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Cooperative learning is defined as any group learning activity organized in such a way that learning is dependent on the socially structured exchange of academic content as well as other information between the specific group of learners, and whereas each individual learner is accountable for his/her own learning (Tinker-Sachs et al, 2003). Furthermore, Kagan (2002; 1994) states that cooperative learning will ultimately lead to increases in the learning of other members in the group. Kagan posits (2002) that cooperative learning is an excellent teaching strategy that promotes enhanced learning for diverse student populations and is especially beneficial for English language learners. Noyes (2010) further states that English language learners participating in cooperative learning groups not only increase overall understanding of the English language, they also develop deeper understanding of academic content as well as academic language. Continuing research from Cummins (2009) suggest that students with diverse learning abilities, including students with learning disabilities improve their skills through the natural scaffolding strategies found in cooperative learning groups.

What is Cooperative Learning?

Cooperative leaning is essentially a teaching method that utilizes small groups of students or teams where, each student has a specific job or responsibility in the group. The teacher structures students of mixed ability levels in a small group, so that effective scaffolding for the English language learner will augment and enhance student learning. Students of different ability levels participate in a variety of learning activities designed by the teacher to improve their overall understanding of specific academic content or subject (Noyes, 2010; Kagan, 2002; Kagan, 1994). Additionally, each member of the team is responsible for a specific portion of the content, but is also compelled to help other members of the group learn the required content objective (Noyes, 2010; Kagan, 2002; Kagan, 1994). Even contemporary research suggests that cooperative learning creates favorable learning outcomes for English language learners (Murray, 2010). Furthermore, by assigning definitive jobs or tasks to each student, the group as a whole works through the assignment and/or project until each group member is able to successfully finish the activity and gain deeper understanding of activity (Noyes, 2010; Kagan, 2002; Kagan, 1994).

Cooperative learning has four basic principles with the acronym PIES. The P stands for positive interdependence, the I stands for individual accountability, the E stands for equal participation, and the S stands for simultaneous interaction (Kagan, 2002; Kagan, 1994). Kagan (1994) states that if any one of these four basic principles is not implemented, no cooperative learning will be involved. Therefore, it is essential that all four principles are utilized for the academic content area in order for cooperative learning to occur with fidelity. Therefore, it is crucial that the teacher fully understands the basic four basic principles and refrain from eliminating any of the key components of cooperative learning (Noyes, 2010; Kagan, 2002; Kagan, 1994).

Both Kagan (2002) and Sharan (2010) further state that the cooperative learning model leads to increases and expeditious understanding for English language learners because group oral discussions lead to increases in the use of the English language through both conversational dialogue as well as written language. By allowing students to use and maintain academic English conversations for students whose primary language is not English, their develop more meaningful experience with the English language, which in turn, leads to higher order thinking skills (Sharan, 2010; Shaaban, 2006; Tinker-Sachs et al, 2003).

Cooperative learning is quite different from the direct instruction teaching model, as well as other traditional pedagogies. Traditional instruction relies on the teacher to impart direct instruction or lecture to the students, while they sit passively, supposedly absorbing academic information in their brains, as well as understanding the English language. However, even though the teacher may be modeling academic English language throughout direct instruction, research indicates that there are far too few opportunities to use the English language for students whose primary language is not English. Also, with traditional teaching models, diverse learners have little opportunity to increase academic vocabulary and content (Chang, 2008; Gaith and Bouzeineddine, 2003).

Cooperative Learning and English Language Acquisition for ELLs

As previously mentioned, by using cooperative learning structures, the English language learner will develop and improve their overall English language (Cummins, 2009; Shaaban, 2006; Kagan, 2002). When further analyzed, Sharan (2010) states that English language learners use the English language in its natural context. Further, using the English language to enhance functional interaction and real-life conversations increases understanding and increases transference. Also, students working together in cooperative learning structures tend to modify their level of speech to accommodate each other (Murray, 2010; Chang, 2008). Plus, students in cooperative grouping are able to regulate their own English language output to ensure that each team member comprehends and understands each other (Sharan, 2010; Kagan, 2002). Another language benefit for English language learners is they are talking to a group member, as opposed to the entire class, which allows the English language learners to gain some confidence with English. When cooperative learning is implemented appropriately, the team members are supportive of one another during English language acquisition (Tinker-Sachs et al, 2003; Kagan, 2002).

Other Benefits for English Language Learners

There are several other benefits to cooperative learning for English language learners in addition to greater academic achievement. Kagan (2002) states that students in cooperative structures develop improved self-esteem and strengthen their social skills in class. Furthermore, students build community in their classroom by cultivating social relationships and acceptance of students from other ethnicities or students with disabilities (Cummins, 2009). With active student participation, cooperative learning fosters increased enthusiasm for the class, school, and education (Murray, 2010).

Teaching Caveats

Teachers must be mindful of the basic principals of cooperative learning and actually spend instructional time teaching the students how to effectively use not only the strategy, but also their individual roles and responsibilities (Noyes, 2010). The teacher is responsible for not only academic content, but must guarantee that the cooperative group(s) will refrain from any negative comments or remarks directed toward any teammate and/or work product. Students must feel safe and secure in the cooperative learning structure in order to achieve maximum benefit and deeper understanding of academic content (Kagan, 2002; Kagan, 1994). It is also vital that all students understand their role in the group, as well as group and teacher expectations (Sharan, 2010). Another consideration the teacher must address is the noise level in the classroom. Good classroom management is crucial for optimum student success. The teacher will have to monitor the groups to be sure that students are on task and that each team member is an active participant. Furthermore, students need to actively listen as well as participate (Noyes, 2010; Kagan, 2002).


Cooperative learning has been the subject of much research that continues today. Cummins (2009) posits that students have much higher occurrences of oral English language usage throughout the instructional day when using cooperative learning strategies. Noyes (2010) concurs with several researchers regarding the many benefits of cooperative learning with English language learners. By allowing students to actively listen and participate in group learning, the belief among prominent researchers is that cooperative learning will close the achievement gap so that all students will be able to succeed in school and then go on to become successful members of the community. Cooperative learning teaches students not only increased English language skills, but also social skills, acceptance and tolerance of others, increased student responsibility, and gains in self-esteem (Sharan, 2010; Cummins, 2009; Kagan, 2002).