Grouping programs are not a new concept in education. A substantial amount of research has been done to solidify the benefits of grouping techniques. While there are various types of grouping, some have been proven to show more benefits than others. Although there is substantial research on grouping benefits, there is very little on how these methods can be beneficial or detrimental to English language learning students.
Students whose first language is a non-English language have become one of the fastest growing groups of students in United States schools (Garret & Hong, 2015). Twenty-one percent of students between 5 and 17 years of age speak a non-English language at home (Brooks & Thurston, 2010).
While this group continues to increase as time goes on, there is a deficit of research on how grouping methods affect these children. Many believe that math is universal language and consider it “culture free” (Gutierrez, 2002, p. 1049). The knowledge of math concepts may be culture as many of them date back to the ancient Greeks, but the language used to express this knowledge is far from universal. Children acquire academic language after social language, so ELL students often have trouble explaining what they know in math classes. This is a very complex issue that is in need of more research and explanation.
This research paper will work to fill in some of these gaps and provide more insight into how grouping can be used to benefit English language learning students. Grouping methods can be beneficial to all children, but different methods can provide different benefits and outcomes to English language learning students.
Types of Grouping Configurations
There are many different types of grouping programs that teachers can use within their classrooms and schools. Some of these include whole-class grouping, cross-grade grouping, small groups, one-on-one groups, homogeneous grouping and heterogeneous grouping. Much of the existing research has been conducted on these different types of grouping configurations. When it comes to math courses, many teachers utilize whole group, small group and partner groups. Whole group lessons work well to get general information out to the entire class before diving into the meat of the content. Brooks and Thurston (2010) conducted research on engagement levels among ELL students in different grouping configurations. They found that there was little chance that the ELL students would engage in academic language production. They also found that these students were listening to their teachers, but were not engaging in academic conversations to discuss and practice new skills (Brooks & Thurston, 2010). Whole group instruction does not always elicit full engagement from all students, but is one of the most prominently used group configurations in classrooms.
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Small groups are used by many teachers as a way to individualize instruction to help each child be successful. Two main small group configurations include heterogeneous grouping and homogeneous grouping, or ability grouping, are often used in classrooms. Brooks and Thurston found that children were more actively engaged in academic language production in small groups than they were in whole groups. Chorzempa and Graham (2006) found that one in every four teachers that participated in their study used ability grouping. While this is far less than other studies have found in the past, it is still a large number of classrooms. The main reason that many teachers use ability grouping is so that the students can move at the same pace to reach a common goal (Lou, Abrami, & Spence, 2000). Kulik and Kulik (1992) collected data and found that the students in the higher level ability groups often have the most benefits. The children in the lower group’s self-esteem is not harmed in any way, and they actually gain some academic ground in this grouping program. Overall Kulik and Kulik (1992) found that ability grouping had mostly positive effects on the children and the negative effects were almost zero. However, Abedi et al. (2006) found that ability grouping can have negative effects on children. They believe that ability grouping denies children the full experience of learning. This can be amplified for ELL children as they are often put into lower level classes because many teachers equate their abilities with their English proficiency (Abedi, Courtney, Leon, Kao, Azzam, 2006). This is one reason many teachers do not use ability grouping, especially in mathematics courses. Many teachers use ability grouping in reading to break children into their reading level so they have peers that are reading similar texts.
Heterogeneous grouping emphasizes children working with peers of varying ability levels in a cooperative group. The children all work towards one common goal and help each other to reach that goal. Garret and Hong (2015) note that when children work in small heterogeneous groups, the students of lower abilities can utilize the students of higher abilities as resources. The higher ability students can also benefit from working as a tutor or mentor to the lower ability students (Garret & Hong, 2015). These benefits become even greater for language minority and ELL students. They are able to participate in higher level academic discussions and gain more content knowledge and English language practice.
One on one partnerships can also be used as a small group method. In these configurations one student can work with another student as their partner or they can work with a teacher as their partner. This method can be beneficial to students because they are receiving more one on one attention. Their problems and mistakes are being recognized quicker and they are receiving help quicker. When children work in these types of groups, there is a significant amount of academic language production occurring. The children have ample opportunities to use academic language in a safe context. They are also able to ask questions when needed and discuss ideas when they do not agree. Partnerships, overall, have many benefits, but are often the least used in math contexts (Brooks &Thurston, 2010).
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Benefits of Utilizing Grouping Methods
One of the biggest benefits of using grouping strategies within a classroom is that students learn to work in cooperative learning groups (Gutierrez, 2002). Cooperative learning groups eliminate competition between students and replace it with cooperation (Lou et al. 2000). The children become responsible for not only their own learning, but that of their group mates. Children learn to work interdependently and learn to hold each other and themselves accountable for completing the work. When children begin to fall short, peer helping is encouraged between the students. Gutierrez (2002) found that student-to-student interactions were more meaningful and were a better predictor of the students’ achievement. Children are encouraged to assist their peers when working in these cooperative small groups. Lou et. Al (2000) points out that when groups are united by one common goal, students are likely to help each other to learn and reach the goal.
These small groups can be especially beneficial for English Language Learning (ELL) students. The cooperation in these groups means that classmates and friends are more likely to assist their ELL friends during the activities. Blum-Kulka and Snow (2004) found that these friend based peer interactions were helpful to ELL students as they provided quick and essential feedback on language and content based mistakes. These peers can be a great resource for young ELL students in language acquisition and general content knowledge. When ELL students are paired together with their peers they are able to work with someone who knows more in English who can work as their expert to explain the content to them. While these children can be successful when working with a teacher, Brooks and Thurston (2010) have found that working with a more-knowledgeable peer helps ELL students learn more English. This idea works with Vygotsky’s philosophy of the Zone of Proximal Development in that the ELL students’ peers are the experts that provide help at the student’s level and help them to become more independent as they master the new language (Vygotsky sticky note, 9).
Grouping within a class benefits both ELL students and their non-ELL classmates. Small groups allow teachers to quickly and easily adapt their instruction to fit the needs of their students (Chorzempa & Graham, 2006). This individualized attention can be crucial for ELL learners as they learn to navigate the English language while also mastering new math concepts (Garret & Hong, 2015). Some of these grouping techniques include ability grouping. While there is a negative connotation with ability grouping, but, Kulik and Kulik (1992) have found that ability grouping has no devastating effects on children’s self-esteem or academic achievement. Blum- Kulka and Snow (2004) have also found that both strong and weak learners benefit this type of group learning. Ability grouping allows children to engage more successfully in cognitive discussions about specific math topics (Lou et al. 2000). When children are placed in groups with mixed achievement levels, it is often hard for them to have two-sided discussions because on child may have a better understanding of the topic than the other. This can be especially tricky when one of the children has less understanding of the English language and cannot participate actively in a math discussion. These discussions, whether in English or other languages provide ample opportunities for children to not only explain what they understand about a topic, but also to ask their peers questions about a topic that they do not understand. These interactions play an important role in the development of English for an ELL student. Social language is acquired before academic language and these discussions allow ELL students to practice both skill sets (Brooks & Thurston, 2010).
English Language Learners and Math Groups
In the case of math, Gutierrez (2002) found that cooperative learning groups provided ample opportunities for children to practice speaking skills in English while also increasing their mathematical understanding of a concept. These situations also provide translators when needed and peer guides for students who know less English or are intimidated to speak in English in front of their peers (Garret & Hong, 2015). They also provided a safety net for students who felt more comfortable speaking in their native language when trying to explain their thinking (Gutierrez, 2002). The use of a bilingual peer has been found to be one of the biggest benefits of working within a group. When these students are paired together they are able to freely switch between English and their native language.
ELL students are also able to learn the meaning of new vocabulary words in their native language as they gain confidence to use these words in their discussions (Gutierrez, 2002). Brooks and Thurston (2010) have found that ELL students are more actively engaged and willing to participate when they work in a collaborative learning group. These groups become especially important in early elementary math because these students aren’t able to show their work through writing, so they need to be able to explain their thinking. In these groups they have a peer who is able to discuss their ideas and translate them if needed. It allows them to practice their communication skills that are important for acquiring math skills in the safety of a small group (3,4).
- Abedi, J., Courtney, M., Leon, S., Kao, J., & Azzam, T. (2006). English language learners and math achievement: A study of opportunity to learn and language accommodation (Technical Report 702). Los Angeles National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, University of California, Los Angeles.
- Blum- Kulka, S., & Snow, C. E. (2004). Introduction: The potential of peer talk. Discourse Studies, 6, 291-306
- Brooks, K., & Thurston, L. P., (2010). English language learner academic engagement and instructional grouping configurations. American Secondary Education, 39, p. 45-60
- Chorzempa, B. F., & Graham, S. (2006). Primary grade teachers’ use of within-class ability grouping in reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 529-541
- Garrett, R., & Hong, G. (2016). Impacts of grouping and time on the math learning of language minority kindergarteners. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 38, p. 222-244
- Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: what the research does- and does not- say. ESED, 27
- Gutierrez, R. (2002). Beyond essentialism: The complexity of language and teaching mathematics to Latino/a students. American Educational Research Journal, 39, 1047- 1088
- Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. L. (1992). Meta-analytic findings on grouping programs. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, 73-77
- Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., & Spence, J. C. (2000). Effects of within-class grouping on student achievement: An exploratory model. The Journal of Educational Research, 94, 101-112
- Vygotsky L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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