Kagan Online Magazine

Subscription Info

Subscribe Me
You will receive an e-mail with hot links to the latest Kagan Online Magazine, as well as announcements about upcoming Kagan professional development events and new products.

Subscribe A Friend
Please include your friend's e-mail address when subscribing.

Unsubscribe Me
Remove yourself from Kagan's e-mail list.

Unlock Kagan's Vault
Free Articles
Bookmark and Share

Spencer’s Thinkpad

Cooperative Learning Helps
English Language Learners (ELLs) Succeed

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning Helps English Language Learners (ELLs) Succeed. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #62. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

Each year, teachers around the country are faced with a challenge for which they are not prepared. English-language learners (ELLs) are assigned to their classrooms, but very few teachers are credentialed English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. A recent estimate finds 1 in 10 students are ELLs, but only 1 in 100 teachers are adequately prepared to face the challenge. For an average class of 30 students, that equates to three ELLs per classroom. Of course, the distribution of ELLs is not equal, so some teachers have fewer, but some have many more, and the odds are that they are not fully prepared to help ELLs succeed. What can a teacher do to help ELL students learn the language and simultaneously learn the academic content without extra help in the classroom or without a specialized language instruction program?

Cooperative learning is a powerful tool to help address this challenge. Cooperative learning has very positive outcomes for ELLs. ELL students learn far more English and are more successful academically when the teacher employs cooperative learning strategies than when using traditional teaching practices. While cooperative learning was not developed specifically as a language-learning intervention, it is an incredibly powerful approach to teaching that any teacher may use to boost language learning.

In this article, we explore how cooperative learning impacts three of the most important variables that accelerate language learning:

  1. Comprehensible Input. To understand a language, the learner needs to hear the language spoken in a context that makes the language understandable.
  2. Frequency of Practice. To become fluent in a language, the learner needs frequent practice with the language.
  3. Social Support. To practice a language, the learner needs to feel it is safe to speak the language.

Comprehensible Input

Imagine you are trying to learn a second language. A native speaker of that language says to you, “Koofie.” You don’t understand what that word means. Seeing your puzzled expression, the native speaker speaks a bit louder and again says, “Koofie!” Your expression remains puzzled, so this time the speaker speaks much louder and with more emphasis, saying, “Koofie! Koofie! Koofie!!!” You have no idea what the speaker is referring to because there are no contextual cues that help you infer what “Koofie” means.

The cooperative learning classroom is loaded with student-to-student interactions. Each one of these interactions is an opportunity for providing comprehensible input.

Imagine instead, each time the speaker says, “Koofie,” he points to a book. You think you understand. To confirm your inference, you point to a different book and ask, “Koofie?” With a smile the speaker points to yet another book saying, “Koofie!”

Contextual cues make language comprehensible.

What does this have to do with cooperative learning? Cooperative learning is characterized by student-to-student interaction. Sometimes students work in pairs. Sometimes students work together as a team. Students interacting with other students on an ongoing basis provides a multitude of contextual cues that facilitate language acquisition. Picture a team of four students working on a project, building a tower, or drawing a team logo. A teammate says to the ELL student, “Hand me the red marker,” pointing to the red marker. Or imagine pairs doing a simple Kagan Structure, like Timed Pair Share. As the ELL student’s partner shares her answer, she uses gestures to make the words more meaningful. With student-to-student interaction, language is made more comprehensible to the ELL student as it is provided in context. Comprehensible input is provided any time students interact. If a language learner does not understand what his or her teammate says, the teammate says it in another way. As they negotiate meaning, language is acquired. Some tips to make language even more comprehensible for ELLs are to teach the class how to speak slowly when partnered with an ELL student, use gestures, and act things out. When possible, the teacher can provide the ELL student a dual-language buddy on the ELL’s team to provide translation.

The cooperative learning classroom is loaded with student-to-student interactions. Each one of these interactions is an opportunity for providing comprehensible input. Language in teams and pairs is more functional than the more formalized teacher instruction of the traditional classroom. Teacher instruction is often too quick and lacking any context to be comprehensible to early language learners. “Koofies” in rapid-fire succession without context are a recipe for ELL disengagement, not for optimizing language and academic learning. A related advantage of cooperative learning is that much of the practice is in pairs and teams which frees the teacher up from direct, whole-class instruction to provide more individualized instruction to ELL students.

Frequency of Practice

During my early work in cooperative learning and language learning, active brain imaging had not been developed. We now know much more about the brain and better appreciate the critical role frequency of practice plays in language acquisition. Semantic memory—memory for facts and information—is independent of procedural memory—memory for how to do things. Different brain structures are responsible for semantic and procedural memories and the two types of memory are acquired in different ways. Whereas a one-time learning experience can establish a semantic memory, only by frequent practice are procedural memories established. Frequent practice myelinates neural tracks establishing procedural memories.

Fluency depends on procedural memory. And frequent practice myelinates neural tracks establishing procedural memories.

For example, a teacher can have students learn the rule for subject-verb agreement. Learning the rule establishes a semantic memory. The students can repeat the rule. But knowing the rule has little to do with being able to apply the rule in the context of speaking. Fluency depends on procedural memory, not semantic memory. When first learning a second language, we draw from semantic memory—we think about the vocabulary and the sentence structure. After repeated practice, we no longer need to think about the language; we think about what we want to say. When we reach fluency, language production occurs automatically. It has become a well-practiced procedural memory.

What does this have to do with cooperative learning? In the traditional classroom, student talk is limited primarily to responding to teacher questions. Calling on students one at a time hinders language acquisition because it allows each student very little time to practice language output. For example, if a teacher calls on one student at a time in a class of 30, it would take at least 30 minutes to give each student one minute of talk time. In reality, though, the teacher talks at least as much time as the student who is called upon because the teacher first asks the question and then responds to the student’s answer. So rather than thirty minutes, it takes one hour to give each student one minute of language production while using teacher-student question-answer! One minute an hour of language output cannot produce fluency. By contrast, if the teacher uses cooperative learning pair structures like RallyRobin or Timed Pair Share, it takes only two minutes for students to have one minute each of language production. That equates to thirty minutes an hour rather than one minute an hour! As students work in teams of four, a quarter of the class is talking at any one moment in contrast to the one student talking during the one-at-a-time approach. Furthermore, a large portion of the traditional classroom time is spent on silent independent work. During independent work, there is little to no opportunity for the ELL student to practice speaking English.

It is only by repeatedly speaking a language that the speaker obtains fluency. The traditional call on students one-at-a-time approach and the silent independent work are exquisitely designed to prevent language fluency; pair and team interaction facilitate language fluency.

Social Support

Advances in brain science give us insight into the importance of creating a safe environment for any type of learning, including language learning. When there is a hint of threat, the amygdale in the brain fire, sending inhibitory impulses to the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting the ability to think and produce language. That is why we can’t think well when a test is too stressful, and it explains why some students become embarrassed, anxious, and tongue-tied standing before a class to deliver a report.

The cooperative class is rich with team celebrations, compliments, high fives, fist bumps, and other sources of peer support. For the early language learner, this positive class and team atmosphere reduces the risk of speaking.

In the traditional class, students are called upon to answer a teacher’s question while the whole class listens, evaluating the answer. Often, peers make fun of or giggle at language errors. For the early language learner, it is far safer to not raise a hand to be called upon and to avert the teacher’s eye than to risk public embarrassment of stumbling with the language. In contrast, cooperative learning includes teambuilding, so teammates get to know, like, and support their teammates. The cooperative class is rich with team celebrations, compliments, high fives, fist bumps, and other sources of peer support.

For the early language learner, this positive class and team atmosphere reduces the risk of speaking. Language learners know their teammates will help them rather than make fun of them. The ELL student uses English in the cooperative classroom with just one partner or in a supportive team with three teammates. This intimate setting is far less threatening than having all eyes on you. Whereas the traditional classroom environment is often perceived as a competitive, threatening environment not conducive to language practice, cooperative learning provides a safe, supportive social context for language acquisition.

Three Critical Variables for ELLs

Focusing on just these three variables—comprehensible input, practice, and social support—we see why cooperative learning is such a powerful tool for facilitating language learning for ELL students. The wonderful thing about cooperative learning is that it is not just a language learning intervention. It is a an approach to teaching that all teachers can use. ALL students benefit socially, academically, and linguistically from the ongoing peer support and interaction.