Paired Learning: Strategies for Enhancing Social Competence in Dual Language Classrooms
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Emergent bilingual kindergartners Samuel and Efrain are engaged in an English-language math card game. Efrain chooses two cards (5 and 2) and counts the pictures on each card to determine the sum. He places his finger on each picture as he counts.
Efrain: Six. It’s six.
He looks at Samuel, who is shaking his head no.
Samuel: No, it’s . . .
Efrain: ¡No, no. Espérate! (No, no. Wait!)
Efrain pulls the cards closer and begins to recount. Samuel patiently waits for Efrain to recount the pictures, saying each number softly along with Efrain.
Samuel nods yes. Efrain grins from ear to ear. Samuel takes his turn to continue the game.
Effective early childhood teachers recognize the value of developing children’s social skills to promote cooperation and collaboration. They help children learn to share, take turns, and express caring for others. In this article, we (the two authors) demonstrate how teachers can guide children to develop the social competence shown in the opening vignette. We share strategies for structuring paired learning to promote cooperation and build children’s social competence. We present these ideas through multiple vignettes based on our observations of numerous Spanish-English dual language practitioners in preschool through first grade classrooms. Although we concentrate on dual language settings, any teacher can implement these strategies to facilitate young children’s social skill development.
With over 20 years in the early childhood field, each of us is engaged in three major roles: (1) we prepare preservice teachers within a university setting for culturally efficacious work; (2) we research teachers’ daily practice within bilingual (Spanish-English) early childhood settings; and (3) we offer professional development, including coaching, on dual language instruction for teachers in preschool and elementary classrooms across the country. The majority of the teachers we work with are in programs that have Spanish-dominant and English-dominant children side by side learning content in two languages with the goals of bilingualism, biliteracy, and biculturalism.
In these roles, we observe the variety of ways teachers in dual language classrooms organize their instruction to enhance children’s linguistic, academic, and social development. One crucial cooperative structure implemented in many classrooms is paired learning. Although an effective strategy, it can be challenging for children if teachers do not provide structure and guidance (Alanís 2018). Thus, our research has focused on the effective interactive strategies early childhood teachers use in dual language classrooms when pairing children for learning (Alanís 2011, 2013; Alanís & Arreguín-Anderson 2015).
When we share our research findings with educators through professional development, some frequently asked questions include:
- How can I get young children to learn with a partner if they don’t have the required social skills?
- How can I ask children to take turns if they are still learning to self-regulate their feelings and behaviors?
- How can I ask children to express their thoughts if they may not know how to put their thoughts into words?
Social competence and paired learning
Social competence includes the social, emotional, and cognitive knowledge and skills children need to be effective in their interactions with others (Rose-Krasnor & Denham 2009). It encompasses an array of behaviors, such as interpersonal skills, self-regulation, planning, organizing, and decision making. When children willingly support and assist one another, they engage in cooperative activity—and they demonstrate and boost their social competence.
Social competence includes the social, emotional, and cognitive knowledge and skills children need to be effective in their interactions with others.
To support children’s social learning, teachers should provide many opportunities for children to work and learn together. As a cooperative strategy, paired learning helps children become successful in their social interactions and is based on the following principles of sociocultural theory (Vygotsky 1978):
- Learning is social; to advance children’s knowledge, interaction with teachers and peers is important.
- Social development underlies all other areas of development (linguistic, cognitive, and emotional).
- Social interactions improve social competence.
Children develop social competence through
Because learning is a social process, pairs provide a structure for learning in an enjoyable, relaxed setting. Children’s social development is supported by more competent others (including peers and teachers) through interactions within a social context. Paired learning lends itself to social interaction in which partners provide assistance, guidance, and direction through scaffolding and social construction of knowledge (Mooney 2000; Burman 2009).
How can teachers help children develop social skills?
In previous work, we discussed how teachers intentionally partner children based on their strengths (Alanís & Arreguin-Anderson 2015; Alanís 2018). These strengths include their language capabilities, their conceptual understandings, and their personalities. Pairing children heterogeneously allows students to learn by observing or participating with a peer—the more knowledgeable other (Vygotsky 1978). Partners can provide support if children are matched with a peer who is just a little bit above their current level of understanding, or zone of proximal development.
Young children’s social development requires intentional modeling from a teacher and scaffolding.
Within these heterogeneous partnerships, children are responsible for each other’s learning. This presumes that each child has the capability to teach and learn and that each child has something important to contribute. It also sends a strong message of high expectations for young learners. How the teacher structures the task, however, can support or hinder children’s success (Alanís 2018).
Young children come to school with varying levels of cooperative skills. Some children are already capable of compromising, taking turns, and listening to a partner, while others are still developing these skills. Some children may be reluctant to talk because their expressive language is still developing. Thus, in the following sections we highlight the significance of providing explicit modeling, focusing on one skill at a time, and creating multiple opportunities for children to practice these new skills. We also remind teachers of the need to provide a variety of visual scaffolds for young children to “see” what is expected of them.
Provide explicit modeling
Teacher modeling shows children what they are to do and helps children work together more effectively (Alanís 2018). Teachers can model the behavior they want to establish by demonstrating a specific activity and related expectations. While visiting Mrs. Kelly’s bilingual kindergarten class, we observed as she assembled the children on the carpet and asked them to watch while she presented a new center activity: matching picture cards to words. She slowly took cards out of a baggie and placed them in front of her. She showed children how to complete the activity as she talked them through it:
“When you shuffle the cards, don’t do it very fast. Take it easy and go slowly,” Mrs. Kelly explains. Then, she asks Marco and Sandra to come show her and the rest of the class how they are supposed to play with the materials. Mrs. Kelly begins by asking, “Who is going to take out the materials?” Marco points to Sandra. “Good, Marco, you are letting your partner do it; but remember to take turns taking the materials out and putting them away.”
Next, Mrs. Kelly asks Marco to shuffle the cards. She invites Sandra to help him. As Sandra is shuffling, Marco says, “Take it easy, go slowly,” using the language and behavior Mrs. Kelly modeled.
As the rest of the children watched, Mrs. Kelly walked Marco and Sandra through the process of taking turns while playing the game. She focused on turn taking and language use:
Mrs. Kelly tells the two, “When you pick up a card, read it and ask your partner to find the matching picture. Try it, Marco. Pick a card and read the word on the card.” Marco picks a card and reads, “Elefante” (Elephant). Mrs. Kelly says, “Good. Now ask Sandra to find the matching picture.” Marco asks Sandra, “¿Dónde está?” (Where is it?), as he shows her the picture card.
Sandra searches through the cards until she finds the picture of an elephant. “What is it, Sandra?” Mrs. Kelly asks. Sandra replies, “An elephant.” “That’s right!” says Mrs. Kelly. “Place it next to Marco’s card.” Mrs. Kelly reminds the children to make sure their partner is correct, adding, “You can help, but let them try first.”
After Marco and Sandra modeled the game a couple of times for the whole class, Mrs. Kelly asked each pair of students to go to their tables while she distributed the game materials.
Taking the time to have a pair of students model for the class was a crucial step; it showed the children the expectations for language use and behavior during partner learning. It also allowed Mrs. Kelly to determine whether children understood the required behavior before she had them do the activity on their own (reducing the need for teacher mediation).
Some details to explain through modeling include the following:
- Who goes first?
- How do we share the materials?
- Do we share a pencil? Paper?
- What do we say to each other?
- When should we take turns?
- Where do we place the materials once we finish with the activity?
Focus on one skill at a time
Teachers can help children identify exactly what they need to do by planning a structured activity to practice a specific skill. We observed an excellent example in Mr. Sanchez’s bilingual first-grade classroom during an English language activity. Mr. Sanchez sat his students on the carpet in front of him and asked if they liked having someone read to them. The children responded with a resounding “Yes!” Then Mr. Sanchez introduced partner reading:
Mr. Sanchez explains, “Today you and your partner will read a book together by taking turns. Let me show you.” He asks Veronica to join him. “I’m going to read one page, and Veronica is going to read the next one.” He begins to read, using his finger to track the words. Then Mr. Sanchez says, “Okay, Veronica—now it’s your turn.” Veronica slowly reads the next page, with some help from Mr. Sanchez. Mr. Sanchez then continues to the next page. “That’s how we help each other and take turns,” he says. “Now, how are you going to take turns reading?”
Several students respond in unison, “I read one page and my partner reads one page.” Mr. Sanchez confirms their answer: “That’s correct. You have to take turns reading to each other. That way, both of you are learning new words as you take turns. Okay, I’ll give each pair a book and you and your partner can find a quiet place in the room to sit and read together.”
Taking turns and sharing are examples of behaviors children use regularly, if encouraged to do so. By pairing children to read a book together, teachers create opportunities for children to practice early reading behaviors in an informal manner that benefits both partners. These activities build specific social skills—in this case, turn taking—as they provide integrated learning opportunities for language and literacy.
Create opportunities for collaborative interaction
Play is the dominant form of social activity in early childhood classrooms. Play and social learning have a complex relationship, with new learning occurring in the context of play and then practiced during subsequent play (Kostelnik et al. 2018). During play, children engage in complex social interactions as they develop roles to enact in their play and decide the details of what to play.
Sociodramatic play is one of the most common forms of play found in early childhood classrooms. As children negotiate and take on different roles related to the theme, pretend play facilitates interpersonal skills and improves children’s creativity and cognitive development (Axelrod 2014). Because children learn more easily in situations that are familiar to them, teachers can create centers with props from familiar settings, such as a bakery, a restaurant, or a local supermarket (Salinas-Gonzalez, Arreguín-Anderson,
& Alanís 2017).
In Ms. Vogelpohl’s bilingual pre-K classroom, the dramatic play center has become a bakery. Ms. Vogelpohl has created scenes of winter and has infused scents of cinnamon to enhance children’s experiences in the dramatic play center. When children arrive at the center, they quickly organize their kitchen utensils and toppings for their gingerbread men. Karla, Mario, Diego, and Patricia engage in role-play. Mario takes on the role of baker, Patricia as the assistant, and Karla and Diego as customers.
Mario: Saca las bandejas para comenzar (Take out the pans to start).
Patricia reaches for a muffin tin and a cookie sheet and places them on the table, while Mario fixes his apron.
Karla: Yo quiero chocolate y marshmallows (I want chocolate and marshmallows).
Diego: ¡Yo también! (Me too!)
Patricia gathers the toppings and offers them to Karla.
The process of directing, requesting, and coordinating efforts led to organized play and created a shared goal of making gingerbread cookies. Although Patricia (a native Spanish speaker) said very little during the play scenario, she participated with and understood her English-speaking classmates. Within the bakery center, Ms. Vogelpohl encouraged and facilitated social interactions so that all of the children engaged in roles that were comfortable for their level of linguistic and social development (Alanís & Arreguín-Anderson 2015).
While dramatic play is an important means of creating opportunities for children to interact, teachers sometimes have specific topics that they would like children to discuss in order to build language, vocabulary, and social skills. To achieve these goals, teachers may create more structured, playful activities. Although there is no prescribed time or age at which to introduce structured interactions, teachers can closely observe children’s levels of comfort and mastery of skills (such as turn taking and maintaining eye contact) to gradually involve them in more complex interactions. For example, across the hall from Ms. Vogelpohl, Mrs. Lara used musical partners to combine music, movement, and discussion.
The strategy of musical partners begins with children dancing while music plays. When the music stops children high-five the person closest to them and discuss a question or topic the teacher has provided. When the music starts up again, the children thank each other and dance around until the music stops. The process starts over, with children each high-fiving a new partner. This gets the children used to engaging with different partners in an enjoyable and stress-free environment. Reminding children to say thank you also encourages mutual respect.
The musical partners strategy creates opportunities for movement and for children to talk with each other about topics that connect to their interests and experiences, all while addressing specific academic objectives. Topics that easily add relevance to any lesson include children’s families or pets, favorite colors or holidays, and places children have visited. As with all structured activities, gradual exposure to collaborative tasks ensures successful participation in these types of interactive endeavors.
Create visual scaffolds
Visual scaffolds provide critical support as children acquire new skills. A visual representation of a concept serves as a tool to access ideas that may be abstract or complex, thus facilitating comprehension. Visual scaffolds include words, drawings, pictures, diagrams, and objects. A successful strategy using visual scaffolds that we observed was the creation of an anchor chart that provided cues for what working with a partner should look and sound like. An anchor chart is a teaching element developed with students that provides gentle reminders of expectations and routines. Teachers create these visuals as a class activity, with children contributing their own ideas. Effective anchor charts are visually appealing, clearly focused, and effectively use text and images to illustrate the key concept.
When we visited Mrs. Aguilera’s kindergarten class, she engaged in a discussion with the children to create an anchor chart for being a good partner:
Mrs. Aguilera sits on the carpet with her class of 5-year-olds, who are dual language learners. She asks the children to tell her what they think working with a partner should look like. Children speak in the language they are most comfortable using as they give responses such as, “You should stay with your partner” and “Tienen que trabajar juntos” (You have to work together). As the children speak, Mrs. Aguilera writes their responses on chart paper—her anchor chart.
She also suggests that the children should look at their partners when they are talking to them and share materials. She then asks the children to think about what working with a partner should sound like.
The children’s initial response is, “Talking, you should be talking.” Mrs. Aguilera extends that idea: “Yes, you should be talking. But you should also be listening to what your partner is saying, right?” Children nod their heads in agreement.
To emphasize the listening component of the interactions, Mrs. Aguilera prompts them to think about an activity completed earlier in the day: “During math, I heard Charlie using his manners when he asked Izel for some more tiles. He said thank you when Izel gave him some tiles—remember, Charlie? So, what should it sound like when we are working with our partners?” Several children respond, “We should use our manners!”
Mrs. Aguilera continues prompting students. Eventually, the class agrees that working with a partner should sound like “saying nice things to your partner,” “saying please and thank you,” “saying excuse me,” and “listening.”
The creation of the anchor chart enabled Mrs. Aguilera to hear children’s ideas as they constructed their own understandings of paired learning. Mrs. Aguilera placed the chart in an accessible location so that students could use it as a visual reminder when needed.
Another effective strategy we have observed is the use of sentence frames. It is often difficult for young children to organize their ideas into words, especially if they are doing so in their second language. Providing developmentally appropriate and linguistically accessible sentence frames helps children engage in structured conversations.
Mrs. Vasquez’s group of emergent bilingual 4-year-olds is seated on the carpet as she reads a story about selling apples at the market. Mrs. Vasquez pauses to talk about the different types of apples in the story and indicates that her favorites are sour green apples.
She then asks the children to turn to their partners and ask them, “¿Qué tipos de manzanas te gustan?” (What types of apples do you like?) Children turn their bodies so they are facing their partners and initiate the exchange: “¿Qué tipos de manzanas te gustan?” Children can be heard saying, “A mí me gustan las verdes” (I like the green ones), “Rojas” (The red ones), and “¡Todas!” (All of them!)
In this situation, the sentence frame helped children with the skill of asking and responding to a question. Although several children responded with one-word answers, the turn-and-talk strategy gave them an opportunity to hear their partners ask the question and to listen to their classmates respond to it. The next time Mrs. Vasquez asks her students to turn and talk, she could also provide a sentence frame for the reply, such as, “A mí me gustan las manzanas _____” (I like the _____ apples). This enables children to practice the authentic use of new words and skills as they learn the reciprocal action of a conversation.
Teachers can post sentence frames on chart paper or on students’ desks so that children can refer to them when they need to. The following are some initial stems to get students started:
- What do you think will happen next? I think _______.
- Which story did you like? I liked _______.
- Who was your favorite character? My favorite character was _______.
- In my opinion, _______________. I agree with you/I disagree with you because_____________.
Young children’s social development requires intentional modeling from a teacher, opportunities to practice new skills, and scaffolding. When teachers structure paired learning effectively, it has the potential to develop language, content knowledge, and social skills (Arreguín-Anderson & Alanís 2017). A primary benefit for young children, however, is the power to develop competency in their social skills—a precursor to all other forms of learning (Riley & Jones 2010).
The teaching practices in these vignettes reflect language-rich classrooms where all children are encouraged to develop their social competence in comfortable and engaging settings. These social structures are important and valuable because all learners need opportunities to interact with each other as part of their learning experiences.
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Alanís, I. 2011. “Learning from Each Other: Bilingual Pairs in Dual-Language Classrooms.” Dimensions of Early Childhood 39 (1): 21–28.
Alanís, I. 2013. “Where’s Your Partner? Pairing Bilingual Learners in Preschool and Primary Grade Dual Language Classrooms.” Young Children 68 (1): 42–46.
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Arreguín-Anderson, M.G., & I. Alanís. 2017. “Oral Academic Language by Design: Bilingual Pre-service Teachers’ Purposeful Infusion of Paired Strategies during Science Instruction.” Journal of Classroom Interaction 52 (2): 31–44.
Axelrod, Y. 2014. “‘Todos Vamos a Jugar, Even the Teachers’—Everyone Playing Together.” Young Children 69 (2): 24–31.
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Salinas-Gonzalez, I., M.G. Arreguín-Anderson, & I. Alanís. 2017. “Supporting Language: Culturally Rich Dramatic Play.” Teaching Young Children 11 (2): 4–6.
Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Photographs: courtesy of the authors
Iliana Alanís, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She conducts research in dual language early childhood settings and provides professional development for dual language educators.
María G. Arreguín-Anderson, EdD, is an associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research focuses on dual language education and interactive learning in dyads.