Grouping Structures & Techniques for ESL Students

Instructor: Lesley King

Lesley has taught ESOL for many years, holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, and a doctorate degree in Instructional Leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn different ways to set up groups of English as a Second Language (ESL) students in the classroom. You will also discover which types of groups are best for different purposes.

Importance of ESL Grouping

As a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) students, you know that they have a wide range of needs. One way to help meet their needs is to use grouping that suits both the instructional objectives and ESL students' specific needs.

When teaching a new language, you can facilitate learning by instructional strategies, proper planning and effective grouping. ESL students must be grouped in a way that allows them to use the English language in various ways. Effective grouping maximizes students' potential for learning and retaining information.

Which Size Group?

Depending on the instructional objective and your students' specific needs, you may choose different size groups. Let's look at the range of group sizes and which size is best suited to different purposes.

Whole Group

The traditional classroom group size is the whole group, when students are participating as a whole class to gain and share information. Use the whole group approach to give directions, introduce new information or review something that was covered with students previously. For example, the whole group can work on the opening or the closing of a lesson. This helps ESL students' confidence because they are doing what everyone else in the class is doing.

Small Groups

Small groups are groups that range from three to five students. You may use small groups when differentiating instruction in the classroom, e.g., working on a task or project. You can manage small groups by assigning roles to group members. Giving the group members a job to do is a way to keep them on task throughout the lesson. Some roles that can be given within groups are:

  • Group leader
  • Reader/speaker
  • Writer/scribe
  • Presenter

Because ESL students need practice speaking, listening, reading and writing in English, performing these different roles will give them a chance to practice using the language in different ways.



With partner learning, students work in groups of two on assignments. Working in pairs will help your ESL students gain practice speaking English. This is particularly helpful for students who are in the silent period, when the English learner is still very shy about speaking the language and may remain quiet in groups. When working with one other person, a student in the silent period can gain confidence. The shy ESL student will have a chance to hear and speak the targeted language when working with a partner.

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