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English Language Acquisition Supports
December 2019


What does the research say about the efficacy, implementation, and outcomes for English language learners when placed in the content-area classroom with native English-speaking peers?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J. et al. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.

From the Abstract:
"As English learners face the double demands of building knowledge of a second language while learning complex grade-level content, teachers must find effective ways to make challenging content comprehensible for students. This updated English learner practice guide, "Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School," provides four recommendations for teaching complex content to English learners while simultaneously building academic language and writing and oral language proficiency. This updated practice guide builds on the work of the first practice guide on English learners, expands the grade range from K-5 to K-8, and incorporates instruction in mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as literacy. With techniques found in this guide, teachers can effectively address English learners' content and language needs by systematically--and at times explicitly--building students' English language and literacy, while teaching history, mathematics, science, and other disciplines. The four recommendations include concrete guidance on: (1) Teaching English learners academic vocabulary intensively within the context of an engaging piece of informational text; (2) Helping English learners make sense of the content area material; (3) Supporting English learners as they learn to generate well-organized essays that are progressively longer and more complex; and (4) Providing struggling English learners with high-quality instructional interventions in reading and English language development. Like all other practice guides, this updated practice guide is based on research that has met the rigorous standards set by the What Works Clearinghouse, capitalizing on recently conducted research on content learning and academic language. The research base for this guide was identified through a comprehensive search for studies evaluating instructional practices for teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in K-8."

Bauler, C. V., Kang, E., Afanador-Vega, A., & Stevenson, A. (2019). "My partner always helps me": Exploring two co-teachers' practices to support writing in a first-grade linguistically diverse elementary class. TESL-EJ, 24(2), 1–18.

From the Abstract:
"English Language Learners (ELLs) are often deprived of using English for academic purposes in meaningful and authentic contexts when pulled out of the classroom for English Language Development services. To tackle this issue, schools have increasingly integrated ELLs in the mainstream classroom through an inclusive model of co-teaching between one content and one language teacher. Through a case study approach, we explored two co-teachers' practices that fostered writing development within one first grade linguistically diverse mainstream classroom. Through analysis of classroom interaction as well as teachers' and researchers' notes, findings revealed that in holding core shared practices, the two teachers achieved an enhanced ability to scaffold their teaching to support their students' writing development. Core shared practices included a sensitive view of students' academic language and writing development, modeling for conversations about writing, embedding specific scaffolds for academic language, and opportunities for talking and sharing ideas about writing. These core practices enabled the ESOL and content teacher to take up and share equal and complementing roles during planning, instruction, and assessment. Co-teaching can yield positive results provided that the ESOL teacher has a central, not peripheral role in the mainstream classroom."

Deussen, T., Roccograndi, A., Hanita, M., Autio, E., & Rodriguez-Mojica, C. (2015). The impact of Project GLAD on fifth-grade literacy: Sheltered instruction and English learners in the mainstream classroom, presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, 2015. Retrieved from

From the Document:
"Project GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) is an example of an approach to sheltered instruction that is widely used on the West Coast. Project GLAD is a multicomponent K–12 instructional model designed to build academic English and grade-level content knowledge for students at varying levels of English language proficiency. It is billed as an approach to use in a linguistically heterogeneous classroom and one that is of benefit to all students, but particularly ELs. Until this study, however, Project GLAD had never been formally evaluated. This paper reports on two years of results from a cluster randomized trial of Project GLAD that examines the impact on the literacy learning of two cohorts of fifth-grade students."

Dove, M., & Honigsfeld, A. (2014). Analysis of the implementation of an ESL coteaching model in a suburban elementary school. NYS TESOL Journal, 1(1), 62–67. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Research on school improvement over the last decade has identified several efforts to implement program innovations to increase student achievement for English learners (ELs). Some schools have been found more successful than others in implementing exceptional models of instruction to meet or exceed student achievement expectations for linguistically diverse students. In order to investigate the factors that influence the establishment of a successful program for ELs, we examined the process of implementing an integrated, collaborative service delivery model of instruction for English learners in a New York suburban elementary school."

Irby, B. J., Lara-Alecio, R., Tong, F., Guerrero, C., Sutton-Jones, K. L., & Abdelrahman, N. (2018). Implementation of research-based ESL strategies with lower grade middle school ELLs in the science classroom: Findings from an experimental study. TESL-EJ, 22(1), 1–25.

From the Abstract:
"English language learners (ELLs) benefit when their teachers utilize a wide range of English as a Second Language (ESL) instructional strategies. However, content-area teachers often are unfamiliar with these ESL strategies as they have not received extensive professional development on meeting the needs of ELLs, especially within the context in their content area. In the current study, we explored the instructional differences between sixth-grade science teachers in their use of specific ESL strategies through the use of an observation protocol. Treatment teachers received ongoing, in-depth professional learning on working with ELLs and using ESL strategies. Our research question was: Is there a significant difference between treatment and control classrooms on teachers' implementation of ESL strategies? A total of 1,380 rounds of observation were completed in both treatment and control classrooms during science instruction, with an average of 54.5 minutes per teacher. Chi-square tests were conducted comparing treatment and control teachers' instruction. The results underscored the difference between treatment and control teachers in utilizing some of the specific ESL instructional strategies to enhance their students' science and literacy growth."

Peercy, M. M., Ditter, M., & Destefano, M. (2017). "We need more consistency": Negotiating the division of labor in ESOL–mainstream teacher collaboration. TESOL Journal, 8(1), 215–239. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This study contributes to research on teacher collaboration, which has not adequately examined the supports and challenges to English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) specialists and mainstream classroom teachers sharing roles in a student-centered classroom. Using a sociocultural theoretical framework, this study highlights the importance of routine in collaborating teachers' attempts to create a shared division of labor. Using qualitative analysis of interview and observational data, we focus on the division of labor of a coteaching pair, exploring how the teachers used shared teaching goals and tools to facilitate collaboration. Findings indicate that although the teachers valued their collaborative work, interruptions to their routine made it difficult to work productively together at times. This work has implications for administrators and policy makers whose decision making has an impact on teachers' daily schedules. When teachers cannot count on a consistent routine together, they are unable to engage in truly equal coteaching in which both teachers' skills are used to their fullest to benefit not only English language learners, but all students. Future studies should engage in more detailed and sustained observation of coteaching pairs as they negotiate roles and engage in their particular approaches to their division of labor."

Tong, F., Irby, B., Lara-Alecio, R., & Koch, J. (2014). Integrating literacy and science for English language learners: From learning-to-read to reading-to-learn. The Journal of Educational Research 107(5), 410–426.

From the Abstract:
"The authors examined the impact of 2 subsequent, longitudinal interdisciplinary interventions for 58 Hispanic English language learners (ELLs): (a) Grade 5 science with English language/reading embedded (i.e., science intervention) and (b) K–3 English language/reading with science embedded (i.e., language/reading intervention). Results revealed that (a) in the science intervention treatment ELLs outperformed their counterparts in English-reading fluency, knowledge of word meaning, and science and reading achievement; (b) in the language/reading intervention treatment ELLs continued to develop faster than their peers in English oracy, reading fluency, and comprehension; (c) ELLs benefited more from the science intervention if they received the prior language/reading intervention. We conclude that for ELLs, the integration of science and English language/reading should primarily focus on reading in elementary grades and science in Grade 5."

Umansky, I. M. (2016). Leveled and exclusionary tracking: English learners' access to academic content in middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 53(6), 1792–1833.

From the Abstract:
"This study examines the characteristics and determinants of English learners' (ELs') access to academic content in middle school (Grades 6-8). Following 10 years of data from a large urban school district in California, I identify two predominant characteristics of EL access to content: leveled tracking in which ELs are overrepresented in lower level classes and underrepresented in upper level classes and exclusionary tracking in which ELs are excluded from core academic content area classes, particularly English language arts. Using regression analysis and two regression discontinuity designs, I find evidence that ELs' access to content is limited by a constellation of factors, including prior academic achievement, institutional constraints, English proficiency level, and direct effects of EL classification. This study contributes to understanding of the experiences and opportunities of students learning English as well as theory regarding educational tracking."

Vaughn, S., Martinez, L. R., Wanzek, J., Roberts, G., Swanson, E., & Fall, A. M. (2017). Improving content knowledge and comprehension for English language learners: Findings from a randomized control trial. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(1), 22–34. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Supporting the reading comprehension and content knowledge acquisition of English language learners (ELs) requires instructional practices that continue beyond developing the foundational skills of reading. In particular, the challenges ELs face highlight the importance of teaching reading comprehension practices in the middle grades through content acquisition. We conducted a randomized control trial to examine the efficacy of a content acquisition and reading comprehension intervention implemented in eighth-grade social studies classrooms with English language learners … Teachers taught the same instructional content to treatment and comparison classes, but the treatment classes used instructional practices that included comprehension canopy, essential words, knowledge acquisition, and team-based learning. Students in the treatment group (n=845) outperformed students in the comparison group (n=784) on measures of content knowledge acquisition and content reading comprehension but not general reading comprehension. Both ELs and non-ELs who received the treatment outperformed those assigned to the BAU comparison condition on measures of content knowledge acquisition (ES=0.40) and content-related reading comprehension (ES=0.20). In addition, the proportion of English language learners in classes moderated outcomes for content knowledge acquisition."

Other Resources

Hoffman, L., & Zollman, A. (2016). What STEM teachers need to know and do for English language learners (ELLs): Using literacy to learn. Journal of STEM Teacher Education, 51(1), 83–94. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"A growing concern for STEM teachers is the responsibility of having students who do not speak English proficiently in their content area classrooms. This paper gives a background of how STEM literacy and English language learner (ELL) literacy can be used productively together as well as strategies for STEM teachers to help all students learn. Strategies for ELL literacy are good strategies for all students. We discuss specific strategies that STEM teachers can use that benefit all students in developing academic language and conceptual understanding in STEM content using a hands-on STEM experiment, "Why do I need to wear a bicycle helmet?" that incorporates Newton's first, second, and third laws of motion."

Lucas, T., Strom, K., Bratkovich, M., & Wnuk, J. (2018). Inservice preparation for mainstream teachers of English language learners: A review of the empirical literature. The Educational Forum, 82(2), 156–173. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The empirical literature regarding the nature and outcomes of inservice learning opportunities for mainstream teachers of ELLs reveals that such opportunities give primary emphasis to developing teachers' pedagogical knowledge and skills but also give attention to encouraging teachers to learn about their students, curriculum, and school context; engage in inquiry about their own practice; deepen their subject knowledge for teaching ELLs; analyze and change beliefs; and develop identities as teachers of ELLs."

Peercy, M. M., Martin-Beltrán, M., Silverman, R. D., & Nunn, S. J. (2015). "Can I ask a question?": ESOL and mainstream teachers engaging in distributed and distributive learning to support English language learners' text comprehension. Teacher Education Quarterly, 42(4), 33–58.

From the Abstract:
"The population of U.S. schools has shifted dramatically in the past two decades to include many more linguistically and culturally diverse learners, while the teacher population has remained largely White and monolingual, with limited connections to immigrant communities. Among the many changes diverse learners have brought to U.S. schools is the increased need for the teaching force to understand how to teach English language learners (ELLs) effectively. One solution to supporting ELLs has been an increase in English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) specialists "plugging in" to grade-level mainstream classrooms so that they can benefit from interactions with English-dominant peers as well as content instruction in English. The inclusion of ELLs and ESOL specialists in mainstream classrooms is a relatively new phenomenon, and many researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are interested in how collaborating teachers learn and work in a variety of settings. The goal of this qualitative study was to explore teacher learning through the co-construction of specialized knowledge and practices between ESOL specialists and mainstream teachers as they collaboratively planned, taught, and reflected on lessons. The data emerged from the second year of a 3-year federally funded cross-age peer tutoring (CAPT) reading intervention designed to support vocabulary development and reading comprehension of ELL kindergartners and fourth graders who worked in little buddy-big buddy pairs to read researcher-created texts with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics themes. The CAPT program was taught during the regular English language arts (ELA) block and was supplementary to the students' regular ELA curricula. The research team developed eight text-based lesson sets, which included a mixture of narrative and expository texts centered around the themes of caring for the environment and measurement. One of the positive aspects of teachers' experiences in this study is that teachers with different specializations, strengths, orientations, and background knowledge participated together in the same instructional event, experienced student learning within the space of that shared occurrence, and reflected together on what students struggled with--and what they learned. This gave teachers a common set of experiences around which to build a shared understanding of how to support students, thus setting groundwork for shaping the teachers' thinking, their practices, and their students' opportunities for greater academic success. This study serves as an important foundation for future work exploring how to support teachers and students as they participate in a new era of reform-based instruction and learning."

Short, D. J. (2017). How to integrate content and language learning effectively for English language learners. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 13(7b), 4237–4260.

From the Abstract:
"This paper describes the challenges and successes of developing and scaling up a research-based instructional intervention known as the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) Model. The SIOP Model is an approach used widely in the United States for teaching subjects like mathematics and science to students learning through English, a new language. Teachers integrate techniques that make the concepts accessible with techniques that develop the students' skills in the academic language of the specific subjects. This article describes a program of research that developed the SIOP Model in one study and then tested its efficacy and refined its professional development design in subsequent studies in a number of different contexts over 15 years. Results revealed that students with teachers who were trained in the SIOP Model and implemented it with fidelity performed better on assessments of academic language than students with teachers who were not trained in the model."

Turkan, S., de Oliveira, L. C., Lee, O., & Phelps, G. (2014). Proposing a knowledge base for teaching academic content to English language learners: Disciplinary linguistic knowledge. Teachers College Record, 116(3), 1–30. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Background/Context: The current research on teacher knowledge and teacher accountability falls short on information about what teacher knowledge base could guide preparation and accountability of the mainstream teachers for meeting the academic needs of ELLs. Most recently, research on specialized knowledge for teaching has offered ways to understand the tasks of teaching that constitute the work of teaching a subject and a set of content-based problems. However, in this paper, we have argued that this domain does not address whether or not teaching academic content to English language learners (ELLs) involves any specialized knowledge for teaching. We sought to understand what specialized knowledge base for teaching, if any, is included in the work of teaching content to special student populations such as ELLs. In this exploration, we drew on the main perspective from literature about Systemic Functional Linguistics and academic language. Purpose: Grounding the theoretical argument based on these two areas of research, we propose the teachers' use of Disciplinary Linguistic Knowledge (DLK) for academic discourse of a discipline or content area. DLK is proposed as the knowledge base needed to facilitate ELLs' understanding of oral and written discourse within a discipline and their accurate use of language to engage them in the disciplinary discourse. Findings/Results: DLK refers to teachers' knowledge of a particular disciplinary discourse and involves knowledge for (a) identifying linguistic features of the disciplinary discourse and (b) modeling for ELLs how to communicate meaning in the discipline and engaging them in using the language of the discipline orally or in writing. We offer examples illustrating how teachers' knowledge of Disciplinary Linguistic Knowledge might manifest itself when teachers engage in the work of teaching content to ELLs. Conclusions/Recommendations: The use of DLK as a specialized knowledge base for teaching content to ELLs might help to further specify the role of teachers' knowledge of students within the larger research area of content knowledge for teaching. Also, operationalizing DLK as an assessment construct could address the need for next generation teacher assessments that aim to measure teachers' knowledge base for teaching content to ELLs."

Von Esch, K. S., & Kavanagh, S. S. (2018). Preparing mainstream classroom teachers of English learner students: Grounding practice-based designs for teacher learning in theories of adaptive expertise development. Journal of Teacher Education, 69(3), 239–251.

From the Abstract:
"Preparing classroom teachers to teach English Learner (EL) students continues to challenge teacher educators. This article argues for EL teaching work to be situated within theories of professional learning that focus on developing teachers who can flexibly integrate EL instructional practice into content area teaching. We propose a framework of adaptive expertise that highlights scaffolding instructional practice while simultaneously creating opportunities for preservice teachers to collectively engage with problems of practice and critical reflection in real time in classrooms. Using data from a qualitative study involving a practice-based design—the studio day—in teacher education, we illustrate key elements of the framework. We examine the potential of studio days to help preservice teachers build integrated knowledge about rigorous mathematics and language instruction. Framing the preparation of classroom teachers to teach EL students within theories of adaptive expertise may inform teacher education pedagogies and contexts for teacher learning."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: (EL OR ELL OR ESL OR ELD OR "English learner" OR "English language learner" OR "limited English" OR "English (second language)" OR "English as a second language" OR "English language development" OR "English language supports") AND Content area

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.