Advantages of Cooperative Learning for ELL Students

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At all levels of learning, people in general are more productive when collaboration occurs among them. Learners gain opportunities to bounce ideas off one another and to implement everyone's background knowledge into one's own work. From colleagues to administrators, students to teachers, and students to students, everyone benefits from collaborative efforts to increase performance. Cooperative learning is an instructional model for teaching students how to learn together. "It uses heterogeneous groups as a tool for creating a more cooperative classroom in which students' achievement, self-esteem, responsibility, high-level thinking, and favorable attitudes toward school increase dramatically." (Bellanca, J. and Fogarty, R., 2002).

Cooperative learning is a strategy which encourages collaborative learning and is beneficial to everyone involved. "The best things and the best people rise out of their separateness; I'm against a homogenized society because I want the cream to rise." (Robert Frost). In other words, working together increases our ability to become more productive, lifelong learners. We all become the cream of the crop. Cooperative groups are designed to group heterogeneous levels of proficiency in the ELL classroom. Students at a higher level of proficiency are partnered with students at the middle and lower levels of proficiency and to be successful, they work together toward the same goal; each has his/her responsibility and not one single person does the work for the whole group. All learners are provided tools to become successful together.

Cooperative groups help everyone develop the social skills to interact with each other and their teachers in more positive ways. As teachers teach students the social skills of cooperative learning, they see student behavior improve and student time on task increase. Cooperative groups usually include from two to five students of different abilities, skills, motivation, gender, or racial origin who work together to achieve one learning goal.

Both informal and formal groups are good strategies to develop cognitive language skills. The informal cooperative grouping only requires the students to interact with each other to achieve a single goal. It is usually suggested that teachers begin with informal structures to sample and experience working together. Activities such as Think-Pair-Share, KWL, and Pair Review may be implemented at the very beginning of the school year so students and teachers gain a better understanding of how working together will increase performance. Cooperative learning takes time to develop and it is the wise teacher who begins with informal grouping. Teachers also can see how the new approach works and can gauge their own comfort level in managing the increased activity and noise in the classroom. These informal approaches initiate cognitive learning as students begin to realize that they each have the ability to think, explain a thought or idea, or assess what they have learned.

Formal cooperative grouping requires the use of specific tools, roles, guidelines, success criteria, and group assessment strategies which define how participants interact to achieve the common goal. After students are comfortable working in pairs, the teacher can upgrade the level of cooperative work and use formal task groups. These task groups maintain cooperative guidelines to ensure learning takes place and that all are focused on a group goal. Students work together gathering information, processing concepts, or making applications. Cooperative groups support several models of instruction and can be used with any content lesson.

For ELL students especially, "cooperative learning promotes language acquisition by providing comprehensible input in developmentally appropriate ways and in a supportive and motivating environment". (Kagan, 1995). Kagan's research indicates that students who were taught by cooperative methods learned and retained significantly more information than students being taught by other methods. When students verbalize their ideas in a small group setting it helps them develop more clear concepts. The thought process becomes fully embedded in the students' memories. Discussions within the groups lead to frequent summarization because the students are constantly explaining, elaborating, and summarizing which validates and strengthens each learner's thoughts. Students benefit from cooperative learning academically because there is more of a potential for success when students work in groups. Individuals tend to give up when they get stuck, whereas a group of students is more likely to find a way to keep going (Johnson & Johnson, 1990). Cooperative learning requires self-management on the part of the students because they must come prepared with completed assignments and they must understand the material.

Teachers need to convince all of their students three things: 1) That different intellectual abilities are required in cooperative learning, 2) that no one student has all of the abilities needed, and 3) that each member of the group will have some of the abilities (Cohen, 1998). Once students grasp the true meaning of being a strong member of a cooperative learning group, they will feel comfortable and valued enough to listen and share with their peers.

English Language Learners need "the maximum amount of time possible for comprehending and using the English language in a low-risk environment in order to approach the language proficiency of their peers." (Kagan, 1995). By implementing cooperative learning groups, teachers offer ELLs the opportunity to interact with other students who are at different levels of proficiency in English language skills. ELLs are not usually provided with content-area classes taught in their primary language so they often struggle with the difficult academic material. Cooperative learning groups allow them to work in teams with some of the other students who have already gained proficiency with the language. This group dynamic not only provides a supportive environment for learning new content and acquiring English language skills, but also helps to foster friendships and social development.

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