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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

What Research Says About… / Small-Group Intervention for ELLs

Many English language learners (ELLs) struggle with literacy skills, and by the upper elementary grades this problem affects their ability to learn in social studies, science, and other content areas (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006). When ELLs perform below grade level, schools need to provide effective interventions to help them gain essential literacy skills.

What We Know

Research shows that instruction in the key components of reading identified by the National Literacy Panel—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension—has clear benefits for ELLs as well as for other students (August & Shanahan, 2006). However, there is a growing consensus that ELLs are less likely to struggle with the basic skills—phonemic awareness and phonics—than with the last three components—fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These are the areas that cause many students, especially ELLs, to falter in mid-elementary school when they are expected to make the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" (Francis et al., 2006). When working with ELLs to improve their literacy, it is important that teachers choose interventions that target the specific difficulties each student is experiencing.
One targeted approach to helping struggling ELLs is daily small-group instruction for students with similar needs. Gersten and colleagues (2007) point to a growing number of high-quality, randomized control trials (Denton, Anthony, Parker, & Hasbrouck, 2004; Gunn, Smolkowski, Biglan, & Black, 2002; Vaughn, Mathes, et al., 2006) that show this intervention can produce sustained improvement in student achievement—especially if the groups focus on explicit, interactive instruction in the core areas of literacy.
One recent study by Vaughn, Cirino, and colleagues (2006) examined a small-group intervention called enhanced proactive reading. Ninety-one ELLs who had scored below the 25th percentile in English reading were randomly placed in a comparison group or in an intervention group where, from October through May they received 50 minutes of daily small-group reading instruction focused on phonological awareness, word attack, word reading, and spelling. The intervention group featured fast-paced, interactive instruction and continual review of materials with an emphasis on fluency and comprehension.
The study found that the students in the intervention group outperformed students in the comparison group in overall reading achievement. Differences were statistically significant on measures of phonological awareness, word attack, word reading, and spelling (effect sizes of 0.35–0.42).
Identifying students' needs through assessment (including screening, benchmark tests, and other forms of ongoing formative assessment) is a crucial component in this process (see Gersten et al., 2007). Teachers should assess students frequently to ensure that the instruction they receive is effective and that they move in and out of interventions in an appropriate and timely manner. It's important to keep intervention groups flexible so that students neither struggle with content that is far beyond their instructional level nor get "stuck" in an intervention that teaches skills they have already mastered.

What You Can Do

To support English language learners' literacy growth, it is essential to begin with accurate measures of reading proficiency. Once students' strengths and weaknesses are identified, struggling students need supportive, daily small-group instruction.
When selecting a program, educators should ensure that it includes fast-paced, interactive instruction that encourages active student participation. The program should recognize all the areas of essential literacy skills: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Research shows that this strategy can help students perform at or above grade level and sustain high performance.

Educators Take Note

Small-group reading intervention is one effective, research-based strategy that addresses the literacy needs of English language learners performing below grade level. But teachers need more than just research to support their endeavors to provide the most effective instruction for ELLs as well as other students. School leaders need to provide the resources and support to enable teachers to enact these practices.

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006).Developing literacy in second-language learners: A report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Denton, C., Anthony, J., Parker, R., & Hasbrouck, J. (2004). Effects of two tutoring programs on the English reading development of Spanish-English bilingual students. Elementary School Journal, 104, 289–305.

Francis, D., Rivera, M., Lesaux, N., Kieffer, M., & Rivera, H. (2006). Practical guidelines for the education of English language learners: Research-based recommendations for instruction and academic interventions. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. Available:www.centeroninstruction.org/files/ELL1-Interventions.pdf

Gersten, R., Baker, S. K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective literacy and English language instruction for English learners in the elementary grades: A practice guide (NCEE 2007-4011). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available:http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/20074011.pdf

Gunn, B., Smolkowski, K., Biglan, A., & Black, C. (2002). Supplemental instruction in decoding skills for Hispanic and non-Hispanic students in early elementary school: A follow-up. Journal of Special Education, 36, 69–79.

Vaughn, S., Cirino P., Linan-Thompson, S., Mathes, P., Carlson, C., & Cardenas-Hagan, E. (2006). Effectiveness of a Spanish intervention and an English intervention for English language learners at risk for reading problems. American Educational Research Journal, 43, 449–487.

Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., Linan-Thompson, S., Cirino, P., Carlson, C., & Pollard-Durodola, S. (2006). Effectiveness of an English intervention for first-grade English language learners at risk for reading problems.Elementary School Journal, 107, 153–180.

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