Grouping English learners (ELs) together in classrooms has no impact—positive or negative—on reading development for elementary school students, according to a new study by a team of literacy education researchers from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
“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 NYU Steinhardt associate professor Michael Kieffer, the study’s lead author. “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.”
For “Classroom Concentration of English Learners and Their Reading Growth,” Kieffer and his co-author, Andrew Weaver, a doctoral student, analyzed the progress of 783 ELs from a large national sample of students whose development was tracked from kindergarten through fifth grade. The data were collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics 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, published in Educational Researcher, indicated neither a positive nor a 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.
They say that these results may be explained by the positive and negative effects of grouping EL students canceling each other out. 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.
This research was supported, in part, by the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education (R305A200069 and R305B140037).
Multilingual Students Succeeding
Another study published by NYU Steinhardt professor Michael Kieffer in June found that multilingual students improved in reading and math achievement substantially between 2003 and 2015.
“Educators and policymakers have been misled by traditional ways of looking at achievement data for English learners,” said Kieffer. “When we look at the broader population of multilingual students, we uncover remarkable progress.”
Kieffer and the study’s co-author, Karen D. Thompson of Oregon State University, analyzed National Assessment of Educational Progress data from 2003 to 2015. The data demonstrated that although all students’ scores improved, multilingual students’ scores improved two to three times more than monolingual students’ scores in both subjects in grades four and eight. There is little evidence that these trends can be explained by cohort changes in racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, or regional composition.
The research also demonstrates that multilingual students are about one-third to one-half of a grade level closer to their monolingual peers in 2015 than they were in 2003. The data cannot identify the specific sources for the change in achievement but suggest that a bundle of policy changes which occurred between 2003 and 2015 may have moved schools in the right direction in serving multilingual students.
“Despite the dominant perception that these students have made little academic progress in recent years, our findings indicate there is real evidence of progress for this population,” said Thompson, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Education. “Students are showing what they know.”
This research was supported, in part, by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Institute of Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.