Guidebook: Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to ELs in Elementary and Middle School

What Works Clearinghouse has developed a guidebook called Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School. The practical guide was produced by the U.S. Department of Education by enlisting eight prominent education researchers and curriculum experts who reviewed and rated research evidence, developed four overarching recommendations, created practical examples of the recommendations, and provided tips for implementing the recommendations in classrooms.

In this blog post, I’ll share the four recommendations, give you some background on how the guidebook is based on research, tell you how it supports ELLs with the Common Core, and show how Colorín Colorado resources support the guidebook’s recommendations.

Guidebook Recommendations

The guidebook’s four overarching recommendations are:

  1. Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities
  2. Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching
  3. Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills
  4. Provide small-group instructional intervention to students struggling in literacy and English language development.

How the Guidebook is Based on Research

The guidebook presents research-based recommendations for educators to address challenges in schools and classrooms. It was produced by the Institute for Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse, using a strict set of standards for reviewing research. To produce the guidebook, authors used their expertise to rate the strength of rigorous research that supports each of their recommendations. Each recommendation is rated "strong," "moderate," or "minimal" to reflect how well the research supports the recommended practices. The guidebook’s appendix details how the rating was made for each recommendation.

  • Strong evidence: positive findings are demonstrated in multiple well-designed, well-executed studies, leaving little or no doubt that the positive effects are caused by the recommended practice
  • Moderate evidence: well-designed studies show positive impacts, but there are questions about whether the findings can be generalized beyond the study samples or whether the studies definitively show evidence that the practice is effective
  • Minimal evidence: there is not definitive evidence that the recommended practice is effective in improving the outcome of interest, although there may be data to suggest a correlation between the practice and the outcome of interest

How the Guidebook Supports ELLs with the Common Core

The guidebook notes that the concept of aca­demic language and especially academic vocabulary plays a large role in the CCSS. Writing is another area that is increasingly emphasized in the research literature, in part because of its prominent role in the Common Core. This guidebook is an update of the original English learner practice guide, titled Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades (2007) to focus on improving academic vocabulary, writing, and content-area learning of English learners at both the elementary and middle grades.

How Colorín Colorado Resources Support the Guidebook’s Recommendations

While reading through the guidebook, I quickly made connections between the four recommendations and several Colorín Colorado resources (both from this blog and the website) to support each recommendation. Please note that some of the Colorín Colorado resources support more than one guidebook recommendation.

1. Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities (Level of Evidence: Strong)

IES Recommendations:
  • Choose a brief, engaging piece of informational text that includes academic vocabulary as a plat­form for intensive academic vocabulary instruction.
  • Choose a small set of academic vocabulary for in-depth instruction.
  • Teach academic vocabulary in depth using multiple modalities (writing, speaking, listening).
  • Teach word-learning strategies to help students independently figure out the meaning of words.
Colorín Colorado Resources

2. Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching (Level of Evidence: Strong)

IES Recommendations:
  • Strategically use instructional tools—such as short videos, visuals, and graphic organizers—to anchor instruction and help students make sense of content.
  • Explicitly teach the content-specific academic vocabulary, as well as the general academic vocab­ulary that supports it, during content-area instruction.
  • Provide daily opportunities for students to talk about content in pairs or small groups.
  • Provide writing opportunities to extend student learning and understanding of the content material.
Colorín Colorado Resources:


3.Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills (Level of Evidence: Minimal)

IES Recommendations:
  • Provide writing assignments that are anchored in content and focused on developing academic language as well as writing skills.
  • For all writing assignments, provide language-based supports to facilitate students’ entry into, and continued development of, writing.
  • Use small groups or pairs to provide opportunities for students to work and talk together on varied aspects of writing.
  • Assess students’ writing periodically to identify instructional needs and provide positive, con­structive feedback in response.
Colorín Colorado Resources:

4. Provide small-group instructional intervention to students struggling in literacy and English language development. (Level of Evidence: Moderate)

IES Recommendations:
  • Use available assessment information to identify students who demonstrate persistent struggles with aspects of language and literacy development.
  • Design the content of small-group instruction to target students’ identified needs.
  • Provide additional instruction in small groups consisting of three to five students to students struggling with language and literacy.
  • For students who struggle with basic foundational reading skills, spend time not only on these skills but also on vocabulary development and listening and reading comprehension strategies.
Colorín Colorado Resources:


I think the clearly written guidebook supports many of the practices that teachers of ELLs are already using to implement the CCSS. I see it as another way to advocate for effectively instructing ELLs within the CCSS framework. Please share the guidebook with administrators and content teachers and tell me how you’re using it in your school!


This is a straightforward, research-based article that will be helpful to new teachers.

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