7. How does putting students in bilingual pairs (one native speaker and one second language learner) provide opportunities for language development for both students?

In paired interactions, students may be grouped together in one of two ways. They may be  grouped in homogeneous pairs in which two students of the same language background and approximate proficiency level work together. Or they may be grouped in heterogeneous pairs in which one student is a native speaker of the language and the other, a second language learner.

There are advantages to each arrangement, and the teacher’s purpose determines which one to choose. In the homogeneous pairs, students receive social support for language learning in a low-risk environment established because the children perform at comparable levels of language proficiency. However, the main reason to mix students from two language backgrounds in TWI programs is so that they can serve as language models and supports for one another. The practice of putting students in bilingual pairs reinforces a native speaker’s knowledge of the language and gives him or her a heightened status in the classroom. For the non-native speaker, the bilingual pairing is an opportunity to practice the language in a more relaxed setting than in front of the entire class.

Whichever pairing is used, a specific task structure must be created to ensure that students will use the language of instruction and provide helpful feedback to one another. Task structures in cooperative learning activities ensure active participation and specific roles for both learners. Dyads (pairs) are the ideal group size for cooperative language learning because they ensure opportunities for more or less simultaneous participation, as opposed to the sequential participation that typically occurs in whole group instruction. Dyads also maximize practice opportunities. In pairs, students participate at least 50% of the time if the activities are well constructed, whereas in whole class instruction an individual spends most of the time waiting for a turn to speak.

Here are some other issues to consider when pairing native and non-native speakers:

  • Working with a native speaker can be intimidating rather than facilitating, resulting in less talk between the students. It is important to establish a climate of respect and support in the classroom and in the cooperative activities in particular.
  • If native speakers do not have the needed academic content knowledge or academic language skills, their role as models may be limited and may in fact cause stress and a sense of failure. Teachers must ensure that native speakers can assume the role they’re intended to play.
  • Most requests for help between students are at the word level (“How do you say _____ in Spanish/English?”). If teachers want students to provide a scaffold for larger stretches of text, they should structure tasks that require collaboration around larger chunks of text.