August 2015: The Effectiveness of Reading Interventions for ELLs

Richards-Tutor, C., Baker, D. L., Gersten, R., Baker, S. K., & Smith, J. M. (2015). The effectiveness of reading interventions for English learners: A research synthesis. Exceptional Children. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0014402915585483

Summary by Garrett Roberts


English learners are the fastest-growing group of students in American schools today, yet in this population, just 7% of fourth-graders and 3% of eighth-graders scored at or above a proficient reading level. Due to these results, the past decade has seen an increase in studies with rigorous research designs aimed at developing reading interventions to improve English learners’ academic outcomes. To provide specific evidence-based guidance to practitioners on how best to teach reading to English learners, the Institute of Education Sciences published two recent practice guides. These practice guides highlighted three key best practice suggestions: (1) build academic language and vocabulary through instruction; (2) implement explicit, small-group instruction to improve reading proficiency and provide extended and multiple opportunities to use the English language; and (3) provide individualized instruction that allows for opportunities to speak, hear, and read English.

Although these practice guides provide evidence-based best practices, there had yet to be a review of research that focuses solely on randomized control trial interventions, the most rigorous study design, for English learners identified as being at risk or having a learning disability. To fill this gap in the literature, the review by Richards-Tutor, Baker, Gersten, Baker, and Smith (2015) examined only recent studies that use randomized control trials to evaluate causal evidence of effectiveness. In this review, 12 kindergarten to grade 12 reading and prereading studies were identified from 2000 to 2012. Results were summarized and evaluated based on specific study features, such as group size and duration. Additionally, the impact of the interventions’ core reading components, such as phonemic awareness and reading comprehension, were evaluated.

Key Findings

The first key finding was that drawing clear conclusions from the body of available research was difficult due to the limited number of studies and the variation across studies. From 2000 to 2012, only 12 randomized control trial intervention studies could be identified for English learners, which is quite small when compared to the number of studies available for native English speakers. Additionally, the ages of participants, intervention types, identification procedures for English learners, and outcomes measured varied across studies, suggesting that generalizing outcomes and patterns identified from this review warrants caution.

A second key finding was that group size can play a role in academic outcomes. This review suggested that small groups of three to five students may be more effective than groups of six or more students. The review found no significant difference between small-group interventions and one-on-one interventions.

Further, younger English learners made greater gains in reading areas associated with early reading skill, such as phonemic awareness and phonics, than older students did in areas critical to literacy, such as vocabulary and reading comprehension. For older students, two key findings emerged. First, minutes of instruction did not affect reading outcomes. This finding may be due to the fact that no study implemented more than 50 minutes of intervention per day, suggesting that older English learners may need longer, more intensive interventions. The second key finding for older student students was that the one study that individualized the intervention toward students’ skill profiles had promising results—English learners outperformed other students on measures of word attack and word identification.

In summary, although the results should be interpreted with caution, this review found that students performed best in small groups, that students in kindergarten and first grade consistently scored higher on foundational reading skills than older students did on measures of vocabulary and reading comprehension, and that older students may require more individualized interventions with greater intensity.


This review supports past research recommending that interventions for English learners use systematic and explicit instruction in small, homogeneous groups of three to five students. Through these small groups, English learners receive additional opportunities to practice specific skills and build English language proficiency.

This review also found that for students in kindergarten and grade 1, the best and most consistent outcomes were derived from building phonemic awareness and phonics. Additionally, for older students (more than for younger students), it is recommended that interventions be longer, more intensive, and target specific patterns of performance.

To further understand how to provide effective interventions to English learners, future research could investigate specific differences in English learners’ profiles, develop interventions that focus on language and vocabulary, and investigate how to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of interventions. Overall, this review supports the suggestions in the Institute of Education Sciences practice guides, but additional randomized control trials are warranted to further investigate how to improve outcomes for English learners.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., . . . Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

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. Retrieved from