What the Research Says on Instruction for English Learners Across Subject Areas


June 2018


English learner logo

It takes multiple years for English learners to learn English at a level of proficiency high enough to perform on par with their native English‐speaking peers. English learners cannot wait until they are fluent in English to learn grade‐level content. Instead, they must continue to develop their math and reading skills as well as their knowledge of social studies and science, even while learning English. This can happen through a variety of program models.

Our librarians recently compiled this list of recent studies and articles on teaching practices, programs and protocols for English learner instruction to help students meet the academic demands of state standards and close the achievement gap.

Check out the research-based principles we share in a companion resource titled, “What All Teachers Should Know About Instruction For English Language Learners.” See additional principles that apply to teachers in specific subject areas: language arts, mathematics, social studies and science.

For Teaching in All Classrooms

Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School (2014)
This practice guide from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) provides four recommendations that address reading and content area instruction for English learners.

Each recommendation includes extensive examples of activities that can be used to support students as they build the language and literacy skills needed to be successful in school, including examples of how the recommendations align with Common Core and other contemporary state standards. The recommendations also summarize and rate supporting evidence. This guide is geared toward teachers, administrators and other educators who want to improve instruction in academic content and literacy for English learners in elementary and middle school.

High-Leverage Principles of Effective Instruction for English learners. From College and Career Ready Standards to Teaching and Learning in the Classroom: A Series of Resources for Teachers (2016)
The purpose of this resource is to provide teachers of English learner students with effective, high-leverage learning and teaching principles that can be incorporated into daily instructional plans and routines. Instruction that addresses students' needs should include four key considerations included in the resource.

A Review of the Literature on Teaching Academic English to English Language Learners (2014)
Academic English refers to the language used in school to help students acquire and use knowledge. This article reviews current literature to determine what is known about the nature of academic English within the context of K–12 schooling with a focus on English learners. The article raises critical challenges in defining and operationalizing academic English for instruction and suggests areas for further inquiry.

Converging Recommendations for Culturally Responsive Literacy Practices: Students with Learning Disabilities, English Language Learners and Socioculturally Diverse Learners (2015)
This study examines culturally responsive pedagogy across the fields including multicultural literacy education and teaching English learners. Educators are encouraged to adopt a critical and responsive stance that incorporates students' cultural knowledge and lived experiences when implementing these recommendations. Creating classrooms that promote culturally responsive and effective instruction is grounded in the definition of literacy as a social practice and leads to more equitable learning opportunities in all areas.

Principles of Effective English Language Learner Pedagogy (2012)
This literature review identifies the most effective instructional principles for English learners as documented by prominent researchers in the field and existing research reviews. The review lists the most effective principles for English learner instruction and documents the supporting research evidence for those principles.

Unlocking the Research on English Learners: What We Know—and Don't Yet Know—about Effective Instruction (2013)
In calling for students to read complex texts, college and career ready standards place an even greater emphasis on content knowledge and literacy skills than prior state standards. This review of available research will help educators bolster the efforts of English learners to understand more-demanding academic content as they also learn English.

For Teaching Reading, Writing and Language Arts

Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades (2007)
This IES/WWC practice guide provides five evidence-based recommendations for improving the reading achievement and English language development of elementary-level English learner students. The target audience for this guide is a broad spectrum of school practitioners such as administrators, curriculum specialists, coaches, staff development specialists and teachers who face the challenge of providing effective literacy instruction for English language learners in the elementary grades. The guide also aims to reach district-level administrators who develop practice and policy options for their schools.

Reducing Achievement Gaps in Academic Writing for Latinos and English Learners in Grades 7-12 (2017)
This study reports two years years of findings from a randomized controlled trial designed to replicate and demonstrate the efficacy of a professional development program that uses a cognitive strategies approach to text-based analytical writing. The Pathway Project draws on well-documented instructional frameworks that support approaches that incorporate strategy instruction to enhance students' academic literacy. Difference-in-differences and regression analyses revealed significant effects on student writing outcomes in both years of the intervention. Additionally, Pathway students had higher odds than control students of passing the California High School Exit Exam in both years.

A Systematic Review of the Research on Vocabulary Instruction That Impacts Text Comprehension (2017)
This study is a systematic review of vocabulary interventions with comprehension outcomes. Four major themes emerge: (1) Teaching of word meanings supported comprehension of text containing the target words in almost all cases; (2) instruction that focused on some active processing was typically more impactful than a definition or a dictionary method for supporting comprehension of text containing the target words, but we do not know how much instruction is sufficient; (3) there is very limited evidence that direct teaching of word meanings, even long-term, multifaceted interventions of large numbers of words, can improve generalized comprehension; and (4) there is currently no empirical evidence that instruction in one or two strategies for solving word meanings will impact generalized comprehension.

Bridging English Language Learner Achievement Gaps through Effective Vocabulary Development Strategies (2016)
This research paper conducted a review of philosophical and scholarly literature which displayed evidence that vocabulary development is a major section that educators should consider focusing for better achievement with English as Second Language students. Implementing educational practices that promote high-frequency vocabulary learning were found to be effective strategies. The paper includes recommendations for administrators and education professionals in various learning environments.

The Effectiveness of Reading Interventions for English Learners: A Research Synthesis (2016)
This article reviews published experimental studies from 2000 to 2012 that evaluated the effects of providing reading interventions to English learners who were at risk for experiencing academic difficulties, including students with learning disabilities. The interventions in these studies included explicit instruction and 10 used published intervention programs. Moderator variables, such as group size, minutes of intervention and type of personnel delivering the intervention, were not significant predictors of outcomes.

Developing Literacy in English Language Learners: Findings From a Review of the Experimental Research (2014)
This commentary reviews the available data on optimal approaches to reading instruction for ELL students, covering the components of literacy (decoding, oral reading fluency, vocabulary and writing) as well as key issues such as differentiating instruction, repetition and reinforcement, scaffolding and capitalizing on a student's first language strengths. We conclude with implications for school psychologists, who are often among the first professionals to be consulted as schools attempt to identify and provide appropriate educational services for these students.

Effective Practices for Developing Literacy Skills of English Language Learners in the English Language (2012)
This literature review presents instructional strategies that have proven to be effective in envisioning what "all" teachers need to know and be able to do to teach English language arts to English learners. Three areas of effective practice are emphasized. The first area is that teachers should recognize that literacy skills in English learners' native languages might influence the ways in which they process linguistic information in English. The second area highlights the argument that teachers should find ways to facilitate English learners' mastery of academic vocabulary. The third area covers the significance of enhancing English learners metacognitive reading skills. The review also discusses 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 language arts classroom and (b) the teachers' ability to engage English learners in actively learning to read and write.

For Teaching Math, Science and Social Studies

Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol[R] (SIOP[R]). What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report (2013)The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol"[R] ("SIOP"[R]) is a framework for planning and delivering instruction in content areas such as science, history and mathematics to English learners as well as other students. This review focuses on research that examines its impact on the learning of English language learners in grades K-8.

Instruction for English Language Learners in the Social Studies Classroom: A Meta-synthesis (2016)
This paper reviews the extant literature on English learners in the social studies classroom. Discussion of the findings provides three primary implications: (1) the need for linguistically and culturally responsive instruction for English learners in social studies classes, (2) the need for increased training for inservice and preservice social studies teachers in preparation for teaching English learners and (3) the need for future research among English learners in the social studies context.

Language Challenges in Mathematics Education: A literature Review (2016)
It is now accepted that language and mathematics are connected in mathematics learning and teaching and, the potential challenges of language in mathematics have been investigated by a number of researchers. This paper reviews research by applied linguists and mathematics educators to highlight the linguistic challenges of mathematics and suggests pedagogical strategies to help learners in mathematics classrooms. Research on pedagogical practices supports developing mathematics knowledge through attention to the way language is used, suggesting strategies for moving students from informal, everyday ways of talking about mathematics into the registers that construe more technical and precise meanings.

Teacher Education That Works: Preparing Secondary-Level Math and Science Teachers for Success with English Language Learners through Content-Based Instruction (2014)
This article reports on the effects of a program restructuring that implemented coursework specifically designed to prepare pre-service and in-service mathematics, science and ESL teachers to work with English learners in their content and ESL classrooms through collaboration between mainstream STEM and ESL teachers, as well as effective content and language integration. The article presents findings on teachers' attitudes and current practices related to the inclusion of English learners in the secondary-level content classroom and their current level of knowledge and skills in collaborative practice.