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Cooperative learning, according to Johnson (2001) is a teaching strategy in which students of different levels of ability, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of a team is responsible for learning what is taught and helping teammates learn. The cooperative learning environment creates an atmosphere of achievement. The students work through assignments until all group members successfully understand and complete the assignments. Cooperative learning strategies allow students to use both social speech and academic speech in a safe environment (Kagan, 1995).
"The Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) is an instructional model for second and foreign language learners based on cognitive theory and research" (Chamot & Robbins, 2005). The CALLA model teaches students through cooperative learning how to relate prior knowledge to new knowledge, and how to focus on content that will have the most academic use. The CALLA model develops language awareness and critical literacy, study skills, teamwork, and hands-on activities. In addition, the cooperative learning skills help develop motivation for academic learning, confidence in school, and evaluate student learning. The students learn declarative knowledge such as self-knowledge, world knowledge, task knowledge, and strategy knowledge through the cooperative learning. The students also learn procedural knowledge such as planning, monitoring, problem-solving, and evaluation skills.
English language learner students working in cooperative learning groups have the benefit of learning from other students. When teachers speak to the entire class, they cannot adjust their speech and vocabulary choices to be appropriate for every student. In the small groups the students can talk to each other using words that the all members can understand. The higher level students can explain the vocabulary so that everyone in the group can comprehend the vocabulary. The lower ability students will develop cognitive language skills by repeatedly hearing the use of academic vocabulary. The entire group will have the support of their peers to help explain challenging information. Bilingual students within a group can assist struggling students. Students with difficulties understanding an English-speaking teacher will also be able to receive definitions from their peers in their native language. Visuals, manipulatives, and explicit directions are also provided when working in cooperative groups (Kagan, 1995).
Language comprehension will not necessarily stimulate the next step in language acquisition if it is not in the zone of proximal development (Vygotsy, 1978). Cooperative small groups consist of students from a variety of different learning levels. The students working together on a project are there to scaffold each other. The teacher is also able to scaffold the small groups. Teachers can sit with a cooperative learning group to offer extra support. Cooperative learning teams allow students to work within their zone of proximal development with the support of their teacher and peers.
English language learner students need to receive repetitive information from a variety of sources. "Students become fluent if they have the opportunity to speak repeatedly on the same topic" (Kagan). According to Medindia (2010), humans retain 10% of what is read, 20% of what is heard, 30% of what is seen, 50% of what is seen and heard, 70% of what is discussed, and 90% of what is said and done (Medindia, 2010). The percentages show how the ability for a student to retain information changes as the student becomes more involved in the learning process. Cooperative learning uses discussion and hands-on activities. The students' learning nearly doubles when the children work cooperatively. "The cooperative group provides the arena for expressive, functional, personally relevant, representative language output that is critical for language acquisition" (Kagan).
According to Johnson, Johnson, and Stanne (2010),
Cooperative learning exists when students work together to accomplish shared learning goals. Each student can then achieve his or her learning goal if and only if the other group members achieve theirs. The widespread use of cooperative learning is due to multiple factors. Three of the most important are that cooperative learning is clearly based on theory, validated by research, and operational into clear procedures educators can use (Johnson, 2010).
The four modalities of language are reading, writing, listening, and speaking. In order for ELL students to learn to use English appropriately, ELL students need to be exposed to good models of reading, writing, listening, and speaking each day (OSPI). Cooperative learning lessons help students to develop language skills.
English language learner students are more successful when working in cooperative learning teams. Successful cooperative learning classrooms have planned and organized lessons. The teachers provide learning teams with a written objective of the lesson, either posted on the wall or within the group materials. The background knowledge of the majority of the students is implemented into the cooperative learning lesson. Lessons that require new background knowledge would have been introduced previously. Pre-teaching of important vocabulary would also be addressed. The cooperative learning team would have a vocabulary list with pictures, and written in the students native language if necessary (OSPI).
Cooperative learning can be viewed as meaningful interaction and structured opportunities for students to ask questions, share ideas, and brainstorm. "Pairs or small groupings allow them [students] a chance to speak in a safer setting, clarify concepts, and practice English at the same time" (OSPI). The more the students practice speaking, and communicating in English, the more confident they will become. The increased confidence through working in cooperative learning groups results in students developing their public speaking skills.
In an academic setting the students need to be taught academic language. A student is not fluent with just social language skills. "Therefore, students need to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) to deal with academic content" (Cummins, 1994, p.1). Students need cognitive academic language skills to understand teacher explanations. Academic language is necessary for discussing what is being learned, reading for academic purposes, and to write about learning (Rivera, Moughamian, & Francis, 2010). "Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) is effective in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms (Rivera, Moughamian, & Francis, 2010)." The students work collaboratively in small groups with assigned jobs. The teacher's duty is to assist and monitor group progress. The groups consist of five different jobs. The jobs are Leader, Chunk Expert, Gist Expert, Announcer, and the Encourager. According to Cazden (1998), peer interaction provides opportunities to use academic language in meaningful communication about academic content (Cazden, 1998).
A cooperative learning classroom environment should be learner-centered, reflective, supportive, focused, and enthusiastic. In a classroom with students from diverse backgrounds, varied language skills, and numerous strengths it is important to have cooperative learning. Cooperative learning creates an atmosphere of achievement. The students take ownership of their learning. The classroom becomes a community of learners (Kagan).