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The importance of cooperative learning cannot be overlooked for the academic success of English Language Learners (ELL). Vogt and Echevarria (2008), Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2004), Dornyei (1997), and Oxford (1997) agree that when students are given the opportunity to work cooperatively, gains in achievement are attained. In addition to academic achievement, students also benefit in numerous supplementary ways. Cooperative learning groups promote exposure to richer content, more positive teacher and student interactions, and the development of student language skills. In additional, studies have shown that cooperative learning increases student motivation, improves student attitudes about school, and increases student self-esteem. Cooperative learning may also aid in lowering anxiety and prejudice among students and their peers, since students are not singled out as being a part of a lower or higher achieving group (Oxford, 1997). Many researchers concur, that while flexibility in groupings is necessary, cooperative learning is fundamental in the achievement of ELL (Echevarria et al., 2004; Oxford, 1997).
While research shows the benefits of using cooperative learning, studies have also shown the negative impact of exclusively utilizing homogeneous groupings. Research by Hiebert has shown that when students are consistently placed in homogeneous groups they suffer academically (as cited in Echevarria et al., 2004). Echevarria et al. (2004) explained that when students are placed in groups with other low achieving students teachers often talk more and use lower level questioning. Thus, homogeneous groupings provide students with less time for oral language support and practice. In addition, Echevarria et al. (2004) found that teachers cover less material, but spend more time reviewing skills and drilling students. Furthermore, students tend to have fewer opportunities to demonstrate independent and leadership roles (Echevarria et al., 2004). Interestingly, teachers using homogenous groupings are also more inclined to teach less vocabulary, allow students less wait time to answer questions, and encourage oral reading rather than silent reading (Echevarria et al., 2004). Vocabulary development, increased wait time, and opportunities to read are seen as vital for the achievement of ELL (Echevarria et al., 2004). Research has also shown that students in homogeneous groups often end up, not only being segregated by their abilities, but by their socioeconomic status and ethnicity (Echevarria et al., 2004). According to Hiebert, this often results in negative social implications for ELL and can even inhibit their academic growth (as cited in Echevarria et al., 2004).
Cooperative learning groups are widely used in many subject areas. Math, social studies, science, and reading are among the subjects commonly taught utilizing cooperative learning groupings (Oxford, 1997). According to Dornyei (1997) classrooms where cooperative groupings are used often have some common characteristics. First, students spend an extensive amount of time during the school day working together in groups. Rather than teacher focused learning, where teachers talk more and students listen, students are actively engaged in the learning process (Dornyei, 1997). Second, group time is structured so that all group members are involved and motivated to help each other (Dornyei, 1997). Lastly, in cooperative learning the role of an individual is down played as students work together toward a common goal (Dornyei, 1997). Unlike classrooms where individual achievement is most important and students are encouraged to compete against each other, thus, only the best and brightest students are rewarded (Dornyei, 1997). This often creates an element of rivalry within a classroom, which can negatively interfere with the education of some students. In cooperative learning students are rewarded as a whole group and therefore encourage one anotherââ‚¬â„¢s success and understanding (Dornyei, 1997).
Echevarria et al. (2004) encourages the use of flexible groupings to promote academic achievement for students. The importance of working with partners, groups of three, small groups of four or five, and other various cooperative learning groups are a benefit to students (Echevarria et al., 2004). Furthermore, it is recommended that teachers use at least two different groupings during a lesson to help ensure the matching of studentsââ‚¬â„¢ learning needs. Groups can be developed by combing students with similar student interests, gender, or they can be completely heterogeneous (Echevarria et al., 2004). This enables students to work with and build relationships with varying individuals and groups of classmates (Echevarria et al., 2004). Varying student clusters can also help maintain student interest and focus during classroom lessons. According to Hiebert, varying groups also ensures students will not always be grouped by academic ability level or language proficiency, which has been linked to poor academic performance (as cited in Echevarria et al., 2004).
Benefits of Cooperative Learning
Cooperative learning can have a positive influence on student self-esteem. Oxford (1997) and Dornyei (1997) encourage assigning roles to students within a group to enhance their feelings of positive self as all students receive a specific responsibility within the team. These roles can include gatekeeper, encourager, recorder, explainer, among others (Oxford, 1997; Dornyei, 1997). Because students depend on one another, thus become interdependent on the members of their team, everyone must contribute. Students ultimately feel as though they are part of a group and that they belong, this strengthens relationships among students (Oxford, 1997). Dornyei (1997) warns that simply placing students in a group together does not mean they will function successfully together. Social skills often need to be taught so that the cooperative learning experience is a successful practice (Dornyei, 1997). Although, group cohesiveness frequently increases over time as students spend time together, interact with one another, and share personal information with each other (Dornyei, 1997). There are many team building activities that work to build trust among students. These activities also teach learners how to offer support to each other as they work through conflict and can help cooperative learning groups thrive (Dornyei, 1997).
Increased student motivation is another benefit of cooperative learning. Oxford (1997) referred to the increase of student intrinsic motivation as an advantage of cooperative learning groups. Dornyei (1997) suggested that students prefer cooperative learning to individual and competitive learning experiences and this experience naturally encourages student motivation. As mentioned previously, the connection between group cohesiveness and motivation is strong. Students feel a sense of responsibility to their group and are intrinsically motivated (Dornyei, 1997). Working together makes learning more enjoyable and student motivation is increased. This also can lead to improvement in student attitudes about school (Dornyei, 1997; Oxford, 1997).
Cooperative learning also exposes students to richer academic content. As shared prior, when students are placed in homogenous groups with other low achieving students teachers often talk more and use lower level questioning (Echevarria et al., 2004). It has also be found that teachers cover less material, but spend more time reviewing skills and drilling students. Teachers using homogenous groupings are also more inclined to teach less vocabulary (Echevarria et al., 2004). However, when teachers incorporate cooperative learning groups, ELL have the opportunity to collaborate with peers and are exposed to new ideas. In addition, collaboration offers ELL an increased opportunity to practice new ideas surrounded by their peers enabling them to receive assistance from their classmates (Echevarria et al., 2004).
Cooperative learning may also aid in lowering anxiety and prejudice among students and their peers, since students are not singled out as being a part of a lower or higher achieving group (Oxford, 1997). The negative impact of only utilizing homogenous groupings within a classroom is noted above.
Cooperative Learning and Cognitive Language Skills
Vogt and Echevarria (2008) support the importance of cooperative learning. Using the Sheltered Instruction model, students interact with each other through student groupings to support both content and language objectives. In this model, teachers talk less and encourage students to share and communicate with each other (Vogt & Echevarria, 2008). In fact, Goodlad found that teachers talk 75% of the time in non-cooperative grouping lessons (as cited in Oxford, 1997). The work of Vogt and Echevarria (2008) support the early research of Oxford (1997). The connection between cooperative learning groups and student interaction is of great importance (Oxford, 1997). As students interact with their peers, academic improvements are gained and that learning can further promote interaction between students (Vogt & Echevarria, 2008; Oxford, 1997). With increased interaction between students, growth in language skills is regularly achieved (Vogt & Echevarria, 2008).
Oxford (1997) separates the interpersonal communication that occurs in cooperative learning groups into two areas. The first area is the type of language task that is required and achieved (Oxford, 1997). The next area Oxford (1997) introduced involves the learnersââ‚¬â„¢ willingness to communicate with one other. Cooperative language tasks like role play, dramatizations, and games provide students with extensive opportunities to practice authentic language interactions (Oxford, 1997). Because these types of activities provide students with opportunities to practice real life situations, student language growth occurs. This also gives students an environment where it is ok to make mistakes and they become more willing to communicate with each other (Oxford, 1997). Thus, cooperative learning groups enable ELL to enhance their interpersonal communication and cognitive language skills (Oxford, 1997).
Cooperative learning offers abundant opportunities for English Language Learners. Student growth can be seen in an array of ways. Vogt and Echevarria (2008), Echevarria et al. (2004), Dornyei (1997), and Oxford (1997) praise the cooperative learning experience as a benefit for ELL. Growth can be seen in student academic achievement. In addition to academic achievement, cooperative learning groups increase student interactions, and enable the development of student language skills that may otherwise be missed in whole group teacher directed lessons (Vogt & Echevarria, 2008; Oxford, 1997). Many researchers concur that when students work in cooperative settings their motivation improves, as do student attitudes about school, and their overall self-esteem (Oxford, 1997; Dornyei, 1997). Cooperative learning is fundamental in the achievement of ELL (Echevarria et al., 2004; Oxford, 1997).