Research Years 5 - 6: Adaptions of Peer-Assisted Learning for ELLs: Application to Middle School Social Studies Classes

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin

Colleen Reutebuch, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin

Leticia Martinez, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin


Many students reach the middle grades (grades 4–8) without the language and literacy skills needed to learn from text. These adolescent learners who have demonstrated below-grade level literacy are most at risk of educational failure (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006). We conducted experimental studies involving two non-overlapping samples of 7th graders who were targeted because they included large numbers of English learners (ELs). We examined the critical need to provide effective instruction for ELs in social studies classes.
Our goal was to enhance social studies instruction by implementing class-wide practices designed specifically for students who are English learners that would benefit all students. We identified instructional practices associated with improved outcomes for ELs that were feasible for implementation by classroom teachers and which share various features recommended as part of high quality instruction for all. This project was part of a longitudinal, multi-site, national effort to provide a focused program of research designed to address challenges in the education of EL learners in content area classes in the middle grades.

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Research Question

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Research Design

Study 1–Year 5: A randomized controlled trial (RCT) was conducted across eight middle schools with four assigned to the treatment condition and the other four as comparison sites. All schools consisted of at least 30 percent English learners. During the seven-month investigation, those in the treatment condition implemented research-developed lessons two to three times per week (class periods were 70 to 90 minutes long on most days, and 45 on others). Those in the comparison condition continued with traditional social studies practices. Eighteen 7th grade Texas History teachers participated with half assigned to each condition. Students enrolled in 99 class sections participated (treatment = 48 sections and control = 51 sections). A total of 2,042 students participated with 987 included in treatment sections and 1055 included in comparison conditions. Prior to the start of the intervention, treatment teachers received six hours of professional development on the social studies lessons and a three day overview of the SIOP Model (Echevarría, Vogt, & Short, 2010). Once the intervention began, onsite coaching from research staff was offered to teachers to extend professional development and increase fidelity.

Study 2–Year 6: A quasi-experiment was conducted in four middle schools assigned to the treatment condition. All schools reported at least 30 percent of enrolled students as English learners. Three of the four participating schools had served as comparison sites during the Study 1 investigation. Historical data from Study 1 control conditions were used for comparison. A total of twelve teachers took part in implementing researcher- developed lessons two to three times per week (class periods were 70 to 90 minutes long on most days, and 45 on others) across sixty-nine sections of 7th grade Texas History with 1928 students. Similar to the first year of the school-wide intervention, treatment teachers received professional development on the social studies lessons as well as on the SIOP Model, with ongoing support from instructional coaches.

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Curriculum Description

Instruction was grounded in research-based instructional practices. All materials for treatment teachers and their students were provided. Teachers received notebooks containing eight fully developed units. The lessons were originally developed to be implemented daily during 50-minute periods. Due to the school schedule of classes at participating schools, lessons were implemented across block schedules, meaning that classes met two to three days per week for 70 to 90 minutes, with some days meeting 45 minutes.

Teacher notebooks organized the use of evidence-based practices into: (a) a brief overview of the big idea of the unit, (b) explicit vocabulary instruction that integrating paired students’ discussion of the target word/concept, (c) discussion built around a short video clip (2–4 minutes) that complemented the daily reading, (d) a teacher-led or paired student reading assignment followed by generating and answering questions to target comprehension, and (e) a wrap-up activity in the form of a graphic organizer or writing exercise. After four lessons, teachers completed a review day. Then, students took weekly quizzes used to monitor progress and determine adjustments to be made to instruction. Weekly quizzes included ten vocabulary-matching items and five short answer comprehension questions.

Student materials consisted of a spiral bound notebook with logs for each daily lesson. The log had blank spaces for vocabulary words and their synonyms next to the printed English definition and Spanish cognate or translation. There was also space for documenting key people, places, and events, as well as places to answer or generate questions from the readings. The review and assessment section provided a variety of writing tasks (e.g., graphic organizers, prompts) to assist students in reviewing or organizing ideas or thoughts about concepts covered.

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Resources/Lesson Plans

The following instructional materials are components of a lesson developed for a 7th grade social studies unit on The Mexican War:


The English learners who participated in the treatment classes benefited from the instruction they received and outperformed the English learners in the comparison group on the researcher-developed vocabulary and comprehension measures. Students in the treatment classes who were English learners gained academic vocabulary knowledge at the same rate as students who were English proficient. This is relevant for classroom teachers who typically teach both English learners and monolingual English students in their classrooms and who may be concerned about the possible detrimental effect for other students of instruction that targets English learners. This provides a strong rationale for implementing the instructional practice since it universally benefits all students in the class.

Future research may include developing materials that incorporate the same enhancements for grades 6 and 8. Newly developed materials will be tested to see if results transfer across grade levels.

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Echevarría, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2010). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP® Model (5th ed). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Francis, D., Rivera, M., Lesaux, N., Kieffer, M., & Rivera, H. (2006). Practical guidelines for the education of English language learners: Research-based recommendations for instruction and academic interventions (under cooperative agreement grant S283B050034 for U.S. Department of Education). Portsmouth, NH: RMC Corporation, Center on Instruction. Available online at

Vaughn, S., Martinez, L. R., Linan-Thompson, S., Reutebuch, C. K., Carlson, C. D., & Francis, D. J. (2009). Enhancing social studies vocabulary and comprehension for seventh-grade English language learners: Findings from two experimental studies. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(4), 297-324.


View information on Adaptions of Peer-Assisted Learning for ELLs in Years 1 - 4.

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