In general, for all grouping scenarios, there are two methods to group your students for support in the classroom: heterogeneous grouping and homogeneous grouping.
Heterogeneous grouping is a grouping of students that have mixed abilities in some way. Heterogeneous grouping can apply to many kinds of scenarios: for example, students can be grouped heterogeneously by content level understanding, by varying interests, by differing strengths in certain skills, by behaviors, or by language proficiency. Heterogeneous grouping helps support students in learning from each other’s strengths and can also help support specific tasks or roles within the group. However, if left unchecked, heterogeneous grouping can lead to one or a few students completing most of the work and feeling responsible for students who may not grasp the activity. Generally speaking, ELLs often find themselves primarily in heterogeneous groups, or groups consisting of both native English speakers and second-language speakers of the language of instruction. These groups can provide an authentic communication experience, and within this context, educators typically align the classroom projects and assignments to the grade level of the native English speakers—often resulting in assignments of increased rigor. Additionally, ELLs in heterogeneous groupings gain opportunities to experience English with native speakers in the academic context more frequently. Sometimes, ELLs can experience distress when teachers only focus on planning instruction based primarily on native English speakers, as the language needs of the activities or the provided texts can leave the EL learner struggling to keep pace. Or, when EL students are placed in a competitive position with more proficient native speakers, this can result in a hesitation on behalf of the EL learners, as they may not wish to engage as readily if they feel inadequate. So, it is essential to purposefully consider when to use heterogeneous grouping and how you will support your ELLs in the lesson activities.
Homogeneous grouping is a grouping of students that have similar abilities in some way. Homogeneous grouping can apply to many kinds of scenarios: for example, students can be grouped homogeneously by content level understanding, by reading level, by learning styles, by behaviors, by prerequisite skills, or by other academic behaviors or skills. Homogeneous grouping can be great for things like guided reading groups, interventions, extension activities, or differentiation methods where tasks need to be targeted to specific skill or proficiency levels. It can also be used to group students by their language levels. However, if not adequately balanced with other grouping methods, students may feel either exclusive or excluded. There may also be fewer opportunities for students to work up to meet other group members’ skills.
The two language-based grouping methods in homogeneous groups are grouping by second language group or by primary language group.
Second Language Groups
Second language groups support students in working on improving in English and the academic content simultaneously. While learning academic content, students work in the English language alongside others with similar language needs. This method allows you to differentiate instruction to each group based on improvement in their language proficiency while still working on academic content. These groupings allow for consistent language practice within content lessons, as long as the teacher supports it. However, if not planned well, the activities provided within this group may result in limited content depth if a greater focus is placed on language development. Opportunities to experience English with native speakers in the academic context are also more limited.
Primary Language Groups
Learning in the students’ primary language can offer students a far deeper exploration of academic content. Here, the English language is not being practiced or supported, but allowing students to communicate in their primary language with each other as they interact with tasks and activities can allow them to dive more deeply into the academic content and promote mastery of the ideas. However, if students are not exposed regularly to other grouping forms, utilizing primary language groups can often deny students the right opportunities to learn the English language at an appropriate pace. It may also have unintended consequences by segregating students inappropriately along ethnic lines.
How you group your English Language Learners will depend on a variety of factors, like your lesson goal, the activity, your classroom environment, their learning style, their primary language, and more. But continuously reflecting on methods for purposely grouping your students can help to ensure you are doing all you can to support your ELL students in your classroom.