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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


February 2019


What does the research say about effective grouping strategies for students in grades 6–12 with needs in literacy development?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on effective grouping strategies for students in grades 6–12 with needs in literacy development. 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. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

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: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, 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.”

Christenbury, L., Bomer, R., & Smagorinsky, P. (Eds.). (2009). Handbook of adolescent literacy research. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The first comprehensive research handbook of its kind, this volume showcases innovative approaches to understanding adolescent literacy learning in a variety of settings. Distinguished contributors examine how well adolescents are served by current instructional practices and highlight ways to translate research findings more effectively into sound teaching and policymaking. The book explores social and cultural factors in adolescents’ approach to communication and response to instruction, and sections address literacy both in and out of schools, including literacy expectations in the contemporary workplace. Detailed attention is given to issues of diversity and individual differences among learners.”

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

Graves, A. W., Brandon, R., Duesbery, L., McIntosh, A., & Pyle, N. B. (2011). The effects of Tier 2 literacy instruction in sixth grade: Toward the development of a response-to-intervention model in middle school. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34(1), 73–86. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this quasi-experimental study was to (a) compare Tier 2 evidence-based intensive reading instruction to business-as-usual instruction for sixth graders with and without learning disabilities who were ‘far below’ or ‘below’ basic level in literacy and (b) explore the development of a response-to-intervention model in middle school. The study took place in a large inner-city urban setting, where 100% of students received free or reduced-price lunch and 90% of the students were considered English learners at some point in their school history. Intervention students received intensive small-group instruction for 30 hours across 10 weeks. Credential candidates in special education provided the small-group instruction in the treatment condition. Results on oral reading fluency, less so for Maze reading comprehension measures, indicated greater improvements for treatment students, and students with learning disabilities benefited as much or more than the other struggling sixth graders. Educational implications and recommendations for future research are discussed.”

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

Herrera, S., Truckenmiller, A. J., & Foorman, B. R. (2016). Summary of 20 years of research on the effectiveness of adolescent literacy programs and practices (REL 2016-178). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The importance of adolescent literacy is well established, and the topic continues to be of both local and national interest. Practitioners need to know not only which programs and practices appear effective, but which have the scientific evidence to support that claim. To identify effective programs and practices for general education students in grades 6-12, this review examined thirty-three studies of adolescent literacy programs and practices published over the past 20 years using What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards to evaluate the scientific rigor of their research design. This review presents key findings from 12 programs and practices demonstrating positive or potentially positive effects on reading comprehension, vocabulary, or general literacy. The review found: (1) Most of the identified programs and practices included instructional elements such as explicit instruction in reading comprehension or use of instructional routines; (2) These programs and practices can be implemented within the structure of a typical middle-school language arts or content-area classroom. In most cases implementation involved ongoing support for teachers; (3) None of the 12 identified programs and practices was conducted in a high school setting; and (4) Some of the programs and practices were identified as having potentially positive effects on high-stakes outcome assessments, such as state accountability reading assessments.”

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A practice guide. (NCEE 2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The goal of this practice guide is to formulate specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations that educators can use to improve literacy levels among adolescents in upper elementary, middle, and high schools. The target audience is teachers and other school personnel with direct contact with students, such as coaches, counselors, and principals. The guide includes specific recommendations for educators and the quality of evidence that supports these recommendations. The first three recommendations are strategies that classroom teachers can incorporate into their instruction to help students gain more from their reading tasks in content-area classes. The fourth recommendation offers strategies for improving student motivation for and engagement with learning. Together, the recommendations are designed to address the literacy needs of all adolescent learners. The fifth recommendation refers specifically to adolescent struggling readers, those students whose poor literacy skills weaken their ability to make sense of written material.”

Marchand-Martella, N. E., Martella, R. C., Modderman, S. L., Petersen, H. M., & Pan, S. (2013). Key areas of effective adolescent literacy programs. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(1), 161–184. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This paper reviews best practices for effective adolescent literacy programs. A focus is placed on five areas of literacy instruction including word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation. Each of these areas is discussed as well as how each area is relevant to reading and understanding narrative and content-area text at high levels.”

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

National Institute for Literacy. (2009). What content-area teachers should know about adolescent literacy. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A growing research base on adolescent literacy supports an emphasis on direct instruction in the reading and writing skills needed to perform these more complex literacy tasks. However, many middle and high school teachers have little or no preparation for teaching these skills within their content-area disciplines and have few resources upon which to draw when they are faced with students whose academic reading and writing skills do not match their expectations. This document provides more general information for content-area teachers so that they will gain a deeper understanding of the underlying skills their students will need and the kind of instruction needed to develop these skills. This report is divided into two main sections. The first section describes five key components that are critical to the development of reading proficiency: decoding/phonemic awareness and phonics, morphology, vocabulary, fluency, and text comprehension. The second section discusses four other areas that are fundamental in helping adolescents achieve advanced levels of literacy: assessment, writing, motivation, and the needs of diverse learners.”

Puzio, K., & Colby, G. T. (2013). Cooperative learning and literacy: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6(4), 339–360. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “We conducted a meta-analysis on the effectiveness of cooperative and collaborative learning to support enhanced literacy outcomes. Interventions considered were provided in regular education settings (i.e., not pull-out instruction) with students from Grades 2 through 12. Reviewing more than 30 years of literacy research, we located 18 intervention studies with 29 study cohorts. Included studies primarily used standardized assessments to report on students’ reading, vocabulary, or comprehension achievement, which we analyzed separately. Overall, students had significantly higher literacy achievement scores when instructional interventions utilized cooperative and collaborative activity structures. The overall weighted mean effect sizes ranged from 0.16 to 0.22 (‘p’ < 0.01) with more than 94% of the point estimates being positive. Because cooperative or collaborative learning was always one of multiple intervention components, it was impossible to estimate the unique, added effects of cooperative/collaborative learning. Although the small number of eligible studies precludes any claims about the effectiveness of specific forms of grouping and the circumstances under which programs have more impact, our findings suggest that cooperative and collaborative grouping was a core component of effective literacy interventions, particularly at the elementary level.”

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

Pyle, D., Pyle, N., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Duran, L., & Akers, J. (2017). Academic effects of peer-mediated interventions with English language learners: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 87(1), 103–133. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this article is to synthesize the extant research on peer-mediated interventions (PMIs) with English language learners (ELLs) in kindergarten through Grade 12. Fourteen studies that were published in peer-reviewed journals from 1983 to 2013 were examined in terms of study characteristics, the effects on academic outcomes, study quality, and overall effectiveness. Structured, heterogeneous grouping was used in the 10 peer pairing and 4 collaborative/cooperative grouping PMIs with ELLs. Eight of the 14 studies included high methodological quality. Overall, PMIs with ELLs are associated with medium to large effects on measures of phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and comprehension when compared to teacher-mediated comparison conditions. More research on PMIs with ELLs in high school and across core content areas, particularly mathematics, is warranted. Implications and future research for PMIs with ELLs are discussed.”

Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M. C., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2016). What one hundred years of research says about the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K–12 students’ academic achievement: Findings of two second-order meta-analyses. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 849–899. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Two second-order meta-analyses synthesized approximately 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K-12 students’ academic achievement. Outcomes of 13 ability grouping meta-analyses showed that students benefited from within-class grouping (0.19 = g = 0.30), cross-grade subject grouping (g = 0.26), and special grouping for the gifted (g = 0.37), but did not benefit from between-class grouping (0.04 = g =0.06); the effects did not vary for high-, medium-, and low-ability students. Three acceleration meta-analyses showed that accelerated students significantly outperformed their nonaccelerated same-age peers (g = 0.70) but did not differ significantly from nonaccelerated older peers (g = 0.09). Three other meta-analyses that aggregated outcomes across specific forms of acceleration found that acceleration appeared to have a positive, moderate, and statistically significant impact on students’ academic achievement (g = 0.42).”

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

Tomlinson, C. A., & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “While most books on classroom management focus on keeping kids in their seats and giving good directions, here is a breakthrough guide that explains how to lead a class that is differentiated to individual students’ needs. The top authority on differentiated instruction, Carol Ann Tomlinson, teams up with educator and consultant Marcia B. Imbeau to outfit you with everything you need to deal with time, space, materials, groups, and strategies in ways that balance content requirements with multiple pathways for learning. Using authentic and tested examples from all grade levels and subjects, the authors explain: (1) How to set up and orchestrate a classroom in which students work as a whole group, as small groups, and as individuals; (2) What teachers in successfully differentiated classrooms must create, monitor, and modify in order to support the best possible learning outcome for each student; (3) How to proactively plan instruction to address student differences in readiness, interest, and learning profile; and (4) How to move differentiation from an abstract idea in a professional development session to a fundamental way of life in the classroom. Step-by-step guidelines, checklists, and a Teacher’s Toolkit with ready-made classroom activities ensure that you master the nuts and of managing a student-centered classroom--from creating the learning environment and classroom routines to challenging advanced learners and buying time for struggling students.”

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

Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., … & Lesaux, N. (2017). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Center on Instruction. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This document was prepared to assist literacy specialists in the national Regional Comprehensive Center network as they work with states to improve educational policy and practice in the area of adolescent literacy. It comprises three major parts: Part One: ‘Improving academic literacy instruction for students in grades 4-12.’ Based on current research in adolescent literacy, this part discusses recommendations to improve literacy instruction in the content areas (e.g., science, social studies, history, literature), instructional recommendations for English language learners, and critical elements of instruction for special reading classes with struggling readers. It addresses three critical goals for academic literacy instruction with adolescents: (1) to improve overall levels of reading proficiency; (2) to (at least) maintain grade level reading skills from the end of third grade through high school; and (3) to accelerate the reading development of students reading below grade level. Part Two: ‘Advice from experts about improving academic literacy instruction for adolescents.’ Eight experts with extensive experience conducting research on adolescent literacy were asked to respond to four questions about methods for improving adolescent literacy from the perspective of school- and state-level policy recommendations. They were asked to address both literacy instruction in the content areas and recommendations for struggling readers; they were also asked to recommend additional readings related to these questions. An annotated bibliography of their responses is included. Part Three: ‘Examples of state activities in support of improved adolescent literacy instruction.’ This part describes specific activities four states have adopted to improve adolescent literacy, placing the targeted activities in the broader context of each state’s efforts to support improved reading instruction.”

What Works Clearinghouse. (2012). Peer-assisted learning/literacy strategies (What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report). Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies’ and a similar program known as ‘Peer-Assisted Literacy Strategies’ are peer-tutoring programs that supplement the primary reading curriculum (Fuchs, Fuchs, Kazdan, & Allen, 1999; Mathes & Babyak, 2001). This review uses the acronym “PALS” to encompass both programs and their respective full names when referring to a specific program. Students in ‘PALS’ classrooms work in pairs on reading activities intended to improve reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Students in the pairs—who alternately take on the role of tutor and tutee—read aloud, listen to their partner read, and provide feedback during various structured activities. Teachers train students to use the following learning strategies: passage reading with partners, paragraph ‘shrinking’ (or describing the main idea), and prediction relay (predicting what is likely to happen next in the passage). ‘PALS’ includes separate versions for kindergarten and grade 1. ‘Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies’ also includes versions for grades 2-3 (which are part of a larger set produced for grades 2-6). Forty-five studies reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) investigated the effects of ‘PALS’ on beginning readers. Two studies (McMaster, Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2005; Stein, Berends, Fuchs, McMaster, Saenz, Yen, & Compton, 2008) are randomized controlled trials that meet WWC evidence standards. One study (Mathes & Babyak, 2001) is a randomized controlled trial that meets WWC evidence standards with reservations. These three studies are summarized in this report. The remaining 42 studies do not meet either WWC eligibility screens or evidence standards.”


Keywords and Search Strings

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

  • “Flexible grouping” + “reading instruction”

  • Literacy adolescents grouping

  • Literacy grouping

  • Literacy grouping “middle school”

  • Literacy grouping “high school”

  • “Tier 1” literacy

  • “Tier 2” literacy

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). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

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 2004 to present, were included 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 Midwest) 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.