When Middle Schoolers Collaborate in Language Diverse Classrooms, All Students Benefit

New findings from Youth-Nex researchers suggest that peer collaboration across language backgrounds is linked to better participation in middle school classrooms and learning for all students.

Leslie M. Booren

Julie is a seventh-grade teacher and, for the first time, multiple classes throughout her day include five or more English learners (EL) students. She started thinking about the lessons she had planned and how she should be setting up activities given the diversity in middle schoolers. Should she pair up the EL students? How should she assign roles in group activities? And how might this change throughout the year as students develop?

New findings from researchers at Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, help address these questions. 

“It is estimated that EL students now comprise about 10 percent of the K-12 population,” said Lauren Molloy Elreda, research assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development and lead author on the study. “Given this language diversity in classrooms, it is important that we understand how best to support students’ language and academic development. We should be thinking about how to create equitable learning environments for all middle school students.”

In this study, Elreda and colleagues examined the characteristics of classroom-based academic collaboration networks: Who are youth reporting they are working on academic assignments with? How is that collaboration providing opportunities for peer academic talk and development in middle school classrooms?

“We found that peer collaboration across language backgrounds is linked to better participation in class and learning for all students,” Elreda said. “Classrooms that became more integrated across the school year also showed greater growth in academics for all students.”

When middle schoolers are working and talking together across language groups, it helps all students learn better and participate in the classroom. 

While there are academic benefits for all students in well-integrated language diverse classrooms, these new findings also suggest that EL students have greater growth in their language opportunities in these classrooms. In addition, with more equal access to peer collaboration opportunities, the academic disparities typically experienced by EL students are reduced.

“The extent to which classrooms are more inclusive to everyone, that also helps English      learners,” Elreda said. “We found a reduction in achievement gaps or disparities that ELs face in classrooms with lots of peer collaboration in general, where everyone had relatively equal access to opportunities to talk and collaborate with peers, rather than peer collaborations centering around a few high status or highest achieving students.”

The study authors say that for teachers this broadly points to the importance of paying better attention to peer relationships and fostering positive interactions with all middle schoolers in the classroom.

“It is important for middle school teachers to be thoughtful about how they are grouping peers and providing peer collaborative opportunities,” explained Elreda. “Integrating EL students into how teachers structure activities may be key. For instance, strategies such as assigning students different roles to make sure they are active in groups, can help teachers to foster opportunities for EL students to interact meaningfully with their peers.”

With these findings, researchers and teachers have a better understanding of how to reduce academic gaps or disparities that EL students are experiencing in middle school classrooms. Well-connected classrooms with diverse peer collaborations seems to be key, especially in adolescence.

These new findings suggest that Julie, the seventh-grade teacher, should indeed be thoughtful about the lessons she is designing so that they are structured and implemented with EL learners in mind because doing so will benefit all the students in her middle school classroom. 

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