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REL Central Ask A REL Response

Beating the Odds, English Learners

January 2021


What are effective methods for supporting English learners, students who are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and/or students of color with learning loss?


Following an established research protocol, REL Central conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. We have not evaluated the quality of the references provided in this response, and we offer them only for your information. We compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant sources may exist.

Research References

Augustine, C. H., Sloan McCombs, J., Pane, J. F., Schwartz, H. L., Schweig, J., McEachin, A., & Siler-Evans, K. (2016). Learning from summer: Effects of voluntary summer learning programs on low–income urban youth. RAND Corporation. Retrieved from
Full text available from

From the abstract:

“The National Summer Learning Project, launched by the Wallace Foundation in 2011, includes an assessment of the effectiveness of voluntary, district-led summer learning programs offered at no cost to low-income, urban elementary students. The study, conducted by RAND, uses a randomized controlled trial and other analytic methods to assess the effects of district-led programs on academic achievement, social-emotional competencies, and behavior over the near and long term. All students in the study were in the third grade as of spring 2013 and enrolled in a public school in one of five urban districts: Boston; Dallas; Duval County, Florida; Pittsburgh; or Rochester, New York. The study follows these students from third to seventh grade; this report describes outcomes through fifth grade. The primary focus is on academic outcomes but students’ social-emotional outcomes are also examined, as well as behavior and attendance during the school year. Among the key findings are that students with high attendance in one summer benefited in mathematics and that these benefits persisted through the following spring; students with high attendance in the second summer benefited in mathematics and language arts and in terms of social-emotional outcomes; and that high levels of academic time on task led to benefits that persisted in both mathematics and language arts.”

Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC 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.”

Hernández, L. E., Darling-Hammond, L., Adams, J., & Bradley, K. (with Duncan Grand, D., Roc, M., & Ross, P.). (2019). Deeper learning networks: Taking student-centered learning and equity to scale. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“Many educators have created successful innovative models but have had difficulty sustaining, re-creating, and scaling these models. Classrooms and schools characterized by student-centered learning practices typically deviate from the norms of transmission teaching and the many structures and procedures that David Tyack and Larry Cuban called the ‘grammar of schooling.’ As a result, these schools have confronted institutional and normative obstacles as they seek to implement and spread high-quality models and practices with fidelity. This study investigates several networks of schools that had successfully instantiated, sustained, and spread progressive educational practices in ways that advance equity and produce greater success for traditionally marginalized students. It then considered the systems and structures that practitioners have used to anticipate and overcome the challenges that often accompany efforts to enact and spread deep changes to teaching and learning. This report examines three school networks, all of which engage students in inquiry-based learning that has resulted in positive outcomes for students, most of whom are students of color from low-income families: (1) Big Picture Learning, which offers an experiential and interest-based learning approach grounded in personalized, transdisciplinary courses of study and workplace learning that typically takes place in internships; (2) The Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serves newcomers with an ‘activity[-]based’ pedagogical model that features collaborative, inquiry-based learning for English learners who have had widely variable levels of education before coming to the United States; and (3) New Tech Network, which offers a whole school model grounded in interdisciplinary, project-based learning that is technology supported, including resources for both teachers and students to facilitate collaborative learning.”

Hollis Mungo, M. (2017). Closing the gap: Can service-learning enhance retention, graduation, and GPAs of students of color? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 23(2), 42–52. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The education system is responsible for the choices and chances provided to the students it serves. Although racial disparities continue to impede some students’ chance of success in education, service-learning in the classroom context may be the transformative strategy needed to make institutions of higher education the ‘great equalizers’ they ostensibly aspire to be. Using data from an urban, public, Research I institution located in the Midwest region of the United States, this study assessed the use of service-learning in two general education courses as a strategy to increase retention and graduation rates at the institution. Service-learning was found to have a significant effect on student retention, grade point average, and graduation. Students who took either course performed better than their counterparts without service-learning experiences.”

Lei, Q., Xin, Y. P., Morita-Mullaney, T., & Tzur, R. (2020). Instructional scaffolds in mathematics instruction for English learners with learning disabilities: An exploratory case study. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 18(1), 123–144. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“As today’s classrooms become more and more diverse, there is a growing need to explore the intersection between English Learners (ELs) and students with learning disabilities (LD) in the content-specific instruction of mathematics problem solving. The aim of this study was to determine which types of instructional scaffolds may be used by math teachers to effectively support ELs with LD learning multiplicative reasoning. To this end, we employed an exploratory case study based on a frequency count analysis of four scaffold types used by the students and the teacher in their sessions. The results showed that kinesthetic and linguistic scaffolds were the most beneficial for helping ELs with LD to cultivate mathematical thinking with both concrete and abstract units, while also helping to increase the sophistication of their mathematical content-language usage. In combination with small-group interactions, these scaffolds provide an effective instructional method for improving multiplicative reasoning among ELs with LD.”

Rivera, H., Waxman, H. C., & Powers, R. (2012). English Language Learners’ educational resilience and classroom learning environment. Educational Research Quarterly, 35(4), 57–78. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Resilience is an area of research that has important implications for the educational improvement of English Language Learners (ELLs) because it focuses on ELLs who are successful in school despite the presence of adverse conditions such as living in economically–and socially–disadvantaged circumstances. This study compared the classroom and instructional learning environment of 189 fourth- and fifth-grade resilient, average and nonresilient ELLs. Resilient and average students perceived significantly (p < 0.05) more competition in the classroom than nonresilient students, while nonresilient students and average students perceived their reading classes to be significantly (p < 0.05) more difficult than resilient students. The classroom observation results revealed that resilient and average students were on task significantly (p < 0.001) more than nonresilient students.”

Schwartz, H. L., Ahmed, F., Leschitz, J. T., Uzicanin, A., & Uscher-Pines, L. (2020). Opportunities and challenges in using online learning to maintain continuity of instruction in K–12 schools in emergencies. RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“BACKGROUND: Distance learning provides a way to continue instruction in emergencies and can support social distancing. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, prolonged school closures can occur with little warning. Lessons learned from prior prolonged school closures can inform much-needed planning for future ones. In the 2017 hurricane season, more than 1,000 schools in the United States experienced closures lasting 10 or more days. Yet, despite the rapid expansion of online instruction, little is known about schools’ use of it in public health and other emergencies. METHODS: In 2017–2018, we conducted 13 focus groups and 11 interviews with school practitioners to identify promising practices, barriers, and facilitators for distance learning in emergencies. RESULTS: We found few examples of use of distance learning during emergency school closures in 2017. While there are significant barriers to offering distance learning in an emergency, schools that already offer online learning prior to an emergency are best equipped to continue instruction during closures for some types of emergencies. CONCLUSIONS: Additional efforts could enhance preparedness for distance learning in K–12 schools in the framework of all-hazards preparedness.”

Southward, J. D., & Goo, M. (2019). Repeated reading as an intervention for high school students identified with a specific learning disability. International Journal of Special Education, 34(1), 255–270. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The current study was conducted to measure the effectiveness of a repeated reading intervention for secondary level students identified with a specific learning disability. Although previous research suggests that repeated reading is an effective intervention to build oral reading fluency for students identified with disabilities, there is little research on its effectiveness with high school students who have been identified with a specific learning disability. This study used a multiple-probe across students design to measure the effectiveness of repeated reading as a strategy to improve oral reading fluency with high school students identified with a specific learning disability. A visual analysis of data suggested a functional relationship was demonstrated with all participating students. While there were differences in performance, the visual analysis indicated repeated reading had a positive affect [sic] on oral reading fluency with unpracticed passages for all three students.”

Tuft, E., & Bachler, M. (2016). Mathematics learning and retention through a summer program for underserved elementary children. Educational Research: Theory and Practice, 28(2), 25–30. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Many are concerned with potential learning loss that can occur during the summer break. This is of particular concern for underserved populations of elementary school children. This paper describes a summer school program that was designed to serve one of these populations as well as its effects on the retention and learning of mathematics knowledge. The researchers found that, on average, students in each grade level were able to maintain or improve their performance on mathematics tests that assessed knowledge related to the number and operation concepts that were designated by the state core standards for their corresponding grades.”

Additional Resources to Consult

What Works Clearinghouse:

From the website:

“The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question ‘What works in education?’”


Keywords and Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Academic persistence”
  • “Educational strategies”
  • Intervention
  • “Learning loss”
  • “Learning loss” + “achievement gap”
  • “Learning loss” + “economically disadvantaged”
  • “Learning loss” + “learning disabilities”
  • “Learning loss” + “low income students”
  • “Learning loss” + “racial differences”
  • “Learning loss” + “special education”
  • “Learning loss” + “students of color”
  • “Learning loss” + “students with disabilities”
  • “Mathematics achievement”
  • “Reading achievement”
  • “Student centered learning”
  • “Student improvement”
  • Tutoring

Databases and Resources

REL Central searched ERIC for relevant references. ERIC is a free online library, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences, of over 1.6 million citations of education research. Additionally, we searched Google and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching for and reviewing references, REL Central considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: The search and review included references published between 2011 and 2021.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types, such as randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive analyses, and literature reviews; and (b) target population and sample.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its 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.