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Grant Program: English Learners
Contact: Dr. Helyn Kim
(202) 245-6890


The English Learners topic supports research to improve education outcomes and reduce the academic achievement gap for English Learners (ELs). IES uses the term English Learner under a broad definition, encompassing individuals whose home language is not English and whose English language proficiency hinders their ability to meet learning and achievement expectations for their level of schooling. The EL population is diverse in terms of home language and proficiency, English language proficiency, age of entry in U.S. schools, and school experiences like language of instruction and policies guiding EL identification and reclassification.

Through this topic, IES is interested in reducing the academic achievement gap for the growing number of EL students. The long-term outcome of this research includes an array of tools and strategies (e.g., assessments, instructional approaches, programs, and policies) that are effective for improving academic outcomes for EL students.

English Learners began as a topic area in fiscal year 2010 to draw more attention to the unique needs of ELs and the importance of research focused specifically on this population.

English learners are a large and growing subgroup within the US K–12 population. ELs participate in US education at all levels, including about 5 million students in the K-12 system and over 1 million in postsecondary institutions. Under Civil Rights legislation, they are also a protected subgroup entitled to special services to ensure they are not denied educational opportunities on the basis of their language or national origin.

As language learners, ELs face unique challenges and needs in the classroom as they develop content knowledge and English proficiency simultaneously. For example, ELs may need more time to read and process written materials, and may need help not only with content specific academic vocabulary (e.g., words like “hypothesis,” or “ecosystem”) but also with more general language that is used in academic settings (e.g., words like “nevertheless,” or phrases like, “which of the following”). Given the linguistic and cultural challenges ELs face in classrooms and on assessments that use English, it is perhaps unsurprising that these students also are much more likely than English-speaking peers to score below proficient on state and national assessments of academic content knowledge in areas like English language arts and mathematics.

There is a clear need for information and interventions to specifically support ELs' learning and growth. While some interventions developed for the general population do include special considerations or evaluations for ELs, such interventions are likely to be insufficient on their own for addressing ELs' specific needs as language learners. The creation of a separate topic focusing on ELs reflects an effort to highlight the importance of studying these students in their own right and developing interventions that are responsive to their specific contextual needs.

One of the most pressing issues currently is a need for a large-scale, coordinated research effort to improve opportunities and achievement for ELs, specifically in secondary school settings. ELs in secondary school settings face numerous barriers and unique challenges in accessing education opportunities, as they simultaneously develop English language proficiency and subject-matter knowledge. There are large, persistent gaps in academic achievement outcomes between ELs and non-ELs, and these differences have consequences for how prepared students will be to access opportunities in postsecondary education and the workforce. In order to address these issues, two Research and Development Centers are conducting focused scientific research to identify systemic and instructional influences that affect access to the general curriculum and generate insights about levers that have the potential to improve access and education outcomes for ELs in secondary school settings.

See the English Learners topic page to learn more about IES initiatives in this area.