What Works? Teaching Literacy Skills to English Language Learners

Approximately 10.5 percent of the school-age population in the United States can be considered English language learners. While this percentage may not seem significant, English learners are the fastest growing segment of the nation’s students. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s web site, Doing What Works, “In the last two decades, the population of students who are limited English proficient has grown by 169 percent, while the general school population has grown only 12 percent.”

Clearly, teachers, schools, and districts face challenges in meeting the needs of this growing and diverse population. A great deal of research has been recently conducted on effective teaching strategies and closing the achievement gap between native and non-native English speakers. But how can teachers and schools access and use this data? One way is through the Doing What Works web site.


Doing What Works, or DWW, is a new web site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. DWW’s content is largely based on the Institute of Educational Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse, which evaluates research on practices and interventions. IES produces guides or reports that communicate which practices and interventions are likely to work based on current educational research.

For example, the IES Practice Guide “Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades” (2007) recommends five key practices in teaching young English language learners:

  1. Screen for reading problems and monitor progress using English language measures of phonological processing, letter knowledge, and word and text reading
  2. Provide intensive small-group reading interventions for at-risk learners
  3. Provide extensive and varied vocabulary instruction on a daily basis
  4. Develop academic English, beginning in the primary grades
  5. Schedule regular peer-assisted learning opportunities (approximately 90 minutes per week)

The guide summarizes the research base for each practice, provides a checklist for carrying out the recommendations, and discusses possible roadblocks as well as potential solutions. This and other practice guides are available for download (pdf files) at the IES What Works Clearinghouse’s Publications page.

The DWW site makes the content from the IES Practice Guide accessible through multimedia content. The Teaching Literacy in English to K-5 English Learners page allows teachers to explore the five key recommended practices and access planning templates. The page includes the following resources:

  • A multimedia overview of the five key recommendations
  • A visual diagram illustrating the interrelationships between practices
  • A video interview with Russell Gersten, chair of the expert panel that produced the practice guide

For each of the five recommended practices, teachers can:

  • Learn What Works: Understand the research-based recommendation through documents, interviews, and related web links.
  • See How it Works: Explore how actual schools are implementing the recommendation through slide shows, video, and interviews.
  • Do What Works: Use a collection of tools and ideas to implement the recommendation.

Each of the recommended practices also includes a multimedia summary of the practice.

Finally, a digital workshop provides an overview of the five recommendations and presents much of the content from the IES Practice Guide. The workshop is organized into seven chapters and is accompanied by downloadable activities and resources. The workshop can be viewed individually, or by groups of teachers and administrators during an inservice or professional development event.


Doing What Works
The Doing What Works home page contains information about early childhood education, English language learners, and math and science. The resources discussed in this article are found on the Teaching Literacy in English to K-5 English Learners page.

What Works Clearinghouse
The home page for What Works. A source of scientific evidence for what works in education.

IES Practice Guides
Download four practice guides produced by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Digital Teacher Workshops
Associated with the Doing What Works and Teacher-to-Teacher initiatives, this site is home to digital workshops focused on research-based practice guides. The site currently has two workshops: English Language Learners and Encouraging Girls in Math and Science.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright October 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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