Improving Achievement for English Learners: Conclusions from 2 Research Reviews

The education of language minority children has long been a highly contested and politically charged field (Crawford, 1999). The challenges and issues will only grow as ELLs become an increasing presence in U.S. schools. English learners constitute the fastest growing segment of the school-age population. According to the U.S. Dept of Education, 1 in 9 public school students in K-12 comes from a home where a language other than English is spoken. In 1990 the figure was only 1 in 20. By 2025, it will be 1 in 4.

The ELL population has multiplied from 2 to 5 million since 1990, a 150% increase during a period when the overall school population has increased by only 20%. In some sections of the county, the increase has been staggering. The states with the highest growth rates between 1993-94 and 2003-04 — South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana — each saw an increase in the ELL population of at least 400%.

The demographic numbers tell only part of the story. The other part is that English learners generally fare more poorly in our schools as compared to children who are English speakers. On state (e.g., and national (e.g., tests, these students consistently underperform in comparison their English speaking peers. This discrepancy bodes ill for ELLs' future schooling and vocational options. It also bodes ill for the society as a whole, since the costs of large-scale underachievement among large sectors of the populace are very high (Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990).

In a sense, this achievement disparity is no surprise, since proficiency in the language of instruction and assessment — which English is, of course, overwhelmingly in this country —is a prerequisite for academic success. Nonetheless, the growing numbers and the lack of adequate progress among many English learners, even if born in the U.S. or been here for many years, is cause for concern.

Recent research reviews

Two major reviews of the research on educating English learners have recently been completed, one by the National Literacy Panel (August & Shanahan, in press), the other by researchers from the Center for Education, Diversity, and Excellence, or CREDE (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006). It would be impossible to summarize the reports fully here, and educators are encouraged to obtain and study them. The reports' key conclusions can help us forge a foundation for large scale improvements in the education of ELLs. The findings and recommendations can be summarized in three major points:.

  • Instruction in the primary language helps English learners achieve
  • Good instruction helps English learners achieve; and
  • English learners require instructional accommodations.

Instruction in the primary language helps English learners achieve. If at all possible, academic instruction in the primary language should be a part of the educational program of ELLs. The National Literacy Panel conducted a "meta-analysis" of experimental studies and concluded — as had 4 previously published meta-analyses (Greene, 1997; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005; Slavin & Cheung, 2005; Willig, 1985) — that teaching academic skills such as reading in the first language is more effective in terms of second language achievement than simply immersing children in English instruction.

The effects of primary language instruction are modest, but they are real and reliable. The average "effect size" is around .35-.40, depending upon whom is doing the calculation and how it is done (estimates range from about .2 to about .6). Translated, this means that primary language instruction can boost student achievement, in the second language, by about 12-15 percentile points. That's not huge but neither is it trivial. To provide some perspective, the National Reading Panel estimated that the average effect size of phonics instruction is .44, only somewhat larger than the most likely average effect size of primary language instruction.

Beyond this finding, however, there is little we can say with confidence about primary language instruction or the role of the primary language in ELLs' education. Is primary language instruction more beneficial for some learners than for others? Is it more effective early in a student's school career than later? Is it more effective in some settings rather than others? In an English immersion teaching situation, what is the most effective way to use the primary language to support children's learning in the second language? We can not say.

We also can not say whether there is an optimal amount of time during the school day or across the years that primary language instruction should be provided. The CREDE synthesis (Genesee et al.) included a number of studies of two-way bilingual education and other types of programs where children are in primary language instruction for many years. It concluded that more primary language instruction and for a greater portion of children's schooling careers leads to higher levels of ELLs' school success. The National Literacy Panel (August & Shanahan), in contrast, drew on a somewhat different body of research that did not include the longer-term studies because they did not satisfy certain methodological requirements. The most important of these requirements was that children in different programs be equivalent in terms of prior achievement and other characteristics that could influence outcomes and lead to misleading conclusions if not controlled. The NLP could reach no conclusion about the relative benefits of more or less primary language instruction.

The NLP review and Slavin and Cheung's review did, however, report that studies found Spanish and English reading can be taught simultaneously (at different times in the school day), with mutual benefit to literacy development in both languages. The likely explanation for this finding and the more general finding that primary language instruction promotes achievement in a second language is "transfer." A large body of research reviewed by both the CREDE and NLP researchers suggests that literacy and other skills and knowledge transfer across languages. If you learn something in one language & mdash; such as decoding, comprehension skills, or a concept such as democracy — you either know it or can more easily learn it in a second language.

This is a critical point, since opponents of primary language instruction often argue that time spent in the first language is wasted from the standpoint of promoting progress in the second. The opposite in fact appears to be true: Productive learning in one language (and learning is most productive in the language one knows best) makes a positive contribution to learning in the second language. Unfortunately, primary language instruction is often not feasible, either because there are no qualified staff or because students at a school come from numerous language backgrounds or because of political decisions that have been taken. Educators still have some important principles and findings to fall back on.

Good instruction helps English learners achieve. Although the language of instruction controversy has, until fairly recently, dominated research and debate in this field, it is only one of many issues relevant for promoting ELLs' achievement. Instructional quality is also important, regardless of instructional language. Here the news is heartening. The evidence we have so far suggests that ELLs learn much the same way as non-ELLs and that good instruction for students in general tends to be good instruction for ELLs in particular. If instructed in the primary language, the application to ELLs of effective instructional models is straightforward; all that differs is the language of instruction. But even when instructed in English — a language in which English learners are simultaneously learning content while learning to speak and understand — effective instruction for ELLs is similar in important respects to effective instruction for non ELLs.

ELLs, just as non ELLS, probably benefit from clear goals and learning objectives; well-designed and clearly structured instructional routines; active engagement and participation; plenty of opportunities to practice new learning; feedback on correct and incorrect responses; opportunities to apply new learning and transfer it to new situations; periodic review and practice; opportunities to interact with other students in motivating contexts; frequent assessments to gauge progress, with re-teaching as needed. Although each of these instructional variables has not been studied to the degree they have been with English speakers, existing instructional studies suggest that what is known about effective instruction in general is probably the foundation of effective teaching for English learners. Teachers need not acquire an entirely new pedagogical toolkit, although as we see in the next section, accommodations are needed when instructing ELLs in English.

With regard to learning to read (the focus of the National Literacy Panel), ELLs benefit from instruction in discriminating and manipulating the sounds of the language (phonemic awareness), decoding words (phonics), and instruction designed to enhance vocabulary, reading fluency, and comprehension. These are all components of effective literacy instruction for English speakers (National Reading Panel, 2000). Progress in the development of literacy seems to be very similar among ELLs and non ELLs. Phonological skills and understandings, including phonological awareness and decoding, are foundational to successful reading. With good, structured, explicit teaching, ELLs can make progress that is comparable to non ELLs in the early stages of learning to read.

ELLs' language limitations begin to slow their progress as vocabulary and content knowledge become increasingly salient for continued success in reading development, around 3rd grade. This is why it is critical that from the very beginning, teachers work to develop ELLs' English language skills, particularly vocabulary. Vocabulary development is of course important for all students; but it is particularly critical for ELLs. What constitutes effective vocabulary instruction for ELLs is not well understood; but there can be little doubt that explicit attention to vocabulary development — everyday words as well as more specialized academic words — should be part of English learners' school programs.

English learners require instructional accommodations. Notwithstanding the foregoing, accommodations are necessary for ELLs being instructed in English. The National Literacy Panel found that the impact of instructional interventions were weaker for ELLs than they were for English speakers, suggesting that additional supports or accommodations were needed in order for students to derive as much benefit from effective instructional practices as do their non-ELL peers.

These additional supports or accommodations — which have not yet been adequately validated by research as actually having an impact on student achievement — might include:

  • Strategic use of the primary language for clarification and explanation
  • Extremely clear instructions and expectations
  • Predictable and consistent classroom management routines
  • Additional opportunities for practice
  • More extended explanations
  • Redundant information, e.g., visual cues and physical gestures about lesson content and classroom procedures
  • Focusing on the similarities/difference between English and students' native language
  • Taking into account and, where possible, building upon students' attainment levels in their native language (see discussion of transfer, above)
  • Identifying and clarifying difficult words and passages within texts to facilitate comprehension
  • Consolidating text knowledge through summarization
  • Giving students extra practice in reading words, sentences, and stories
  • Giving attention to vocabulary, checking comprehension, presenting ideas verbally and in writing
  • Paraphrasing students' remarks and encouraging them to expand on those remarks.

The needed accommodations might change as children develop English proficiency. In other words, students who are beginning English speakers will need a great deal of support, sometimes known as "instructional scaffolding." As students gain in proficiency, they might need less accommodation. However, since the instructional content gets more demanding as students progress through school, in some respects ELLs might require more rather than less scaffolding. In any case, full proficiency in academic English (as distinct from conversational English) might require as much as 7 or more years, so some degree of support will probably be required for a substantial portion of ELLs' schooling years.

One of the things that is apparent from this list of accommodations is the importance of providing English language development (ELD) instruction to ELLs. This need places an increased burden on both students and teachers, since every lesson should probably target both content and English language development. It is essential for students to make rapid progress in their oral English skills if they are to enter the educational mainstream and derive maximum benefit from classroom instruction delivered in English. Unfortunately — and surprisingly — the CREDE report reveals that research can tell us very little about how to accelerate progress in English language development among ELLs or which ELD approach is most effective in this regard.

Although we have no experimental evidence that would recommend one approach to ELD over another, a study completed too recently for inclusion in the CREDE report suggests that ELLs' English language development probably benefits from a separate ELD period, rather than ELD being integrating throughout the school day (Saunders, Foorman, & Carlson, in press). The study was limited to kindergarten, and the effect was small. But if true, the cumulative effect of a separate block of ELD instruction over many years could be more substantial.

Accommodations must also be made due to ELLs' different experiential bases. The National Literacy Panel found that when students read texts with more familiar material, their comprehension improved. (We should note, however, that readers' proficiency in the language of the text influenced comprehension much more than did readers' familiarity with passage content.) This relationship between content familiarity and text comprehension is not unique to ELLs. In general, we all comprehend familiar material more readily. Moreover, ELLs must learn to read and comprehend content that is far removed from their immediate experiences, just as all students must. But given the formidable language challenges ELLs face, teachers should be especially aware of how they can help these students experience additional success by regularly providing reading matter with some degree of familiarity to them.

Many educators have suggested that effective instruction for ELLs must be tailored to the culture of the students. This suggestion is based on the observation that different cultural groups speak, behave, and interact differently; educators, so this argument goes, must therefore use instructional approaches that are "culturally compatible," that is, respect and build upon students' behavioral and interactional patterns. The National Literacy Panel found no research demonstrating that culturally compatible instruction enhances the achievement of ELLs. Some studies have indicated that culturally accommodated instruction can promote engagement and higher-level participation during lessons. This is certainly meaningful, but not the same as finding that culturally compatible instruction improves measured achievement. Perhaps future research will establish such a connection.


Although there are numerous areas in which there is insufficient research to base policy and practice, we can lay claim to some things that matter for the education of ELLs. Chief among these is that (1) primary language instruction enhances ELLs' academic achievement, (2) in many important respects ELLs learn in much the same way as non-ELLs, and (3) certain accommodations must be made when ELLs are instructed in English, primarily (although not exclusively) because of the students' language limitations. These accommodations must probably be in place for many years, at least for some students, until students reach sufficient familiarity with academic English to permit them to be successful in mainstream instruction.

Local or state policies, such as in California, that block use of the primary language and limit instructional accommodations for English learners are simply not based on the best scientific evidence available. As a profession and a society, we have useful starting points for a renewed national, state, and local effort to improve the achievement of this fastest growing segment of the school-age population. We must insist that practice and policy be based on the best evidence we have and not on politics or predilections.


August, D. & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (in press). Developing literacy In second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Crawford, J. (1999). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory, and practice (4th edition). Los Angeles: Bilingual Education Services.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2006). Educating English Language Learners. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Greene, J. (1997). A meta-analysis of the Rossell and Baker review of bilingual education research. Bilingual Research Journal, 21, 103-122.

Natriello, G., McDill, E., & Pallas, A. (1990). Schooling disadvantaged students: Racing against catastrophe. NY: Teachers College Press.

Rolstad, K. Mahoney, K. & Glass, G. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English Language Learners. Educational Policy, 19, 572-594.

Saunders, W., Foorman, B, &. Carlson, C. (in press). Do we need a separate block of time for oral English language development in programs for English learners? Elementary School Journal.

Slavin, R. & Cheung, A. (2005). A synthesis of research on language of reading instruction for English Language Learners. Review of Educational Research, 75, 247-281.

Willig, A. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research, 55, 269-317.

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