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Cooperative learning is a powerful teaching strategy for teachers and students in which there are a number of benefits. When combining content and objectives to problem solving, the student's use their academic strengths while strengthening areas of weakness, communicate face to face, resolve conflict, become leaders and develop teamwork to achieve a common goal and complete a learning task (Kagan, 2007, Harmin, 1995). The resources of cooperative learning are simple; it's the students themselves (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004). Harry Wong stated, "The greater the time students work together and the greater the responsibilities students take for their work, the greater the learning." (Wong,p. 245).
Preparation before the students walk through the doors on the first day of school is the first step to developing cognitive language skills. By carefully planning meaningful lessons that include adaptations of content, building the background supplementary materials, pictures to support the vocabulary will help English more comprehensible to English language learners. To create a classroom which cooperative learning and collaboration is the core of the student's day, some basic training and practice is necessary the first few weeks of school. In order to create a desired learning environment and Merrill Harmin outlines five qualities for students to develop productivity and sense of responsibility. These five qualities are: a positive sense of dignity, comfortable energy, appropriate self-management, feeling of community and open-minded, focused awareness. The emphasis is on collaboration, not on isolation (Harmin, 1995). Teachers and students applying these principles, build a positive environment. Research proves a greater success when learners feel free to make mistakes while learning. In a cooperative learning situation, when students work in a group, the focus of attention is on the group, when a mistake is made, it becomes a teaching tool for all. In addition, the group produces a product which its members can review before they present it to the whole class. This creates that cushioning and students become less threatening to share in front of the entire group (Harmin, 1985).
Noyes, gives four basic functions of cooperation in which he provides an acronym APLE (Noyes, 2008). The success and performance of the cooperative learning teams are dependent upon the combination of these functions: accountability, positive interdependence, learning objective and equal participation. For each student be held accountable, it is important that each student have a job and contribute toward the whole group. One example is a 2nd grade science activity entitled, "How Do Propellers Work?" Support Group Jobs needed are as follows:
Equipment Manager- the student in charge of gathering the materials and returning them in the proper place at the end of the activity
Facilitator- the student that reads the instructions and ensures everyone in the group understands the task.
Recorder- the student will observe and take notes.
Reporter- the student writes up the data on the report.
Given the jobs that each student has to conduct the experiment, each student must depend upon the other to complete their part to solve the problem. This support group care for and will help each other work together when the students understand that they are a valuable member of a group. Each group is given instructions which include the background, problem, procedures to follow, and group rules and responsibilities (Wong, 1991). Cognitive language skills are reinforced as the vocabulary is discussed and the students communicate to solve the problem. Upon completing the task, the students and teacher conducts a reflection in which the students self-evaluate the activity and their role. Also, using a rubric the team discusses what they learned. Positive interdependence, builds students' sense of responsibility to themselves and their group members through reliance upon each other's talents, and the assessment processes reward both individuals and groups which reinforces this interaction (Harmin, 1995).
The L in APLE is learning objective which gives the group a purpose. All learning is driven by standards or learning objectives. According to HQSI (high quality sheltered instruction the language and content objectives should be made known to the students (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004). Written objectives allow students to know what they will be learning. It is the end result or the goal in which the student wants to reach. At the end of the lesson, I go back and ask the students, "Did we accomplish our goal today?" If no, then what we discuss what steps that need to be taken. When the class answers, "Yes!" we celebrate.
The E in APLE refers to equal opportunity which is individual accountability and greater understanding that everyone is held accountable for the performance of all (Noyes, 2008 & Wong, 1991). An example that gives each student equal participation is a Kagan Structure called Question, All Write. The teacher asks all students to write answers to questions before offering an answer or calling on one student. This gives everyone an opportunity to think about the question and answer (Kagan, 2001). Instead of calling on one student, I like to announce, "Show!" and all of the students show me their answer. This works great when using a marker board. When I see one student that may not have a similar answer, I can make note of that and quietly take intervention steps.
Cooperative learning strategies reduces anxiety when students are faced with new situations because they have a built in community which is nonthreatening. In this support group cognitive language skills are developed free of fear because the focus is on the group and individuals are not singled out (Harmin, 1995). It also increases the acquisition of English and comprehensible input because the students are using the language and hearing it from each other (Noyes, 2008). Noyes adds that there's no better way to learn language than by using it (Noyes, 2008). The integration of language and content is a strategy that researchers recommend as ELL need to express their ideas in English, connect prior knowledge, gain knowledge of how to do the task, and learn the new content knowledge (Short, 2004). When students are working in pairs one partner shares his/her idea and the other listens, asks questions, comments or rewords what she/he heard. This clarification or explanation is a very important part of the cooperative process and requires higher order thinking skills (Johnson, Johnson 1981). Peer tutors must develop a clear idea of the concept they are presenting and orally communicate it to their partners (Marzano, Pickering & Pollock, 2001). As students are explaining how to solve a problem they are naturally using the academic language. This face to face interaction as outlined by Echevarria, Vogt and Short allows the students to teach to one another, check for understanding and connect prior knowledge to any newly learned knowledge. When given the opportunity to think aloud, both speaker and listener are developing problem solving skills and are receiving immediate feedback (Echevarria, Vogt & Short, 2004 & Johnson, 1981). The most effective form of interaction is students working in pairs or a small group (Marzano, Pickering & Pollock, 2001 & Kagan, 2007). Students are engaged in the learning process instead of passively listening to the teacher. Class discussions are greatly enhanced because the students have had time to think through their responses and by testing their ideas which created a practice. Dr. Cummings refers this type of language acquisition as "empowerment pedagogy". When the English learner is confident about what he/she is about to share in front of the class, there is an empowering feeling (Noyes, 2008).
Developing Cognitive language skills as opposed to basic interpersonal communication skills requires additional preparation. Using a variety of teaching strategies to provide meaningful lessons will enhance the learning of English language learners. Creating a positive, cooperative learning classroom cannot be left to chance but requires modeling, practice and encouragement for the smallest efforts made by the students. Utilizing Noyes' APLE functions to creating a cooperative learning environment will help and support teachers in planning and delivery of lessons. Cognitive language skills require additional time to process for English language learners. Providing students wait time will help them to formulate their thoughts. It is in the understanding that as educators we recognize that acquiring cognitive language skills is a process and requires patience, flexibility and a sense of humor.