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


The English Learners topic supports research to improve the educational outcomes for English Learners (ELs). IES uses the term English Learner under a broad definition encompassing all students whose home language is not English and whose English language proficiency hinders their ability to meet expectations for students at their grade level.

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.

Between 2010 and 2017, NCER has invested approximately $60,000,000 in the English Learners program to support 34 research projects.

6 Exploration Projects
13 Development and Innovation Projects
9 Efficacy and Replication Projects
6 Measurement Projects

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. Among the 34 grants funded since the topic's creation, nearly all have focused on ELs in elementary and middle grades; only four EL grants to date have focused specifically on high school ELs in grades 9 through 12. A plurality of projects (14 grants; 41%) have studied ELs in urban settings, and a similar number (12 grants; 35%) have focused specifically on Spanish-speakers—by far the largest home language group within the EL population.

From a substantive perspective, nearly half of the 34 EL projects to date (16 grants; 47%) have focused on literacy, with a particular emphasis on academic language and academic vocabulary (10 grants). Roughly a third (10 grants; 32%) have also leveraged computer- or web-based technology for their interventions or measures.

Because it focuses primarily on a population, the EL topic intersects with several other competitions and other topic areas in NCER's Research Programs. Prior to the creation of the EL topic in 2010, at least 26 grants were funded through other Education Research Grants Program topic areas (e.g., Early Learning Programs and Policies, Reading and Writing) that included a primary focus on ELs in their design. Similarly, at least 30 grants have been funded under other topic areas and competitions since 2010 that nonetheless include a primary focus on ELs. Trends in this larger body of EL-focused work (at least 90 grants in total) are similar to those for the 34 grants funded under the EL topic — the majority have focused on students in late elementary and middle grades (52 grants; 58%), literacy skills (54 grants; 60%), ELs in urban settings (45 grants; 50%), Spanish speakers (37 grants; 41%), and development work (25 grants; 28%).

Why have an English Learners topic?
English learners are a large and growing subgroup within the US K–12 population. In the 2014-15 school year, they comprised 4.8 million students, or 9.5 percent of the total student population. 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.