This paper explores research on the effects of cooperative learning, particularly on the subgroup of English language learners. Researchers tended to favor cooperative learning and to see it in a beneficial light, largely due to the possibility of authentic communication between students and their opportunities to interact with their peers. A study of reading found no academic gains, but showed improved attitudes and interest in reading. A study of science showed cooperative learning as yielding academic gains on end-of-year science tests. Others proposed methods to get the most out of group work. Research would indicate that cooperative learning should be embraced by classroom teachers, or at the very least given a shot at improving the quality of all students' education, and in the process helping the acquisition of English for English language learners.
In recent years English language learners have been the focus of a great deal of attention, due in part to "No Child Left Behind" and in part to the increase of students in the education system who have yet to reach proficiency in the English language. In addition to knowing and using good teaching strategies, teachers must also become aware of the special needs and challenges related to this particular subgroup in order to ensure that all of our students are successful. Cooperative learning has shown itself to be beneficial for all students, particularly those trying to acquire English as a second language.
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One strategy for using cooperative learning in the classroom, suggested by Anh Tran (Tran, 2007) has students reading stories and making up their own lists of vocabulary, like a glossary (using a picture dictionary for reference), to accompany the story. Then the students write a summary of the story. Students then trade with a partner and read the new story using the student-made definitions/glossary. Then students get together and talk about the stories, relating them to self, the rest of the world, and to media/entertainment. Then students share summaries and help make suggestions for revision. The benefits are that students have ownership in their learning since they look up and provide explanations for the group. They also have time to discuss their story with another person, providing a valuable forum for the use of oral language. The teacher can provide mini-lessons on skills such as summarizing and finding word meaning. Students then have a chance to try these skills out for themselves to improve their competency in English.
Peer tutoring is another way to engage students in cooperative learning that yields significant results. Research in Florida suggested that peer tutoring was especially beneficial for students who were Hispanic or Native American, as these cultures tended to place a great deal of value on cooperation and mentoring (Allison & Rehm, 2007). Students often have an easier time relating to other students than to the teacher, making students more comfortable and lowering their affective filter. Students have the opportunity to be both teachers and resources to each other, which "promotes communication, motivates students, and helps learners attain higher levels of achievement while developing friendships between students from different backgrounds mentoring" (Allison & Rehm, 2007).
Peer tutoring yields benefits in social skills and interpersonal communication as well as academic gains. The tutor has a chance to develop leadership skills and interpersonal skills, giving students confidence and building self-esteem. Because when students work in pairs the attention is one-on-one, meaning that students have a chance to gain a deeper understanding of other perspectives. Students have a chance to engage in authentic conversations, and the feedback is immediate. Students can comment on other's ideas as well as communication styles and grammar patterns (and errors) on the spot, so students can learn to correct mistakes quicker by having a model of (hopefully) correct English (Allison & Rehm, 2007). This can be especially beneficial for English language learners that would not be comfortable approaching the teacher for help with questions.
Cooperative learning can yield similar benefits, not the least of which is higher levels of motivation, since students often see cooperative learning as fun and novel. Heterogeneous groups can work on problem-solving tasks and gain cross-cultural understanding as well as increasing language acquisition. Cooperative learning can also help students develop intellectual autonomy, as they have a chance to think for themselves and express their own thoughts and ideas (Allison & Rehm, 2007). The cooperative learning model gets away from the teacher being the sole authority on all situations and the sole possessor of knowledge. Students can view peers and themselves as resources, with experiences that lend to a deeper understanding for themselves and their peers. Allison and Rehm suggest some of the same strategies and David Noyes and Elizabeth Jiminez, ie. think-pair-share and the jigsaw method. In think-pair-share, students think about a topic posed by the teacher. Then students are paired with a partner and they share their ideas between themselves, and then they share the information with others in the classroom. In the jigsaw method, groups of students are assigned a specific area of content on which to become the subject-matter expert. Each group has a different part of the whole picture to really learn in-depth. The group will then share their information with the rest of the class. When students are the teachers they engage in a real dialogue, treating each other as equals instead of simply being passive listeners to information presented by the teacher. Students tend to learn the material more thoroughly if they are the ones teaching it.
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While cooperative learning is currently in vogue, not all studies have shown academic gains from the employment of group work. In a study conducted by Shaaban (Shaaban, 2006) Jigsaw II was selected for the intervention. It was selected because it allows for communicative language practice in an environment where students are more likely to feel relaxed and comfortable. Jigsaw II requires students to teach others, but then all students are tested individually for accountability. Shaaban states that previous research had mixed results as to the academic effectiveness of Jigsaw II. The experiment focused on reading comprehension, vocabulary, value of reading, reading self-concept, and the motivation to read. The Motivation to Read Profile (MRP) developed by Gambrell, Palmer, Codling, and Mazzoni (1996) was administered to measure , value of reading, reading self-concept, and the motivation to read (the more affective areas) while the Gates-McGinitie Reading Test, 3rd edition (GMRT) was administered to measure vocabulary and comprehension (the more strictly academic areas). While the experimental group scored slightly higher than the control group, there was no significant difference in comprehension and vocabulary for students taught using the Jigsaw II cooperative learning strategy. However, students scored much higher in the affective areas: value of reading, reading self-concept, and the motivation to read. Based on this study, there are benefits to schools and to students for using cooperative learning strategies, but they may or may not show up on Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs). However, as Shaaban states, "Readers who value reading and have positive self-concepts as readers are more likely to work harder at reading tasks than readers with negative attitudes and poor self-concepts," (Shaaban, 2006). Research has supported that positive dispositions lead to students being life-long learners, which is something many educators value in and of itself. Previous research has also indicated that a positive reading self-concept is positively related to reading motivation and to becoming a self-actualized reader in adulthood-a reader who reads continuously and enjoys reading," (Shaaban, 2006). This would suggest that academic gains may not be made in the short run, but may be seen over time.
Another study conducted in Britain tried a systematic approach to cooperative learning known as The SPRinG programme to see if teaching science through group work would reap academic gains (Baines, 2007). Pre-tests and post-tests were given to the experimental groups and the control groups. The lessons were conducted over the course of an entire school year to see how cooperative learning would affect student knowledge of science over time. Results showed that students in the experimental group who had participated in group work throughout the year performed better on the end-of-the-year test. While the test designers admitted that there could have been other contributing factors at work, the students still performed better at the end of the year.
While not all studies yielded similar results, as a whole there seems to be enthusiasm for the notion of cooperative learning across the educational community. A lot of the benefits of cooperative learning are not educational in nature, such as increasing student confidence and self-esteem, improving the classroom environment by lowering students' affective filter by making the classroom a more inviting place. In addition, students learn social skills and how to work together. It also gives English language learners a chance to build social relationships, which should increase their liking of school and make them feel more at ease. Students can be taught to respect others' thoughts and ideas and can feel like contributing members to their own education, as students can be teachers and resources for each other. It also has been shown to foster positive dispositions toward education, particularly reading (based on the studies I read). In other words, teachers believe that cooperative learning will make students better citizens and will encourage them to be active participants in their own education.
In addition, there are at least perceived educational benefits. Students have opportunities to engage in authentic conversations, which should improve English language learners communicative skills and improve their vocabulary much faster than if they were simply passive listeners of group discussion. It gives students a chance to talk about what they are learning, which should increase metacognition; the students will be more aware of what they are learning. Research is generally favorable of cooperative learning strategies, for English language learners and all students. Teachers should familiarize themselves with the best practices of cooperative learning and try to incorporate those into their classrooms.
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