Facilitating Effective Pair and Group Work with ELs blog series - Part 1: The Canary in the Coal Mine

A teacher knows that oral language practice is vital for English Learner students to develop their language and content understanding. After consulting the scarce online guidance on how to help students build oral language skills during virtual instruction, the teacher delivers a prompt for student discussion and arranges students into breakout rooms of 3-4 to talk with one another. He believes that all students should be able to answer this prompt, given their knowledge of the content and general English language competencies. Then the teacher begins checking on each breakout room.

As minutes pass, he feels a creeping sensation of horror upon finding almost every room completely silent, with no kids talking, for minutes on end. What went wrong? The teacher had followed his curriculum materials and had consulted the internet for additional guidance, but in retrospect he realizes that his oral language activity did not actually support his English Learner students in developing their language or content understanding. The teacher is now desperate for help. Does this vignette sound familiar to you?

In the same way that the pandemic has shined a spotlight on existing societal inequities, the transition to virtual instruction over the last year has highlighted many existing needs in education. It has become increasingly apparent that teachers need more explicit support on how to facilitate pair and group work with English Learners (ELs) during virtual instruction, and also during in-person contexts.

Research has verified the importance of carefully designed oral language activities in schools for EL student learning gains, and recently content developers have acknowledged the value of pair and group work by incorporating more opportunities for students to interact. However, teachers have shared that curriculum developers and professional learning providers often do not provide sufficient guidance for teachers about 1) how to set up pair and group work effectively for classes with ELs or 2) how to do so remotely.

In light of this need, we (representing ELSF, UC Berkeley, CELE, SCALE, and OUSD) decided to initiate a 10-month inquiry series to explore what teachers and students need most to experience effective pair and group work in virtual and in-person settings so that we could relay this high-utility information to curriculum developers and professional learning providers. This three-phase inquiry series consists of the following elements:

  • In Phase 1, we interviewed teachers about their experiences facilitating pair and group work and then engaged the same group of teachers in an observation-coaching cycle to see the results of different strategies to support pair and group work.
  • In Phase 2, we will be delivering a professional development session (PD) for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) teachers to support effective pair and group work with ELs in person or in virtual settings.
  • In Phase 3, we will conduct a Fall coaching cycle of inquiry using our PD framework to assess the utility of strategies.

We are just wrapping up Phase 1, and here were some key themes and patterns that have emerged from initial interviews, classroom observations, and coaching sessions:

  • Teachers did not know about or were unable to locate existing strategies from their core curriculums that supported pair and group work with ELs virtually or in person.
  • Teachers wanted clear protocols and examples of routines that would help to elicit EL student voice and participation during all class, group, and pair settings.
  • Coaches noticed that teachers were trying very hard to engage student interest through their energy, visuals, and clear directions throughout lessons.
  • Unless the teacher had been intentionally and independently building an environment for verbal participation for several months in class, coaches noticed that student responses during synchronous virtual instruction were extremely minimal: students were completely silent throughout the entire lesson, or only provided one-word answers in the chat.
  • During the focus group, teachers tended to agree that a primary measure of lesson success was individual completion of assignments, while quantity or quality of student voice in the classroom or effective student collaboration was not named as a primary measure of lesson success.
  • Core teachers want to know how to adjust their instruction to support Newcomer students in their classes (whether sheltered EL-only or mixed in a general education classroom).

As inquiry coordinators, we will continue to release findings and reflections on an ongoing basis through an ELSF blog series, and we now invite content developers and professional learning providers to follow along in our journey to uncover lessons learned and areas for curricular or professional growth.

At ELSF, we realize that instructional materials and professional development play a big role in supporting the conditions necessary for effective oral engagement and pair and group work in the service of language and content development. To support the development of these instructional materials, we will collect trends throughout this inquiry cycle and begin to piece together resources that could serve as exemplars or starting points for content developers and professional learning providers who agree with our vision that every EL student should receive excellent instruction.

Why follow this investigation? It is the responsibility of curriculum providers and professional learning providers to anticipate and respond to the areas of highest need for learning and engagement. Virtual instruction revealed an area for major prioritization, and regardless of whether instruction is virtual or in-person in the Fall of 2021, all stakeholders will need help renorming and reorienting.

Please stay tuned, and look for another blog post later this summer about how to use professional learning to prepare teachers for effective pair and group work with ELs. In the meantime, feel free to contact opportunities@elsuccessforum.org if you have any questions or would like to share your own experiences with virtual pair and group work.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Colette Kang is an Instructional Coach for grades 6-12 with the Oakland Unified School District where she coaches teachers and collaborates with school leaders to ensure that all students are demonstrating College and Career Readiness. During her tenure as an educator, Colette has worked for public and private schools in the Bay Area and Seattle as a teacher of English Language Arts, Secondary Mathematics, and English Language Development. Colette specializes in developing English Learners' sense of belonging, disciplinary language, and critical thinking skills across content areas. Colette received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Washington and completed her M.A. in Education with an Emphasis in Teaching at Mills College, where she received the “Social Justice Research Award” from the Mills faculty for her work on developing math confidence with girls, students of color, and English Learners. Colette originally hails from San Francisco and now lives in Hayward, CA.

Lauren Stoll works at SCALE Science at Stanford University, focusing on NGSS-aligned curriculum, assessment, and professional learning development. Prior to her work at SCALE, she taught science in large and diverse urban public school districts in Oakland and Berkeley, California. Lauren’s experiences of making critical connections between theory and practice within her own classroom led her to a need to investigate how advances in curricular and assessment approaches can be a tool for social and racial empowerment on a broader scale. In her work as an education consultant, she seeks to blend her classroom experience, an expertise in the Next Generation Science Standards, and a grounding in equitable instruction to design materials that support all teachers and all students. She hopes these materials will support students’ science and language learning in integration by emphasizing and scaffolding language output for science-specific sense-making.


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