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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

English Learners

September 2017


1. What does the research say about effective strategies or programs to engage English learner students in grades 6–12?

2. What does the research say about effective strategies or programs to teach English proficiency, specifically reading, vocabulary, and writing, to English learner students in grades 6–12?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on strategies to engage and teach English learner students. In particular, we focused on school subjects such as reading, writing, and vocabulary. For details on the databases and sources, keywords and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

1. What does the research say about effective strategies or programs to engage English learner students in grades 6–12?

Brooks, K., & Thurston, L. P. (2010). English language learner academic engagement and instructional grouping configurations. American Secondary Education, 39(1), 45–60. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study used an ecobehavioral approach to investigate the conditional probability that English language learning (ELL) students would engage in academic tasks in urban middle school content area classrooms within different instructional grouping configurations. These configurations included whole class, small group, one-to-one, and individual instruction. The participants in the study included 28 native Spanish-speaking students who were all identified as being English language learners (ELL). The findings of this study indicate that participants were most likely to engage in academic tasks during small group and one-to-one instruction. They were least likely to engage in academic tasks during whole class and individual instruction.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Tung, R., Diez, V., Gagnon, L., Uriarte, M., & Stazesky, P. (2011). Learning from consistently high performing and improving schools for English language learners in Boston Public Schools. Boston, MA: Center for Collaborative Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study is part of a collaborative project entitled ‘Identifying Success in Schools and Programs for English Language Learners in Boston Public Schools’. The companion to this report, entitled ‘Improving Educational Outcomes of English Language Learners in Schools and Programs in Boston Public Schools’, provides a comprehensive analysis of student-, program-, and school-level data from SY2006 to SY2009 to describe the trends in enrollment and educational outcomes for Boston’s ELL students in those years. This study follows up and extends the research published in 2009, which analyzed the enrollment and performance of BPS ELL students from SY2003 to SY2006 (Tung et al., 2009) and found (1) a decline in the identification of students as LEP and in their ELL program participation; (2) an increase in LEP student enrollment in special education programs; (3) substantial increases in dropout rates; and (4) large gaps in MCAS pass rates between LEP students and English proficient students. In the present study, the same enrollment and educational outcome indicators are examined, but new analyses are also presented.”

Uriarte, M., Karp, F., Gagnon, L., Tung, R., Rustan, S., Chen, J., … Stazesky, P. (2011). Improving educational outcomes of English language learners in schools and programs in Boston Public Schools. Boston, MA: Center for Collaborative Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Identifying Success in Schools and Programs for English Language Learners in Boston Public Schools,’ of which this report is one part, is a project commissioned by the Boston Public Schools as part of this process of change set in motion by the intervention of the state and the federal governments on behalf of Boston’s English language learners. The project is being conducted at the request of the Office for English Language Learners and is a collaboration among this Office, the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston. The research aspect of this project entails two parts. The first, contained in this report, is a quantitative analysis of enrollment and educational outcomes for Boston’s ELLs in SY2009 (with selected analyses of trends between SY2006 and SY2009). This analysis supports aspects of the required monitoring of English language learner programs and provides the district with the 2009 baseline that will support its ongoing assessment of programmatic strengths and weaknesses as it undertakes the brisk process of improvement in the programs offered to English language learners. The project also entails a close, qualitative examination of the practices at four BPS schools which are ‘beating the odds’ in educating ELLs. Detailed case studies of the four schools were conducted: two of the schools performed substantially above the level that would be predicted by their demographic characteristics alone and two showed recent, steady improvement in outcomes controlling for any changes in student demographics. These case studies appear in a companion report entitled ‘Learning from Consistently High Performing and Improving Schools for English Language Learners in Boston Public Schools.’ This report begins with an explanation of the approach taken to conduct the quantitative analysis, followed by its findings regarding the enrollment and demographics of students in different types of programs and schools of different characteristics. This is followed by a discussion of the educational outcomes of LEP students that considers their demographic characteristics, the characteristics of the schools in which they are enrolled, and the types of programs in which they participate.”

2. What does the research say about effective strategies or programs to teach English proficiency, specifically reading, vocabulary, and writing, to English learner students in grades 6–12?

Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J.,… Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. 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.”

Bolos, N. (2012). Successful strategies for teaching reading to middle grades English language learners. Middle School Journal, 44(2), 14–20. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The author reviews exemplary strategies for teaching reading to middle grades English language learners (ELLs) derived from 21 peer-reviewed journal articles and professional books. The author presents an in-depth look at three successful categories of reading strategies: interactive read-alouds to model fluent reading and engage learners, the integration of comprehension strategies to break down the process of reading, and vocabulary strategies that allow students to build schema and make connections. The author includes two appendixes with sample strategies.”

Calderón, M., Slavin, R., & Sánchez, M. (2011). Effective instruction for English learners. Future of Children, 21(1), 103–127. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The fastest-growing student population in U.S. schools today is children of immigrants, half of whom do not speak English fluently and are thus labeled English learners. Although the federal government requires school districts to provide services to English learners, it offers states no policies to follow in identifying, assessing, placing, or instructing them. Margarita Calderón, Robert Slavin, and Marta Sánchez identify the elements of effective instruction and review a variety of successful program models. During 2007-08, more than 5.3 million English learners made up 10.6 percent of the nation’s K-12 public school enrollment. Wide and persistent achievement disparities between these English learners and English-proficient students show clearly, say the authors, that schools must address the language, literacy, and academic needs of English learners more effectively. Researchers have fiercely debated the merits of bilingual and English-only reading instruction. In elementary schools, English learners commonly receive thirty minutes of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction but attend general education classes for the rest of the day, usually with teachers who are unprepared to teach them. Though English learners have strikingly diverse levels of skills, in high school they are typically lumped together, with one teacher to address their widely varying needs. These in-school factors contribute to the achievement disparities. Based on the studies presented here, Calderón, Slavin, and S´nchez assert that the quality of instruction is what matters most in educating English learners. They highlight comprehensive reform models, as well as individual components of these models: school structures and leadership; language and literacy instruction; integration of language, literacy, and content instruction in secondary schools; cooperative learning; professional development; parent and family support teams; tutoring; and monitoring implementation and outcomes. As larger numbers of English learners reach America’s schools, K-12 general education teachers are discovering the need to learn how to teach these students. Schools must improve the skills of all educators through comprehensive professional development—an ambitious but necessary undertaking that requires appropriate funding.”

Cisco, B. K., & Padrón, Y. (2012). Investigating vocabulary and reading strategies with middle grades English language learners: A research synthesis. RMLE Online, 36(4), 1–23. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Recent data indicate that many adolescent English language learners (ELLs) comprehend English texts at only a limited literal level. The purpose of this research synthesis was to systematically identify and describe the research related to the English reading comprehension of middle grades ELLs while also making practical connections to instruction. Parameters were established to determine whether the collected research studies met the purpose of the synthesis and the standards for quality research, using the guiding principles for scientific research set forth in the National Research Council’s ‘Scientific Research in Education.’ Three themes emerged across the 11 identified studies: (a) the essential role of vocabulary knowledge in ELLs’ English reading comprehension, (b) the role of first language and transfer in ELLs’ reading comprehension, and (c) the role of effective instruction in enhancing ELLs’ English reading comprehension. In this paper, we discuss the findings and their implications for classroom instruction and note substantive and methodological concerns that should be addressed in future research.”

Cole, M. W. (2014). Speaking to read: Meta-analysis of peer-mediated learning for English language learners. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(3), 358–382. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This meta-analysis examines the effectiveness of a group of instructional approaches (i.e., cooperative, collaborative, and peer tutoring) at improving literacy outcomes for English language learners. Main effects analyses of a sample of 28 experimental and quasi-experimental studies reveal that peer-mediation is more effective for ELLs than individualized or teacher-centered comparison conditions (g = 0.486, SE = 0.121, p <0.001). A number of potential moderators were examined, and two study quality variables proved significant. Also, grade level was a significant moderator, with middle school students demonstrating much smaller gains than elementary or high school students. Finally, descriptive analysis of moderators provides tentative evidence that ELLs showed greater gains on word-level outcomes than text-level outcomes and that interventions for which peer-mediation was one of several tightly-woven components were twice as effective as interventions utilizing peer-mediation alone.”

Garcia, P. (2009). Connecting research about English language learners to practice: An introductory guide for educators. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “To help educators make informed decisions about English language learners (ELLs), this Connecting Research to Practice brief provides an overview of key research findings, highlights federal policies related to ELLs, outlines district-level and school-level action opportunities, and lists resources that offer more information. English language learners, as defined by the federal government in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, are students 3-21 years old who are enrolled in elementary or secondary school but who do not speak, read, write, or understand English well enough to either (1) reach a proficient level on state achievement tests; (2) be successful in a classroom in which English is the language of instruction, or (3) fully participate in society. Throughout the last decade, while the overall school population has grown by less than 3 percent, the number of ELLs has increased by more than 60 percent.”

Kim, J. S., Olson, C. B., Scarcella, R., Kramer, J., Pearson, M., van Dyk, … Land, R. E. (2011). A randomized experiment of a cognitive strategies approach to text-based analytical writing for mainstreamed Latino English language learners in grades 6 to 12. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 4(3), 231–263. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study reports Year 1 findings from a multisite cluster randomized controlled trial of a cognitive strategies approach to teaching text-based analytical writing for mainstreamed Latino English language learners (ELLs) in 9 middle schools and 6 high schools. There were 103 English teachers stratified by school and grade and then randomly assigned to the Pathway Project professional development intervention or control group. The Pathway Project trains teachers to use a pretest on-demand writing assessment to improve text-based analytical writing instruction for mainstreamed Latino ELLs who are able to participate in regular English classes. The intervention draws on well-documented instructional frameworks for teaching mainstreamed ELLs. Such frameworks emphasize the merits of a cognitive strategies approach that supports these learners’ English language development. Pathway teachers participated in 46 hrs of training and learned how to apply cognitive strategies by using an on-demand writing assessment to help students understand, interpret, and write analytical essays about literature. Multilevel models revealed significant effects on an on-demand writing assessment (d = 0.35) and the California Standards Test in English language arts (d = 0.07).”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. V. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy, 19(4), 572–594. Retrieved from >

From the ERIC abstract: “This article presents a meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. The study includes a corpus of 17 studies conducted since Willig’s earlier meta-analysis and uses Glass, McGaw, and Smith’s strategy of including as many studies as possible in the analysis rather than excluding some on the basis of a priori ‘study quality’ criteria. It is shown that bilingual education is consistently superior to all-English approaches, and that developmental bilingual education programs are superior to transitional bilingual education programs. The meta-analysis of studies controlling for English-language-learner status indicates a positive effect for bilingual education of .23 standard deviations, with outcome measures in the native language showing a positive effect of .86 standard deviations. It is concluded that bilingual education programs are effective in promoting academic achievement, and that sound educational policy should permit and even encourage the development and implementation of bilingual education programs.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Turkan, S., Bicknell, J., & Croft, A. (2012). Effective practices for developing the literacy skills of English language learners in the English language arts classroom. Princeton, NJ: ETS. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper is a review of literature presenting instructional strategies—based on normative as well as empirical arguments–which have proven to be effective in envisioning what ‘all’ teachers need to know and be able to do to teach English language arts (ELA) to English language learners (ELLs). The studies selected for review address what is particular to teaching ELA to ELLs. The paper is divided into two main sections: (a) teachers’ linguistic practices and (b) teachers’ pedagogical practices. In the first section, we report on the studies that analyze teachers’ understanding of linguistics and present implications for their instruction of ELLs. Three areas of effective practice are emphasized based on the particular aspects of teaching ELA to ELLs. The first area is that teachers should recognize that literacy skills in ELLs’ native languages might influence the ways in which ELLs process linguistic information in English. The second area highlights the argument that teachers should find ways to facilitate ELLs’ mastery of academic vocabulary. The third area covers the significance of enhancing ELLs’ metacognitive reading skills. In the second section, on teacher pedagogical practices, we discuss two broad pedagogical skills that emerge from both the normative and empirical studies reviewed and are closely related: (a) the teachers’ ability to help ELLs construct meaning from the texts or speech represented in the ELA classroom and (b) the teachers’ ability to engage ELLs in actively learning to read and write.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center on Instruction: English Language Learning –

From the website: “The Center on Instruction offers materials and resources for English Language Learners that help educators improve academic outcomes for diverse learners and those diverse learners with learning disabilities.”

Doing What Works –

From the website: “Doing What Works helps educators understand and use research-based practices. This library includes interviews with researchers and educators, multimedia examples and sample materials from real schools and classrooms, and tools that can help educators take action. Contact WestEd at for further information. DWW content is based on research reviews conducted or endorsed by the Institute of Education Sciences, usually practice guides.”

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition –

From the website: “NCELA works to support the mission of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), U.S. Department of Education, in meeting the needs of English learners (ELs) in our schools.”

National Council of Teachers of English –

From the website: “The National Council of Teachers of English is devoted to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education. This mission statement was adopted in 1990: ‘The Council promotes the development of literacy, the use of language to construct personal and public worlds and to achieve full participation in society, through the learning and teaching of English and the related arts and sciences of language.’”

What Works Clearinghouse: English Language Learners –,EL

From the website: “For more than a decade, the WWC has been a central and trusted source of scientific evidence on education programs, products, practices, and policies. We review the research, determine which studies meet rigorous standards, and summarize the findings. We focus on high-quality research to answer the question ‘what works in education?’ Not all education research is equal. Identifying well-designed studies, trustworthy research, and meaningful findings to inform decisions and improve student outcomes can be tricky. That’s where the WWC comes in.”


Keywords and Search Strings

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

  • engage* descriptor:“English language learner”

  • ELL student engagement

  • ELL engage strategy classroom secondary

  • ELL engage middle high research

  • ELL engage strategy classroom +descriptor:“Educational Strategies”

  • ELL engage strategy classroom secondary +descriptor:“Reports – Research” +descriptor:“Secondary Education”

  • “ELL” “engage”

  • “ELL” “engage” middle high strategy classroom

  • “ELL” “engage” middle high

  • “ELL” “engage” strategy classroom secondary

  • +abstract:“ELL” +abstract:“engage” strategy classroom secondary -descriptor:“foreign countries”

  • ELL literacy engage middle high research

  • “ELL” middle high strategy classroom

  • “ELL” “reading” middle high strategy classroom

  • +abstract:“ELL” +abstract:“reading” strategy classroom secondary -descriptor:“foreign countries”

Databases and Search Engines

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).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

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

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for 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.