Elevating Peer Learning to Foster Multilingual Learners’ Oral Language Development and Content Understanding

Picture walking into a classroom and observing a teacher is leading a whole class discussion where they ask a series of questions and several of the same students raise their hands to respond. Then, imagine walking into another classroom where the teacher is posing a thought-provoking prompt and students are discussing their ideas in small groups. What differences would you expect to see in terms of students’ engagement and opportunities for language use? As you may have imagined, the classroom where students are engaged in small group discussions would likely yield more language use and increase student interest. In this blog post, we explore the promise of peer learning, such as small group discussions, for multilingual learners (MLs).

Promise of Peer Learning for MLs

Peer learning is an excellent opportunity to foster MLs’ oral language development and content understanding, as well as build relationships with their peers. In fact, peer learning is so important to us that it has become one of our five core beliefs that we highlight in our second edition of Unlocking Multilingual Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible (Staehr Fenner et al., 2024).

"This core belief states that MLs thrive when their teachers include opportunities for peer learning and meaningful conversations during instruction."

While we have always understood peer learning to be a valuable support for MLs, the urgency for incorporating these practices into daily instruction has become even more pronounced.

Over the past several years we have had the opportunity to work with numerous educators with MLs in their classes and engage in student advisory group discussions with current and former MLs. In our work with some educators of MLs, one of our greatest take-aways is the missed opportunities for regular peer interactions. Yet in our discussions with MLs, students shared that they value opportunities to talk with their classmates about what they are learning because they generally feel more comfortable speaking in small groups with their peers than speaking in front of the whole class.

Grouping to Support Engagement and Participation

In our work with educators of MLs, we are often asked the best way to group MLs to support engagement and participation. To ensure that MLs can participate in and are benefiting from peer learning, students need sufficient structure and guidance. Being intentional about how you group students is one way to support their participation. For example, you could group MLs with the same home language to work together, bringing in home language support that you personally may not be able to provide. Alternatively, you may create mixed language proficiency groups in which some students are providing additional support to others or modeling language.

It is important that your groupings align to your learning objectives and the strengths and needs of your students. To support you with intentional grouping of MLs, we have developed considerations and corresponding grouping suggestions.

Considerations in Intentionally Grouping Students

Consideration: Do I want to …

Possible Grouping

Use this small group time to support MLs in negotiating meaning and building academic language through interactions with English proficient peers?

Heterogenous grouping of MLs with mixed English language proficiency levels and English proficient students.

Use students’ strengths as a way to support group roles?

Heterogenous grouping based on individual students’ strengths to support such group roles as leader, scribe, and reporter.

Provide students with differentiated materials or differentiated learning tasks?

Homogenous grouping based on language proficiency levels, academic skills, and/or home languages – each group of students will get a different set of materials based on their strengths and needs.

Use this small group time to work with a small group of students on specific content or language skills?

Homogenous grouping based on language proficiency levels and/or academic skills.

Provide an opportunity for translanguaging or home language support for MLs?

Homogenous grouping based on home languages.

Consider students’ background knowledge, interests, personalities, or other factors that may impact group work?

All types of groupings.

By planning for intentional student grouping during peer learning, teachers create learning opportunities that foster MLs’ language development and their understanding of content and help them build relationships with each other. Which strategies have you found especially helpful for implementing peer learning with MLs? We would love to hear from you!

About SupportEd 
SupportEd is a woman-owned business based in Fairfax, Virginia providing Multilingual Learner (ML) professional developmentpersonalized coachingtechnical assistance, and resources for educators across the United States and Canada. Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd builds authentic partner relationships and meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit all partner’s strengths and goals. SupportEd equips teachers and administrators with the practical tools and strategies necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.

Note: This article first appeared in Corwin Connect written by SupportEd ML Coach, Meghan Gregoire-Smith, MA.

Meghan Gregoire-Smith

Comments (2)

  • Jane Govoni

    November 3, 2023 - 9:36 am

    A wonderful article especially for beginning teachers to have a checklist or reference list on how to group students. Just a little advice/support goes a long way for beginning teachers who are still exploring how to best group students to meet their language, learning, and often times exceptional education needs.
    A great article for all educators to keep in mind the need to group appropriately!

    • Meghan Gregoire-Smith

      November 6, 2023 - 9:20 am

      Thank you, Jane! The use of instructional groupings can be such a powerful strategy, especially for multilingual learners. I am so glad you found the article and tool helpful.

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