Cooperative Learning And The Benefits For English Learners

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There has been a paradigm shift taking place in education and specifically second language acquisition over the past forty years! Educators are viewing learning and teaching from a very different perspective than in previous decades, and this is largely due to a movement away from "the tenets of behaviorist psychology and structural linguistics and toward cognitive, and later, socio-cognitive psychology and more contextualized, meaning-based views of language." (Jacobs, 2001) Some important aspects of this paradigm shift include:

The role of learners themselves rather than the outer lecture or content has greater focus. Education has become more student-centered and less teacher-centered.

The process of learning is emphasized to a greater degree. Although both product and process are important, there is a shift toward looking at the process in an educational light.

Learning is a social activity, and takes place with higher quality when students are not viewed as "separate, decontextualized individuals."

Diversity of learners is now viewed as a resource rather than a hindrance to learning.

Valuing the views of the participants in the classroom in addition to the external views of people on the "outside." This has led to a greater understanding of the importance of emotions in the learning process.

Connections between the school and the world and the student and the world are made and are a "means of promoting holistic learning."

There is a greater "emphasis on the importance of meaning rather than drills and other forms of rote learning."

Learning is taught to be a lifelong process rather than something done to get "ready" for a test.

(Jacobs, 2001)

There are many changes in education that have taken place because of these paradigm shifts, and one of them is in the relatively new view of the benefits of collaborative learning in the classroom environment, to include the regular classroom, the mainstreamed classroom, and for enhancing instruction for second language learners.

One of the most important aspects of learning is a motivating classroom environment, and developing classroom groups that positively work together toward a common goal are becoming more a norm as educators recognize the value of group dynamics in the learning process. Robert Gardner's work in L2 motivation research suggests that there is a 'social psychological phase' of learning in the ELL student. "Because the learning of an L2 is influenced by a plethora of social factors, including attitudes, cultural stereotypes and geopolitical considerations, learning an L2 is a considerably distinct process from that of other school subjects." (Kubanyiova, 2006) Consider the historical proverbs of "many hands making light work" and the more current acronym of TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More). "The class group can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of learning." (Dornyei, 2003) As a matter of fact, in a "good" group, the L2 classroom can turn out to be such a pleasant and inspiring environment that the time spent there is a constant source of success and satisfaction for teachers and learners alike. And even if someone's commitment should flag, his or her peers are likely to 'pull' the person along by providing the necessary motivation to persist." (Dornyei, 2003) When implemented well, cooperative learning is a viable solution to many of the social and psychological factors that English Language Learners face in the regular classroom.

"Language is not 'soaked up.' The learner must understand the message that is conveyed. Comprehensible input is a hypothesis first proposed by Stephen Krashen. He purports that ELL's acquire language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current English language level." (Haynes, 2005) Although there are many ways to make input to second language students comprehensible, cooperative learning attends to many of the learning processes in second language acquisition in addition to the academic content students are responsible for learning. "When newcomers are assigned to a mainstream classroom and spend most of their day in this environment it is especially critical for them to receive comprehensible input from their teachers and classmates." (Haynes, 2005) The case for comprehensible input aside, there is also a need for comprehensible output. "According to research, learners need opportunities to practice language at their level of English language competency. This practice with English-speaking peers is called Comprehensible Output. Many researchers feel that comprehensible output is nearly as important as input." (Haynes, 2005) Teachers who create classroom environments that are collaborative and effectively implement cooperative learning strategies in lessons provide English language learners with many opportunities to receive comprehensible input as well as practice comprehensible output.

First, comprehensible input for students is greatly enhanced in a cooperative learning group because both the teacher and other students can adjust the message appropriately for the ELL student. In addition, the ELL student is hearing explanation and content from multiple sources, and this restatement of common content helps understanding. The speakers, too, can check on the ELL student's understanding more easily in a group setting. If the understanding is weak, other ways of communication are able to be tried "as peers help new learners of English negotiate meaning." (Haynes, 2005)

As well, comprehensible output is greatly enhanced as the affective filter is lowered in a small group. "There is more opportunity for oral practice and for repetition of content information" as English learners communicate with others in the group. The talk in a small group is regarding what is taking place in the moment as the task nears completion, and therefore the relevance of output (and input as well) is greater. In addition, "feedback and correction are nonjudgmental and immediate" as the group members communicate together. (Haynes, 2005) Cooperative learning allows for students to both hear and speak as they acquire language skills necessary to continue their learning academically and socially.

In addition to the academic factors of comprehensible input and output in the cognitive processes of language acquisition, there are other important implications for the second language learner in the classroom. Second language learners must become viable members of the social network of the classroom, and therefore "for cooperative learning to be successful in second language education, a number of issues must be addressed." (Jacobs, 2001) These issues are not only necessary for the student to function well socially, but will also enhance their academic interactions as well. The "teaching of collaborative skills, such as disagreeing politely, asking for help and giving examples and explanations" (Jacobs, 2001) is needed for all students working in cooperative groups, and this additional teaching of social interaction skills helps the second language student obtain higher levels of speaking and listening ability. "These skills are also vital language skills, skills that will serve students well in their future academic careers and in other aspects of their lives where they collaborate with others." (Jacobs, 2001)

The manner in which a teacher promotes collaboration and cooperation in the classroom "acts not just as a methodology for second language learning but also as a topic for learning and a value embraced in learning activities. Examples of cooperation as a topic for learning would be students writing compositions about the times that they or people whom they interview had collaborated with others, or focusing on some of the many examples in history or science that show collaboration in action." (Jacobs, 2001) Cooperation and cooperative learning therefore becomes so much more than a platform for language acquisition, but also enhances interactions with other people and underscores the importance of recognizing the value in all people.

The value and benefits of cooperative learning to second language learners are indisputable. Not only does cooperative learning address many if not most of the paradigm shifts that have taken place in education about how learning best occurs in students, but when implemented effectively, it creates instructional situations that increase the amount of comprehensible input and output that second language learners (and indeed all learners) must have to progress as quickly as possible. Learning becomes a motivating and successful experience in supportive group environments! "Holt (1993) has shown clearly that collaboration benefits language minority students cognitively and affectively. Students develop language in authentic social contexts as they help each other make sense of content and concepts." (Freeman, 2000) As students work together to read literature and texts, write responses or paraphrase, investigate questions, and present their findings to the class, they are active participants in the development of both their social and academic language!