Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Developing Literacy in English Language Learners: Findings from a Review of the Experimental Research

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Developing Literacy in English Language Learners: Findings from a Review of the Experimental Research

Article excerpt

Over the past decade, a span during which total student enrollment grew by only 4.9%, the proportion of schoolchildren in the United States who were English language learners (ELLs) grew by an astonishing 32%. Now English learners make up 9% of the student population (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, 2014). Given this growth and the specific educational challenges ELLs face (Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007), there is a need to determine what constitutes effective reading instruction for them. Toward this end, this commentary makes use of research findings on the effectiveness of instructional interventions aimed at developing literacy in ELLs to suggest directions for school psychologists, who are in an ideal position to guide teachers and administrators in providing the best possible instructional supports for ELLs.

The report of the National Reading Panel (NRP; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) provided an analysis of research on the teaching of reading. This report examined research into enhanced instructional efforts aimed at teaching component skills of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, vocabulary). To limit the scope of the effort, studies of ELLs were excluded. However, an approach that works well with English speakers may not work as well with those in the process of acquiring English (Gutierrez, Zepeda, & Castro, 2010), so the Institute of Education Sciences convened the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006, 2008). This panel conducted a comprehensive synthesis of the literature on literacy learning in ELLs and attempted to answer questions about instructional effectiveness (Francis, Lesaux, & August, 2006; Shanahan & Beck, 2006).

This commentary is based on the findings of research studies included in the systematic National Literacy Panel reviews, augmented by studies published since that time. Not all studies reviewed are cited directly in this commentary; some are cited to make specific points about literacy development in ELLs. The purpose of this commentary is to provide school psychologists a summary of empirical evidence on which to base their professional actions.

The studies discussed here were experimental in nature because such studies allow for a sound evaluation of the effectiveness of educational approaches. Most of the studies were based on the learning of Spanish speakers in U.S. schools, but students from other language backgrounds and countries were also included. The researchers rarely reported the English language proficiency levels of the students in these studies, but when they did, the levels varied. Most of the studies took place in general education classrooms, but some focused on students with learning disabilities (e.g., Denton, Wexler, Vaughn, & Bryan, 2008). Collectively, these studies provide valuable insights into what might make a difference in the instruction of ELLs.


Since the NRP report, there has been a heightened emphasis on the teaching of the component skills of reading. The research reviewed for this commentary shows similar benefits from this approach for ELL populations. Second language learners benefit from explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. Although these instructional routines benefit ELLs, they may vary in their degree of effectiveness and may require some adaptation to meet the special needs of ELLs. In the next sections we report on studies by literacy component.


Reading most obviously differs from oral language in its reliance on printed, rather than spoken, words. The NRP analyses of phonological awareness and phonics instruction showed clear benefits for children's reading development as determined by a wide range of outcome measures (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.