ERIC Identifier: ED382035 Publication Date: 1995-05-00
Author: Kagan, Spencer Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
We Can Talk: Cooperative Learning in the Elementary ESL
Classroom. ERIC Digest.
Language acquisition is determined by a complex interaction of a number of
critical input, output, and context variables. An examination of these critical
variables reveals cooperative learning has a dramatic positive impact on almost
all of the variables critical to language acquisition.
Language acquisition is fostered by input that is
comprehensible, developmentally appropriate, redundant, and accurate.
"Comprehensible." To facilitate language acquisition, input must be
comprehended (Krashen, 1982). Students working in cooperative groups need to
make themselves understood, so they naturally adjust their input to make it
comprehensible. The small group setting allows a far higher proportion of
comprehensible input, because the speaker has the luxury of adjusting speech to
the level appropriate to the listener to negotiate meaning--luxury not available
to the teacher speaking to a whole class. The speakers can check for
understanding and adjust the level of speech easily when speaking to one
another, something not easily done when speaking in a large group. Input in the
cooperative setting is made comprehensible also because it is often linked to
specific, concrete behaviors or manipulatives.
"Developmentally Appropriate." Even if language is comprehended it will not
stimulate the next step in language acquisition if it is not in the zone of
proximal development (Vygotsy, 1978). The developmental level of any student is
what he or she can do alone; the proximal level is what he/she can do with
supportive collaboration. The difference between the developmental and proximal
levels is called the zone of proximal development. The nature of a cooperative
group focuses input in the zone of proximal development, stimulating development
to the next stage of language development.
"Redundant." A student may receive comprehensible input in the zone of
proximal development, but that will not ensure language acquisition unless the
input is received repeatedly from a variety of sources. The cooperative learning
group is a natural source of redundant communication. As the students in a small
group discuss a topic, they each use a variety of phrases providing the
opportunity for the listener to triangulate in on meaning as well as receiving
the repeated input necessary for learning to move from short-term comprehension
to long-term acquisition.
"Accurate." Accurate input--communication that is grammatically correct with
proper word choice and pronunciation--facilitates language acquisition. In this
area, the traditional classroom may have an advantage over the cooperative
classroom, because the teacher is the source of most speech. Peer output is less
accurate than teacher output, but accuracy in the traditional classroom is
purchased by preventing student output, a price far too high for what it
purchases. Frequent communicative output produces speech acquisition far more
readily than formal accurate input.
Language acquisition is fostered by output that is
functional and communicative (Swain, 1985), frequent, redundant, and consistent
with the identity of the speaker.
"Functional/Communicative." If speech is not representative of the way a
speaker will use the language in everyday settings, it will add little to the
speaker's actual communicative competence. Memorization of vocabulary lists or
verb conjugations does not increase fluency, because learning about a language
is quite different from acquiring the language. Display behavior such as, "The
clock is on the wall," or "This is a glass," is not representative of actual
speech, and practice of formal, de-contextualized speech creates transference
problems that hinder acquisition. The cooperative group provides the arena for
expressive, functional, personally relevant, representative language output that
is critical for language acquisition.
"Frequent." Students to a large extent learn to speak by speaking. The single
greatest advantage of cooperative learning over traditional classroom
organization for the acquisition of language is the amount of language output
allowed per student. In the traditional classroom, students are called upon one
at a time. During this whole-class question-answer time, the teacher actually
does more talking than the students, because the teacher must talk twice for
each time a student talks: first asking the question and then providing feedback
in the form of praise, comment, or correction opportunity. Thus, in a classroom
of 30, to provide each student one minute of output opportunity takes over an
hour. In contrast, to provide each student one minute if the students are in a
pair-discussion takes little over two minutes. In the cooperative setting, with
regard to language output, we can do in two minutes what takes an hour to do in
the traditional classroom!
"Redundant." Students become fluent if they have the opportunity to speak
repeatedly on the same topic. Many cooperative learning structures, such as
Three Pair Share and Inside/Outside Circle are explicitly designed to provide
redundancy of output opportunities. Even informal, cooperative learning
discussion provides redundancy as students discuss a topic with each of their
teammates. There is not enough time in the traditional classroom to call on each
student to talk more than once on a topic.
"Identity Congruent." Practicing classroom speech that is not consistent with
a student's identity will not lead to later fluency, because the student will
not want to project the identity associated with that speech. Cultural groups
will resist acquisition of the dominant language if the very use of that
language signals assimilation that is being resisted. The less formal,
peer-oriented, expressive use of language in the cooperative group represents
language use closer to the identity of many students than the formal use of
language practiced in whole-class settings. The more identity-congruent language
facilitates language acquisition.
Language acquisition is fostered if it occurs in a
context that is supportive and motivating, communicative and referential,
developmentally appropriate, and feedback rich.
"Supportive/Motivating." The traditional classroom is far from supportive as
students are "right" or "wrong" as they are called upon to answer questions
before the whole class. Students in a cooperative group are more motivated to
speak and feel greater support for a variety of reasons: (1) They are more
frequently asked questions; (2) they need to communicate to accomplish the
cooperative learning projects; (3) peers are far more supportive than in the
traditional classroom because they are all on the same side; (4) cooperative
learning structures demand speech; (5) students are taught to praise and
encourage each other; and (6) students are made interdependent so they need to
know what the others know. Because of these factors, students "bring out" their
teammates, providing words or phrases to make speech inviting and easy.
Cooperative learning provides a supportive, motivating context for speech to
"Communicative/Referential." In cooperative learning groups, we communicate
over things we are making. We speak in real time, about real events and objects,
to accomplish real goals. We negotiate meaning. Our communication that is
functional refers to what is happening in the moment. This communicative
language facilitates language acquisition, and it is quite in contrast to the
abstract "talking about" topics that often characterize whole-class speech.
"Developmentally Appropriate." Some students are not ready to give a speech
to a whole class but are quite at ease talking to one, two, or even three
others. Speech to a whole class is often formal and less contextualized than
speech within a cooperative group. It is easy to ask for a crayon from a
friendly peer; it is hard to speak before the whole class in answering a
question or speaking on an assigned topic. Speakers within a small group have
more opportunities to enter discourse at the level appropriate to their own
"Feedback Rich." Students talk to each other, providing immediate feedback
and correction opportunities. Feedback and correction in the process of
communication ("Give me that, "Sure, you take the ruler," etc.) leads to easy
acquisition of vocabulary and language forms, whereas formal correction
opportunities ("What is this?" "This is a ruler," etc.) lead to
self-consciousness and anxiety, which inhibit rather than facilitate language
In 20 minutes of whole-class, one-at-a-time interaction, a student is lucky
to get one feedback opportunity; in the same 20 minutes of cooperative
interaction, the student might receive half a dozen feedback opportunities--all
in a natural context easy to assimilate.
A NATURAL MARRIAGE
As we examine how cooperative learning
transforms input, output, and context variables in the direction of facilitating
language acquisition, we conclude: Cooperative learning and the ESL classroom--a
This Digest is reprinted from Elementary Education Newsletter (vol. 17, no.
2, Winter 1995), the official publication of the ESOL in Elementary Education
Interest Section of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Krashen, S.D. (1982). "Principles and practice in second
language acquisition." Oxford, England: Pergamon.
Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible
input in its development. In S.M. Gass, & C.G. Madden, (Eds.), "Input in
second language acquisition" (pp. 235-53). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). "Mind in society: The development of higher
psychological processes" (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E.
Souberman, Eds. & Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Holt, D. D. (Ed.). (1993). "Cooperative learning: A response to linguistic
and cultural diversity. Language in education: Theory and practice 81." McHenry,
IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.
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