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The acquisition of language is a marriage of sorts between the interaction of critical input, output and context variables (Kagan, 1995). Cooperative learning has a powerful positive impact upon all these variables which are critical to English Language Learners (ELL) ability to acquire social and academic language.
Language acquisition is fostered by input that is comprehensible, developmentally appropriate, redundant, and accurate (Kagan, 1995). When learning a new language it isn't just absorbed, but it must be understood. Comprehensible input is language that is heard and understood just slightly above the learner's current English language level. Newcomers in particular must have this adjustment to input. A student who only experiences a teacher lecturing to the class will not be receiving input. "The best methods are therefore those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production." (Krashen, 1987) Students who work in cooperative groups will check for understanding and naturally adjust their input to be understood. Furthermore the structure of cooperative groups focuses on a specific task or manipulative which will enhance not only interpersonal language but the learning of cognitive academic language which often lags as many as 5 to 7 years behind social language acquisition (Cummins, 1983).
Cooperative learning is developmentally appropriate because the comprehensible input is in the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). The zone of proximal development (ZDP) is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. The small group setting and structure of cooperative learning keep the language focused in the ZDP, which stimulates language development (Kagan, 1995).
ELLs require more than input in their ZDP, they need input to be received repeatedly and from a variety of sources. In cooperative groups there is more opportunity for repetition of content information as peers help new learners of English negotiate meaning (Haynes, 2005). As group members discuss a topic they each will use a variety of phrases which help the ELL internalize the meaning and with the repeated input allows the student to acquire language.
When it comes to accurate input which uses proper grammar and pronunciation cooperative learning may not be the best. A teacher lecturing could provide much better modeling in this regard. However, when the teacher is the only source of speech it is at the cost of limiting student output. Frequent communicative output produces speech acquisition far more readily than formal accurate input (Kagan, 1995).
Language acquisition is fostered by output that is functional and communicative (Swain, 1985) as well as frequent, redundant and consistent with a students identity. In order for ELLs to learn to communicate the language must serve a function and be useful. They have to be able to use the language in everyday settings. Cooperative learning provides the opportunity for expressive, functional, personally relevant, representative language output that is critical for language acquisition (Kagan, 1995).
One of the primary ways ELLs learn to speak is by speaking. The more they speak the sooner that they acquire the language. This is probably the most important advantage of cooperative learning over the teacher directed lecture format of instruction. There is more opportunity for oral practice and for repetition of content information as peers help new learners of English negotiate meaning. When we do an activity like pair-share everyone is able to converse at once as opposed to didactic teaching where it is one at a time; teacher speaks and calls on one student. In large classrooms many students might go days without speaking to a directed idea.
Just like with input it is important that output is redundant. Fluency in a language occurs when ELLs are able to speak repeatedly about the same topic (Kagan, 1995). Cooperative learning activities can be specifically designed to provide redundancy of output opportunities. This applies even to informal discussions with a partner. As with frequency without cooperative learning there just isn't enough time to call on students enough times to create redundant output opportunities.
Finally in regard to output, the informal kid friendly language of the cooperative group is more closely aligned with the identity of the students. It is the language of their peers. The formal language used in didactic traditional classrooms may be resisted by a cultural group and not lead to language fluency. The students don't necessarily want to speak like the teacher, nor are they able to so they likely won't speak. The more closely the language is associated to his or her identity the more likely it will be that the language is acquired.
Language acquisition is fostered if it occurs in a context that is supportive and motivating, communicative and referential, developmentally appropriate, and feedback rich (Kagan, 1995). Cooperative learning is supportive and motivating for students because:
They are more frequently asked questions
They need to communicate to accomplish the cooperative learning projects
Peers are far more supportive than in the traditional classroom because they are all on the same side
Cooperative learning structures demand speech
Students are taught to praise and encourage each other
Student are taught to criticize ideas, not people
Students are made interdependent so they need to know what the others know.
Fogarty and Bellanca (Fogarty, 1992) highlight the reaction that teachers have after they implement cooperative learning paradigms when they state, "Surprisingly and almost unfailingly, once the philosophical shift begins, once Teachers begin implementing cooperative interactions, the evidence of student motivation becomes so overwhelmingly visible that teachers are encouraged to try more. The students are encouraging and coaxing their teammates helping with words to make their speech easy and providing a motivating context for speech to emerge (Kagan, 1995). In cooperative groups feedback and correction are non-judgmental and immediate (Haynes, 2005).
The context of student talk in this small group is centered on what is actually happening at the moment as the task is completed (Haynes, 2005). Children's egocentric speech not only accomplished the task but also played a specific role in task solution. Children's speech and action were part of one and the same complex psychological function, directed toward the solution of the problem at hand. In addition, the more complex the action demanded by the situation, and the less direct the solution, the greater the importance played by speech in the solution (Vygotsky, 1978). More simply, the students may be talking about what they are making. They are doing it in real time with a goal in mind. The communication is functional and meaning is negotiated. Because the language is associated with a real experience it is much more likely to improve language acquisition in contrast to some abstract dialogue on a topic that is common in a traditional classroom, even those classrooms with discussion. The students need those "real" experiences to internalize the language.
Cooperative group context is developmentally appropriate because it provides a "safe" arena to speak. It is easy to ask another student to borrow a supply or clarify a direction, it is quite another thing to speak to an entire class on a topic or to answer a question. They are simply not ready for the formal language that may be required for that task. With cooperative learning they are completely at ease when speaking with a partner or small group of their peers. This can then be scaffolded by sharing what the group said during their discussion (think-pair-share). Speakers within a small group have more opportunities to enter discourse at the level appropriate to their own development (Kagan, 1995).
Cooperative learning is feedback rich. As students are talking to each other there are innumerable opportunities for immediate feedback and correction. In this natural and nonthreatening format language acquisition is fostered. In a traditional approach students are inhibited and nervous, the opportunities for feedback are few and far between and language acquisition is hindered
A final benefit of cooperative learning for ELLs is that it encourages diversity understanding (Burnstein, 1962). Often behaviors which might appear odd when taken out of context become understandable when the opportunity is presented to students to explain and defend their reasoning. For example, Americans signal agreement by nodding vertically while students from India nod horizontally. Very little opportunity exists for students to explain their behavior in a lecture class, whereas in a cooperative learning environment discussions of this nature occur continuously. Cooperative learning will bring together and develop students' appreciation of racially and culturally diverse students which will impact their ability to acquire both social and academic English.