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This paper will define cooperative learning and discuss research done on the benefits of using cooperative learning strategies in the classroom. It will specifically address how cooperative learning is beneficial to the English Language Learner (ELL). It will also look at research that has been conducted on academic language acquisition for ELL students, and this paper will give examples of the specific cooperative learning strategies that are effective for this application.
The definition of cooperative learning is described by Johnson, as a group of students working together to "attain group goals that cannot be obtained by working alone or competitively" ( Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1996). The main purpose of cooperative learning is to have students that are active participants in their learning. It allows for greater involvement, accountability and a sense empowerment of the students.
Kagan describes cooperative learning as a methodology that uses a variety of activities to improve student's understanding of a subject that uses a structured approach to learning that requires students to create, analyze and apply concepts that have been learned (Kagan, 1990). The way that cooperative learning differs from group work is that in cooperative learning activities each student has an accountability to the work that is being done. It combines teamwork with individual accountability where in the case of simple group work there is not an element of individual accountability. Cooperative learning allows students work together in such a way that makes sure they all have an understanding of the concepts and can use their own strengths to improve the teams outcomes. This process has resulted in a better understanding of materials presented and allowing for better retention of the material (Palmer, Peters, & Streetman, 2006).
Benefits of Cooperative Learning for Ell Students
Research has shown many benefits of cooperative learning methodology for all students. It can be especially helpful within a diverse classroom where there are different levels of English proficiency. Ted Panitz lists over 50 benefits of cooperative learning (Panitz,1996). The 50 benefits can all be attributed to four main categories in student development. There are social, psychological, academic and assessment benefits for the students.
Socially the students gain benefit from the promotion of social interactions with other students. The students develop increased oral communication skills when they need to explain and reason their ideas and conclusions within the group and even later presentation to the class. This also provides a social support group for students. If the groupings are created thoughtfully, an instructor can even create a source of L-1 language support for a less proficient English speaker in the group.
There are psychological benefits from cooperative learning. Johnson and Johnson claim, "cooperative learning experiences promote more positive attitudes" than other teaching methods (Johnson, & Johnson, 1989). The chance to discuss and present ideas within a smaller group allow for student's confidence to grow, and feel secure in the answers they have to share. For students that are less proficient in English, it gives them good language models and practice as they work closely with their peers.
The academic and assessment benefits in cooperative learning show that the students were found to have learned more and retained significantly more information when they learned in a cooperative teaching environment then when other methods were used to teach information. Assessment can be more immediate and ongoing in cooperative learning as students as the effectiveness of the lesson can be observed as the groups meet.
Academic Language Acquisition
Spenser Krashan states, " language acquisition is determined by a complex interaction of a number of critical input, output and context variables". In examining these variables it was found that cooperative learning has a positive impact to all the variables critical to language acquisition (Krashan, 1982). Input needs to be comprehensible, developmentally appropriate, redundant and accurate.
The comprehension of what is being discussed is helped when students work in cooperative groups since the students need to find ways to make themselves understood. The students adjust their input to the group so comprehension of what is being said can take place. This is more easily accomplished within a small group then if a teacher is speaking to a whole class. Input in a small, cooperative group setting is also more comprehensible because it is combined with concrete behaviors or manipulatives. The input needs to be developmentally appropriate to stimulate the next stage of language acquisition. The nature of a cooperative group focuses on the proximal level and this is where the student can, with collaboration move on to the next stage of language development. If working alone even if the students comprehends the input, they will not be able to move to the next stage without the collaboration. The redundant portion in a cooperative group learning environment is explained as, redundancy being a natural source of communication. Input is repeated and rephrased and this gives the ELL student the necessary repetition to help ensure retention. Students also become fluent what they have multiple opportunities to speak and practice the same topic. There are specific cooperative learning activities that work well for this kind of practice. Some examples of effective cooperative learning activities are Three Pair Share, Inside/Out Circle and these are designed to specifically provide this important redundancy to students. The input needs to be accurate, grammatically correct, proper word choice and pronunciation are necessary for language acquisition. This is the one area where cooperative learning groups may not be as successful as a teacher presented more traditionally. (Kagan, 1982).
It is clear in the research that cooperative learning activities are beneficial to all students, providing self-esteem, team building, learning how to encourage and praise others and leadership skills. Accountability which is so important in student engagement is also a function of cooperative learning activities. For ELL students in our classroom cooperative learning offers all this and more. It is a way or students to learn in a safe and nurturing environment, where they can trust their team members and learn to be more confident in their skills. With thoughtful grouping small groups can be formed with different levels of abilities, learning styles and English proficiency. Cooperative learning provides and easier way for teachers to bring in differentiated instruction and hands on activities. For language acquisition, cooperative learning provides repeated practice for both listening and speaking for Ell students, within a smaller group where they may feel more comfortable. There is a multitude of research and guidance out for teachers to gain information on how to successfully create cooperative learning groups and run them in the classroom. Cooperative learning is flexible with time and choice of strategies, which is important in the demanding instructional schedule teachers now must adhere too.