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According to Noyes, 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. Cooperative learning is different from group work in the sense that each member is responsible for learning the new information and helping their teammates to learn the new information. In addition, each member of the team must play some sort of role, whether it is the team recorder or manager, so that one person doesn't take control over the entire team. It is important that the students work cooperatively to help each other. Cooperative learning works best when the teacher has set some guidelines that all students are expected to follow. For example, it should be expected that everyone participate otherwise your dealing with group work instead of cooperative learning. Also, in order to help students feel comfortable speaking in front of their peers it should be required that you respect each other's opinions and contributions to the team. I especially like Noyes' acronym for cooperative learning:
I think that if students have a visual reminder of what's expected of them it will help keep them focused on the task at hand. That way you can avoid having some students "take over" the assignment just for the sake of getting finished first. We need to teach our students that cooperative learning is not about what team can get done first, but rather it's about working together to learn from one another.
Benefits of Cooperative Learning for ELL Students
Cooperative learning is a great learning strategy for all students; however, it is extremely beneficial when working with ELL students. Cooperative learning can be a very positive learning experience for a student that is still learning the English language because they have a chance to learn from their peers and practice their oral language skills. Cooperative learning groups can maximize the rapid acquisition of English because it provides students with comprehensible input in English in a supportive, non-threatening environment. Often times, ELL students are afraid to participate in class because they have a high affective filter. Working in a cooperative learning team may help to lower their affective filter. Since they only have to speak in front of a few students rather than the entire class they may be more apt to participating. Also, if the teacher set guidelines at the beginning stating that everyone participates and is treated with respect than the ELL student may feel more comfortable communicating with his/her team.
Planning Cooperative Learning Teams
Creating cooperative learning teams requires a lot of time, effort, and planning on the teacher's part. The teacher should consider gender, ability, ethnicity, and language proficiency when creating their cooperative learning teams. In order for cooperative learning teams to work successfully, the teacher must be purposeful in the creation of the team. Throwing some students together randomly and calling them a team does not mean that they will be able to work cooperatively together. In my many years of teaching, I have been in many classrooms in which the teacher said they practiced cooperative learning, but in actuality it was more like group work. Noyes shared two different ways to group students: language grouping and academic performance grouping. It is very important that you actually know your students, either personally or through the use of data, before you begin to plan your cooperative learning groups. In addition, once you created your cooperative learning teams it's crucial that you monitor their progress. You may find that even though you've stressed the guidelines and expectations that some teams are not doing as they were told. You may have to alter some teams and/or activities depending on the make up of your class.
Cooperative Learning Activities
There are many cooperative learning activities that can be used to help unite the entire class or a small team. I especially like how Noyes' not only showed some cooperative learning activities, but also how the activity applies to his APLE acronym. I recognized many of the cooperative learning strategies presented in the lecture as I have been using Kagan Cooperative Learning Strategies for years in my classroom. I find that using some of the class building strategies not only at the beginning of the school year, but throughout the school year to be very beneficial. They help to create a fun, friendly learning environment. Class building strategies are a great way to ease some of the tension an ELL student may be experiencing because it gives them the chance to participate without being put on the spot in front of the entire class. Also, class and team building activities enhance both oral and interpersonal skills. Some of my favorite class building activities are Mingle & Match, Find Someone Who, and Rally Robin. I love using Think-Pair-Share, Numbered Heads, and Jigsaw as team building activities in my classroom.
Cognitive vs. Interpersonal Communication Skills
Cooperative learning helps build an ELL student's cognitive communication skills as well as their interpersonal communication skills. Cognitive communication skills refer to the student's academic speech functions. We use different language patterns to accomplish various tasks. The phrases we use to request something are different from those we use to demand something. It is important that teacher's model the language expectations for cooperative learning. Most of our students have a difficult time discerning between academic language and playground language. Cooperative learning can help a student practice their academic (cognitive) language in a non-threatening environment.
As for interpersonal communication skills, cooperative learning can really help a student break out of their shell. Often times, ELL students are quiet due to their lack of oral English skills. With cooperative learning, not only will they work on developing their academic (cognitive) language skills they will also work on their interpersonal communication skills. Cooperative learning encourages students to respect others, learn by interacting with others, and make new friends which are all characteristics of interpersonal communication.
My Personal Experiences with Cooperative Learning
I have taught at a high-risk Title I school for twelve years. I can attest to how valuable cooperative learning is for ELL students. I have attended two Kagan Cooperative Learning conferences and I learn something new to bring back to my classroom each time. As a teacher of primarily Hispanic Spanish speaking students, cooperative learning has really saved me. I do not speak Spanish so I depend on my students to translate for their peers. In many ways, my high-functioning ELL students are the life line between me and my low-functioning ELL students. Cooperative learning allows me to work with one group at a time and really gauge how well my students have caught on to a new skill. I really can't see running my classroom without the use of cooperative learning whether I have a high population of ELL students or not.