I admit I sometimes feel jealous when I read other language teaching blogs I follow (most of them, actually): one-to-one settings, diligent adult students who choose to be in the classroom, or small groups at language schools where grouping students for a variety of tasks does not seem to be a problem and language appears to flow naturally and simultaneously. Yes, I know – those teachers have many years of teaching under their belt and with a good repertoire of classroom management strategies! I don’t even know if I could succeed in any of those settings, to be honest.
I belong to the large mixed-ability classroom, where a group of 26 students is considered a luxury one gets to see once in a blue moon and 30 is the norm. I belong to compulsory education and the teenage years, motivating the all too often unmotivated, transforming the infectious energy into meaningful learning, teaching after a tough Maths exam or a long passive lecture. And when it comes to language teaching, beyond basic classroom management, it is the type and quality of interactions and contributions in my classes that I’m most concerned about.
One of the challenges in mixed-ability and/or multi-level groups, for example, is that some students sometimes become over-dominant at the expense of quieter or weaker students who are only occasionally given the chance to participate equally and at their own performance level. Adopting a cooperative learning framework can help to respond to some of these problems by structuring the teaching-learning process through flexible groupings with the aim of boosting language learning through well-defined dynamic classroom interactions.
The first step consists of designing effective cooperative teams. Based on the students’ proficiency level, heterogeneous groups of four are formed at the beginning of the school year including, to the extent possible, high, middle and low achievers, both sexes, and students with different interests and motivations. Once the teams are set up, both the cooperative setting and the specific strategies we use will be characterised by all or most of the following:
1. Everybody working at the same time!
When working cooperatively, every single student in the class is working at the same time, which means more on-task time for them and more interaction going on. There is no one student doing most of the talking, or no quieter student struggling with participation. Take, for instance, a popular cooperative learning strategy such as Numbered Heads Together:
Numbered Heads Together
- Students count off 4s (or they may be assigned a number for the whole term or year.)
- Teams discuss a teacher-generated question or work on an activity until all members can answer it.
- The teacher calls a number 1-4: only those students with the number called can answer.
Because the students do not know who is going to be called, they all need to make sure they can all answer the question or activity, and that they have listened to each other.
2. Less teacher talk, more student talk.
Who has not struggled to some extent with limiting teacher talk or allowing for sufficient thinking time at some point in their career? Cooperative learning strategies put the students at the very centre of the learning process and provide opportunities for quality thinking time while practising the target language.
3. Individual accountability.
Unlike informally assigned groups, where very often some students do all the work while others do little or even none for various reasons, the strategies used in the cooperative classroom are structured so that no student can coast on the efforts of others. Every student in a cooperative team is responsible for his/her own contributions to the group and learning gains. The students engaged in Think-Pair-Share, for example, need to rely on each other to carry out the task:
- The students work individually on a question or activity before pairing up.
- Pair shares responses and reaches a consensus.
- Pairs share with the class.
(Think-Pair-Square is an alternative strategy in which pairs check with the group of 4 before reporting back to the rest of the class.)
4. Equal participation.
All the students become involved in the learning process no matter their language level. Indeed, each student is encouraged to make unique contributions based on their interests and motivations, which will at the same time assist in developing interpersonal skills that can benefit communication with others. In Roundtable, it is the addition of the students’ contributions that will be reported to the whole class:
- The teacher poses a question/activity.
- The students take turns to write answers down.
- It may be sequential, with one paper being passed over, or simultaneous, with four papers going around at the same time.
- Teacher calls a number 1-4.
5. Sink or swim!
In cooperative teams the success of each member of the group depends on the success of the whole team. Apart from making sure each student does well, this positive interdependence also requires that the students make sure they can understand each other during the task, so communication strategies that allow them to speak and listen for understanding become the most relevant.
Of course, our ultimate goal is to improve the linguistic competence of each and every one of our students, who should be able to read, write, listen and speak independently in a variety of contexts and for multiple purposes. Devoting classroom time to cooperative work, though, will certainly help to promote a rich, communicative and interactive environment based on differentiation and equal participation, an environment in which the students are assessed both individually and as a team as they work together towards the same goal.
It takes time to set up a cooperative classroom that works, and strategies should be introduced little by little, but in my experience it’s not only worth it but a much better way to respond to so many of the challenges we face in the language classroom on a daily basis.
JOHNSON, D.W., JOHNSON, R.T. & HOLUBEC, E.J. (1994): Cooperative Learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
KAGAN, S. & KAGAN, M. (1994): The Structural Approach: Six keys to cooperative. In S. Sashran (Ed.) Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, pp. 115-133. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press
SLAVIN, R.E. (1992): When and why does Cooperative Learning increase achievement? Theoretical and empirical perspective. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz and N. Miller (Eds.). Interaction in cooperative groups. The theoretical anatomy of group learning, pp. 145-173. New York: Cambridge University Press
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