Effective Reading Programs for English Language Learners: A Best-Evidence Synthesis

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 47 describes the following:

Title | Effective Reading Programs for English Language Learners. A Best-Evidence Synthesis

Author | Slavin, R.E., & Cheung, A.

Source | Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR), Report No.66
Available online at: http://www.csos.jhu.edu/crespar/techReports/Report66.pdf

Year Published | 2003

This report reviews experimental studies of reading programs for English language learners, focusing both on comparisons of bilingual and English-only programs and on specific, replicable models that have been evaluated with English language learners. The review method is best-evidence synthesis, which uses a systematic literature search, quantification of outcomes as effect sizes, and extensive discussion of individual studies that meet inclusion standards. The review concludes that while the number of high-quality studies is small, existing evidence favors bilingual approaches, especially paired bilingual strategies that teach reading in the native language and English at the same time. Whether taught in their native language or English, English language learners have been found to benefit from instruction in comprehensive reform programs using systematic phonics, one-to-one or small group tutoring programs, cooperative learning programs, and programs emphasizing extensive reading. Research using longitudinal, randomized designs is needed to understand how best to ensure reading success for all English language learners. (From source)

There has been a great deal of debate about what language of instruction should be used in reading programs for children who speak languages other than English. Research available on the educational effects of native language instruction has shown inconsistent conclusions. Some argue that children should be taught first in their native language, others that reading instruction should combine native language and English, and still others that English-only should be the language of instruction.

There are two primary categories of programs for children who have a limited proficiency in English:  immersion and bilingual education (see description below). Research on language instruction has encountered some problems such as determining at what age it is valid to assess children in English when comparing students in bilingual and immersion programs, how to ensure that, when pretesting students either in English or in Spanish, you are not minimizing the skills of students and the problems inherent in bias.

Nevertheless, researchers from all points of view have agreed that quality of instruction provided to children who are learning a second language is as important as language of instruction. Researchers of reading instruction have questioned if students who are limited English proficient learn to read in the same way as those proficient in English, or if there is the need to take into consideration other factors. Previous reviews of the literature have shown that ELLs learn to read in the same way as their English proficient classmates and that there are five major elements that contribute to their reading success, whether they are first taught in their native language or in English: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency (National Reading Panel, 2000). Nonetheless, some accommodations might be necessary. Research available on effective reading programs for English language learners was also reviewed in this study (see below).

Research Questions


  1. Compare immersion and bilingual programs for English language learners with measures of English as the outcome.
  2. Examine evidence on reading programs for English Language learners and their effectiveness.
  3. Inform practitioners and policymakers about the tools available to help English language learners to read.
  4. Inform researchers about the existing evidence and gaps in the knowledge base in need of further investigation.


  1. Are immersion programs more effective than bilingual programs for English acquisition?
  2. What is the effectiveness and evidence available on reading programs for English language learners?
  3. What tools are available to help inform practitioners and policymakers about teaching English language learners to read?
  4. What additional research is needed to improve the knowledge base in this area?

Research Design
Best-evidence synthesis*

  • Number of Studies Included | Language of instruction: 16 studies
  • Number of Subjects | N/A
  • Years Spanned | 1971-2000

Research Subjects
English language learners in elementary or secondary schools. The majority of the students were Spanish-dominant.

Age/Grade of Subjects

Specified Disability
Only one study included children with learning disabilities.


Research on language instruction:
  • Immersion programs: In immersion programs children are exposed to English-only instruction since the beginning and their native language is used very little or not at all in daily lessons. Children might be placed immediately in monolingual classrooms or in a separate classroom for English language learners for some time until they are ready to be mainstreamed.
  • Bilingual education programs: Bilingual education programs, give a considerable amount of instruction to English language learners in their native language. It is important to notice that the majority of the bilingual programs involve Spanish because Latinos are the biggest minority group in the U.S. There are now over 5 million English language learners in the U.S.and almost 80% of them come from a Spanish-speaking background. There are several common models used in bilingual education.
—In the “early-exit models,” children are taught to read in their native language in Kindergarten and first grade and then transitioned in second or third grade to an English-only instruction.
—In “late-exit models,” children receive instruction in their native language all the way through elementary school to ensure mastery of reading and content before transitioning.
—In “paired bilingual models” children are taught to read in both English and their native language at different times of the day. Eventually native language reading instruction is eliminated.
—In two-way bilingual programs instruction is provided in the native language and in English to both ELLs and English speakers.
—In “heritage language” programs the purpose is to protect or show respect for a given language rather than to help children who are struggling with English.
  • The types of studies pertaining to language of instruction in this synthesis were primarily for Spanish-dominant students and included:
—longitudinal studies that used random assignment (the interventions included paring programs and integrated bilingual special education).
—longitudinal studies that used match control (these interventions included immersion vs. early exit, bilingual instruction or bilingual program, bilingual vs. monolingual).
—one-year studies that used match control (the interventions included bilingual programs).
—studies involving languages other than Spanish (interventions included bilingual programs).
—studies of upper elementary and secondary reading (intervention included bilingual programs).
Research on beginning reading programs for English language learners:
  • Success for All: The purpose of this intervention was to ensure that all children are shttp://nichcy.org/research/summaries/abstract47uccessful in reading since the beginning of their time in school. Phonics and cooperative learning are emphasized in K-1 grades, and direct instruction in comprehension skills, along with other elements in grades 2-6. Schools are provided with a structured curriculum, professional development, follow-ups, and continuous assessments. For children who are struggling in reading, one-to-one tutoring is provided, as well as family support programs.
  • Spanish bilingual program Exito para Todos: This program is for English language learners and it is a variation of the Success for All program. Reading in Spanish is taught in grades 1-2, and then students are transitioned to English language instruction in third grade.
  • English Language Development Adaptation (ELD): This program is also a variation of Success for All, and it focuses on teaching vocabulary development strategies linked to the words students are learning in their reading texts. The instruction is in English.
  • Direct instruction: An intervention often used with English language learners or Latino students. This reading program is also known as Distar and consists of reading materials with phonetically controlled vocabulary, rapidly paced instruction, continuous assessment and systematic approaches to language development. It starts in kindergarten and provides teachers with very specific instructions on how to teach beginning reading skills.
  • Jolly Phonics: English phonetic kindergarten reading program. Also known as Systematic Phonics Instruction.
  • Big Books program: Its emphasis was on drawing children’s attention to letters and words in popular children’s stories.
  • Reading Recovery /Descubriendo la Lectura: A program designed to provide tutoring to low-achieving readers in first grade, in addition to their regular reading classes. Children receive daily one-to-one, 30-minutes lessons for 12-20 weeks with a certified trained teacher. The instruction consists on reading known stories, reading stories that were read once the day before, writing stories, working with cut-up sentences and reading new books. The Spanish version is equivalent to the English one.
  • Small Group Tutorials with Direct Instruction: Used two forms of DI: Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading.
  • Libros: Through kindergarten, teachers introduced a story in Spanish and comprehensively discussed it in class. Photocopies of books were sent to children homes once every three weeks to encourage parents to read with their children. Parents were shown a video of a parent reading and discussing the story.
Research on upper elementary reading programs:
  • Bilingual Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (BCIRC): This program is an adaptation of the Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC) program. It was adapted to meet the needs of students who were transitioning from Spanish to English reading. Students in groups of four work on activities related to a story they are reading. They read in pairs and worked on team activities that focused on vocabulary, grammar, summarization, reading comprehension, creative writing and language arts.
  • Enriched Transition: Designed to help ELL student’s transition from Spanish to English. The intervention was focused on reading literature, writing, conversation, skill building, reading comprehension strategies, independent reading, and teacher read-aloud.
  • Vocabulary Intervention: A teaching intervention with Spanish-dominant students. The intervention involved introducing 12 vocabulary words each week using a variety of strategies like charades, questions, Spanish cognates, word webs, and word association games.
  • Tutoring:  In this intervention two programs were used: (1) “Read Well,” which uses systematic phonics instruction and practice in fully decodable text; and (2) “Read Naturally,” which emphasizes repeated readings of related text, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction.
  • Effective use of time and ESL in the content areas: The Effective Use of Time Program (EUOT) consisted of a structured lesson for English-language instruction that emphasized pre-testing, informing, guided practice, and post-testing. The ESL in Content Areas Intervention (ESLCA) began by explaining Spanish concepts to students and used graphic mapping and problem solving activities to assist children transfer their understanding to English.
  • Literature Programs: These interventions focused on extensive use of children’s literature with English Language Learners.
  • Research on Secondary Reading Programs: These are interventions based on cooperative learning and direct instruction.

Language of instruction:
  1. There were a small number of high-quality studies on language of instruction, and it was suggested that it is imperative to conduct more randomized, longitudinal evaluations to reduce many inherent difficulties of selection bias.
  2. Following children when they are taught in their native language and through their transition to English was found to be important; therefore, it is almost essential to conduct longitudinal, multi-year studies.
  3. Experimental studies with matched experimental and control groups are needed.
  4. The multi-year evaluations of bilingual programs for beginning reading that used randomized assignment, significantly favored bilingual over immersion models.
  5. The studies in which a rapid transition took place from Spanish to English suggested the possibility that ELLs might learn to read best if they are taught to read simultaneously in their native language and in English from the beginning of formal instruction.
  6. Results of multi-year studies that pretested students before treatments showed mixed results, although the majority of these studies favored bilingual over immersion programs.
Research on effective beginning reading programs for English language learners:
  1. Success for All: Success for All in its bilingual form was found to have positive effects on the reading performance of Spanish speakers when compared to alternate Spanish teaching methods. The English language adaptation of success for all also found positive effects with Latino and Asian English learners. Longer-term studies found no significant difference at third grade level and more significant effects at grades 4-5. While in general these studies support the effectiveness of Success for All intervention for ELL and minority students, much variability was found in the outcomes that suggest more research is needed to understand these effects.
  2. Direct instruction: All the studies that used Direct Instruction (DI) found positive and lasting effects on the reading achievement of language minority students.
  3. Jolly Phonics: The study that used Jolly Phonics found positive effects among children of Bangladeshi origin in London, but the study had various problems with pretest differences.
  4. Reading Recovery: The study that used the Spanish adaptation of Reading Recovery found particularly positive effects and the study of Libros also reported benefits for ELL in kindergarten.
Research on effective upper reading programs for English language learners:
  1. Bilingual Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (BCIRC) program was found to have highly positive effects on the Spanish and English reading performance of children that were transitioning from Spanish to English reading in grades 2-3.
  2. The enriched transition process for ELL moving to English-only instruction was effectively evaluated.
  3. Vocabulary intervention for fourth and fifth graders ELL’s was found to have positive effects, and instruction of oral English skills enhanced the reading skills of ELL third graders.
  4. The Read Well tutoring program was found to improve the English of very low achieving ELLs. For secondary reading, only one of the four secondary studies that met the inclusion criteria was found to have significant positive effects.

  1. The evidence supports the notion that native language instruction helps English language learners learn to read in English.
  2. Many of the studies that showed positive effects on bilingual education used paired bilingual strategies that simultaneously taught reading in English and in the native language.
  3. Effective beginning reading programs for ELLs are similar to those for English proficient children if appropriate adaptations to their language proficiency are made.
  4. The programs that showed the greatest positive effects for teaching ELLs to read are the same that were found to be effective with students in general: Success for All, Direct Instruction, Reading Recovery, and phonetic tutoring. Specifically, Success for All and Direct Instruction are programs that effectively provide appropriate English language development adaptations for ELLs.
  5. The Bilingual Cooperative Reading and Composition (BCIRC) intervention supports the importance of using cooperative learning in conjunction with cognitive strategy instruction to help children actively use English as they transition from Spanish to English reading.
  1. There is a need of large-scale, randomized, longitudinal evaluations of well-justified approaches to be more confident in recommending effective strategies for English language learners of all ages and backgrounds.
  2. Research that combines quantitative and qualitative methods are needed to better understand how various interventions affect the development of reading skills among English language learners.


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