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Exploratory Study of Instructional Practices that Foster Language Development and Comprehension in Prekindergarten through Grade 3

Contract Information

Current Status:

This study has been completed.


September 2009 – September 2017



Contract Number:



Mathematica Policy Research
Decision Information Resources
University of Illinois-Chicago


The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that one-third of fourth-grade students performed below a basic level in reading in 2011. Gaps in reading and language development between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers begin early, as documented by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Recent efforts to improve reading instruction and achievement have centered on the use of scientifically based reading instruction. However, while IES evaluations of these types of interventions (Reading First, Early Reading First, Even Start Classroom Literacy Interventions and Outcomes Study, Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research) found some positive effects on letter knowledge and/or decoding skills, the studies did not find consistent positive effects on children's language and comprehension skills. Closing the gap in language development and background knowledge is critical if children are to comprehend text because the research literature indicates that these areas of development are linked.

Given the modest and inconsistent effects of large-scale early literacy interventions, the purpose of this study was to investigate types of instructional practices that hold potential promise for promoting children's language development and comprehension. This exploratory study examined the relationships between instructional practices and student growth in a range of language and comprehension outcomes. Findings from this study are intended to help identify potentially promising practices that can be studied further to inform literacy programs.

  • What classroom practices are associated with children's development of language skills, background knowledge, and comprehension in prekindergarten through 3rd grade in Title I schools?

The study included a sample of 83 Title I schools with prekindergarten programs to identify instructional practices associated with improved language development, background knowledge, and comprehension outcomes. In the 2011-12 school year, the study collected data for five grade cohorts (prekindergarten, kindergarten, first, second, and third grades) and classroom and student samples were selected for each. Data collection included a battery of student assessments and classroom observations. This study was exploratory and its analyses estimated the associations between instructional practices and student outcomes to inform future rigorous evaluation of strategies to improve language and comprehension outcomes for disadvantaged children.

The exploratory analysis of data from more than 1,000 Title I classrooms identified four instructional practices that show promise for improving young children's language development and comprehension. The practices that were most consistently related to student growth include:

  • Engaging students in defining new words during or after reading a text
  • Helping students make connections between their prior knowledge and the texts they read
  • Promoting higher-order thinking by asking questions that require students to analyze information, explain their thinking, and develop new ideas
  • Focusing students' attention on the meaning of a text before reading it, such as by introducing the topic and encouraging predictions

Due to the exploratory design of the study, these practices are not offered as recommendations for classroom instruction, but rather suggestions for future evaluation.

An evaluation brief, titled An Exploration of Instructional Practices that Foster Language Development and Comprehension: Evidence from Prekindergarten through Grade 3 in Title I Schools, was released in August 2017.

A restricted-use file containing de-identified data is available for the purposes of replicating study findings and secondary analysis.