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This article describes the benefits of cooperative learning for English Language Learners (ELLs). Cooperative learning is an instructional model that fosters the school achievement of students who are learning through the medium of a second language.
Cooperative Learning and ELLs
One of the first and most important tasks an ELL must undertake is to know school routines and expectations. Unless this understanding is reached, it will be difficult for the student to focus his/her energy on learning English, content, and skills. An important concept in the field of second language acquisition is "affective filter," which highlights the emotional component of second language learning and states that learning may be blocked when students are in a highly anxious environment (Jimenez, 2010). In addition to developing literacy skills and attitudes, teachers must take time to intentionally promote a sense of belonging to the school for the ELL student. One such intentional practice that benefits ELLs is the proper usage of cooperative learning.
According to Noyes (2010), cooperative learning is a successful teaching strategy in which small teams, each with students of different levels of ability, participate in a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. This method works to reinforce a student's own learning as well as the learning of his or her fellow group members. David Johnson and Roger Johnson (1999), recognized leaders in the field of cooperative learning, state that there are five defining elements of cooperative learning: positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing. Noyes (2010) synthesizes this research with the acronym "A.P.L.E": Accountability, positive interdependence, learning objective, and equal participation.
There are a multitude of benefits for including cooperative learning in the ELL classroom. It fosters high learning expectations for ELLs, who have traditionally been provided with instruction focusing on low-level skills. Cooperative learning allows ELLs to build upon their prior knowledge and provides for diverse ways of solving problems (Noyes, 2010). It focuses more on how ELLs think and what they understand rather than on whether or not they have the one right answer. Thus, allowing for a variety of learning styles and offering multiple pathways and connections to academic success (Jimenez, 2010).
ELLs must have access to challenging curricula and the focus of instruction should be on their long-term success. ELLs may experience academic difficulties due to their limited English proficiency or lack of content understanding due to limited formal schooling; nevertheless, ways in which teachers can help ELLs make reasonable progress toward high standards must be explored and pursued. In the Johnsons's book, Learning Together and Alone, the authors suggest a ratio to provide a proper balance in the classroom: cooperative goal structures should dominate 60-70% of instructional time, individual goal structure 20% of time, and competitive 10-20% of remaining time. Interestingly, the cooperative structure should be used most, but in actuality it has been used the least during the past twenty years. Knowing how and when to use each type of goal structure is one of the most important aspects of teaching according to the Johnsons and many other leading educational researchers in the area of cooperative learning.
Teachers must know how instruction can be modified or differentiated to ensure that all students have the potential to reach or exceed the expected learning outcomes of the unit. ELLs may not have the confidence or facility in English to ask for help or clarification. They may also come from cultures where it is inappropriate to directly ask a teacher for help (Jimenez, 2010).
The teacher must identify the cognitive and language demands of the unit, as well as its cultural relevancy to the students when planning. The diversity among ELLs is great; they differ according to prior educational experiences, exposure to English, length of time in the U.S., learning styles, family literacy practices, socio-economic status, sense of self and other characteristics. These factors profoundly affect in idiosyncratic ways the learning readiness and rate of English acquisition of ELLs (Jimenez, 2010).
Other examples of instructional accommodations or modifications which have proven effective with ELLs include providing instruction and materials in the students' native languages; demonstrating activities and strategies through teacher "think alouds" and modeling; setting language, content, and learning strategy objectives; tapping prior knowledge; using visuals/manipulatives; explicitly teaching key vocabulary; adjusting speech; utilizing cooperative learning methods; and teaching coping strategies. Cooperative learning, however, is a key instructional strategy for ELLs because it enhances interactions among students, promotes the development of positive academic and social support systems for ELLs, prepares students for increasingly interactive workplaces, and allows teachers to manage large classes of students with diverse needs (Holt, 1993).
The proper formation of cooperative groups in David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson's book, Learning Together and Alone, is the most important when getting started. The authors state that there is no ideal size for groups, but the smaller group is better. Dr. Spencer Kagan, notes that groups of four are "magic" for active participation.
A part of cooperative learning that is especially helpful when dealing with ELL students is that of assigning roles to individual group members. This assures all of an active part and helps to ensure that all eventually have the opportunity to fulfill each important role and its responsibilities. Without teacher and student attention to roles, the ELL student (and others) may find themselves always playing a more limited role within the learning team. Teaching roles and their functions, and utilizing role name tags helps the students remain aware of role responsibilities throughout the lesson.
Roles provide structure for the groups in order to avoid and manage challenging behaviors. Three typical classroom behaviors exhibited in cooperative groups are the boss, the reluctant member, and the perfectionist. To manage challenging behaviors such as these the video states that teachers should celebrate those that are working appropriately. Peers have the greatest influence on behavior. As a result of the peer factor, there are fewer problems in cooperative groups. The bossy member of the group should be assigned a specific role and reminded to stick to that job. The reluctant student should be asked why s/he is not participating to see if there are feelings of inadequacy. If possible the reluctant member could be placed in the group of someone that would motivate him/her to work. Finally, the perfectionist should be told about the difference in grading policy and taught to comprise. Many times the perfectionist is a high student that has difficulty working with others (Skylight, 2000). Individual accountability, but also positive interdependence, in these groups is essential.
Additionally, Noyes (2010) advises to teach common standards or expectancies for the groups. Six simple standards: No put-downs, be an active listener, everyone participates, help everyone understand, watch noise level, and stay on task. If the teacher models these expectations from the beginning students will understand what is expected. It is equally important to be consistent in monitoring and enforcing these policies.
The assessment of ELLs, individual accountability, is often problematic. Even if ELLs understand the directions, it must be determined if they have the facility in English to show that they understand the knowledge, concepts, and skills that the unit has targeted. Using alternative or authentic assessments with ELLs, rather than relying solely on traditional forms of testing such as multiple-choice tests, allows for better assessment of the full range of student outcomes, and the information gained through the assessment can then be used to inform instructional planning. O'Malley and Pierce (1996) describe and discuss the advantages of using eight types of authentic assessments with ELLs, including oral interviews, story retellings, projects, and demonstrations, and they provide a number of rubrics and checklists appropriate for classroom use.
David Noyes (2010) describes various methods of assessment for English Language Learners. Constructing or filling in models, maps, timelines, or figures; sorting pictures/words/phrases based on oral descriptions; drawing representations or completing graphic organizers; analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating information on charts, graphs, and tables, as direct orally; are just a few of the methods he suggested to give ELLs appropriate assessment and accountability through listening activities. He describes other activities for the other language domains: reading, speaking, and writing. These assessment strategies can be used across the curriculum in math, science, and social science.
It is clear that cooperative learning is very beneficial to English Language Learners, but is can be misused and overused. Cooperative learning can be misused when the tasks given to cooperative are not well structured. It can be overused with it is implemented to such an extent that students have an insufficient amount of time to practice independently the skills and processes that they must master (Noyes, 2010).
By utilizing cooperative learning groups, teachers offer ELLs the opportunity to interact with students who are proficient in English language skills. Furthermore, because ELLs are not usually provided with content-area classes taught in their primary language, they often struggle with the difficult academic material. Cooperative learning groups enable them to work in a team with 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. Many English learners come from countries in which student participation is not encouraged. They may be reluctant to speak, not only because of their lack of proficiency in English, but also because of they are uncomfortable in an environment where they are asked to share their ideas. A positive and supportive environment has a significant influence on student comfort level, participation, and success.