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Spring 2014 Newsletter Nasir Article (Full)

Categories: Elementary School, Middle School, Newsletter

Grouping English Learners
Dr. Ambareen Nasir

Many mainstream teachers need to be prepared to work with English Learners because in classrooms across the United States, the population of English Learners (ELs) continues to be the fastest growing group. During the school year of 1994-1995 and 2004-2005, the admittance of ELs increased 60% in comparison to the total K-12 growth of approximately 2% (Herman, Bachman, Bailey, & Griffin, 2008). In addition to the growing size of EL populations, much of the literature and dialogue about ELs may present this population uniformly. It is important to acknowledge the diversity within the “ELL” label. ELs are not a homogenous group, but represent over 400 languages spoken and vary according to their background knowledge, language proficiency, acculturation, and prior schooling experiences.

The more teachers are able to learn about these variations, or funds of knowledge (Moll, 1995), across their ELs the better prepared they can be to differentiate their instruction and inform their future assessment practices. For instance, one strategy teachers can do is to group their ELs according to (a) newly arrived students with adequate formal schooling, (b) newly arrived students with limited formal schooling, (c) students exposed to two languages simultaneously, and (d) long term ELs (Lenski, Ehlers-Zavala, Daniel, Sun-Irminger, 2006). These grouping categories are helpful for teachers because they can service and differentiate the needs of many ELs. For instance, newly arrived students with adequate formal schooling could perform reading and writing in their native language at grade level, but may need support with transferring these skills to English. Students with interrupted schooling may need teachers to support their feelings of loss emotional and social networks, in addition to advancing their English acquisition. In contrast, bilingual students may engage in extensive code switching and have acquired oral proficiency in a language other than English but still need development of academic literacy to read and write in their first and second language. Finally, long-term ELs have exited the ESL or bilingual program but many still require teachers to provide ongoing academic literacy support. As an extension activity, figure 3 provides a copy of a sample graphic organizer where teachers can collectively discuss in their schools how their awareness of diversifying the EL label can be helpful for language instruction and assessment practices.

As a researcher for project Transforming Literacy, Science, and Math through Participatory Action Research (LSciMAct) one of my colleagues, Dr. Beverly Troiano, observed how Spanish speaking ELs were discriminated against when heterogeneously grouped with their native English-speaking peers. ELs were told to “shut their language” implying that they were not welcomed to use Spanish in small group settings (Troiano, 2012). Extending on Troiano’s (2012) research, I propose how often times many teachers may not realize how ELs native language support can be marginalized by the language ideologies (Razfar, 2011) or attitudes of students in their classrooms. Therefore, I recommend for teachers early in the school year to conduct observations or language surveys to recognize the language attitudes of their students native language use. A sample of an observation sheet and language survey is shown in figure 1 and figure 2. Additionally, teachers should be aware that just because an EL may speak another language, it should not be assumed that the student has an additive language stance towards their own or another ELs native language. As such, language attitudes should be known for both native-English speakers and all ELs. Learning about these language attitudes can help teachers to know how to group their students. For instance, an EL that benefits from using their native language support can then be grouped with another EL or English speaking peer to assist in their English acquisition. Apart from helping the EL with building academic language using native language support, grouping students by language attitudes could enhance multiple language tolerance and foster positive linguistic identities.


Troiano, B. (2012). Dissertation.

Lenski, S.D., Ehlers-Zavala, F., Daniel, M.C., Sun-Irminger, X. (2006). Assessing English-language learners in mainstream classrooms. The Reading Teacher, Vol 60, No. 1, p. 24-34.

Wolf, M.K, Herman, J.L., Bachman, L.F, Bailey, A.L., Griffin, N. (2008). Recommendations for Assessing English Language Learners: English Language Proficiency Measures and Accommodations Uses. CRESST Report 737. University of California, Los Angeles. 1-22 pages.

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