Skip Navigation
archived information

Ask a REL Response

Supporting students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) — April 2019


Could you provide research on supporting students with interrupted formal education (SIFE)?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search in ERIC for research reports and resources on supporting students with interrupted formal education (SIFE). (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

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

Research References

DeCapua, A. (2016). Reaching students with limited or interrupted formal education through culturally responsive teaching. Language and Linguistics Compass, 10, 225–237. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article considers how developing an understanding [of] the beliefs, values, norms, and ways of thinking and learning of students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) is central to effective instruction for this population. Because these students are different from other English language learners (ELLs), teachers must develop the ability to suspend judgment by building deep cultural knowledge of SLIFE. This can then inform curriculum and pedagogical practices that best support SLIFE in their transition and adaption to formal education. Following a review of culturally responsive teaching as outlined by Gay (2000; 2010), I continue with an examination of the Intercultural Communication Framework (Author, 2011; Marshall, 1994) intended to develop teachers’ understanding of cultural factors influencing students’ ways of thinking and learning. The article concludes with an exploration of a culturally responsive instructional model, the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (Author, 2011; 2013), designed to better serve SLIFE.”

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H. W. (2015). Promoting achievement for ELLs with limited or interrupted formal education: A culturally responsive approach. Principal Leadership, 15, 48–51. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Content-area teachers are often frustrated because they have low-performing English language learners (ELLs) in their classes and they don’t know what to do to address their needs. As the number of ELLs continues to grow in U.S. schools, such concerns will increase, especially with the parallel growth in the number of students who have limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). Teachers and administrators find this subpopulation of ELLs particularly challenging. We take the stance, derived from culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000), that to address the needs of this population we must understand, accommodate and incorporate different ways of thinking to make learning accessible. By implementing a culturally responsive instructional model, the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP), educators create fertile spaces that foster academic engagement and academic achievement. This mutually adaptive approach constitutes a major shift in perspective for educators but, we believe, an essential one if we are to reframe the conversation from deficiencies to cultural dissonance. By gaining a deeper appreciation for who SLIFE are and what they bring along with them to their new educational setting, rather than focusing on what they lack, educators provide them with a pathway to school success.”

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H. W. (2015). Reframing the conversation about students with limited or interrupted formal education: From achievement gap to cultural dissonance. NASSP Bulletin, 99(4), 356–370. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “U.S. schools face increasing pressure to ensure that all students succeed, yet the dropout rate for English learners is alarmingly high, especially for those with limited or interrupted formal schooling (SLIFE). Serving SLIFE can be challenging because they not only need to master language and content but also need to develop literacy skills and learn to operate in formal classroom settings. We describe a culturally responsive instructional model that prepares SLIFE to access curriculum and instruction, and succeed on standardized testing.”

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H. W. (2011). Reaching ELLs at risk: Instruction for students with limited or interrupted formal education. Preventing School Failure, 55(1), 35–41. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The United States is receiving unprecedented numbers of immigrants, with a parallel increase in the number of English-language learners (ELLs) entering our schools. Many of these ELLs are students with limited or interrupted formal education who face great challenges, especially at the secondary level where they have little time to master academic content, develop literacy skills, and build English proficiency. Fundamental to school success for these students is their need to adjust to culturally different ways of learning. In this article, the authors examine salient academic and cultural issues and describe a new instructional model to help teachers adapt their instruction to facilitate the active engagement of this student population, as well as transition them to the learning environment of the U.S. educational system.”

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H. W. (2010). Students with limited or interrupted formal education in US classrooms. The Urban Review, 42(2), 159–173. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Considerable attention has focused on the challenges of English language learners without age-appropriate formal education and first language literacy. They are viewed here as students with high-context learning experiences and expectations (Hall in Beyond culture, Anchor, New York, 1976), and a collectivistic orientation, with a pragmatic, rather than academic way of looking at the world, who are marginalized and disoriented in US classrooms. Building on Ibarra’s Beyond affirmative action: Reframing the context of higher education, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison (2001) ‘cultural dissonance’ construct, the two learning paradigms are contrasted, and a third, the mutually adaptive learning paradigm, is posited as a pathway to academic success for this population.”

Marshall, H., & DeCapua, A. (2009). The Newcomer Booklet: A project for limited formally schooled students. ELT Journal, 64(4), 396–404. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The Newcomer Booklet has become a popular classroom activity among ESL teachers at many different levels and with many types of learners. In this article, we explore why this is the case and why this type of project works so well for a particular population of English language learners, those with limited or interrupted formal schooling. We situate our discussion within a framework that we have developed after working extensively with this population. This framework, the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP), helps ESL teachers of such learners to understand why a project like the Newcomer Booklet is so successful. MALP identifies ways to combine elements of the students’ familiar learning paradigm and those associated with westernized formal education. By extension, ESL teachers can use MALP to help them maximize the effectiveness of other activities or projects.”

Menken, K. (2013). State-of-the-art article: Emergent bilingual students in secondary school—Along the academic language and literacy continuum. Language Teaching, 46(4), 438–476. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article offers a critical review of research about emergent bilingual students in secondary school, where the academic demands placed upon them are great, and where instruction typically remains steadfast in its monolingualism. I focus on recent scholarship about the diversity within this student population, and center on ‘students with interrupted formal education’ (SIFE, new arrivals who have no home language literacy skills or are at the beginning stages of literacy learning) and ‘long-term English language learners’ (LTELLs, primarily educated in their receiving country yet still eligible for language support services). Little has been published about these students, making this a significant area of inquiry. Moreover, both groups are characterized by poor performance and together illustrate the characteristics of secondary students at various points along an academic language and literacy continuum. While existing research provides important information to help us improve secondary schooling for emergent bilinguals, it has also perpetuated deficit views of these students by focusing solely on their perceived academic shortcomings. Grounded in a new body of research in applied linguistics that examines the students’ complex, creative, and dynamic language and literacy practices, I apply a translanguaging lens to critique the positioning of such students as deficient, with implications for research and practice.”

Montero, M. K., Newmaster, S., & Ledger, S. (2014). Exploring early reading instructional strategies to advance the print literacy development of adolescent SLIFE. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(1), 59–69. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The research presented in this article examines the English language and print literacy development of adolescent refugee students with limited and interrupted formal education (SLIFE) aged 14 to 21. The aim of this research was to determine if and how teaching early reading strategies to secondary ESL/ELD teachers could improve students’ English language and literacy development. Specifically, teachers were taught to use guided reading and running records with leveled informational texts related to the students’ life experiences, background knowledge, and interests. Over five months, we tracked the English language and literacy development of 11 refugees in one ESL/ELD teacher’s class. Findings demonstrate that, on average, students achieved statistically significant gains in receptive and expressive vocabulary as well as total reading achievement. Students made an average gain of eight reading levels over one semester of instruction. The article also offers insights and growth made by the ESL/ELD classroom teacher.”

Musetti, B., Salas, S., & Perez, T. (2009). Working for and with Latino/Latina immigrant newcomers in the English language arts classroom. English Journal, 99(2), 95–97. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “‘Newcomers’ are English learners who are new to the United States and arrive with limited or interrupted formal schooling. These students have below-grade-level literacy skills in their home language and do not speak English. Newcomers’ arrivals to the middle school and high school classrooms often present a formidable ‘what to do’ for classroom teachers and other literacy professionals. However, ‘what to do’ is often clouded in local folklore and even myths about language learning. This situation is frequently accompanied by media messages framing immigrant children as drains on public resources or threats to regional identities. Simply put, there are no quick or easy answers to the challenges faced by language arts practitioners working with newcomers. However, the authors’ goal in writing this article is to argue that what they know about second language literacy from a developmental standpoint should inform the choices English language arts practitioners ought to take—or, at times, resist—in better decision-making for diverse literacy classrooms. Their focus on ‘Latino/Latina’ newcomers results from the fact that 76.9% of all English language learners (ELLs) in US schools are native speakers of Spanish. In this article, the authors suggest effective approaches to teaching ELLs in ways that can be of benefit to all students in mainstream middle and high school English classes.”

Potochnick, S. (2018). The academic adaptation of immigrant students with interrupted schooling. American Educational Research Journal, 55(4), 859–892. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study provides the first national-level assessment of the size and academic performance of immigrant students with interrupted schooling. Exploiting unique aspects of the Educational Longitudinal Study (2002), a national-level survey of U.S. 10th graders, this study identifies students with interrupted schooling and uses multivariate analysis to assess their academic performance compared to other immigrants and nonimmigrants. Results indicate that over 10% of foreign-born youth experience interrupted schooling. These students have lower academic achievement and attainment than their peers, but are just as or more engaged in school. Premigration demographics, but not postmigration family and school characteristics, explain some of these academic performance differences and the consequences of interrupted schooling differ for primary- and secondary-grade-age arrivals.”

U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition. (2016). Newcomer tool kit. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The Newcomer Tool Kit provides (1) discussion of topics relevant to understanding, supporting, and engaging newcomer students and their families; (2) tools, strategies, and examples of classroom and schoolwide practices in action, along with chapter-specific professional learning activities for use in staff meetings or professional learning communities; and (3) selected resources for further information and assistance, most of which are available online at no cost.”

Additional Organizations to Consult


From the website:ACSD is dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Comprising 114,000 members—superintendents, principals, teachers, and advocates from more than 127 countries—the ACSD community also includes 57 affiliate orgamizations.”

REL West note: ACSD has two resources relevant to this request:

DeCapua, A., Smathers, T., & Tang, L. F. (2007). Schooling, interrupted. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 40–46. Retrieved from,-Interrupted.aspx

Zimmerman-Orozco, S. (2015). Border kids in the home of the brave. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 48–53. Retrieved from

Colorín Colorado –

From the website: “Colorín Colorado is the premier national website serving educators and families of English language learners (ELLs) in Grades PreK–12. Colorín Colorado has been providing free research-based information, activities, and advice to parents, schools, and communities around the country for more than a decade.”

REL West note: Colorín Colorado has one resource relevant to this request:

Robertson, K., & Lafond, S. (2008). How to support ELL students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs). Arlington, VA: Colorín Colorado. Retrieved from

Council of Chief State School Officers –

From the website: “The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, the Bureau of Indian Education and the five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions. As an organization, we are committed to ensuring that all students participating in our public education system—regardless of background— graduate prepared for college, careers, and life. To realize this, we bring together dedicated leaders and exceptional ideas to achieve measurable progress for every student.”

REL West note: CCSSO has two resources relevant to this request:

Spaulding, S., Carolino, B., & Amen, K. (2004). Immigrant students and secondary school reform: Compendium of best practices. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from

Umansky, I., Hopkins, M., Dabach, D. B., Porter, L., Thompson, K., & Pompa, D. (2018). Understanding and supporting the educational needs of recently arrived immigrant English learner students: Lessons for state and local education agencies. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from

New America, Education Policy Program –

From the website: “New America’s Education Policy program uses original research and policy analysis to help solve the nation’s critical education problems, crafting objective analyses and suggesting new ideas for policymakers, educators, and the public at large. We combine a steadfast concern for historically disadvantaged populations with a belief that better information about education can vastly improve both the policies that govern educational institutions and the quality of learning itself.

Our work explores the full range of educational opportunities, from early learning to primary and secondary education, college, and the workforce. We are deeply engaged in ongoing developments in educational technology at all levels of child and adult learning. We believe new organizational models have potential to achieve breakthroughs for all students. And we believe that all providers of education must be held accountable for the quality of their work.”

REL West note: New America has one resource relevant to this request:

Colon, I. T. (2019). Starting behind: Interrupted formal schooling among immigrant students. Washington, DC: New America. Retrieved from


Keywords and Search Strings

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

[(“SIFE” OR “SLIFE” OR “interrupted formal education” OR “interrupted formal schooling” OR “limited formal education” OR “limited formal schooling”)]

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.7 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within 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 and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. 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.