Teachers use student grouping for many reasons. Some teachers group students by behavior in order to improve their classroom management. Some teachers group students by academic levels in order to provide struggling students with peer tutors. Some teachers group students by interest levels, in order to increase student led learning. However, I rarely hear of teachers grouping students by their language level. In my classes, I always make language level one of my top priorities when considering student groups, especially in classes where I have a high percentage of English Language Learners. When I am making my groups, here are the things I take into consideration:
How to Group ELLs
- Level of Confidence in English – Once you get to know your students, you will often find that some of your language learners are simply more confident interacting in English. Please note that confidence doesn’t always correspond with knowledge. However, regardless of ability, those students who are more confident speaking in English are more likely to jump into a conversation with English speakers, regardless of whether they have all the correct words. Students with high levels of confidence can easily be grouped with only English speakers. However, students with low levels of confidence may choose not to participate with only English speakers, because they are intimidated by their situation. These students are best grouped with at least one other student who is an English Language Learner, preferably of the same Home Language, in order to encourage full participation.
- Ability Level in Academic English – Peer tutors are a great way to help English Language Learners develop more English. However, in order to effectively arrange peer tutoring learning situations, you must be aware of your student’s level of Academic English, which should not be confused with simple spoken English. Many students can speak English and sound like a native, but have low vocabulary, especially in content subjects (like math and science). These students are best grouped with English only students who have a high vocabulary and can provide a positive role model in vocabulary building situations.
- Home Language – I always find that having students in class with the same home language (the language an English Language Learner speaks at home with their family) can be both a help and a hindrance. Sometimes, it is helpful to group together students who have the same home language, especially if the students are of different ability or confidence levels. In these situations, stronger students can translate instructions and concepts for struggling students and the ability to go back and forth between the home language and English can help get struggling students stay engaged and actively working with their group. However, some students will use their home language as a crutch, and choose not to try to learn new words in English, because they know that someone will understand them, and will translate for them if needed. If you have a student who tends to have this type of personality, it is best to group that student with English only students, or English Language Learners who have a different home language, if you have that possibility in your classroom.
- Willingness to Work Collaboratively – Some students thrive on collaborative projects, and some students despise them. It is important to be aware of who is who before you group students. You don’t want to put a strong student in a group with your student that struggles most, hoping for peer tutoring interaction, and then find that the strong student despises collaborative work and simply leaves the struggling student to struggle. Those strong students who despise collaborative work will often surprise you if they are grouped with equally strong students, so I often put them in a group with a student who is strong in ability and/or confidence, but may have a lower academic English ability level.
Peer interactions, especially those than come from working collaboratively with a group, can be such a great way to improve the vocabulary and overall language abilities of your English Language Learners. However, as with all students, we should think clearly about our goals and our students before we assign group activities.
About the Author
Heidi Raki has been teaching for 7 years. She has a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instructional Design, and is certified to teach Kindergarten – 5th grade, as well as English Language Learners. Currently, Heidi teaches at an international school in Casablanca, Morocco, where she works with both English language learners and native English speakers. She enjoys blogging about her journey in education at Raki’s Rad Resources and her journey in life at Journey to Morocco.