How should ELLs be grouped for instruction?

Placing ELLs in the appropriate instruction group presents a variety of challenges to teachers, administrators, and ELL curriculum directors. Many factors can decide these decisions, such as:

  • student age
  • student language proficiency level
  • student educational background
  • students' language groups
  • staff time
  • program models
  • available resources for ELL programs

Ester de Jong and Nancy L. Commins provide helpful guidance about this topic by answering the question "How should English language learners be grouped for instruction?," an excerpt from English Language Learners at School: A Guide for Administrators (Caslon Publishing, 2006).

Ester de Jong

As a general rule, districts should strive to group English language learners (ELLs) age-appropriately by grade level and organize their services in such a way that ELLs will have access to grade-appropriate content and language instruction. Grouping ELLs becomes a complex issue as practical issues such as the number of ELLs, available resources, and the desired program model interact with program philosophy and good intentions. Some issues are outlined below.

Language proficiency

Prioritizing services around language proficiency levels helps ESL/bilingual teachers develop targeted lessons for a particular proficiency level. Handling a wide range of proficiency levels can be challenging, particularly if the teacher cannot communicate in the students' native language. Grouping ELLs by proficiency level must take age differences into consideration, avoiding too large an age gap within one class (for example, a first grader and a second grader can be placed together but a first grader and a third grader should not be placed together). If grouping by language proficiency level involves multiple grades, content learning tends to be sacrificed. Depending on the program type, language proficiency grouping may also isolate students at the same level by not exposing them to more proficient students.

Language background

The choice to group students by language background is also influenced by program type.

  • Bilingual services require a certain amount of clustering by language background to create optimal opportunities for the use of the native language for content and literacy instruction. It is important that, within the context of bilingual programs, schools create systematic and frequent opportunities to interact with native English speakers.
  • English as a second language (ESL) programs, on the other hand, can be organized either for one-language groups or for mixed language groups.

In this context, grouping students from the same language group together is sometimes considered disadvantageous because it may discourage use of the target language. Some argue that heterogeneous language grouping facilitates English language learning because it creates a communicative need to use English. While the latter is often the case, the issue is more complex. First, whether students exclusively use their first language during second language classes is not only a function of the ELLs. It also depends on the language environment created by the teacher and the larger school culture.

Second, grouping students by language background can be advantageous in the ESL classroom if the teacher knows how to capitalize on the bilingual resources available for both content and language learning. Using the native language as a scaffold can accelerate ELLs' academic language development. Regardless of the grouping chosen, schools should consider native/non-native speaker interactions in addition to groupings that involve only ELLs.

Grade level placement

Grade level placement is often the most appropriate grouping practice. It is important that ELLs be placed with students who are academically and socially their peers. ELLs should never be placed in a lower grade simply because their English is limited. At the same time, the diverse backgrounds of ELLs requires districts and schools to develop policies regarding the placement of overage students (older students with academic and literacy skills that are well below grade level, students whose schooling has been interrupted or limited), as well as students who enter the school district during the school year. However, grade-level placement must also be considered in connection to available services. A multi-age or combination-grade classroom can be an appropriate placement if this arrangement allows the school to provide bilingual/ESL services.

Regardless of their grouping practices, districts should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of different grouping options, take steps to counter the potential negative effects of certain grouping practices, articulate their grouping practices clearly as part of their school plan, and demonstrate how grouping practices promote excellence and meet academic, language, and sociocultural goals for all students, including ELLs.

Nancy L. Commins

Sound instructional programs in linguistically diverse schools purposefully plan for differentiation along multiple dimensions. One is the language background of the learners in the group (Commins & Miramontes, 2005). Three groupings are possible:

  • heterogeneous groups, where teachers work with students who are both native and second language speakers of the language of instruction
  • second language groups, where all the students in front of the teacher are working in their second language
  • primary language groups, where every student in front of the teacher is a native speaker of the language of instruction

Each setting offers opportunities for linguistic and academic development not necessarily available in the others. Together they can provide the full range of instruction that students need to become academically proficient in English.

Heterogeneous groups

English language learners typically spend the most time in heterogeneous groups. They benefit in these settings when they can experience "authentic" communication with fluent English-speaking models and are exposed to a rigorous academic program. Because of the presence of native English speakers, teachers usually adhere more closely to grade-level or subject area curriculum and expectations.

Heterogeneous groups, however, can be quite stressful for second language learners. When teachers plan with native speakers in mind, it is easy to overlook the language demands of instructional activities and texts, making the pace and content of the lessons beyond the grasp of many. Having to compete with more proficient native speakers can inhibit second language learners' attempts to express themselves in English.

Second language groups

Second language groups allow ELLs to work on both the structure of English and the academic content side by side with students with similar language needs. When teachers focus on making information understandable and allow for language practice, students usually feel more comfortable and tend to participate more actively in these groups than in heterogeneous groups.

However, it is not wise to segregate students into special classes all day. If their teachers are trained only as language teachers, students' access to the concepts of the academic curriculum may be limited. If their teachers are content teachers, they may not be familiar with strategies appropriate to a second language setting. In any case, their opportunities to hear and use English with native models in an academic setting will be limited.

Primary language groups

This third setting, available in programs that incorporate students' primary language into instruction, can allow students to go deeper into concepts, work on higher-order thinking skills, and make use of a full range of text materials. Although there are great benefits to primary language instruction, if students spend their day learning only in their first language, they will effectively be denied the opportunity to learn a second language. Grouping solely by first language may also contribute to a segregation of students along racial and ethnic lines.

Why is this planning with language background in mind important? This kind of planning allows teachers to utilize the instructional strategies most appropriate for the learners in front of them. These understandings also shed light on how students experience instruction across their day. Ideally, second language learners should have opportunities to work in each kind of group each day. In all-English programs, at a minimum both homogeneous second language and heterogeneous groupings should be part of daily instruction.

Accomplishing these goals necessitates schoolwide planning to organize the adult human resources and allow the grouping and regrouping of students both within and across classrooms. This kind of planning also allows schools to maximize limited resources, such as primary language speakers or second language specialists.

Source: De Jong, E. & Commins, N. (2006). How should English language learners be grouped for instruction? In E. Hamayan & R. Freeman, English Language Learners at School: A Guide for Administrators. (pp. 118-121). ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


Reference: Commins & Miramontes (2005) Linguistic Diversity & Teaching Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

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