Best Practice for ELLs: Peer-Assisted Learning

By: U.S. Department of Education
Teachers of English learners should devote approximately 90 minutes a week to instructional activities in which pairs of students at different ability levels or proficiencies work together on academic tasks in a structured fashion.

One way to create effective literacy instruction for English learners in the elementary grades is to schedule regular peer assisted learning opportunities.

Ensure that teachers of English learners devote approximately 90 minutes a week to instructional activities in which pairs of students at different ability levels or different English language proficiencies work together on academic tasks in a structured fashion. These activities should practice and extend material already taught.1

Level of evidence: strong

This recommendation is based on several high-quality experiments and quasi experiments with English learners. In addition, many peer-assisted studies also have been conducted with native-English-speaking students, and the results have consistently supported the positive impact of peer tutoring on student learning outcomes.

Brief summary of evidence to support this recommendation

Three high-quality experiments and quasi experiments have evaluated the effectiveness of English learners working in pairs in a structured fashion several times a week.2 These studies spanned virtually all of the elementary grade levels. All these studies demonstrated positive impacts on reading achievement for students at various ability levels. Two additional studies provide evidence of the positive impact of student activities in cooperative groups of four to six students.3 Although less evidence supports cooperative groups than pairs of students working together, the guidance here is relevant for districts wanting to implement some type of cooperative learning structure in their schools.

Of the five studies, two were reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse and rated as providing potentially positive effects on reading achievement.4 One of the two met the Clearinghouse evidence standards5 and the other met the standards with reservations.6

Partner work is an opportunity for students to practice and extend what the teacher has taught during regular instruction. Partner work is excellent for tasks in which correct and incorrect responses can be clearly determined (word and text reading and phonological awareness activities, such as identifying sounds in words).

However, evidence also demonstrates that partner activities can build skills for tasks in which correct and incorrect responses are harder to determine, such as reading comprehension and other tasks that require student explanations. In three of the five studies, students worked in pairs to practice, consolidate, and extend prereading, decoding, comprehension, and spelling skills. In each of the studies student pairs, with different abilities in either reading or English language proficiency, were provided with clear instructional activities and taught procedures for working effectively with peers. Teachers used guides that included prompt cards and activities for students.

How to carry out the recommendation

  1. Develop plans that encourage teachers to schedule about 90 minutes a week with activities in reading and language arts that entail students working in structured pair activities.

Kindergarteners can learn peer-assisted learning techniques if the routines are reasonably simple and taught in an explicit fashion.7 Older elementary students can learn fairly sophisticated strategies for providing peers with feedback on comprehension and vocabulary. Students can also assist each other in learning or clarifying the meanings of words in English.8

The Panel recommends that the focus of the pair activities be tied to areas that emerge as key targets from a district's evaluation data. These could include oral reading fluency, vocabulary development, syntax, and comprehension strategies.

Districts should provide professional development for teachers setting up peer-assistance learning systems. Professional development should be scheduled during the early part of the school year, so that teachers can practice immediately with their own students. Training need not be lengthy and could be provided by reading coaches. Coaches should also observe teachers as they get started and help teachers during the difficult early phases.

  1. Also consider the use of partnering for English language development instruction.9

The Panel members know that there was no experimental research on this topic, but we still consider this to be a promising practice, based on the documented success of peer-assisted learning in other areas of language arts. During the part of the day reserved for English language development, for example, peers would work together on reading connected text to each other and then discussing the text in a structured way. Students could read short passages of text and then practice summarizing the text for a few minutes, using specific summarization strategies. Or, after reading the text, they could answer questions, generate "gist" statements, or use another comprehension procedure, such as "prediction relay," thinking ahead in the text and predicting what might happen based on the story content to that point.

Possible roadblocks and solutions

  1. Some teachers may feel that the added time required by English learners may take instructional time away from other students.

A benefit of peer-assisted instruction is that all students can participate. So, teachers do not have to plan additional activities for separate groups of students in the class. This partner work gives teachers a way to structure learning opportunities that address some of the unique learning needs of English learners. It also gives them a way to address the learning needs of other students in the class. Students who have learning disabilities or who are low performers, as well as average and above-average students, will benefit from working with a partner in a structured way if the activities are organized and carried out appropriately.

Peer-assisted learning is not, however, a substitute for teacher-led instruction. It is an evidence-based approach intended to replace some of the independent seatwork or round-robin reading that students do, for example, when the intention is to provide practice and extended learning opportunities for students.

  1. Teachers may be concerned about the time it takes to teach students the routines.

Once students have learned peer-assisted instructional routines, such as how to respond to errors, the format can be used in a number of different content areas across grade levels. The use of peer-assisted instruction across grade levels provides a consistent and familiar structure for practicing specific content.

  1. Teachers may be concerned that this takes time away from instruction.

Most teachers replace some of the independent seatwork or round-robin reading with peer-assisted learning. Again, peer-assisted learning is not a substitute for instruction. It is an opportunity for English learners to practice and work with skills and concepts they are learning. It allows students to receive feedback as they practice.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Calderón, M., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., & Slavin, R. (1998). Effects of bilingual cooperative integrated reading and composition on students transitioning from Spanish to English reading. Elementary School Journal, 99, 153-165.

Calhoon, M. B., Al Otaiba, S., Cihak, D., King, A., & Avalos, A. C. (2006). Effects of a peer-mediated program on reading skill acquisition for two-way bilingual first grade classrooms. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Klingner, J. K., & Vaughn, S. (1996). Reciprocal teaching of reading comprehension strategies for students with learning disabilities who use English as a second language. Elementary School Journal, 96, 275-293.

McMaster, K. L., Kung, H., Han, I., & Cao, M. (in press). Peer-assisted learning strategies: A "tier 1" approach to promoting responsiveness to beginning reading instruction for English learners. Exceptional Children.

Saenz, L. M., Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (2005). Peer-assisted learning strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 71, 231-247.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

1. 90 minutes is the median amount of time per week in the research.

2. Calhoon, Al Otaiba, Cihak, King, & Avalos (2006); McMaster et al. (in press); Saenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs (2005).

3. Calderón et al. (1998); Klingner & Vaughn (1996).

4. Calderón et al. (1998); Saenz et al. (2005).

5. Saenz et al. (2005).

6. Calderón et al. (1998).

7. McMaster et al. (in press).

8. Calderón et al. (1998).

9. Klingner & Vaughn (1996).

Gersten, R., Baker, S.K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades: A Practice Guide (NCEE 2007-4011). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from


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