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English Language Learners

Best Practice for ELLs: Small-Group Interventions

Providing small-group reading instruction in five core reading elements (phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) can really help English language learners in the elementary grades.

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One way to create effective literacy instruction for English learners in the elementary grades is to provide intensive small-group reading interventions.

Provide focused, intensive small-group interventions for English learners determined to be at risk for reading problems. Although the amount of time in small-group instruction and the intensity of this instruction should reflect the degree of risk, determined by reading assessment data and other indicators, the interventions should include the five core reading elements (phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). Explicit, direct instruction should be the primary means of instructional delivery.

Level of evidence: strong

This recommendation is based on four high-quality randomized controlled trials at various sites with different interventions that share core characteristics in design and content.

Brief summary of evidence to support this recommendation

In the past several years four high-quality randomized controlled trials have been conducted on reading interventions for struggling English learners. These studies appear as Intervention Reports on the What Works Clearinghouse website.1

These interventions used the following three programs:

  • Enhanced Proactive Reading2
  • Read Well3
  • SRA Reading Mastery/SRA Corrective Reading4

The participants in these research studies were English learners in grades 1-5 with serious reading problems (reading at least one year below grade level or scoring in the lowest quartile on standardized tests). Reading achievement was assessed on a wide range of measures, including word reading, comprehension, and vocabulary. The What Works Clearinghouse found that all three curricula demonstrated potentially positive effects on reading achievement. The designation potentially positive refers to an effect supported by at least one study but not enough studies to support the Clearinghouse’s highest evaluation of positive.

An important finding was that in two of the four studies the interventions demonstrated lasting effects on reading performance. In investigating the longitudinal effects of Enhanced Proactive Reading, positive achievement outcomes were maintained when students who received the intervention in the first grade were assessed at the end of the second grade.5 Students in the first grade intervention group read at higher levels than students in the control group one year after the intervention ended. For the SRA program the positive reading effect was maintained two years after the intervention ended.6

The programs used in these studies had many characteristics in common. They formed a central aspect of daily reading instruction and took between 30 and 50 minutes to implement per day. In each study program implementation involved intensive small-group instruction following the principles of direct and explicit instruction in the core areas of reading.

How to carry out the recommendation

  1. Use an intervention program with students who enter the first grade with weak reading and prereading skills, or with older elementary students with reading problems.7

Because there are many similarities between the three programs assessed here, we conclude that other programs that follow the same principles of direct and explicit instruction to teach core reading elements in small groups are likely to have the same beneficial effects. The major instructional principles that characterize the three programs are:

  • Multiple opportunities for students to respond to questions.
  • Multiple opportunities for students to practice reading both words and sentences, either in a small group or with a peer.
  • Clear feedback from the teacher when students make errors.
  • Explicit instruction in all areas of reading, including explicit comprehension instruction and explicit vocabulary instruction. Sufficient coverage of five areas-phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension-should be a key criterion in selecting an intervention program for use in the school district.8
  1. Ensure that the program is implemented daily for at least 30 minutes in small, homogeneous groups of three to six students.

Students make gains in reading when they have daily instruction in small homogeneous groups based on reading skill and receive explicit, clear, direct instruction.9 So, there is no compelling reason why all students in the group need to be English learners. In fact, we think there could be advantages to groups that include native English speakers and English learners because native English speakers can provide models of more advanced English language usage. But to ensure that students can accelerate their learning, students who are making solid progress based on ongoing assessments should be regrouped (for example, move students making rapid progress to higher performing groups).10

  1. Provide training and ongoing support for the teachers and interventionists (reading coaches, Title I personnel, or para-educators) who provide the small-group instruction.11

Each of the four research studies that produced a positive impact on reading achievement involved extensive training of the teachers and interventionists. This training is most effective when all personnel who work with English learners participate together in the same professional development activities.12

One key aspect of these interventions is pacing. It is particularly important that the teachers and interventionists receive training in how to teach these programs at an appropriate pace. This critical aspect of instruction is frequently overlooked. When it is missing from instruction, it is easy for children to become bored or to lose focus, which can lead to behavior problems.

The three intervention programs studied-and others like them-contain highly engaging activities of short duration. The Panel believes that teachers should implement the activities, whatever their focus, as outlined in the teacher manuals and training materials.

  1. Training for teachers and other school personnel who provide the small-group interventions should also focus on how to deliver instruction effectively, independent of the particular program emphasized.

It is important that this training include the use of the specific program materials the teachers will use during the school year. But the training should also explicitly emphasize that these instructional techniques can be used in other programs and across other subject areas.13

Examples of these techniques include instructional pacing, providing feedback to students, including error corrections, modeling, and providing wait time for student responses. For many teachers this fast-paced interactive instruction will be unfamiliar, and coaching support in the classroom will be critical for them to be effective. This training and coaching in the classroom should be provided by “master” teachers with experience in the specific program.

Possible roadblocks and solutions

  1. Teachers may be uncomfortable identifying students for additional reading instruction if their English language skills are low.14

English language proficiency is not a good gauge of how well English learners can respond to additional reading instruction (see Best Practice for ELLs: Screening (opens in a new window)). In addition to helping with the development of critical reading skills, extra instructional time devoted to vocabulary, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension will help directly with the development of English language proficiency.

  1. Students already are pulled out of class for other services (such as speech, English language development, or English as a second language). Pulling students out for additional reading instruction makes their instructional day too fragmented.

A fragmented instructional day is a legitimate concern (and not just for English learners). But the Panel believes that reading development is too important to withhold any opportunity for small-group instruction. Reducing fragmented instruction must involve the effective coordination of services for English learners, who frequently receive additional services in multiple areas and from multiple funding sources.

  1. Students will miss valuable instructional time in other areas.

Although students will miss some instruction in other areas while they are receiving additional small-group reading instruction, learning to read is critical to all other learning demands. So, time spent ensuring that students acquire strong reading skills will pay off in the long run. Evidence for this claim can be found in the sustained effects of intervention studies.15

  1. Arranging a building-level or grade-level schedule that allows for additional small-group instruction is a complex process. Individual teachers may feel that they do not have the time or resources to provide additional small-group instruction to these students.

Different professionals can provide small-group reading interventions, and schools will have to consider the options seriously if barriers to time and scheduling are to be overcome.16 The key is training and collaboration among all personnel who provide instruction to English learners. This requires a shared focus and commitment. The benefits of having a pullout program for interventions are that students can be homogeneously grouped, receive additional time on task, and be regrouped regularly as needed to maximize learning opportunities.

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: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
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