Evaluation of Academic Language Interventions


While English language learners and disadvantaged native English speakers may have sufficient skills to engage in everyday conversation, many struggle with academic language, the more formal language typically used in school. In recent years, educators have linked lack of proficiency in academic language to concerns about students’ literacy and have hypothesized that academic language skills contribute to reading comprehension and success in core content area classes.

While existing research shows that some specific practices effectively enhance students’ academic language skills, evidence is lacking regarding the effectiveness of these practices at a large scale. By studying up to three different academic language interventions with elementary school students in as many as 12 districts, MDRC and its partners will examine the impact and implementation of these practices at scale, measure variation in impacts across settings, and investigate relationships between impacts and key implementation features.

MDRC will evaluate the impact of training and supporting teachers in the implementation of academic language interventions in late elementary grades in schools across the nation. Based on a school-level experimental design, the study will estimate effects by comparing outcomes of students at elementary schools implementing each intervention to the outcomes of students at other elementary schools not implementing the interventions. In addition, findings on school context, the implementation of programs, and the contrast in services among the groups of schools will help create a framework for understanding the impact findings and what it takes to implement the tested practices with fidelity.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

With the guidance of an expert panel, MDRC and its partners will run a competition to select which academic language interventions to evaluate. Through a randomized control trial to assess the impact and implementation of the interventions implemented in the 2017-2018 academic year, MDRC intends to answer the following questions:

  • What are the impacts of each intervention on academic language skills and on the academic performance of English language learners and of disadvantaged students in relevant grades? Do impacts vary by implementation settings or by student subgroups?
  • What are the key challenges to training teachers and supporting schools in the implementation of the academic language interventions?
  • Are the selected interventions implemented with fidelity? What factors are associated with the ability to maintain fidelity?
  • Does the implementation of the academic language interventions create a service contrast from what would have otherwise happened in classrooms? Does any observed service contrast persist in the following school year?
  • To what extent are implementation fidelity and service contrast associated with program impacts?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The study will use a school-level experimental design. The research team will recruit schools and districts from around the country with relatively high percentages of English language learners and traditionally disadvantaged students. Data collection will include teacher training participation forms and training checklists, classroom observations, teacher surveys, school records data, and student assessments.