Flexible Grouping: Nobody Ever Said Teaching Was Easy!

By Dr. Suzanne Irujo, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer

This is the fourth in a series of articles that explore classroom implications of some of the findings of a study done by Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll (2005). These researchers interviewed teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) in California and identified challenges they face.

In previous articles in this series, we have seen that teachers of ELLs don’t have:

  • enough time to teach all of the required subject matter to ELLs;
  • enough materials to appropriately teach and assess ELLs;
  • enough professional development to help them teach ELLs.

On top of all this, the 2005 Gándara et al. study found that “teachers expressed frustration with the wide range of English language and academic levels often found in their classrooms” (p. 8).

So if you’re a teacher of ELLs, you have no time, no materials, and no professional development. Now you find that you also have students at various levels of language proficiency and academic achievement in your classes. At this point, you must surely be wondering what ever made you want to be a teacher.

Well, as the old saying goes, “Nobody ever said teaching was easy.” This is doubly true for teachers of ELLs. However, most mainstream teachers never intended to teach ELLs. Why are there so many ELLs in mainstream classes? Are mainstream teachers justified in demanding that students who don’t know enough English to be able to profit from their classes be placed in special classes that will better meet their needs?


There are many reasons why more and more ELLs, at wider and wider levels of language proficiency, are placed in mainstream classes:

  • the belief that equality of opportunity demands equal treatment, which leads to placements that ignore language and cultural differences;
  • political mandates such as Proposition 227 in California and similar measures in Arizona and Massachusetts, which allow only one year of sheltered instruction;
  • an educational philosophy of homogeneous grouping, which rejects any kind of tracking or grouping when placing students;
  • small numbers of ELLs, lack of funding, or lack of qualified teachers, which make it impractical or impossible to provide special classes for them;
  • the intrinsic nature of ELLs, which means that there will always be great diversity among them in language proficiency, literacy development, prior schooling, and cultural differences.

Some of these causes, such as political influence and educational philosophies, are things that can be changed. But those kinds of change take a long time, and teachers need help now. As Gándara et al. (2005) stated, “[S]uch huge differences can create daunting challenges for teachers when they do not have adequate support from district resources, policies and practices” (p. 8).

But what kind of help do teachers need? Should they develop a plan for cross-class grouping for instruction in English language development? Should they form ability groupings within their own classes? Should they learn more about differentiation of instruction? (See Irujo 2004 for an article on differentiated instruction.) What does the research say about ability grouping for ELLs?

The Research

I decided to look into this topic after reading on the IteachIlearn Web site that “[r]esearch into second language acquisition shows that the homogeneous grouping of language learners (by linguistic ability) is superior to heterogeneous ESL instruction” (iteachilearn.com, 1999-2003). I couldn’t recall any studies that specifically compared ESL learners in homogeneous groups with those in heterogeneous groups, so I tracked down the reference. It turns out that it was based not on empirical research, but on Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input (1981). In mixed-ability language development classes, language addressed to beginning-level ELLs won’t provide the input that more advanced students need to continue acquiring new aspects of language. And in mixed-ability academic content classes, language addressed to advanced ELLs and native speakers of English won’t be comprehensible to beginners. When there are very wide disparities of language levels, ELLs at both top and bottom levels of proficiency are deprived of the input they need to continue developing their language proficiency and to understand content that they need to learn.

Unfortunately, my search for other studies yielded very little. Some research refers to the fact that ability grouping and tracking often deny ELLs access to grade-appropriate curriculum (c.f. Mehan et al., 1994; Collier, 1995). However, I found no studies that actually compared the achievement of ELLs in same-ability groups with ELLs in mixed-ability groups, whether in language development classes or academic content classes.

So I looked at the literature on native speakers, and found that there are many contradictions among different studies. That’s not surprising, since context influences educational outcomes to such a great extent, and it is impossible to control all the variables in any context. Four summaries of the research (Slavin, 1987; Slavin, 1990; Gamoran 1992; Lou et al., 1996) helped me make sense out of the contradictory results.

These summaries included studies of tracking, cross-grade grouping, and within-class grouping. Here are the key results:

  • Overall, assignment to classes according to academic ability is not supported.
  • Cross-grade grouping for reading and within-class grouping for mathematics can increase achievement in those subjects.
  • Within-class grouping can be effective when it reduces a very wide range of abilities.
  • Effects of grouping vary by how it is implemented: It is most effective when it targets a specific skill, when teachers vary instruction according to students’ needs, and when groupings are reviewed frequently.
  • High achievers show positive effects from tracking and ability grouping, but low achievers show negative effects, so they cancel each other out.
  • Low groups often receive lower quality instruction.

Two generalizations about grouping and ELLs stand out from these results.

We know that low-level ELLs are reluctant to participate in large, mixed-ability classes, especially when the majority of students in the class are native speakers. So certain forms of across-class and within-class grouping can be beneficial for ELLs.

We also know that ELLs are often placed into low groups, and that permanent tracking and grouping configurations are detrimental to students in low groups. Whether in-class or across-class, any grouping based on ELLs’ language or academic ability should be done in order to match instruction to students’ levels in a specific skill at a specific time.


These generalizations sound very much like the kind of flexible grouping that is recommended in sheltered instruction, such as whole-class teaching, large and small group instruction, pair activities, and individual work (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2003). Some groups and pairs will be homogeneous by language proficiency or academic ability; others will be heterogeneous. Whatever grouping is chosen, it is done on the basis of the objectives of a particular lesson.

The theory of flexible grouping sounds great, but how does it work in practice? I’ll discuss two main areas to consider in order to make it work: planning and implementation.


Effective use of flexible grouping requires careful planning. You can’t “wing it” because the size and makeup of the different grouping configurations have to match the skills being taught. This matching assumes that you know what your objectives are, you know what skills and knowledge are prerequisites for the achievement of those objectives, and you know which of those prerequisite skills and knowledge each of your students has. With ELLs, you also need to think about language proficiency levels, and what kinds of input and interaction will best facilitate achievement of both language and content objectives. Only then can you begin to think about what kinds of groups to use during different parts of a lesson.

Each different grouping configuration is appropriate for some purposes but not for others. The chart below shows sample advantages, disadvantages, and possible uses of each grouping type.


Grouping Type Advantages Disadvantages Possible Uses
Whole class
  • Less preparation
  • Saves time
  • Boring for some students; not understandable for others
Presenting the same information to the whole class at one time
Large groups
  • Greater flexibility to meet individual needs
  • Less teacher time for each group
Matching ability levels with a particular skill being taught
Small groups
  • Emphasis on peer learning
  • Learning through interaction
  • Targeted to instruction of a very specific skill
  • Takes time and may create confusion
  • Some students may monopolize the group
Sharing knowledge and skills
  • Pairs work independently; teacher monitors
  • Forces all students to participate
  • Students may not stay on task
  • Some pairs may not work well together
Ensuring that all students participate
  • Teacher knows who did the work
  • Students needing help don’t get it
Producing a product for individual evaluation


These are not always totally separate groupings. For example, a presentation to the whole class or a large group can be followed immediately by pairs sharing what they understood from the presentation. Small groups can share information about a particular problem and then split into pairs to apply the information. Pairs can talk about how to do something and then work individually to do it.

Besides thinking about particular grouping types, planning for flexible grouping also involves thinking about whether groups should be homogenous or heterogeneous, based on levels of language proficiency, content knowledge, or both. For example, a lesson on question formation would best be taught to a group that is homogeneous by language proficiency. A lesson on regrouping would best be taught to a group that is homogeneous with respect to that particular math skill. A hands-on science activity would be most effectively done in a group that is heterogeneous in both language proficiency and science knowledge.

Which of the many possible combinations is best for a particular activity depends on the objectives, the students’ needs, and the type of activity.
And as if that weren’t enough, some teachers will need to think about whether to create groups in which all members of the group speak the same native language. Mixed-language backgrounds promote the use of English; same-language backgrounds promote the comprehension of content-area concepts.


Implementation of flexible grouping can be challenging for some teachers. My first recommendation to anybody who has been using only whole-class and individual teaching is to start small! Many teachers find pairs to be the easiest grouping to manage because it doesn’t involve a lot of moving around. Once pair work is going smoothly, add large or small groups.

Shortcuts for putting students into groups can cut down tremendously on the amount of time spent grouping and regrouping. Some grouping assignments may be ongoing (but never permanent). For grouping assignments that are not ongoing, you can pass out different colored counters to show students which group they are in. When the makeup of the group is not important, counting off works well.

It’s very important to develop routines for grouping to forestall student misbehavior. When going from whole group to small groups or pairs, give the instructions for the group or pair task before students form their groups, and be sure students understand what they are going to do. If you are using a series of tasks with different groupings, put an outline of the groupings and tasks on the board for students to refer to. Have a “quiet” signal that you know students will respond to so you can start and stop pair and group work efficiently.


Is this approach easy to implement? Definitely not. It requires excellent classroom management skills, the ability to multitask, and significant amounts of preparation time. But “nobody ever said teaching was easy.” During my years as a bilingual teacher, I saw that phrase every day on a poster in the teachers’ room. At the time, I thought that my teaching situation was difficult: two grades, multiple proficiency levels in two languages, wide differences in my students’ backgrounds and academic abilities, and new students at various levels arriving at any time during the year. But I consistently had a relatively small class, I had a full-time experienced paraprofessional, I had no native English speakers in the class, and the only accountability demands I had were those that I imposed on myself.

Teachers today find themselves in much more difficult situations. Classes are larger and paraprofessionals fewer; more and more ELLs are placed in mainstream classes with very little extra support; mandated curriculum and test preparation may give teachers little freedom to teach in ways that they think will most benefit their students. Under these conditions, I don’t know if I could have continued to battle the frustration caused by such a wide range of language and academic levels.

But is grouping students worthwhile? Definitely. Even if they did not originally intend to teach ELLs, teachers know that they are responsible for all the students in their classes, whether those students know English or not, whether they have been to school before or not. That responsibility means making decisions based on what is best for each individual student in the class. As an eloquent elementary school principal said in a short piece accompanying Gamoran’s synthesis of the research on ability grouping, “The individual is fundamental to democracy and most religions. The individual should be fundamental to all educational decisions” (Hastings, 1992).


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Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/directions/04.htm

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Gándara, P., Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Driscoll, A. (2005). Listening to teachers of English language learners: A survey

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Irujo, S. (2004, Sept/Oct). Differentiated instruction: We can no longer just aim down the middle. The ELL



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