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An increasing number of children arriving in schools in the U.S. are subject to difficulties when it comes to learning how to read becoming literate in the English language because they are not native English speakers. Also, their early childhood experiences have not assisted in learning English, which is the main language in schools (Greenwood, Arreaga-Mayer, Utley, Gavin, & Terry 2001). A concern in merging ELL students into English only classrooms became apparent when it came to academics. Not only did teachers of ELL students need to use second-language techniques, but they had to somehow get their ELL students more involved (Greenwood, Arreaga-Mayer, Utley, Gavin, & Terry 2001).
In recent years, more and more classrooms are turning to cooperative learning with their students. In traditional classrooms where the lesson is centered on the teacher giving lecture, ELL students obtain less teacher and peer interaction, and any interaction is at a lower linguistic and cognitive level (Gomleksiz 2007). Lessow-Hurley (2003) found that ELL students are placed in lower tracked classrooms and are therefore not able to succeed academically. In lower tracked classrooms, teachers are often too busy or preoccupied with student behavior. This comes at the cost of the ELL students being overlooked in the classroom.
Cooperative learning groups consisted of high levels of student engagement and the use of higher level cognitive processes (Greenwood, Arreaga-Mayer, Utley, Gavin, & Terry 2001). Cooperative learning is more accommodating and helpful than competitive and individualistic learning experiences (Gomleksiz 2007). Teachers need to have high level expectations for all their students, including their ELL students. Cooperative learning groups can help all students obtain higher level thinking and achievement (Cohan & Honigsfeld, 2006).
Cooperative Learning and Cognitive Skills
When children from all backgrounds, including ELL, work together in cooperative groups, they develop an understanding of the purpose of the group and of the lesson. They develop a need to help and support each other's learning. When students worked in cooperative groups in the classroom, they were continuously more accommodating and supportive. They used language that was more comprehensive and would give more description to assist other students with their understanding (Gillies & Ashman, 2000). ELL students can benefit from cooperative learning because the peers in their groups are at times more aware than the teachers at what exactly the students do not understand. Their peers can help focus on the problem and explain the needed information in expressions that are more easily understood (Gillies & Ashman, 2000).
In cooperative learning groups, ELL students are able to experience a higher level of achievement when it comes to adapting to the basic culture, language, and customs of the classroom. Cooperative learning helps student learning and retention by activating and engaging the students' cognitive process of coding, incorporating, combining, and altering the received information into a more personally meaningful form (Buttaro, 2002).
It is important that educators should think about what is important in the lesson that is using cooperative learning and what exactly should all students gain from it. When properly implemented, students are not only able to work together, but they are able to improve their interpersonal communication skills. Students are also learn how to work with a diverse group of students. Cooperative learning allows all students to work together to solve problems, create projects, and develop increased knowledge (Stewart & Gonzalez, 2006).
Cooperative Learning and Peer Relationships
Cooperative learning also promotes learning and positive peer relationships. Positive peer relationships are important to students during the early adolescent years because their peer relationships take precedence during this time in students' lives. A student's peer relationship plays a very significant and vital role with the student's connection to school. Students who did not acquire positive peer relationships during this time are more likely to drop out of school. As stated before, cooperative learning has been shown to facilitate academic learning for all students, including ELL students, better and more encouraging peer relationships, and better attitudes toward school (Stevens 2006). Stevens also found positives when it came to group goals and interdependence when teachers used cooperative learning in their classrooms:
Typically cooperative learning uses group goals, where for one member of the group to succeed all of the members of the group must succeed. As a result, positive interdependence develops within the group - the peers support and motivate one another, leading to more positive peer relations and more social acceptance of one another. As the same time, the individual accountability promotes each individual's learning, resulting in greater achievement. In essence, cooperative learning uses peers as both an instructional and motivational resource, taking advantage of students' increasing sense of independence and stronger peer orientations during adolescence.
Cooperative learning benefits all students when put together properly by the educator. ELL students are able to learn from their peers and reach a higher level of academic achievement. Students not only will learn from each other, but they will be able to learn how to work in groups with other students from different backgrounds. Learning how to work with others is an essential skill for all students to have in their academic career and in their professional career when they become older.
Cooperative learning not only benefits students when learning a specific skill or standard, but it also benefits ELL students when learning academic vocabulary and communication skills. Most ELL students remain quiet in the classroom because they are unsure of the academic vocabulary. Because of this, ELL students tend to become over looked. Cooperative learning groups will help ELL students become more involved in the assignment and therefore gain more learning and vocabulary. Once ELL students gain more of the vocabulary, they will more likely to become more involved in class discussions. ELL students will also do better academically on individually assignments when they are able to learn from their peers and learn the academic vocabulary.
Educators should use cooperative learning more and more in their classrooms. Cooperative learning not only benefits ELL students, but students with learning disabilities are also able to learn from their peers. They also are able to receive the same benefits when learning a new standard or skill and academic vocabulary as ELL students. High level students are able to learn how to work with students who are at a lower level. Learning how to work with their peers at all different levels will benefit them when it comes to working in groups in the future.