Cooperative Language Learning

Cooperative language learning is focused on the idea that teaching should make maximum use of cooperative activities and interactions. Fighting against older ideas that teaching should be teacher-fronted and that strong and weak students should be educated separately, cooperative language learning maintains that in cooperative group work students are likely to scaffold each other and therefore raise the language level of the class.

An interactive approach refers to language learning that is authentic and genuine and takes place between two or more people, and cooperative learning is the most frequent application of this approach. The goal of an interactive approach such as cooperative learning is to create meaningful learning experiences that will help students develop genuine fluency in another language. Cooperative learning consists of groups of students working together in a cooperative, as opposed to competitive, manner to complete a task, an activity, or a project. While working together, the students have meaningful interaction with one another in the target language. Both cooperative and collaborative learning refer to students working together in a group toward a goal, but collaborative groupings may also refer to teachers and students, parents and students, students and the community, or the school and the family collaborating.

Cooperative language learning is based on the idea that second language learning can be best done in heterogeneous groups, when all students work collaboratively and cooperatively for one common goal. It replaces the idea that students have to work competitively against one another. On the contrary, it rather supports the idea Vygotski claimed in his Sociocultural (S-C) Theory, which states that “Interaction not only facilitates language learning but is a causative force in acquisition.” (Saville-Troike 2006: 111).[1] Vygostki was of the opinion that social interaction is seen as the only way of learning a language sufficiently and therefore he came up with his idea of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), “an area of potential development, where the learner can achieve that potential only with assistance” (Saville-Troike 2006: 112). Taking Vygotski’s idea where language learning is done with social interaction, cooperative language learning focuses on language learning in natural settings through the use of interaction in pairs or/and group work. This means that interaction within one heterogeneous group can lead to a maximum of language learning, if the students work collaboratively. To do so, they have to use the L2 and share the idea of achieving a common goal, which is not on the first side the learning the language, but solving the exercises. This means that the actual language learning process can be seen as a side effect of the task, because students have to use the foreign language just as a means of communication. That also lowers the anxiety of talking in a foreign language and therefore it encourages students to make use of it, but being less afraid of making mistakes.

Richards and Rodgers (2001: 193f.) premise 5 principles that underlie the interactive and cooperative nature of language and language learning:

“Humans are born to talk and communication is generally considered to be the primary purpose of language.”
“… most talk/speech is organized as conversation.”
“… conversation operates according to a certain agreedupon set of cooperative rules or ‘maxims’.”
“… one learns how these cooperative maxims are realized in one’s native language through casual, everyday conversational interaction.”
“… one learns how the maxims are realized in a second language through participation in cooperatively structured interactional activities.”
Cooperative language learning puts these principles of language and language learning in the driver’s seat.

Strategy of Cooperative Language Learning

English Skill Level: All

Grade Level: All

Also Called: Collaborative Language Learning, Interactive Language Learning

  • To implement cooperative learning, the teacher must decide whether cooperative activities will help meet the goals of the class. The teacher must also decide which type of cooperative activity to use. Cooperative activities might include peer tutoring, jigsaw activities in which different members of the group have different information that they must put together to find the results, group projects in which students work together to accomplish a task, and group projects in which students work independently but come together to complete the task. Then the teacher decides on one of many cooperative techniques to use, such as games, role-play, drama, projects, interviews, information gap activities, or opinion exchange.
  • The teacher decides how to put the groups together. Teachers might do this by counting off; by placing students in mixed-proficiency, similar-proficiency, or different or same language groups; or by allowing the students to choose their own partners. In general, the teacher should decide this ahead of time.
  • Once the teacher has decided on the cooperative activity, he or she explains to the group members what they will do. Sometimes each person in a group will be assigned a role such as recorder, leader, or negotiator. At times, it may also be necessary to model the technique and to explain why they will be working in groups. Then divide the class into groups.
  • Students begin, and the teacher checks with the groups to make sure that they understand what they are supposed to be doing. The teacher monitors the groups by walking around to make sure they stay on task if this is an in-class activity. He or she is also available to answer any questions or problems that may arise.
  • When the group is finished with its activity, which may take several minutes to several weeks depending on the activity, there should, in most cases, be a final product or discussion. Generally the final product, or parts of it, should be shared with the whole class. This might take the form of a formal presentation, a discussion, or a chance for everyone to ask questions.

Applications and Examples of Cooperative Language Learning

Group Activity in an EAP Bridge Course

  • Students are organized into mixed-language groups. They ask each other preview questions that prepare them to begin a group study of an academic area such as psychology, sociology, marketing, language learning, or agriculture. For example, if the topic were language learning, students might be asked to discuss the following:

What languages do you know?
How did you learn those languages?
Did you study them in school or learn them in some other way?
What way do you think is best to learn a language?
How old were you when you learned those languages?
Do you think age makes a difference?
What are some other variables that affect language learning?

As a group, describe your conclusions about the best ways to learn another language.

  • After students are finished discussing the preview questions, the teacher asks each group to share its conclusions with the other groups.
  • Students are given an article to read about language learning. They are told to mark any areas of the article they find confusing.
  • After reading the article, students meet in groups to discuss both the content and the mechanics of the article. First, students compare the areas of the article that they found confusing or difficult and ask for help from other group members. The teacher then asks the groups members what they found difficult or confusing about the article and clarifies any information that may begiving them difficulties.
  • Students are given a set of questions or exercises to do as follow-up to the article. Students can either do the exercises independently and then compare answers, or they can work on the exercises together. The teacher can put answers to exercises on the board or an overhead, or the students and teacher can discuss follow-up questions.
  • Students are assigned to do a group speech on language learning. Students must research their speech by finding one journal article, doing an interview, and finding information on the Internet. Students are given in-class time to work on organizing their speeches.
  • Students give their group speeches. Each person in the group must give part of the speech, but it is up to the group to decide how the speech will be organized and who will be responsible for each part.
  • Other class members are also asked to make written comments on the group speeches. After all speeches have been given, groups write up their comments regarding the other speeches and turn this in to the teacher.
  • At the end of group work, students are asked to assess their groups as well as their contribution to the group.
  • The teacher gives a group grade for both the speeches and the group participation as well as individual grades based on each student’s work and participation in the group.

Tall Tales

Submitted by Megan Larsen, Luther College education student

  • This lesson is based on the book American Tall Tales by M. P. Osborne (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). Groups of students perform different tall tales for the class. The teacher enters the classroom dressed as a character from a tale from American Tall Tales and tells that tall tale to the class.
  • The students are placed in groups of four or five. They can choose their groups by picking a numbered card; all students with the same number combine to form a group.
  • Each group chooses a tall tale and reports to the teacher which they have chosen. The teacher provides a copy of that particular story to the group. The groups read their stories aloud among themselves. Each group member will take a turn reading.
  • The members of the group make a list of the various characters in their tale. They then decide who will play each role and place that person’s name next to the character’s. The characters do not necessarily have to be people; a group member could play a tornado or Babe the Blue Ox. This list should be turned in to the teacher.
  • The groups rehearse acting out their tale. Students use their own words to act out the tale, although they can use language similar to that in the book. The teacher walks around the classroom helping groups and checking their progress.
  • After students have had a chance to rehearse, each group performs its tale for the class.
  • After each group has performed its tale, students write a journal entry on the various tall tales that were performed, as well as the specific tall tale their group performed. Students write about how they felt about working with their group to complete the final presentation and about what his or her personal role in the group. It can also include information that they have learned about tall tales so far.

Strengths of Cooperative Language Learning

  • When students are interacting in groups, they are required to use authentic and fairly fluent communications skills, which prepare them for the actual communication skills they will need in real life.

Weaknesses of Cooperative Language Learning

  • For group work to be successful, it must be carefully planned. A weakness in this method is that some teachers may just put students in groups without planning and find that the groups are not particularly successful. Some students may resist cooperative work if they do not understand the purpose.