Facilitating Effective Pair and Group Work with ELs blog series - Part 2: Exiting the Allegorical Cave

October 13, 2021

As the majority of U.S. schools transition back to in-person learning, teachers have been elated with the opportunity to reconnect with students in person and put the black Zoom boxes behind them. During classroom observations throughout the pandemic, ELSF’s EL Experts noticed that social interaction and collaborative learning were some of the first elements to fall to the wayside during the past year and a half of distance learning. The removal of conversational and social meaning-making opportunities within the digital classroom greatly impeded the progress of students developing English language and content learning.

With the beginning of this academic school year, teachers have reawakened their love for teaching. They are excited to talk to students one-on-one, notice students' body language, see students' expressions and reactions, and make personal connections—all essential components of meaningful collaborative environments that were incredibly difficult to maintain during remote learning.

Yet, even with the benefits of in-person learning, many teachers and students remain accustomed to the Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) questions that were so prevalent during Zoom learning. Many teachers still do not feel adequately supported to take on the great challenges that collaborative work can present. Given this dilemma, what can curriculum developers and professional learning providers do to accelerate English Learners’ language and content development during collaborative work, especially during such a pivotal moment in EL students’ educational trajectories?

Since February 2021, ELSF has been partnering with Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to understand the needs of teachers who have been tasked with facilitating effective pair and group work with ELs. In our previous post in this series, Part 1: The Canary in the Coal Mine, we discussed one key takeaway identified during the pandemic: classroom teachers felt they did not have sufficient guidance on how to effectively facilitate pair or groupwork with students digitally or in person. While instructional materials might have directed a teacher to incorporate pair or group learning during the pandemic, teachers reported to ELSF that they were often unsure of how to implement that advice effectively to ensure that ELs were actively and equitably speaking and using language to communicate their thinking and understanding.

In response to this need, and after several months of inquiry and exploration, ELSF’s team delivered a professional learning series in partnership with the OUSD English Language Learners and Multilingual Achievement (ELLMA) office in July of 2021. Our team engaged teachers in a range of “before, during, and after” pair and group work strategies to support meaningful EL student collaboration. In doing so, we aimed to emphasize that while some strategies can be implemented during the collaborative tasks themselves, supporting meaningful pair/group work also requires creating a culture of collaboration before the group work begins, and requires reflection and augmenting norms after collaboration.

After the series, teachers stated they were most excited to try these strategies in their classrooms:

  • Setting classroom norms that build and extend a classroom culture of collaboration
  • Defining student roles in collaborative work, including roles that specifically support and provide a sense of belonging and purpose to students who are very new to learning English
  • Giving students real-time feedback about participation and language used during collaborative work to encourage equitable and meaningful discourse
  • Drafting and refining discussion-worthy prompts
  • Using structured talk protocols to ensure equity of student voice (e.g., information gap)
  • Providing structured metacognitive opportunities for students to reflect upon their collaborative work with their peers

Meanwhile, the professional development delivered by the OUSD ELLMA office introduced the local and national historical struggle for students' language rights and guided teachers to identify language demands and opportunities within their content area across different modes: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. This guidance aligned with ELSF’s Professional Learning Framework, most notably Core Belief #2: Language and Content are Interconnected.

As teachers reflected on their learning that week, we heard a common refrain that mirrored ELSF’s existing research and guidelines:

“I never fully realized how important using oral language was in the process of learning. I think I am only truly understanding that for the first time this week. I am finally seeing how important it is for students to be able to talk to each other as they wrestle with meaning-making on a new task.”

In response to our professional learning design, teachers shared with us that they appreciated the structured time ELSF provided for teachers to apply the presented strategies to an upcoming lesson, and participants also appreciated the built-in opportunities to receive both peer and coach feedback on their lesson iterations.

What are our next steps? This Fall, ELSF’s team will be coaching five OUSD teachers to support their implementation of the strategies from the Summer professional learning series. We will then use findings from these coaching cycles to begin releasing public tools in Winter of 2021-2022 that can be used by curriculum developers, professional learning providers, and teacher coaches who wish to ensure meaningful collaboration opportunities in classrooms that support the content-language development and engagement of EL students.

What does this mean for curriculum developers and professional learning providers? Teachers (new and veteran) continue to seek explicit guidance within curriculum and professional learning  for how to sufficiently support English Learners in fully participating in collaborative work, with the end goal of students accelerating content and language growth. It is no longer sufficient to simply direct teachers to “have students work in groups or pairs.”

Please stay tuned for our next blog, where we will reflect upon our coaching cycles with teachers to support implementation of best practices “before, during, and after” collaborative work with ELs. As everyone involved in this work knows, it is in the best interest of all stakeholders to continue the work of revising materials and reflecting upon lessons learned in order to ensure the best possible classroom experiences and learning for English Learners. In our inquiry series specifically, teachers reported that they would like additional support specifically for planning newcomer (sheltered) or integrated core course content in a way that would support newcomers’ content-language production, ideally in the form of example lessons, samples, and specific resources. We plan to include this guidance in phase 3 of our project: Fall Coaching 2021.

Is your organization already piloting or measuring the effectiveness of strategies to support English Learners with collaborative pair or group work during the pandemic? Email opportunities@elsuccessforum.org to share your experience and feedback!

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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