English Learners

Is Grouping English Learners the Right Approach? What New Research Says

By Ileana Najarro — October 27, 2023 5 min read
A teacher works on a project with English learner students at Storm Lake Elementary School on April 27, 2017.
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Is it better to have all English learners together, separate from their non-English learner peers? How about more instructional time in a heterogeneous classroom? Or pull-out sessions for language development?

The answer, researchers say, depends on a variety of factors and decisions including the demographics of a district’s English learners, their language proficiency levels, teacher capacity, and the consideration of trade-offs that occur when choosing one grouping model over another.

Yet some educators hold to the assumption that grouping English learners together—separate from other students—is the most efficient way to provide the additional support these students are legally entitled to receive.

A new study from New York University upends that assumption, and highlights how there is no one-size-fits-all model that districts can choose. Instead, districts must find what works best for their own students so that they have access to quality language and academic instruction.

Researchers behind the new study specifically found that grouping English learners together in classrooms away from other peers for the day had no impact, positive or negative, on reading development for elementary school students, calling into question the claims of such grouping’s benefit to students.

“This makes us think that maybe we should be more cautious about grouping English learners in the elementary grades together,” said Michael Kieffer, associate professor of literacy education at New York University and lead researcher of the study.

What the research found

Federal law states that English learners need additional or supplemental support to make their educational experience equitable, Kieffer said.

“There’s a notion that if we need to provide extra services, let’s provide them separately and provide to all the students who need those services,” he added.

To get a sense of whether a higher concentration of English learners together in a classroom does in fact benefit them academically, he and his co-author looked at their reading progress, since reading is one of the content areas most dependent on language.

They analyzed the results from a dataset of 783 English learners across the country whose academic development was tracked from kindergarten through 5th grade. The data was collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten 2010-2011 Cohort. They then used teacher reports on the percentage of English learners in their classrooms to see whether high concentrations of these students were linked to reading development.

They ultimately found no meaningful impact, either positive or negative.

They used an older dataset because it offered them a nationally representative sample and the opportunity to do a longitudinal analysis, Kieffer said. Even as some conditions may have changed over the years, including the demographics of English learners since 2011, he doesn’t have a strong reason to believe the key findings would be different.

One of Kieffer’s biggest takeaways from his analysis is a belief shared by other researchers: that there isn’t a single solution to the question of how to group English learners.

How districts can find the best model for their students

Something districts need to keep in mind as they seek to sort English learners into various instructional settings is the quality of instruction and the capacity of teachers delivering instruction, said Rebecca Bergey, a principal researcher at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research.

Specifically, the north star for districts when deciding what grouping models to follow should be: how can students best get access to quality instruction in language and content development?

There are several questions to ask when deciding this including how well are all teachers trained and equipped to work with English learners, what languages are spoken among a school’s English learners, and what levels of proficiency in both home languages and English do these students possess?

There are trade-offs to consider as well, Bergey said.

For example, maybe a district wants to place English learners in more classrooms with native English speaking peers but teachers in those classrooms are not properly trained to work with English learners. In that case, the quality of instruction for these students may not be as high as grouping them in a homogenous setting with a teacher who has the expertise to support their instruction. However in the homogenous setting with a specialized instructor, these students may lose out on the benefits of oral language practice with non-English learner peers.

Analyzing those trade-offs for what’s the best possible outcome is the hard work districts face, Bergey said.

However, since the collection of the data for the new NYU study, conversations in policy and practice have shifted in the English learner field. Bergey said that there’s more attention paid to the idea that English learners are every teacher’s responsibility and there’s a greater push for language instruction being integrated and taught through all the content areas.

For instance, the Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition has a toolkit with advice on providing equal access to curricular and extracurricular programs and how to build an inclusive environment and avoid unnecessary segregation for English learners.

Instructional standards put together by the WIDA consortium, which administers English language proficiency tests in close to 40 states, were written as a tool for English as a second language and bilingual teachers to use in conjunction with content area teachers. Even WIDA is shifting its focus to the idea that every teacher in the school plays a role in successfully educating multilingual learners, said Tim Boals, founder and director of WIDA.

“We’re in a place where, hopefully, we’re navigating this with more information and guidance that is shedding light on the fact that targeted instruction does not mean you have to do it separately, and that there is only one way to do it,” Bergey said.

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