The English Language Learner and Cooperative Groups

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Cooperative grouping has been proven to be effective for all types of students, including academically gifted, mainstreamed students and English language learners (ELLs) because it promotes learning and fosters respect and friendships among diverse groups of students. Student peers learn to depend upon each other in a positive way for a variety of learning tasks. Cooperative learning is particularly beneficial for any student learning a second language. Cooperative learning activities promote peer interaction, which helps in the development of language and the learning of concepts and content.

Cooperative learning/grouping is a form of indirect teaching in which the teacher sets the problems or task to be completed and organizes the students in such a way that they work it out collaboratively. There are a number of elements that set cooperative learning apart from other instructional strategies and grouping techniques. According to Duplass (2006), the following are the most commonly found characteristics of cooperative learning: The grouping is heterogeneous and comprised of students of diverse ability levels, backgrounds, and English acquisition levels. The groups foster positive interdependence by setting group goals and working towards a reward or final learning outcome. There is face-to-face interaction whereby students are encouraged to use verbal (in both English and L-1) and nonverbal communication to solve problems and explain learning material. Students help each other to learn and praise and applaud each other's success and efforts. There is also individual student accountability requiring each group member to contribute to the group's achievement of its goals which are enforced through the students' individual roles.

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Educators have found that cooperative learning groups foster language acquisition in ways that whole-class instruction cannot (Goldenberg, 2008). Mainstream teachers with both ELLs and English-dominant students in their classrooms can use cooperative learning strategies as a powerful tool for fostering language acquisition. ELLs working in small groups have more opportunities to speak than they have during whole-group instruction. Small groups create opportunities for sustained dialogue and substantive language use as students use language to accomplish the task at hand (Zehler, 2004). According to Alainas (2004), cooperative learning groups demand speech because each member must carry out his role if the group as a whole is to succeed. Cooperative grouping provide structured opportunities for students with different levels of English proficiency to work collaboratively with their peers. Students who are just acquiring English and who work in cooperative groups now have a real reason to learn English. They have now become an essential part of the classroom community and are now empowered to learn and use the language. Cummins (2002) calls this empowerment pedagogy because students have the opportunity to practice the language. When we look at Cummins' Quadrant Task Difficulty, it's easy to see how cooperative groups have a great deal of context embedded. Students can rely not only upon using their L-1 as a support, but also use their peers' body language, gestures, eye contact and hand signals as clues to language learning and content knowledge acquisition.

Research findings indicate positive outcomes associated with cooperative learning and the English language learner. By creating classroom situations such as cooperative learning groups, students are given the freedom to become active participants in the learning process. They are provided with the opportunity to construct meaning, think critically, clarify thinking, and respond to challenges (Yahya, et al., 2009). Cooperative learning, by its very nature, invites students to become active learners. New perspectives are shared within groups as a result of the different background knowledge of the groups' members. Listening skills are developed and strengthened as ELLs read, report, and communicate ideas to each other and engage in problem solving as a group. Students not only learn by teaching and tutoring one another, analyzing and synthesizing information, but also develop social skills in a less threatening atmosphere.

Krashen's affective filter hypothesis comes into play in cooperative groups. According to Krashen (1981) a language is best acquired when learners are in a low affective filter environment in which comprehensible input is introduced. Teachers can encourage this type of environment through cooperative groups where the focus is off the specific language being practiced and onto the completion of the learning task as students work together to negotiate both linguistic and content-area information. When a student's affective filter is low, the learner is able to learn and feel more confident about the learning process. Because cooperative grouping uses peers as collaborators, teachers, and tutors, ELLs feel more secure in taking risks that they might not take in whole group situations thereby reducing their stress and anxiety levels. Also, because the group shares a common goal or outcome, there is value in helping each other to learn and progress together to achieve the goal and students realize that they must work together in a cooperative and collaborative manner in order to complete the task. By lowering the affective filter through group activities, students can achieve and feel a level of success thereby increasing their level of motivation and desire to engage in future learning opportunities.

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There is a marked difference between the language that students use to socialize and the language that is used in schools. Although ELLs may be able to converse in their developing language with ease, they often continue to have severe difficulties producing and comprehending academic language. Cummins (1981) discusses the idea that individuals develop two types of language proficiency, basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS is the social language that is used on an everyday basis both within and outside of school, while CALP is the more formal language that is used primarily in schools and professional work environments. The integration of cooperative learning activities that incorporate both social and academic language greatly increases students' opportunities to interact in English using important content information (Short, 2000). The specific vocabulary, grammar, and key content knowledge that is integral to understanding subject matter and concepts can be approached, reinforced, and practiced through a variety of cooperative learning activities that work together to build a context for understanding content. The academic language component of content-area subjects can be developed by implementing strategies - including graphic organizers, semantic webbing, the use of visuals, journals, and other resources, that teach this language at the same time content material is being taught. ELL students are continually learning both language and content simultaneously and need to be supported in their efforts in both areas.

Genesee et al. (2006) found that participation of ELLs in interactive educational activities was related to an improvement in their reading and writing skills. As a result, teachers should consider providing ELLs with ample opportunities to participate in structured activities that allow them to interact and to learn collaboratively through discussion with their peers. These interactive activities provide students with opportunities to improve their speaking skills, to practice new vocabulary in a meaningful context, and to promote comprehension by engaging them in a discussion of academic content (Echevarria, 2003; Goldenberg, 2008). Gersten et al. (2007) specifically recommended that teachers of ELLs devote approximately 90 minutes per week to instructional activities in which groups and pairs of students work together on academic tasks in a structured fashion that allows them to practice language structures and content-specific vocabulary that were previously taught. Goldenberg (2008) cautions that students should not simply be grouped together; instead, they should be engaged in instructionally meaningful activities and be able to participate at their level of English language proficiency. In structuring these cooperative groups, teachers might use the scores from the annual English language proficiency assessment, together with data from other formative and summative assessments, to group students flexibly according to the goal of the activity and the students' proficiency levels in speaking, listening, reading, or writing. To further support the participation of all ELLs, teachers should consider pre-identifying and teaching important language - idioms for example, related to these cooperative activities.

There are multiple strategies that teachers can employ to assist with the development of academic language and content knowledge. Throughout the course of researching for this paper, there were several activities that were frequently referred to as being popular and successful with teachers of ELLs. These included round robin, roundtable, write-around, numbered heads together, team jigsaws, and tea party. These activities and strategies ask students to work collaboratively on problem solving, formulating opinions, and interpreting texts. These student-centered and student-led activities empower learners to assume an active role in the learning process and thereby increase their responsibility for their own learning (Short, 1991). Furthermore, by small group cooperative opportunities, when scattered throughout content lessons, increase the likeli-hood that students will be engaged and motivated by the content. Cooperative learning gives students the opportunity to share insights, test hypothesis, think critically, and jointly construct knowledge in an interactive manner (Crandall, 2004).

Research from genetics, biology and neuroscience reminds us of a powerful rule: no intelligence or ability will blossom until it's given the appropriate environmental need or model for developing (Jensen, 1996). In short, the greater variety of cooperative learning activities and opportunities we offer our students, the greater the chance of learning.

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