Reducing achievement gaps in academic writing

A study published in Journal of Educational Psychology reports on two years of findings from a randomised controlled trial of the Pathway Project, an intervention designed to reduce achievement gaps in academic writing for pupils who are Latino or have English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Ninety-five teachers from 16 secondary schools in the Anaheim Union High School District – a large, diverse, low-socioeconomic status, urban district with over 33,000 pupils (60% Latino and 66% EAL) – were randomly assigned to the treatment (Pathway) or control condition. Teachers in the Pathway group took part in a 46-hour professional development programme where they were trained to help improve pupils’ interpretative reading and text-based analytical writing using a cognitive strategies approach.

Findings from the study show promising results in both years of the intervention that appear to close the achievement gap in writing outcomes for Latino pupils and EALs in grades 7 to 12 (Years 8-13). In the first year of the trial, Pathway pupils gained 0.99 points more for an on-demand academic writing assessment than control pupils, which was highly statistically significant. Significant effects were attained for all grade levels except 12th grade (Year 13). The second year also showed a large positive, significant effect of the intervention on the full sample. Pre- and post-test scores for the academic writing assessment showed an effect size of +0.48 in the first year and +0.60 in the second year.

Programme effects were positive and significant for all the language groups, with the very largest occurring for EALs. This suggests that the Pathway Project may be particularly beneficial for pupils still in the process of learning English. In addition, pupils in the Pathway group had higher odds than pupils in the control group of passing the California Higher School Exit Exam in both years.

Source: Reducing achievement gaps in academic writing for Latinos and English learners in Grades 7–12 (January 2017), Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 109(1), 1-21.

Improving reading comprehension for English learners

A randomised controlled trial, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, has examined the impact of a version of the PACT reading comprehension and content acquisition intervention, which was modified to meet the needs of pupils with English as an Additional Language (EALs), in eighth-grade (Year 9) social studies classes.

Sharon Vaughn and colleagues carried out the trial with schools with moderate to high concentrations of EALs. In the selected schools, all eighth-grade (Year 9) social studies teachers participated, and classes were randomly assigned to the treatment or comparison condition. Each teacher taught both PACT treatment classes and comparison classes, and the same social studies content was delivered to pupils in both conditions, but with the interrelated components of PACT included in the treatment classes.

Pupils in the treatment group did better than pupils in the comparison group on measures of content knowledge acquisition and content reading comprehension, but not general reading comprehension. Both EALs and non-EALs who received the intervention performed better on measures of content knowledge acquisition (effect size = 0.40) and content-related reading (effect size = 0.20).

Source: Improving content knowledge and comprehension for English language learners: Findings from a randomized control trial (January 2017), Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 109(1)

Trends in English proficiency and high school graduation rates

Min Huang and colleagues at WestEd in the US recently examined patterns among English as an Additional Language learner (EAL) sub-groups to determine if the amount of time these students spent classified as English as an Additional Language learners or the grade in which they were deemed English-proficient correlated with their graduation rates.

Researchers studied the data, starting in the ninth grade (Year 10), from students in Arizona who were due to graduate from high school in 2014. More than 63,000 students were divided into five sub-groups based on their English proficiency, and then grouped by prior academic achievement and demographics.

Results showed that academic achievement prior to high school was the key predictor of EAL students who graduated on time, regardless of demographic similarities. Most importantly, the earlier students achieved English-language proficiency, the higher their graduation rates. The EAL sub-groups least likely to graduate on time were long-term English as an Additonal language learners who had been identified as EALs before sixth grade (Year 7) and were not yet English proficient by ninth grade (Year 10), and new English as an Additonal Language learners who became EALs in sixth grade (year 7) or later and entered high school designated as English as an Additional Language learners.

Researchers noted that during the study period EAL students were required to attend four hours of English classes a day, preventing them from being in mainstream classes, and therefore not necessarily acquiring the academic foundation for the subjects they need to graduate.

Source: High school graduation rates across English learner student subgroups in Arizona (2016), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE)

The long-term impact of phonics instruction

A discussion paper from the Centre for Economic Performance considers the impact of the introduction of synthetic phonics in English schools.

In the wake of a major report in 2006 (the Rose review), 172 schools in 18 local authorities introduced training in synthetic phonics as part of a pilot programme. The following year, a further 32 local authorities joined a similar scheme. Another 50 local authorities joined 18 months later, and the final 50 a year after that. For each scheme, the model was very similar – a literacy consultant would provide coaching support for at least ten schools in their area. The consultant worked mainly in the Reception year (age 4-5) and Year 1 (age 6-7), but also in Year 2 and nursery.

In this new working paper, using data from the National Pupil Database, researchers have been able to assess the impact of this phased introduction. It shows a substantial leap (an effect size of more than +0.2) in children’s “communication, language and literacy” scores at age 5 when the training is introduced. This effect is maintained even after the initial year of training.

The researchers were also able to follow cohorts as they progressed through primary school to see if any initial effects lasted until age 11 (phonics teaching stopped at age 7). There were no average effects at this age for reading, a broader measure of English attainment, or maths. However, there was a persistent effect (an effect size of more than 0.1) for those classified as non-native English speakers and economically disadvantaged (as measured by free school meal status).

Source: “Teaching to Teach” Literacy (2016), Centre for Economic Performance.

Targeting EALs with science

A recent large-scale randomised controlled trial, published in the American Educational Research Journal, has examined the impact of a science curriculum with a focus on pupils with English as an Additional Language (EALs).

The study was implemented in 66 schools (33 treatment and 33 control) across three school districts in one south-eastern US state. During the 2012–2013 school year, the project involved 258 teachers (123 treatment and 135 control) and a total of 6,673 students. The trial evaluated P-SELL, a science curricular and professional development intervention for fifth-grade students with a focus on EALs.

The P-SELL curriculum’s approach aligns with state science standards and high-stakes science assessments administered at fifth grade. It is based on an inquiry-oriented approach and addresses the learning needs of EALs by providing guidance and scaffolding for English language development. Teachers are supported with a teacher’s guide and professional development workshops. The workshops incorporated critical features of effective professional development: content focus, active learning, coherence, sufficient duration, and collective participation.

The study used both the high-stakes state science assessment as an outcome measure and a researcher-developed science assessment that was administered at the beginning and end of the year and allowed for a pre-measure of science achievement. The study examined the effect of the intervention on science achievement for all students and for students of varying levels of English proficiency (EAL, recently reclassified EAL, former EAL, and non-EAL).

The results found significant and meaningfully sized average intervention effects on the researcher-developed science assessment scores (effect size = +0.25) and the state science assessment scale scores (+0.15). The P-SELL intervention had significant and meaningfully sized effects for EALs (+0.35) on the researcher-developed assessment. The intervention effects were positive but not statistically significant for EALs (+0.12) on the state science assessment, although other subcategories (non-EALs and former EALs) were positive and significant. This is the first year of a three year study, and future years will provide information on the long-term impact of the teachers’ professional development.

Source: Impact of a Large-Scale Science Intervention Focused on English Language Learners (2016), American Educational Research Journal.

Study examines the time it takes to become proficient in English

This study from the Institute of Education Sciences examined how long it typically takes children with English as an additional language (EALs) to become proficient in English and how this time differs by student characteristics such as gender, home language, or initial proficiency in English. The authors analysed state data for nearly 17,000 EALs who entered kindergarten (Year 1) between 2005/06 and 2011/12 in seven cohorts in Washington State in the US. Key findings included:

  • Students who entered kindergarten as EALs took a median of 3.8 years to develop the English proficiency necessary to be reclassified as former EALs.
  • EALs entering kindergarten with advanced English proficiency were more likely to be reclassified in their first eight years of school than those entering with basic proficiency or intermediate proficiency.
  • Female EALs were more likely than male EALs to be reclassified in their first eight years of school.
  • Speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, or Russian or Ukrainian (combined) were more likely to be reclassified in their first eight years of school than speakers of Somali or Spanish.

The authors hope this information can help to identify students who may take longer to reach proficiency and therefore may need additional support. Also, they say the information can help inform assessment and accountability systems and help establish targets that take specific factors, such as English proficiency at entry to school, into account.

Source: English Learner Student Characteristics and Time To Reclassification: An Example From Washington State (2016), REL Northwest.