Research Years 1 - 4: Adaptions of Peer-Assisted Learning for ELLs: Application to Middle School Social Studies Classes

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

Sylvia Linan-Thompson, Ph.D.
University of Texas at Austin

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

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


Three experimental studies were conducted with three non-overlapping samples of 7th grade students enrolled in Texas History classes in Central Texas. The purpose of these investigations was to examine the effectiveness of a social studies intervention for English learners in middle schools with a high number of Latino students designated as limited English proficient (LEP). The interventions were designed to enhance vocabulary and concept learning.

Academic language is distinctly different from conversational language and is critical for understanding grade level texts. Many English learners have adequate conversational skills but lack the English language skills necessary to understand academic content or texts (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006b).  Recent syntheses and literature reviews on instruction for English learners have emphasized the importance of addressing academic language within content area classes by providing systematic vocabulary instruction and opportunities to engage in academic discussions (August & Shanahan, 2006; Francis et al., 2006; Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2006). For students with poor reading skills or lack of background knowledge on the topic, comprehension of social studies texts can be challenging. In addition to contextual differences, academic language also involves a variety of semantic and syntactic features that are not typically present in conversational language such as higher-level vocabulary and complex sentence patterns. Vocabulary may include words that are particular to textbooks and writing assignments (e.g., “analyze” or “evaluate”) or words that are unique to the content (e.g., “cede” or “confederacy”). In addition, text structures common to academic texts may not be as familiar or as easily decipherable for the student who is struggling to read. Additionally, background knowledge about the historical setting, key persons, or ideas may be unfamiliar to students who are English learners and make understanding and learning social studies more difficult.

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Research Question

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Research Design

The methods are reported for randomized controlled trials conducted during the 2006-2007; 2007-2008; and 2008-2009 school years. Prior to implementation all teachers received six-hours of professional development that included: (a) a description of the research study, (b) explanation of the intervention lesson components, (c) review of intervention materials, and (d) model lesson demonstration presented by research staff.  The research staff provided on-going classroom support and coaching to treatment conditions scaling back time in classrooms as teachers became more comfortable and proficient in delivering the enhanced lessons. Students in both treatment and comparison conditions received instruction during regularly scheduled social studies classes for 50 minutes a day, five days a week for approximately nine to twelve weeks. Teachers’ class sections were randomly assigned to treatment and comparison classes. Thus, students were randomly assigned to course sections and half of each teachers’ sections were randomly assigned to treatments.

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Study 1–Year 1: Four participant teachers from two middle schools provided 7th grade Texas History instruction to all the students in this study. These teachers, with support from research staff, implemented treatment conditions in intervention classes and continued with their typical instruction in comparison classes. Seventh graders were randomly assignedto 15 sections of social studies classrooms at their school (N=381). The 15 sections were randomly assigned within-teacher to seven treatment classes (n= 176 students) and eight comparison classes (n= 205 students). Of the original 381 students, 97 (25%) were designated as English learners (50 in the treatment and 47 in the control condition).

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Study 2–Year 2: Four teachers at two middle schools participated in the study. A total of 507 students were randomly assignedto 17 sections of 7th grade social studies classrooms. Replicating the year 1 design, these students were randomly assigned to course sections and the sections were randomly assigned to treatments within teacher. There were 273 students assigned to nine treatment sections and 234 students assigned to eight comparison sections. Of the total 507 students, 106 (21%) were English learners (67 in the treatment and 39 in the control condition).

See Vaughn, S., Martinez, L. R., Linan-Thompson, S., Reutebuch, C. K., Carlson, C. D., & Francis, D. J. (2009) for a full description of studies 1 and 2.

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Study 3–Year 3: Participants were drawn from four middle schools in three central Texas school districts. All districts were considered to have a substantial number of English learners. A total of seven Texas History teachers participated following the within-teacher design. Students were enrolled in 30 sections of 7th grade social studies (N=740). The 30 sections were randomly assigned to 16 treatment classes (n= 424 students) and 14 comparison classes (n= 316 students). Of the original 740 students, 154 (20.81%) were designated as English language learners (92 [59.7%] in the treatment and 62 [40.26%] in the control condition).

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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. Teacher notebooks organized the use of evidence-based instruction into: (a) a brief overview of the big idea of the unit, (b) explicit vocabulary instruction 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.

Lesson materials included lesson plans, vocabulary transparencies, DVDs of video clips, content reading passages, and student learning logs. Lesson plans included state content standards and consisted of sections devoted to big idea concepts, key vocabulary, supporting materials list, and preparation directives.  Lesson procedures consisted of preview, presentation, practice and review. Links to prior knowledge and review sections included scripted lessons for teachers provided as a guide to follow during lesson.  Lessons were organized by unit topics and developed to be implemented daily during 50-minute periods. After four lessons, teachers completed a review followed by 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 materials below were developed for a 7th grade social studies unit on The Texas Revolution:

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English learners who participated in the intervention condition benefited from the instruction they received. They outperformed the English learners in the comparison group on the researcher-developed vocabulary and comprehension measures and gained word knowledge at the same rate as students who were not limited English proficient.

Although this intervention was developed to address the instructional and language needs of English learners, students who were not limited English proficient in the intervention classes also benefited. This finding is relevant for teachers who have both English learners and non-English learner students in their classrooms and who may be concerned about the possible detrimental effect for other students of instruction that targets second language learners. If effective instructional practices for English learners also benefit monolingual students, teachers have a strong rationale for implementing the instructional practice. Furthermore, English learners in the comparison condition made the least gains and lagged behind all other groups on both the vocabulary and content comprehension measures, providing further support for interventions such as the one in these studies.

Findings may be limited to schools and students with similar demographics as those in this study. Many students in these schools were performing below grade level and may have also needed the additional practice and interaction provided by the intervention. In a school in which more students are performing at or above grade level, universal growth across groups of students may not be evident.

In Years 5-6 of the CREATE Center, the Social Studies curriculum was combined with SIOP Model components (Echevarría, Vogt, & Short, 2010) and academic intervention efforts across other content areas in a school-wide effort across the 7th grade to test the effectiveness of an integrated model.

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August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Executive summary. In D. L. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth (pp. 1-8). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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

Lindholm-Leary, K., & Borsato, G. (2006). Academic achievement. In F. Genesee, K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders & D. Christian (Eds.), Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence (pp. 176-222). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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.


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