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Why Group Work Could Be the Key to English Learner Success

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 (BAYCAT/SFIHS screengrab)

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching students who are learning English is keeping the cognitive rigor of learning activities high, while making sure students can access the content by simplifying the language. Too often simplifying language also means simplifying content, and that can be boring, leading to disengagement and less motivation. In order to combat some of the challenges in keeping English language learners engaged, educators at San Francisco International High School (SFIHS) are trying a different approach.

SFIHS teachers have found that their students are more motivated to engage with content -- and practice English -- when they work in groups that include speakers of many different first languages on authentic discussions or problems.

The San Francisco public school is part of the Internationals Network, which started in New York and has decades of experience teaching students who are newly arrived to the U.S. and are learning English while attending American high schools. Since students come from all over the world, their exposure to formal schooling is often quite different from the average trajectory in the U.S. In addition to an English gap, some have missed several years of school in their home countries. Despite those challenges, graduates from Internationals schools do quite well.

In many schools English learners are grouped by ability when they receive targeted instruction, but the Internationals Network model is quite different. Schools following this model are small and keep a laserlike focus on language development and access to postgraduate opportunities, which means they often don’t offer as much choice as comprehensive high schools.


“It is easy for English learners to become marginalized or for their needs not to be taken into account,” said SFIHS principal Julie Kessler. “We have the luxury of having designed our entire program around the needs of this group that is often forgotten about or underserved in schools where multiple priorities exist.”

Teachers tailor instruction to many different academic levels, but they also need to reach students who speak many different languages. In any given year at SFIHS, students speak between 17-24 different languages, which teachers see as an asset to their teaching. Almost all work is done in groups that are carefully crafted by teachers.

“Where they sit in the classroom is super important,” said Heather Heistand, an English teacher at SFIHS. “My goal with heterogeneous groups is to make sure that there is at least one speaker of a different language in each group.”

She also tries to make sure every group has a leader, someone whose academic and language skills are strong enough to direct the group through the task. And she will often pair a lower-level English speaker with a higher-level English speaker who speaks the same native language. All the instruction and materials are in English, but teachers expect students to use their first languages to help one another make meaning, one of the many strategies they use to keep the level of thinking high.


One Wednesday morning in Heistand’s senior English class, students started the class period by writing about why they agreed or disagreed with various statements like, “People should trust their leaders to make decisions for them.” Heistand says she always gives students a chance to prewrite before sharing their answers verbally, so that those who are less comfortable with English have something to share.

After the writing exercise, students moved physically to different parts of the room based on their responses and shared their opinions with a partner. Heistand then called on representatives of each group to share out to the class. The warmup activity got students speaking in English with one another about topics relevant to their lives, another key element of the model.

Heistand then assigned students to groups she had carefully crafted to discuss passages from George Orwell’s novel, "Animal Farm." They read the passage out loud, discussed what it meant, and used textual evidence to support claims they made in response to prompts.

Since participation is fundamental to language practice, teachers often assign roles for group work so that everyone is integral to success. For the "Animal Farm" activity there was a “reader,” an “editor,” a “discussion leader” and a “question asker.” The reader is responsible for reading the text out loud; the editor helps make sure everyone knows what to write down; the discussion leader keeps the conversation moving and ensures everyone shares; and the question asker is the only one who can ask Heistand for help or clarification.

In one instance, a boy quickly grabbed the “reader” role at his table, but his tablemate told him in Spanish to let someone else try because he had read last time. The tablemate then turned to her group and repeated what she said in English, adding, “We need to practice reading, too.”

Heistand wasn’t surprised by this behavior. “They're actually used to holding each other accountable for the norms that we have in group discussions,” she said. These are seniors, so they’ve had three years of experience with group work, sharing roles and making sure everyone has the chance to contribute. And, the school has a uniquely supportive culture in part because everyone is learning English and supporting one another through that difficult process.

“Every single kid in that room is a language learner,” Kessler said. “And so if somebody is making a mistake with pronunciation or struggling with the word, everybody has been there.” Educators here try to foster students’ pride in their bilingualism and community around a shared experience of struggle. It’s a safe space where students don’t have to be shy about their accents. There’s also very little direct instruction, in part because it wouldn’t be accessible to many of the students.


The emphasis on collaborative group work and conversation with peers from different backgrounds can be hard for students at first. “I am from a place where I only have the same people and same religion,” said Amel, a senior originally from Yemen. “It was really hard for me to know different people. I couldn’t even understand why they think this way, and why they wear these clothes, and why they talk this language.” She also said that at first it was confusing to try to focus on English while being surrounded by other languages like Spanish and Chinese in class and in the halls.

Amel said she worried about accidentally offending her classmates because she didn’t know enough about other cultures to know when she was offending someone. She learned quickly to ask questions instead of making assumptions. Now she likes learning about her classmates’ cultures and perspectives -- it’s part of what keeps class interesting. And she thinks it will be an asset when she goes to college and meets people from diverse backgrounds.

The social process Amel described is actually a big part of the educational strategy at SFIHS. Educators are taking advantage of teens’ desire to flirt and socialize to help them learn the language. “They are social creatures. They want to talk; they want to learn; they're curious,” Kessler said. “If we create the most heterogeneous mix of kids that we possibly can and put them in situations where they are asked to speak English together, they learn English very quickly.”

Many students came from educational systems that did not value collaboration -- all school work was done individually and group work was considered cheating. “At first it’s very hard to collaborate with different kinds of people,” said another student, Alan, who is from China. “But after you get used to it you will feel amazing, like you are working with the whole international.” Alan admits he was shy about collaborating at first, but when his teachers told him teamwork was part of his grade he got over his reticence. Now he said he can see the benefits of both group work and individual work.

“You will be able to learn things by yourself very quick, but in teamwork you need to make sure that your teammate isn’t left out,” he said. “So in speed you might be getting a little bit slower, but in quality, teamwork is really much more higher because when you communicate with other people then you will understand different ideas, and you will also learn a deeper level of a certain topic.”

Both Amel and Alan are also taking a college-level class at Community College of San Francisco, part of a program most seniors do if they have enough credits. The idea is for students to get exposed to college-level work, but with a cohort of peers and the support of their high school teachers. In the college classes instructors speak more quickly and the reading load is more burdensome, but students seem to like getting a taste of what to expect from the college experience.

Kessler said the college program is part of the school’s mission to not just graduate students and help them apply to college, but to ensure that they get in and finish. She encourages students to go to colleges with other students from SFIHS so they can help one another. And, the school supports formal programming to follow up with graduates who are in college and may need a little extra support. It takes between four and seven years to really learn a language well, so it’s no surprise that even after high school students are still catching up to their peers who grew up speaking English.


“I think about the demands that they're going to have to face in college,” English teacher Heather Heistand said. “But again and again we come back to this idea that if we teach students how to learn and how to support each other in learning, they will have the skills to be successful once their language catches up with where their peers are from other schools.”

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