I was recently reading an article about the Chicago Teachers Union and how it is pushing class size as a contract issue. This led me to wonder about how class size affects the academic achievement of English learners (ELs). According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a small classroom on the early elementary level would be fewer than 20 students. As a former K–6 teacher of ELs, I would certainly guess that class size has a huge impact on ELs’ achievement in U.S. schools. I’m not referring to the size of the ESL classes (that would be a whole different blog) but that of the general education content class that our students are in most of the day with a classroom or content specialist.
To my surprise, although many research studies have been conducted on the impact of class size on student achievement at the elementary level, there is very little research specifically on the effect of class size on success of ELs in content area classes. NCTE reported that for minority and at-risk students at the elementary level, as well as those who struggle with English literacy, smaller classes enhance academic performance. (Blatchford, Goldstein, Martin, & Browne, 2002; Horning, 2007).
6 Arguments for Smaller Class Sizes
According to many studies that I reviewed, the 6 most important benefits of smaller class size according to teachers, are listed below.
1. Teachers spend more time to working with individual children when they have small classes.
Teachers in smaller classes can more easily follow student learning and differentiate instruction in response to their needs. Because scaffolding of instruction is considered key to the academic achievement of ELs, they would greatly benefit from smaller classes and more teacher attention.
2. The teachers’ role is more educative than managerial.
Teachers with large classes report spending much of their time with classroom management issues. They also reported that there were more discipline problems in larger classrooms.
3. Students in early elementary schools benefit most from smaller class sizes.
Positive effects of small class sizes are most evident in elementary school settings. Furthermore, students who are in small classes in early elementary grades will continue to benefit from this even if they are in larger classes in upper elementary and beyond (Chingos, 2013).
4. Student engagement and participation are higher in smaller size classes.
According to Chingos (2013), students participate more in smaller classes. Rather than listen passively during content area instruction, students are more likely to interact with the teacher and with each other. They speak with both the teacher and their classmates more often.
5. Teachers have more time to develop meaningful relationships with their students and their families.
If teachers have smaller classes, they have more time to get to know and support their students and to interact with their families. Getting to know the families of ELs can take a lot of time because teachers may need to set up interpreters and arrange to meet with families outside of the regular school hours.
6. Large class size adversely affected teacher job satisfaction and attrition.
Class size has an effect on the ability to retain effective teachers because those with large classes are more likely to seek other positions. Research indicates, however, that instead of rewarding effective teachers by decreasing their class size, administrators often increase the class sizes of the most effective teachers in order to ensure better student test scores (Barrett & Toma, 2013)
Why Is It Important to Advocate for Smaller Class Sizes for Your ELs?
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark case, Lau vs. Nichols, ruled that a school district in San Francisco had denied students of Chinese descent opportunities to participate in classes. The court decreed that the lack of supplemental language instruction in public school for students with limited English proficiency violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In other words, access to education cannot be just equal. It must be equitable. ELs need to have scaffolds and differentiated instruction in their classrooms. In my opinion, it’s much more likely to happen when a teacher has a smaller class size. What do you think?
Barrett, N., & Toma, E. F. (2013). Reward or punishment? Class size and teacher quality. Economics of Education Review 35, 41–52.
Blatchford, P., Goldstein, H., Martin, D., & Browne, W. (2002). A study of class size effects in English school reception year classes. British Educational Research Journal, 28(2), 169–185.
Chingos, M. M. (2013). Class size and student outcomes: Research and policy implications. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 32(2), 411–438.
Horning, A. (2007). The definitive article on class size. WPA: Writing Program Administration 31(1/2), 14–34.