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REL Central Ask A REL Response


July 2020


What influences the development of English proficiency and academic achievement in English learning (EL) students in elementary schools?


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

Arellano, B., Liu, F., Stoker, G., & Slama, R. (2018). Initial Spanish proficiency and English language development among Spanish-speaking English learner students in New Mexico (REL 2018–286). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“To what extent do Spanish-speaking English learner students develop English proficiency and grade-level readiness in English language arts and math from early elementary school to upper elementary school? Is there a relationship between proficiency in a student’s primary home language, Spanish, and the amount of time needed to attain fluency in the student’s second language, English? And are there differences in these relationships across English learner student subgroups? These topics are of high priority to members of the New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance. New Mexico has a long history of working to support the maintenance and development of students’ biliteracy skills. Many members of the alliance provide districts with technical assistance related to English learner students, so answers to these questions may inform this technical assistance. This study, conducted by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest, sought to inform the New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance about the path toward English proficiency and academic outcomes for Spanish-speaking English learner students who entered kindergarten with varying levels of Spanish proficiency. The study followed two cohorts of Spanish-speaking English learner students in four districts in New Mexico from kindergarten through grade 4 or 5. The 2010 cohort included students enrolled in kindergarten in 2009/10 who were followed through grade 5, and the 2011 cohort included students enrolled in kindergarten in 2010/11 who were followed through grade 4. The study examined cumulative rates of English learner students’ progress toward reclassification as fluent English proficient. The study also examined students’ demonstration of grade-level readiness on the New Mexico Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (NMPARCC) standardized academic assessments in English language arts and math in grades 4 and 5. All of the results were also observed through the lens of initial Spanish proficiency in kindergarten to understand differences among groups of English learner students. The main findings were: (1) More than 80 percent of English learner students in the 2010 cohort started kindergarten at the lowest English proficiency level, as did half of those in the 2011 cohort; (2) Nearly 83 percent of students in the 2010 cohort attained English proficiency by grade 5, and 59 percent of students in the 2011 cohort did so by grade 4; (3) Among English learner students with high initial Spanish proficiency, nearly all those in the 2010 cohort were reclassified as fluent English proficient by grade 5, and nearly three-quarters of those in the 2011 cohort were reclassified by grade 4; (4) Among English learner students with low or medium initial Spanish proficiency, roughly a quarter of the 2010 cohort were not reclassified as fluent English proficient by grade 5, and almost half the 2011 cohort were not reclassified by grade 4; (5) Of English learner students who were reclassified as fluent English proficient by grade 4 or 5, fewer than a quarter also demonstrated grade-level readiness in grade 4 or grade 5 English language arts or math on the NMPARCC assessment; (6) Regardless of initial Spanish proficiency, the rates of grade-level readiness were generally low on NMPARCC English language arts and math outcomes in grades 4 and 5. However, students with high initial Spanish proficiency were more likely to demonstrate grade-level readiness than were students in the other Spanish proficiency groups; and (7) Grade-level readiness in English language arts and math among students in the two cohorts who were reclassified as fluent English proficient in grades 4 and 5 was generally lower than statewide averages for all students in the same grades in New Mexico. Most students who were identified as English learner students in kindergarten required a minimum of three to four years of instruction after kindergarten to attain English proficiency. A large percentage of students were not reclassified as fluent English proficient before leaving elementary school. Even when students were reclassified, this milestone did not always translate into grade-level readiness in English language arts and math. Among English learner students who were reclassified as fluent English proficient by grade 4 or 5, only a small percentage demonstrated grade-level readiness in grade 4 or grade 5 English language arts and math. The findings suggest that English learner students with low and medium initial Spanish proficiency will not fare as well in English language arts and math as students with high initial Spanish proficiency. A Spanish proficiency measure could be used as an early indicator to target students with low and medium Spanish proficiency in kindergarten for language and literacy interventions in early grades.”

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 introduction:

Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades: A Practice Guide, published in 2007, was the very first IES practice guide developed. This earlier guide focused solely on research conducted up to 2005. As many readers will recall, the major emphasis in education at that time was teaching beginning reading according to evidence-based practice, using a variety of interventions to help students who were likely to struggle. This emphasis on early reading intervention was reflected in Reading First, numerous state initiatives, and special education legislation.

As a result, the 2007 English learner practice guide stressed instruction in beginning reading. The guide emphasized types of screening tools that could be used with English learners and the principles that underlie effective literacy interventions for this population, especially in the primary grades. Also addressed in the earlier practice guide were recommendations for vocabulary instruction and peer-assisted learning. The concept of academic language was also a recommendation topic, although only sparse evidence was available at that time. As the title notes, the practice guide was geared only toward the elementary grades, with a particular focus on the primary grades.”

Deussen, T., Autio, E., Roccograndi, A. & Hanita, M. (2014, March 6–8). The impact of Project GLAD on students’ literacy and science learning: Year 1 results from a cluster-randomized trial of sheltered instruction [Abstract]. Society of Research on Educational Effectiveness Spring Conference, Washington, DC, United States. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“With the increased population of English learners (ELs), educators need programs that help students access academic content while learning to understand, speak, read, and write English (Tharp, Estrada, Dalteen, & Yamaguchi 2000; Echevarria, Short[,] & Powers, 2006). ELs come into U.S. schools needing to learn the same grade-level content as their [non-EL] peers, but with the additional challenge of approaches separate the two tasks, many researchers and practitioners call for integrating them, so that students do not miss content area instruction while they are learning English. One way to combine the two is sheltered instruction, which provides intentional linguistic and other supports to ELs to facilitate their learning of grade-level content (Echevarria, Short[,] & Powers, 2008). As a recent review of the research makes clear, however, there is limited evidence to show the effectiveness of sheltered instruction (Goldenberg, 2013). Since the early 1990s, Project GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) has made claim to be a program that helps teachers meet diverse language and content needs within the mainstream classroom (Brechtel, 2001). Project GLAD is a multi-component K–12 instructional model designed to build academic English and grade-level content knowledge for students at varying levels of English language proficiency. The study discussed herein was a two-year cluster randomized trial in fifth-grade classrooms from 30 Idaho schools across 21 different districts. It focused on two research questions: (1) What is the impact of Project GLAD teacher training on fifth-grade students’ reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing and science achievement in the treatment classrooms during the first of implementation, compared to a ‘business as usual’ control group? and (2) Is the program impact different for ELs?”

Estrada, P., & Wang, H. (2013, April 27–May 1). Reclassfying and not reclassifying English learners to fluent English proficient, Year 1 findings: Factors impeding and facilitating reclassification and access to the core. American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, United States. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“For English learners (ELs), reclassifying to fluent English proficient (RFEP) signifies reaching a milestone indicating the ability to function in mainstream classes without support. Little is known about the discrepancy between the number of ELs who meet reclassification criteria and the number who are reclassified as fluent English proficient, the factors that impede and facilitate reclassification, and the consequences for access to the core curriculum of continuing EL status or reclassifying. We investigated these questions among ELs in grades 3 through 9 in two school districts with a multimethod design using student administrative data, policy documents, and staff interviews. Despite major differences in the stringency of RFEP criteria, about a fifth of ELs met criteria in both districts. Although the majority of students meeting all criteria were RFEP, a substantial number were not. Key impediments included teacher recommendations to not reclassify; ambiguous criteria; inadequate knowledge of the reclassification process and criteria among staff, students, and parents; divergent philosophies among staff regarding RFEPing; requiring that criteria be met in alignment; timing of assessments; and lack of quality instruction that addresses both English language development and access to the core needs. Continuing EL status at the secondary level typically restricted access to the academic core, the full curriculum, and non-EL peers. The findings demonstrate that EL status is defined by district and school context, within broad state guidelines. An EL who in one district, or even a particular school, garners the mantle of success that reclassification signifies might, in another context, instead become a long-term EL and garner the negative mantle of failure. Taken together, the findings raise concerns about the consequences for fairness, equity, and opportunity to learn of current state policy guided by local control. On a positive note, many impediments to reclassification and access are within districts’ and schools’ control and therefore changeable.”

Gersten, R., Baker, S. K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective literacy and English language instruction for English learners in the elementary grades (NCEE 2007-4011). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The goal of this practice guide is to formulate specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations for use by educators addressing a multifaceted challenge that lacks developed or evaluated packaged approaches. The challenge is effective literacy instruction for English learners in the elementary grades. At one level, the target audience is a broad spectrum of school practitioners–administrators, curriculum specialists, coaches, staff development specialists, and teachers. At another level, a more specific objective is to reach district-level administrators with a practice guide that will help them develop practice and policy options for their schools. The guide includes specific recommendations for district administrators and indicates the quality of the evidence that supports these recommendations.”

Hoover, J. J., & Soltero-González, L. (2018). Educator preparation for developing culturally and linguistically responsive MTSS in rural community elementary schools. Teacher Education and Special Education, 41(3), 188–202. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Special educators assume an essential leadership role in school-wide multilayered instructional systems for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners with and without disabilities, including learners at risk of being inappropriately referred for special education. Research findings from a model demonstration project are presented informing research to practice in the (a) development of partnerships, (b) delivery of effective professional development, and (c) framing of cultural and linguistic responsive teaching to improve instruction for English learners (ELs) in Grades K–3 in elementary schools in a rural community. Content, skill sets, and tools to include in educator training for general and special educators who teach English language and other diverse learners are recommended based on project findings.”

Hwang, H., & Duke, N. K. (2020). Content counts and motivation matters: Reading comprehension in third-grade students who are English learners. AERA Open, 6(1), 1–17. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This study examined the role of science domain knowledge, reading motivation, and decoding skills in reading comprehension achievement in third-grade students who are English learners (ELs) and students who are monolingual, using a nationally representative data set. Multigroup probit regression analyses showed that third-grade science domain knowledge and motivation for reading, decoding skills, and early attainment of decoding skills were significantly associated with third-grade reading comprehension in both language groups. Also, using Wald chi-square tests, the study showed that the association between third-grade science domain knowledge and reading comprehension was stronger in students who were ELs than in students who were monolingual. These findings suggest that cultivating science domain knowledge is very important to supporting reading comprehension development in third grade, particularly for students who are ELs.”

Perez, M., & Kennedy, A. (2014, March 6–8). How do changes in the language of instruction and classroom composition affect English learners? [Abstract]. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness Spring Conference, Washington, DC, United States. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“The number of students that live in families where a language other than English is spoken has risen relative to the English-only households in the United States over the last 25 years. These students face the dual challenge of mastering English while acquiring academic skills and knowledge. The education of these students has been shaped by several national- and state- level legal decisions of the past that have required schools to take action by providing services to help linguistic minority students overcome language barriers that impede their equal participation. Those services most often take the form of either an ‘English-immersion’ approach, in which students receive all instruction in English, or employ a ‘bilingual model’ where students are initially taught in some combination of English and their native language and eventually transfer to English-only classrooms. The question of which model of instruction is more “effective” has been notoriously difficult to answer and remains an open and controversial debate. The authors of this article take advantage of a policy passed in California that changed the default instructional program for ELs. Prior to 1998, most ELs were placed into bilingual education. This state-level legislation forced schools to move students to move to a different instructional setting–a change that would not had been chosen otherwise–providing a natural experiment opportunity to evaluate the effect of bilingual education versus English immersion on the academic achievement of ELs. Also analyzed is how changes in the composition of the classroom affect the academic achievement of students. Findings indicate that the achievement scores of ELs declined by the switch from bilingual education to English immersion programs, with the exception of grades 2–3 reading scores. The authors also found that there is a beneficial effect of placing ELs into classrooms with more native English speakers.”

Steele, J. L., Slater, R. O., Zamarro, G., Miller, T., Li, J., Burkhauser, S., & Bacon, M. (2017). Effects on dual-language programs on student achievement: Evidence from lottery data. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1S), 282S–306S. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract:

“Using data from seven cohorts of language immersion lottery applicants in a large, urban school district, we estimate the causal effects of immersion programs on students’ test scores in reading, mathematics, and science, and on English learners’ (EL) reclassification. We estimate positive intent-to-treat (ITT) effects on reading performance in fifth and eighth grades, ranging from 13% to 22% of a standard deviation, reflecting 7 to 9 months of learning. We find little benefit in terms of mathematics and science performance, but also no detriment. By sixth and seventh grade, lottery winners’ probabilities of remaining classified as EL are three to four percentage points lower than those of their counterparts. This effect is stronger for ELs whose native language matches the partner language.”

Additional Resources to Consult

Project GLAD:

From the website:

“Project GLAD was founded in Fountain Valley, CA[,] more than thirty five years ago by a group of educators after they were asked to support a classroom of students who were refugees – children whose primary language wasn’t English. The educators had minimal resources and sought input from researchers specializing in second language acquisition, the brain, primary language, and reading & writing. After a decade, Project GLAD evolved into what we know today.

After acknowledgement by both the U.S. and California Departments of Education, the model received funding for a national launch. At that point the National Training Center (NTC) was born, based out of the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE). Project Glad [sic] remains committed to meeting the needs of educators and students through high quality implementation and sustainability. The NTC continues to work in collaboration with educational agencies to ensure students remain the first priority.”


Keywords and Strings

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

  • English Language Learners + Elementary Education
  • English (Second Language) + Elementary Education
  • Literacy Education
  • Reading Achievement
  • Second Language Learners + Elementary Education

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.

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 2007 and 2020.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC.
  • 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, 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.