Grouping English learners together in classrooms has no impact—positive or negative—on reading development for elementary school students, a new study shows.
The research casts doubt on the longtime academic practice of segregating English learning students, researchers say.
“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,” says study lead author Michael Kieffer, associate professor at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
“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.”
“English learners” (ELs) are students identified as having limited English proficiency and who are receiving services designed to teach English language skills.
For the study, published in Educational Researcher, Kieffer and coauthor, Andrew Weaver, a doctoral student at NYU Steinhardt, analyzed the progress of 783 ELs from a large national sample of students whose development was tracked from kindergarten through fifth grade.
The National Center for Educational Statistics collected the data as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten 2010-2011 Cohort. Using teacher reports on the percentage of ELs in their classrooms, the researchers examined whether high EL concentrations were linked to reading development. Their analysis controlled for students’ socioeconomic status and academic and social-emotional skills, as well as school-level variables, such as percentages of POC students.
Their findings indicated neither a positive nor negative relationship between EL concentration and reading development.
“The absence of positive effects raises questions about the common assumptions that underlie educators’ efforts to separate ELs into distinct classrooms,” the authors write.
The positive and negative effects of grouping EL students cancelling each other out may explain the results, the researchers say. For example, the benefit of more targeted language instruction in a primarily EL classroom might be negated by the benefits that come with engaging with fluent English speakers.
“In future research, we hope to look more closely into classrooms to understand how teachers modify their instruction when teaching ELs in more and less integrated settings. This work will aim to unpack how and when grouping ELs together may have more specific benefits and disadvantages,” Kieffer says.
The research was supported, in part, by the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the US Department of Education.