal, ethical, and moral dilemmas on how best to address the learning loss caused by the pandemic and the ensuing pivot to remote learning. Three main options lie before us to accelerate learning and make up for this lost time: Skip, Repeat, or Intervene.



Also known as social promotion, skipping a grade is carried out when well-meaning parents and educators recommend that children move on to the next grade level even though content standards for their grade level have not been mastered. The rationale holds that it is better to promote the child to the next grade level instead of holding them back to preserve their self-esteem. However, without the necessary support, social promotion can be ineffective, harmful to a child’s self-confidence and academic learning, and set the stage for failure (Sitrin, 2021). Social promotion is an all too common intervention for ELs and children of color in general. These children are pushed from grade to grade without the necessary interventions to remediate academic skills deficits that impede academic progress. In the case of ELs specifically, lack of interventions aimed at developing cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), which is essential to facilitating access to grade-level curriculum, further solidifies the ever-existing achievement gap causing these children to fall further and further behind their peers while the curriculum presses forward. As educators, it is essential to consider that social promotion does not produce the intended outcomes, and as a profession, we should advocate that this practice be abandoned.



Although 2.1% of all children are retained nationally in K-12 schools, recent data demonstrated that the rate for ELs is 14.3% (Office of English Language Acquisition, 2020). This statistic is shocking given the fact that the intended outcomes of retention are questionable. The logic behind retention is that double exposure to academic content can produce desirable outcomes for struggling students. With many ELs experiencing interruption in the English language development (ELD) services and opportunities to practice English with their peers during the pandemic, retention may seem like a tempting option. Advocates for retention point to a Florida study that appeared to demonstrate that retained third-grade ELs had better outcomes, including, but not limited to, learning English in half the time and enrollment in advanced courses in middle and high school at higher rates than those that were promoted (Figlio & Özek, 2019). However, in a later article, the same authors and two additional colleagues urged “great caution” when making retention decisions (Callahan et al., 2019). They clarified that their study did not account for the state requirement that all retained 3rd graders receive the following interventions: summer school, 90 minutes of reading instruction, effective teachers, and an academic improvement plan (Callahan et al., 2019). In another study, a meta-analysis was undertaken to examine the academic and social-emotional outcomes of retained students. The results demonstrated that retention did not improve students’ academic or social-emotional outcomes; instead, it produced adverse consequences over the long term, like increasing the likelihood of dropping out of school. Instead, the authors recommended that educators implement evidence-based interventions (Jimerson, 2001, #). Retention is not the solution to remediate the learning loss of the last 18 months.



While it may be tempting to retain or refer struggling students for special education assessments immediately, the overwhelming evidence for providing children adequate support is within a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework. Rather than retaining or socially promoting children post-pandemic, this framework, which addresses both academic and social-emotional needs, is proactive and is founded on the following components: high-quality education for all students, universal screening to address problems early on, targeted research-based interventions, and increasing interventions through a tiered approach, progress monitoring, and data-driven decision making (Samuels, 2016). Generally speaking, MTSS comprises three tiers of interventions that grow with intensity if the student fails to respond to interventions. The tiers are as follows: Tier 1 is universal interventions available to all students and generally occurs within the child’s classroom. Tier 2 interventions can be conceived as extra support provided in a small group. Tier 3 interventions are usually intensive and individualized, like special education.


For educators working with ELs, detecting differences or disorders has been an ongoing challenge for many decades (Sanchez, 1934, #). The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for educators to understand the extent of learning problems by factors associated with the pandemic. Variables like virtual learning, lack of reliable internet access, unstable housing, absences, depression, anxiety, and the loss of loved ones, to name a few, have proven difficult to quantify in terms of weighted impact on learning or lack thereof. Implementing an effective MTSS framework with ELs involves being sensitive to the child’s cultural and linguistic needs. For example, using progress monitoring tools that are culturally and linguistically appropriate in both the home (L1) and second language (L2), using multiple measures (assessments, observations, and parent interviews), connecting and involving families in the intervention process, self-awareness of personal biases, and instituting regularly scheduled collaborative data reviews to drive decision-making is essential in MTSS frameworks geared towards ELs (Grindal et al., 2021). The uniqueness of an intervention framework like MTSS lies in that children are identified early, provided with evidence-based interventions, and monitored at every step of the way with valid and reliable assessments that drive all decision-making.


As children return to school, it is evident that there will be significant variability within the classroom setting. Some children will come back to achieve at their current grade level and transition back into the school setting without any concerns. Other students may come back significantly behind academically and will require aggressive intervention approaches. ELs, in particular, will require both linguistic and academic interventions to make up for the lost time. Educators should advocate for practices based on evidence like MTSS and not on tradition or what seems right if we hope to make a dent in the learning loss that has occurred these past 18 months.


Callahan, R., Figlio, D., Mavrogordato, M., & Ozek, U. (2019, February 28). Don’t be too quick to retain English-Language Learners. Education Week.

Figlio, D. N., & Özek, U. (2019, January). An extra year to learn English? Early grade retention and the human capital development of English Learners [Working Paper 25472]. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved September 04, 2021, from

Grindal, T., Parker, C. E., Garcia, E., & Garcia, S. (2021, February). Determining special education eligibility of English Learners. y Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved September 04, 2021, from

Jimerson, S. R. (2001, September). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, 30(3), 420-437. 10.1080/02796015.2001.12086124

Office of Civil Rights. (2021, 09 06). Education in a pandemic: The disparate impact of COVID-19 in America's students. United States Department of Education. Retrieved 08 31, 2021, from

Office of English Language Acquisition. (2020, August). English Learners: Absenteeism, retention, and suspension. Civil Rights Data Collection. Retrieved September 04, 2021, from

Samuels, C. A. (2016, December 13). What are multi-tiered systems of supports? Education Week.

Sanchez, G. I. (1934). The implications of a basal vocabulary to the measurement of the abilities of bilingual children. The Journal of Social Psychology, 5(3), 395-402. 10.1080/00224545.1934.9921607

Sitrin, C. (2021, April 22). Parents are powerless’: Students face being held back after a year of remote learning. Politico.

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