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Organizing for Instruction

Using Flexible Grouping to Meet the Needs of English Language Learners

In Alberta, English language learners typically learn in grade-level classrooms with their same-age peers. Occasionally, some students of lower language proficiencies or with limited formal schooling experiences may require sheltered classes or instruction in small groups within the grade-level class for part of the day.  These students learn with their English-speaking peers for the remainder of the day.

Types of Flexible Grouping Teachers purposefully and strategically group and regroup students within the classroom and in combination with other classes in various ways based on the subject area and/or type of task. Grouping and regrouping allows teachers to more easily address learners’ specific needs and allows English language learners the opportunity to work and communicate with a variety of different students. It encourages students to develop leadership skills and take responsibility for their learning. Grouping and regrouping encourages students to develop relationships and connections with their classmates and helps minimize the stigma of being in a "special" group. Teachers should be prepared to provide guidance and training to students to help them work in groups and/or independently.

Interest Grouping

Students group themselves by selecting a topic of interest; e.g., research or inquiry, exploring the same medium, such as website, video and scrapbook.
Mixed Ability Grouping Students with a variety of specific skill or ability levels are grouped strategically to create balanced groups, often to complete a group task or project. Student roles and responsibilities are assigned. Examples include literature circles, drama representations, science explorations and research projects.
Ability Grouping Students with similar abilities in language, reading, writing, mathematics or concept understanding are grouped to facilitate explicit instruction; e.g., developing oral language fluency with numbers, reading comprehension strategies, such as literal and figurative, vocabulary development and communication strategies.

Learning Style Grouping

Students group themselves based on how they wish to access content (e.g., Internet, library/print or video investigation) and/or how they wish to express their understanding (e.g., website, artwork, drama).

Grouping to Create Sheltered Classes



If there are a large number of English language learners in your school with a specific need, it can be beneficial to create a sheltered class to address that need. Sheltered classes are built into the timetable and provide ongoing instructional support to English language learners. Although students spend most of the school day in the grade-level classrooms, sheltered classes provide the opportunity for English language learners to receive targeted instruction to address their literacy, numeracy, English and academic needs. Some examples of sheltered instruction include:

  • limited formal schooling grouping
  • beginner/newcomer grouping
  • literacy, English and academic development grouping
  • Level 4/5 writing grouping
  • Level 3 vocabulary development grouping.
Sheltered Grouping within the Grade-level Class

English language learners with similar language proficiency or academic needs often benefit from working in small groups on language- and subject-specific outcomes. For example:

  • students are pre-taught the vocabulary for an upcoming unit
  • students review and practise a concept or outcome
  • beginner students are taught basic expressions and early literacy and numeracy skills
  • students participate in guided reading or writing instruction with a structured language focus.

Small, teacher-led groups allow for more interaction, instructional conversation and individualized support. Students receive "just-right" instruction because the teacher can differentiate instruction based on student ability, readiness and proficiency, and provide scaffolding, as needed.

It is important to factor in small group instruction when creating the school and class timetables, as this allows schools to optimize student learning and instructional time.

Learning Centres Teachers can set up learning centres in the classroom based on mixed ability/interest groups or on the independent working levels of the students. This allows students to work collaboratively and practise skills while the teacher provides more targeted instruction to a small group of students at one of the centres.
Pull Out

To create a small, ad hoc instructional group of English language learners with similar needs, it is sometimes necessary to pull students out of different classes for a short time during the day. Pull outs provide students with intensive instruction to address a specific learning need.

Teachers should be aware of the possible disruption to students’ classroom learning that can be caused by a pull out. Teachers also should be sensitive to how students might feel about being pulled out of a grade-level class, especially if they are missing activities that they enjoy. To reduce the disruption that can be caused by frequent pull outs, consider scheduling sheltered classes instead (see Grouping to Create Sheltered Classes).

Push In

An alternative to pull out is push in, which involves bringing an additional teacher into the class to provide extra support. This allows English language learners to stay connected to and within the context of the grade-level class. One teacher supports the class while the other teacher works with a small group of English language learners. This teacher can teach the small group and provide explicit language instruction, guided practice or supported review.

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