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)

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.

The varying impact of an earlier years programme

A paper from MDRC analyses variation in the effects of the Head Start programme in the United States using data from the Head Start Impact Study.

Head Start is the largest US federal programme for early years development of disadvantaged children and has served more than 30 million children since 1965.

The MDRC paper confirms previous studies that suggested substantial variation in the effects of Head Start in relation to the individual, subgroup, and between Head Start Centers.

The main findings were:

  • Head Start improved cognitive outcomes in children with the lowest cognitive skills and tended to reduce disparities between children in key cognitive outcomes.
  • Dual-language and Spanish-speaking children with low pretest scores gained the most from Head Start.
  • Much of the positive effect of Head Start came from mitigating for limited prior English; the positive effect on children with limited English persisted for at least three years.

The added value of Head Start compared with local alternatives varied substantially between Centers and reflected differences in provision (such as hours of care, teacher education, and classroom quality).

Some Head Start Centers were much more effective than alternatives (including parental care) and others were much less effective than alternatives.

Source: Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study (2015), MDRC.

Are US school districts spending wisely?

The Center for American Progress has released a new report that examines the productivity of US school districts, and the conclusion is that productivity could be improved.

The authors used the results of 2010-11 state reading and maths assessments in elementary, middle, and high schools. They also used three productivity ratings that looked at the academic achievement of districts for each dollar spent, taking into account factors such as cost-of-living differences and concentrations of pupils with English as an Additional Language or with special educational needs.

The report argues that low educational productivity remains a pressing issue, with billions of dollars lost in low-capacity districts. Problems include inconsistent spending priorities (eg, some districts in Texas spend more than 10% of their unadjusted per-pupil operating expenditures on athletics); only a few states taking a weighted approach and distributing money to schools based on pupil need; funding disparity between different school districts within states; and inconsistent budget practices between different states.

The authors conclude that school productivity has not become part of the reform conversation, despite education leaders facing increasingly challenging budget choices. They recommend that:

  • States should build capacity for productivity gains through targeted grants, assistance teams, and performance metrics;
  • Education leaders should improve accounting procedures to make them more transparent and actionable, and create a multi-state initiative that will focus on building more robust education budgets;
  • Educators should come together to improve the quality of fiscal data across states; and
  • States and districts should encourage smarter, fairer approaches to school funding, such as pupil-based funding policies.

Source: Return on Educational Investment: 2014. A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity (2014) Center of American Progress.

Positive start for science teaching intervention

A new article in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching describes the first-year results from a new curricular and professional development intervention. The project was created as a collaboration between a US university and a large urban school district to implement a new fifth grade (Year 6) science curriculum. The aim was to maximize inquiry-based learning and understanding of science concepts by all students, but especially those with English as an Additional Language. The professional development involved teacher workshops (five days throughout the year) and in-school support from three members of the research team who visited treatment schools approximately every four to six weeks, for a total of four to six times.

The study evaluated the effectiveness of the intervention at improving teachers’ science content knowledge, and also evaluated the relationship between teachers’ science content knowledge and student achievement outcomes on a science test.

The study used a cluster randomized trial design involving 32 experimental schools and 32 control schools. A total of 223 teachers were included in the analysis. Their science content knowledge was measured by a science knowledge test, a questionnaire, and classroom observations. The results showed that the intervention had a significant effect on the treatment group teachers’ science knowledge test scores and questionnaire responses compared to the control group, but not on the classroom observation ratings.

Teachers’ scores on the science knowledge test were found to be the largest significant teacher-level predictor of student achievement outcomes regardless of participation in the intervention. A one-point improvement by a teacher on the science knowledge test was linked to an average 2.16 point improvement by their students on the science test.

Source: Effectiveness of a Curricular and Professional Development Intervention at Improving Elementary Teachers’ Science Content Knowledge and Student Achievement Outcomes: Year 1 Results (2014), Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(5).

What works for EAL pupils?

The US What Works Clearinghouse has released an updated practice guide on teaching academic content and literacy to pupils learning English as an additional language (EAL) in junior and middle school. It provides suggestions for teaching and supporting EAL learners as they acquire academic vocabulary, learn from increasingly complex informational texts, and engage in analytical writing activities. The recommendations, which are based on currently available research evidence and feedback from experts in the field, are as follows:

  • Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities.
  • Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching.
  • Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills.
  • Provide small-group instructional interventions to students struggling in areas of literacy and English language development.

For each recommendation, the guide provides examples of activities that can be used to support students as they build the language and literacy skills needed to be successful in school.

Source: Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School (2014), Institute of Education Sciences.