Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom

Cooperative learning is a method where students work in small groups to reach a common learning goal with the guidance of the teacher. 

Cooperative learning strategies can be used in different school contexts if they fulfill the following principles: positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation, face-to-face interaction, group processing, and effective group / social skills. 

If positive interdependence is present, students feel on the same side as the task requires that they work together. They feel part of a team and work towards the same goal. At the same time, every individual in a team is responsible for his performance, which promotes both autonomy and cooperation. 

In cooperative learning, it is important to make sure every student in a team is equally working. Strategies are designed to help with that matter. Another important characteristic of cooperative learning strategies is that they should be designed to engage as many students as possible in the team, simultaneously, interacting in close physical proximity (face-to-face).  

Cooperative learning fights against the idea that strong and weak students should be educated separately. In cooperative group work, students are prone to help each other instead of competing against one another. 

In the language classroom, cooperative learning promotes interaction through pair and group work, which in turn facilitates language learning. Cooperation also fosters a flexible learning atmosphere, which is positive for language learning as it reduces anxiety. One of the possible problems with group work in the language classroom is that students tend to revert to their mother tongue when the teacher is not within hearing range. They can also pay less attention to language structures when they are trying to complete a task. However, language teachers can tackle those issues with monitoring strategies, for example. 

Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom 

Cooperative learning can be particularly beneficial for students learning a foreign language. Learners develop great confidence when they work in small teams, they pick up vocabulary from observing their peers learn and solve problems. Teachers should assign roles in the teams and make sure these are rotated every week or by activity. That way, you give opportunities for every student to develop the skills they need to practice. 

You don’t need to spend all your class time on cooperative learning strategies. You can start by implementing one strategy in one lesson, then evaluate the outcomes and decide how often you want to use them. 

Think-Pair-Share is one of the most common cooperative learning strategies. The teacher asks a question to the whole class and students get some time to think about the possible answer alone. The complexity of the question depends on the age of the students and their level. They then turn to the classmate sitting next to them and discuss in pairs what they think the answer is. At the end of the activity, the teacher chooses two or three pairs (randomly) and asks them to briefly share their answers. As you can see, this is a simple, brief activity you can implement in your classes. 

However, if you do want to implement cooperative learning in your classroom and be successful at it, you might want to consider explicitly teaching collaborative skills to your students before. You can do demonstrations and model behavior that you want to see and what you don’t want to see. You can work on short, simple cooperative activities and make your students reflect on how they did. Try learning about Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures so you can use them in your class. You should also set the rules and expectations before you start working with cooperative learning strategies. 

Another important aspect you want to consider is working on interpersonal dynamics with your groups. Working in groups should be useful but also an enjoyable experience both for your students and for you.  

There might be other issues when trying to work with Cooperative Learning. Particularly if your students are not used to collaborating or do not know how to. Don’t lose hope, there are many teachers out there that can help give advice or share their experiences. Always look for that type of input. It will certainly be of help. Have you read about or experienced cooperative learning? Did you like it? Share your thoughts with us!  

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