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 »  Articles Overview  »  Miscellaneous  »  EFL: Cooperative Learning

EFL: Cooperative Learning

By Martina Pokupec | Published  01/17/2011 | Miscellaneous | Not yet recommended
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Martina Pokupec
Da Inglese a Croato translator
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Cooperative learning is a method by which students learn in teams through structured interaction, whereby they do not only acquire knowledge, but develop highly valued social and personal skills. The underlying principles of cooperative learning, which are also the basic principles that differentiate cooperative learning from standard group work activities, are popularly called PIES, an acronym that stands for positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction. In this chapter the author will briefly discuss the meanings of these principles, and the methods discussed later will show how these four principles always work together during cooperative learning in the classroom.
Positive interdependence suggests that teamwork is structured in such a way that the team members must rely on each other in order to fully complete the task. Instead of competing with each other, where there are winners and losers and where one student’s gain is another student’s loss (negative interdependence), students are focused on helping each other. “Positive” means that one student’s gain is another student’s gain and interdependence means that that the task can only be accomplished if the teammates work together.
Individual accountability means that each team member is accountable for its team's progress and success, but also that each team member contributes to each task and is an indispensable part of the team. This is a highly motivational factor for students as they develop a sense of worth among their peers and are prepared at any given time to give feedback on the team's achievement. It also has to be noted that students are evaluated individually, which contributes to their participation and interest in what other teammates are doing.
Equal participation is usually the most worrying factor for teachers who use traditional forms of instruction in their classroom, such as frontal instruction or non-structured group work activities, where there are usually several students who complete the tasks or do all the work and the rest of them being unmotivated, disinterested and usually poorly graded. Cooperation in the classroom means that each student is expected to participate equally. Moreover, without full contribution and participation of each student the goals of a task cannot be reached in their entirety, so the team cannot be evaluated as successful.
Simultaneous interaction suggests that students learn through communication. Instead of trying to control the classroom so as to tell our students to be still, sit down and not talk, we are „going with“ their natural need to communicate, having control over what is being communicated. By communicating with each other in a structured way students are able to learn actively, being teachers and students at the same time. During the “sharing stage” of cooperative learning, students are expected to share their points of view and listen to others. Since there are about 6 – 8 groups in a classroom there will be at least eight students speaking at the same time, sharing with their group their conclusions or observations about the task.
Cooperative learning means a new structure/method of a lesson that always consists of three parts: individual work, sharing and presentation.


Language students especially thrive with cooperative learning, because of the focus on communication. During the sharing and presentation stages of cooperative learning students are expected to speak in the target language. During individual work they should also prepare to share their conclusions in the foreign language. Student output increases at least 50 per cent and this is the aim of an English class: to enable students to express themselves properly in English, which means that they should develop their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills.
Cooperative learning constantly develops listening and speaking skills, no matter what language is used, because students are instructed to express their observation in a way that others understand them, and they need to learn how to listen because they will have to report what their teammates thought or said, or will have to reach an agreement between various points of view. Reading and writing are also almost always present. Students are expected to draft their ideas during individual work and also to keep notes of what their peers are saying; when preparing for a presentation, students might be instructed to write it down or make a poster. Teachers should use this written material to give feedback to students. Very often in a language classroom the tasks will be structured in such a way that students will first read a text and/or write down their ideas individually, then they will speak and listen during the sharing stage but also read and write their teammates’ ideas. Simple tasks in the beginning of cooperative learning implementation in an English classroom might be focused on writing a story or reading and understanding a text.
In the second part of the article some simple cooperative strategies will be discussed as examples of lessons for English as a Foreign Language. It is important to mention again that cooperative learning lies on three basic work stages: individual work, sharing and presentation. Specific methods of cooperative work are based mostly on the stages of sharing and presentation, giving structure to how the information is to be shared and presented. We also need to keep in mind that each activity is timed, and special attention needs to be given to time allocation: when starting with cooperative work students will need more time to do their tasks and to get used to the new methods, so simple short-term tasks, and more time for each activity is advised in the beginning.
There are more than 111 methods of cooperative learning, however this paper focuses on the introduction of cooperative learning into the classroom so the methods chosen for explanation in this paper are simpler and very easy to implement. Student should start and perfect one learning strategy before moving on to another, they should not be introduced to new methods each time because it might create a resistance to participate.


This part focuses on concrete examples of cooperative learning methods that can be used in an ESL classroom. Some of the examples include references to an EFL classroom in Croatia, but this has no bearing on the implementation of the particular methods. Cooperative work consists of three stages: individual, sharing and presentation, and the first method described will be the one that clearly and simply demonstrates these stages.
Before starting with any kind of new method, the students need to understand the rules, so it is best that the class has already discussed the rules of cooperation and that they are hung/written/placed in a visible spot in the classroom. By the time the students start with an activity they are already formed in teams and know their color (or number, or letter), i.e. each student in a team has a specific number, color, letter or picture card, because these will be given special roles during the lesson.

This method supposes that students receive certain information, a problem or a question they need to think about and draw some answers, conclusions, observations or ideas. This is done in the individual stage. Then, the teacher instructs the students to pair up and in turns tell their partner what they have come up with. It is expected of them to know and to be able to say their partner’s point of view. After this stage they group with their teammates and use another method to discuss all the ideas they have come up with and agree on certain points of view. The teacher calls out students randomly to share their ideas with the whole class.
This method can be used in an ESL classroom with various subjects, and here it will be described as an example of an introduction to a new topic. According to Croatian National Curriculum for Elementary Schools one of the major topics for 7th graders is “free time” or leisure time”. The teacher might consider first telling the students what he or she likes doing in his or her free time, and then asks students to think about and write down their favorite free time activities. This activity is done individually and quietly and the students have 2 – 3 minutes to complete it.
After individual work, the teacher asks them to pair up. At this point the teacher will use the system of numbering students which has already been arranged, so he or she will say that a green student pair up with a red student and a yellow student will pair up with a blue student and share their conclusions. Green and yellow students will start first and they have one minute to share. After the minute passes, the teacher instructs that now blue and red students have one minute to share.

At this stage, the teacher might decide to call out some students to say what their partner’s favorite free time activity is or wait until they shared information with the group. In order for the whole team to find out their teammates’ favorite activities, the best way is to do Round Robin. This is a sharing activity in which students in a team take turns in sharing information with one another. In this case, the students sit together and say what their partner’s favorite activity is while others listen. The teacher might invite students to keep notes while they listen so they would memorize what they have just heard. The teacher says: Team up and say to your team, by taking turns, what your partner likes doing in their free time. The students have about 3-4 minutes for this, and may be given another 3-4 minutes to do the activity again to practice before the teacher calls them out. The teacher will choose the color that starts first and they continue clockwise or with the first student on the right. During this activity the teacher actively listens to students to make sure they use English and keeps track of the time. When the time is up, the teacher calls out several students to talk about what they have found out. At least one student from each team should be called out and given several points or even a grade in the teacher’s book. The teacher should ask to find out about any color in the team, and students should know that any of them might be called out to present their team’s work at any time.

Three Step Interview
A three-step interview is a great exercise of speaking and listening skills.
We suppose that students first do a typical listening exercise, in which they listen to an interview where there is a discussion of everyday activities of a person. They do listening exercises that go along with it, but the last time they listen to it the teacher tells them to pay attention to questions. The Three-Step Interview strategy will then start by students individually writing down questions for their partner. The topic should be similar to that of an interview they have just listened to, or a topic they have dealt with for a period of time, because this is a very good revision exercise. In this case we will take the topic of “A day in a life of a student”. The teacher gives students 10 minutes to write down 7-10 questions for their partner on this topic. While they write, the teacher circles the classroom to see that the questions are formed properly. When the time is up, the second step is taken, which is pairing up students for an interview. Each student has 5 minutes to ask their partner questions and note down their answers; the teacher again uses the numbering method (colors, numbers, letters etc.) to say which student begins first. After the exercise, the students take step three: they team up and by using a team strategy they share what they have learned about each other. For this step we can use Paraphrase Passport: The teacher determines the students who start (student A; student blue; student 3...) with sharing their information, they have two minutes to do so. Then the students to their right need to paraphrase what they have just heard and share their own information, for what they have 3 minutes, and the activity continues until the students who spoke first have one minute to paraphrase the students on their left. The teacher then calls out several students to report and paraphrase what they learned about their teammates.
Paraphrase Passport activity can be explained in short in the following way: a) Student 1 speaks and the team listens; b) Student 2 paraphrases student 1 and then speaks; c) Student 3 paraphrases student 2 and then speaks; d) the pattern continues until student 1 paraphrases the last speaker.
Another fun activity for revision is called Find the Fib, and it can be used in the end of a lesson or as an introduction to a new lesson by prompting what students already know about the topic. During individual work, students write down several statements about a certain topic one of which is false, then they team up and read out the sentences to their teammates who need to guess which one is the false statement.
Students in 8th grade have just learned about some cultural and historical aspects of the United Kingdom, and the teacher instructs them about the activity they are about to do. They have three minutes to write down five statements about the UK, one of which needs to be false. They team up, and the teacher appoints the students who read the sentences first. The rest of the team have one minute to decide which sentence is false. The pattern continues clockwise until all the students have read their statements. After the activity the teacher might call out several students to say what they know about the UK.

Talking Chips
Talking Chips is an excellent activity for team discussion about an interesting issue. The teacher writes down an issue on the blackboard after instructing students to take a pen and paper. This issue should be related to all students on a personal level. Student in 8th grade are expected to discuss peer violence, so the teacher writes down on the blackboard: Bullying. The students are then given 1 minute to brainstorm this particular issue.
Students have previously been given two chips: very small pieces of paper of a different color, so that each team member has one piece of paper of a certain color. It is not important to use different colors or even pieces of paper, the important thing is that each student in a group has a different looking chip (such as a monopoly piece or a card) so that when he or she places this chip on the table his or her teammates know whose time it is to talk. This is important for the teamwork about to take place: student team up and say what they think about the issue. This time the teacher does not appoint the students who talk first, but the students use the “chips” when they want to speak. The first student who puts their piece of paper to the center of the table talks first. The teacher can set a time frame for the discussion (ten to fifteen minutes, for example) or the activity finishes when all the chips have been used. The teacher then calls out several students to report on what their particular teammate thinks about bullying.

Group Jigsaw
This activity requires more time and it should deal with a topic that can be split into more equal units. It will also end with a classroom presentation for which students will make posters or similar graphic material. For this purpose the author has chosen a topic for 8th graders: Traveling.
The teacher writes “Excursion to London” on the blackboard which she splits into 4 units by using a mind map or similar principle and assigns one student in each team to one unit; for example: 1. means of transport and accommodation, 2. 10 rules of behavior, 3. 10 things everyone must pack, 4. 5 places to visit. Each team member has received material containing information they need to complete their task. So for example, green students have received several means of transport and several places of accommodation from which they need to decide the best one, and blue students have been given a set of verbs used to make rules (can, cannot, must...) and short articles about what happened when students misbehaved during excursions. The first stage of work is individual and students have 30 minutes to chose and write down what they have decided. Each stage of the work will take up the whole time of one class, because students should be given enough time to prepare and share their ideas.
The next stage of the work is teaming up of all the same-task students, for example all the green students work together, all the red students work together etc. In this stage they share what they have chosen and decided, they practice presentation of their decision and arguments, and they consider suggestions from other students. It is not necessary for this particular task of excursion planning for them to come to equal choices, since it will be interesting to see different ideas and preferences of students. For this stage, students can use Round Robin or Talking Chips, and the teacher must be careful that there are not too many students in one group: if there are 8 teams in the classroom, in this stage there should be two teams of same-task students, so for example, we will have two red teams, two green team and so on, each team consisting of 4 students, this will ensure simultaneous interaction and equal participation during the 45-minute time frame.
The next step is to put students back into their original teams. Until now, each student has made their decision and prepared their presentation. The teams use Round Robin or Paraphrase Passport to share their ideas, which should not take more than ten to fifteen minutes. Team members can ask questions for clarification, but cannot interfere with their teammate’s decision, whether they like it or not. The aim of this step is to get familiar with the whole project, in this case all the aspects of the excursion.
After this stage, the students are given a larger piece of paper (probably A3 format) to make a concept of their presentation, the teacher tells them they are going to have to make a classroom presentation which should be appealing to other students, so they need to take care of the visual aids and prepare to talk interestingly about it. They need to be reminded that any team member at any given time must be able to present all the aspects of the excursion (this is probably why the Paraphrase Passport would work better in the previous sharing stage). Again they can take turns and suggest their own drafts of the presentation. There is an interesting method suggested by Brüning and Saum for this type of work, called Place-mat procedure. Each student in a team drafts a concept of presentation on their particular space, i.e. the square in front of them. This is done as a form of individual work. Then the paper can be turned for other team members to see it while teams use Round Robin to present their presentation concept. After everyone has given their suggestions, Round Robin is used again to discuss each concept and to vote for the best ideas or parts to be used in the actual presentation. Then the team works together on the middle square to draft their concept. They should also prepare a list of materials needed for the presentation, whether it is a poster format paper and magnets to put on the blackboard or an overhead projector. The teacher should tell the students what kinds of aids are available for their presentation.
As far as time management is concerned, the teacher should be careful that students have enough time to do the best they possibly can, and each separate activity should begin and finish during the same class meeting. For example, the students have finished presenting their decisions to their team and there is fifteen minutes left until the class ends. The teacher might decide not to introduce the drafting of presentation but to consolidate what has been done so far. He or she can call out students and ask them simple questions about the task, about how difficult it was for them, how satisfied they are with their teammates’ decisions etc. The teacher could also decide to introduce a questionnaire about team work, or simply break up teams to frontally discuss traveling, or school excursions, or he or she can even give the students a set of grammar exercises, so the students can concentrate on something else and take a break from team work, continuing with the next step when they meet next time.
The last step of this activity is classroom presentation, which is best divided into two stages. First the students are given time to prepare. The teacher gives each student on the team their role as to what they will present; keeping in mind they should present a different aspect of the excursion than that of their individual work. The students make their visual aids, organize their notes, if they are using an overhead projector they can be sent one by one to the library to copy transparencies, and they practice the presentation with their teammates.
The next step is the presentation itself. All the students are given pieces of paper to write notes or questions about presentations they hear, because they might be expected to comment them. Each team is given about ten minutes for their presentation, and the teacher might consider arranging a 90-minute class for this, and inviting other school staff to be present if the students agree.
Group Jigsaw can be used for smaller projects, such as reading a text divided into four paragraphs and sharing the information one has acquired. It is important to remember that the rest of the teammates do not have insight into a student’s material and that they learn about it from their teammate. For example, the students who need to process “the rules of behavior” do not have insight into “means of transport and accommodation” and must trust that their teammates will do a good job of it.
To conclude this chapter, the author would like to mention that students and teachers should start with one method until they become familiarized with it before going to the next one, or if the teachers would like to use several methods, in order to see which is best for their students, they should make longer pauses between cooperative learning sessions, so that students would not become confused and put off by the methods.

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