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Effective Instruction for LD or At-Risk English-Language Learners


Executive Summary

Background and Purpose

The last 25 years have seen the largest wave of immigration in the history of the United States. Projections indicate that one student in four will be Latino in 2020, compared to only one in ten in 1982.

What is the best way to teach English-language learners? As the number of non-English speaking students in schools rises rapidly, this question presents a major concern to educators. Educators need a professional knowledge base on effective instructional practices for English-language learners. The urgency of this need is highlighted by NCES data indicating that the dropout rate for Hispanics is double that of African Americans and whites. Furthermore, an estimated one million students learning English in schools also have a learning disability. These students are at risk of receiving inappropriate special services or no such services at all.


We therefore conducted a synthesis of all relevant research on effective instruction for English-language learners. The guiding question for the synthesis was:


What do we know about effective teaching practices for English-language learners with disabilities or those at risk for school failure in the elementary and middle school grades (K-8)?


Goals of Research

Our primary goal was to conduct a rigorous examination of existing research to identify and understand those practices and instructional principles that produced a positive impact on student learning. Unfortunately, we found only a small number of empirical studies (nine) that assessed the impact of specific instructional interventions or learning outcomes. Therefore, we supplemented our synthesis of existing research with additional research of our own (including analyses of discussions from five professional work groups made up of educators working with this population and researchers). Our second goal was to help educators better understand why some practices are more likely to be effective than others. For this purpose, we used a wide range of data sources (including the professional work groups). A third goal was to draw inferences from an examination of nine studies that met our criteria.


Instructional approaches that expanded upon the current research base of effective teaching yielded stronger results than some of the seemingly innovative methods. This is especially true in reading and math. For example, quality and quantity of feedback provided was a critical determinant of achievement growth.

The meetings and discussions with educators generated some promising instructional practices that are useful for defining best practices for teaching English-language learners. Among these are:

  • Using visuals to reinforce concepts and vocabulary;
  • Utilizing cooperative learning and peer tutoring;
  • Use of students' native language strategically when students are floundering;
  • Providing opportunities for students to practice speaking English in both formal and informal contexts throughout the day; and
  • Focusing on rich and evocative vocabulary words during lessons so students remain engaged and challenged. The words can serve as vehicles for teaching literary concepts.


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