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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Kagan Structures: A Miracle of Active Engagement

Cooperative Learning Lowers Anxiety

Learning and using a foreign language can be stressful. In the traditional English classroom, the teacher quizzes students in front of the entire class. Students may not know the correct answer, may be apprehensive about speaking in public, or may be self-conscious about their accent. In global surveys, public speaking ranks as people’s greatest fear, beating fear of death, spiders, flying, and confined spaces. Whole-class settings for language learning are often perceived as threatening situations. We know from both language learning theory and brain research that stress negatively impacts attitudes, learning, and memory.

With RallyCoach and Match Mine, students are working with just one other student. Most Structures encourage pair work or work in teams of four. Students who would experience anxiety in a whole-class setting feel more comfortable speaking English in a more intimate setting. Cooperative groups are less intimidating than whole-class settings. This is especially true in cooperative classrooms in which the teacher uses teambuilding to establish trust and encourage support among teammates.

Cooperative Learning Promotes Natural Language Acquisition

There’s a big difference between learning about a language and actually acquiring the language. Too many language courses teach students about the language. Not enough courses allow students to actually use the language in a functional way. In our example of the traditional classroom, students learn about directional vocabulary. They learn to correctly complete exercises. But are they really building fluency? Results say no.

Many Kagan Structures naturally develop fluency by sidestepping the transference gap.

In the real world, we don’t fill out exercises on the proper use of language. But we often do need to give instructions and follow directions. When the situation of language acquisition (exercise work) is too different from the situation of performance (giving directions), a transference gap is created and fluency is not acquired. Match Mine sidesteps the transference gap: the situation of acquisition (giving and receiving verbal directions) matches the future situation of performance (giving and receiving verbal directions). Many Kagan Structures naturally develop fluency by sidestepping the transference gap.

Too often, language courses fail to build functional fluency. Students learn how to conjugate verbs, memorize vocabulary, and learn grammar rules, but too often miss out on the opportunity to use language frequently in a functional way. With the Structures, students not only learn about directional terminology, but they actually implement them to accomplish a goal. Natural language acquisition among infants is based on frequent social interaction. Cooperative structures provide the social setting for language use and offer students many more opportunities to receive input, interact in the target language, and practice oral production of the language.

Many Kagan Structures naturally develop fluency by sidestepping the transference gap.

Developing English fluency consists of four major inter-related language objectives: we want to build oral comprehension skills so students can understand what they hear; we want to build oral fluency skills so students can communicate with others; we want to build writing skills, so students can express themselves clearly and correctly; we want to build reading skills so students can read with comprehension and accuracy.

A wonderful feature of the Kagan Structures is that they are instructional strategies that can be used repeatedly.

To accomplish these four language goals—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—we need an array of teaching tools. That’s exactly what Kagan Structures are. Each structure is a different language-teaching tool designed to develop different skills. Some structures are more suitable to build vocabulary skills (e.g., Match Mine). Others are ideal for practicing language skills such as grammar (e.g., RallyCoach). A third category of structures develops interaction, fluency, and speech elaboration (e.g., Progressive Timed Pair Share). Then, Structures like the Flashcard Game are great for simply memorizing the breadth of vocabulary terms and phrases students need to learn. Many structures simultaneously address multiple objectives that go beyond the four language objectives outlined above.

We have developed over 200 Kagan Structures for promoting interaction in the classroom. Because cooperation and communication are two hallmarks of the Kagan Structures, they are particularly well adapted to English learning. A wonderful feature of the Kagan Structures is that they are instructional strategies that can be used repeatedly. They are not limited to one particular exercise, but are designed as shells so you can slot in any activities and target language. Once you learn some basic Structures, you can integrate them easily into your daily English lessons. For example, you may use RallyCoach today on directional words, but you can use it again tomorrow for proper use of question words.

Here are six sample Kagan Structures we encourage you to experiment with.

Six Structures for the English Language Classroom

1 Match Mine

Language functions:
Vocabulary builder, Functional communication, Oral language production

• Develops target vocabulary based on the content of the game
• Develops ability to give and follow instructions accurately

Structure summary:
Partners on opposite sides of a barrier communicate with precision in order for one to match the other’s arrangement of game pieces on a game board.

Match Mine is terrific for
developing communication
skills. Students must use the
target vocabulary correctly to
achieve a successful match.

Description: The teacher assigns students to pairs. Each partner receives an identical game board and game pieces. The game board and game pieces can be based on any vocabulary topic such as food, clothing, sports, careers, verbs, and so on. For example, to practice human body vocabulary, the game board is an illustration of a person. The game pieces are numbered arrows. The pair sets up a file folder barrier between them so they can’t see each other’s game boards. One partner (the “Sender”) arranges the numbered arrows pointing to different body parts. Then, the “Sender” describes her arrangement of arrows on the illustrated body and the “Receiver” attempts to match the “Sender”’s arrangement exactly: Arrow #1 is pointing to her left ear. When the pair thinks that they have correctly made a match, the “Sender” and “Receiver” compare their arrangements to see how well they did. If the game pieces are arranged identically, the pair celebrates their success. If the game pieces don’t match, they congratulate their efforts, then discuss how they could have communicated better to make the match.

Match Mine is terrific for developing communication skills. Students must use the target vocabulary correctly to achieve a successful match.

2 Timed Pair Share

Language functions:
Fluency, Elaboration, Oral comprehension

• Half the class is actively producing language at any time, while the other half is actively listening.
• All students must participate.
• Students listen attentively so they can respond appropriately.
• Students regularly practice producing language on various topics.

Structure summary:
Partners take timed turns listening and sharing.

With Timed Pair Share, no
students get left behind.
Everyone must participate.

Description: Timed Pair Share is one of the simplest cooperative learning structures—and one of the most powerful. The teacher states a discussion topic, how students are to pair, how long students will have to share, and selects who will go first. It is perhaps the easiest way to infuse cooperative interaction into just about any point of the lesson. For example, What do you predict this text will be about? Face partners and share for thirty seconds each. Partners with the darkest clothes begin.

When you compare Timed Pair Share to its traditional counterpart—selecting one student to share with the class—its true power is revealed. With Timed Pair Share, half the class is active at any one time, while the other half listens attentively. In the traditional class, only a single student in the whole class is active at any time; the rest of the class may easily tune out. With Timed Pair Share, no students get left behind. Everyone must participate. Students practice speaking and sharing their thinking and opinions in English. They practice listening attentively. A single Timed Pair Share versus selecting one student in the class probably doesn’t add up to much, but when you consider how often teachers ask questions every day, then multiply that by the number of days in the school year, this simple little Structure has the power to dramatically improve language skills.

Variation: Progressive Timed Pair Share. In Progressive Timed Pair Share, students take turns sharing with different partners on the same topic. Each time they share on the topic, the time limit is increased. This gives students the opportunity to start small and work their way up to more elaborated sentences, phrases, and ideas. As they hear ideas and language from their partner, they can incorporate what they’ve heard into their own turn to speak.