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The Effects of an Academic Language Program on Student Reading Outcomes

Darrow, C., Nichols, A., & Lack, K., Abt Global; Corrin, W., Zhu, P., Shih, M., Brown, K. T., and Teres, J., MDRC


August 29, 2022

The disparity in literacy among English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and their more advantaged peers is a challenge many schools struggle to address. On behalf of the Institute of Education Sciences, Abt and MDRC studied a program called WordGen Elementary, which aimed to help fourth- and fifth-grade students improve their reading skills and their ability to understand academic language (that is,  formal language used in school). The program, which focused on addressing the needs of English learners and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in particular, involved a year-long curriculum of reading, writing, and speaking activities for students, combined with training and supports for teachers. 

To study WordGen Elementary’s effects on student and teacher outcomes, the research team randomly assigned half of 58 schools across six districts to receive WordGen Elementary over a school year, with the other half continuing with business as usual. The team found that WordGen Elementary did not improve academic language skills, reading comprehension, or reading achievement for students overall or for English learners or economically disadvantaged students in particular. The team also found that teachers received fewer training and supports than intended, and that this training did not affect some teacher classroom practices. Although teachers’ word knowledge instruction did change as intended, the program had no effect on teachers’ use of more challenging practices, such as academic skills instruction or teachers’ providing students with opportunities to practice academic language. This may help explain why student outcomes were not affected by the program.