By: Maggie Downs

Should English learners be grouped together in a classroom or should these learners be separated from their native English-speaking peers? This is a long-standing debate in the world of language education, with the most recent research casting doubt on the efficacy of segregation for those with limited English proficiency.

Here “English learners” are defined as students who have limited English proficiency and are receiving services designed to teach English language skills.

Proponents argue that grouping students based on their proficiency levels fosters a supportive environment conducive to language acquisition. Critics, however, suggest that such grouping perpetuates segregation, inhibiting linguistic and cultural integration.

In the past, the research has been equally divided, since the results depend on a number of factors, like a district’s demographics, the capacity of the instructor, and the proficiency of the English language learners. UCR University Extension courses, like those in Early Childhood Education, will keep you informed on the most up-to-date educational research for best practices in the classroom.

What the Advocates Say

Advocates of grouping believe this approach allows teachers to tailor instruction to the specific needs and proficiency levels of students. By maintaining similar proficiency levels within groups, educators can design targeted lesson plans that address learners' linguistic strengths and weaknesses more effectively. This customized attention can lead to enhanced engagement and comprehension among students, ultimately accelerating their language acquisition process.

Proponents also say that grouping English learners facilitates peer interaction and collaboration, creating a supportive learning environment. When students share a common linguistic background, they may feel more comfortable expressing themselves and engaging in classroom discussions. This collaborative atmosphere not only promotes language development but also cultivates cultural empathy and understanding among peers. Through interactions with classmates who are undergoing similar language challenges, students can derive mutual support and motivation, thereby bolstering their confidence and self-esteem.

What the Critics Say

The grouping strategy also raises valid concerns regarding potential drawbacks and unintended consequences. One commonly cited issue is the risk of perpetuating segregation and marginalization, particularly if grouping is based solely on language proficiency. Clustering English learners together may reinforce stereotypes and hinder social integration, undermining the goal of creating inclusive and diverse learning environments.

Opponents also caution against the potential for stigmatization and self-esteem issues among students grouped in lower proficiency levels. Being segregated from their peers can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, potentially leading to disengagement and demotivation in the classroom. To mitigate such concerns, educators must implement grouping strategies thoughtfully, ensuring that they promote inclusivity and provide opportunities for social interaction and integration across diverse linguistic backgrounds.

What the Latest Research Says

A recent study from New York University found that there is no benefit in reading development by grouping English language learners together.

“When I taught middle school 20 years ago, I noticed that my English learner students were separated from their native English-speaking peers all day long,” said Michael Kieffer, the study’s lead author and NYU Steinhardt associate professor. “Data show that this practice continues in many places today, encouraged by policies and educators’ good intentions to provide targeted services. Our study challenges this approach by demonstrating it has no association with reading growth.”

For this study, Kieffer and co-author Andrew Weaver analyzed 783 English learners from a large national sample of students, examining their progress from kindergarten through fifth grade. The percentage of English learners in a classroom was gathered from teacher reports; the researchers then examined whether high concentrations of English learners was linked to reading development.

Their findings indicated neither a positive nor negative relationship between the grouping of English learners and reading development.

The authors wrote, “The absence of positive effects raises questions about the common assumptions that underlie educators’ efforts to separate ELs into distinct classrooms.”