Vol. 1. No. 3 R-11 March 1995
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Cooperative Learning: A Response to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity

Daniel D. Holt (Ed.)(1993)
McHenry, IL: Centre for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems, Inc.
Pp xii + 196
ISBN 0-937354-81-3 (paper)
US $18.95

This book, developed by staff members of the Bilingual Education Office, California Department of Education, is divided into two sections. Part I provides a theoretical rationale for cooperative learning (CL) and relates this specifically to second language acquisition and language minority education. Part II looks at the application of cooperative learning at the elementary and secondary levels, and presents five model units prepared by classroom teachers and resource specialists showing the use of CL in language arts, social studies, English as a Second Language (ESL) and history.

In his introduction to cooperative learning for students from diverse backgrounds, the editor, Daniel Holt, points out that the heterogeneity underpinning CL did not originally include the linguistic and cultural diversity which is now the rule rather than the exception in many schools. CL is nevertheless a strategy that values difference and so can ˝help educators transform diversity into a vital resource for promoting students═ acquisition of challenging academic subjectsţ (p 2). The book itself is an example of collaboration involving teachers, curriculum specialists, program managers, teacher educators and researchers. This multiplicity of perspectives helps underline the potential flexibility of cooperative learning as teachers adapt its principles to their unique context.

In his introduction to cooperative learning for students from diverse backgrounds, the editor, Daniel Holt, points out that the heterogeneity underpinning CL did not originally include the linguistic and cultural diversity which is now the rule rather than the exception in many schools. CL is nevertheless a strategy that values difference and so can ˝help educators transform diversity into a vital resource for promoting students═ acquisition of challenging academic subjectsţ (p 2). The book itself is an example of collaboration involving teachers, curriculum specialists, program managers, teacher educators and researchers. This multiplicity of perspectives helps underline the potential flexibility of cooperative learning as teachers adapt its principles to their unique context.

In Chapter 2, Spencer Kagan outlines his structural approach to cooperative learning, which involves the systematic application of content-free ways of organising social interaction in the classroom. Kagan briefly discusses a number of these structures and points out [-1-] their ˝distinct domains of usefulnessţ. This highlights the need for teachers to choose structures which reflect their goals at any given stage in a unit. The overview of selected structures on pages 14 and 15 is a useful reference for teachers unfamiliar with cooperative learning, but unfortunately does not include all the structures mentioned in subsequent chapters. Such a ready reference would have been helpful for readers dipping into the book.

In the third chapter, Mary McGroarty reviews current models of second language acquisition and draws parallels between these and the principles underpinning CL. She concludes that research in both areas agrees on the importance of repeated and varied exposure to knowledge and of interaction and negotiation of meaning as a foundation of learning. The flexibility of CL provides a number of advantages. These include preplanning the use of students═ first and second languages, varying group composition according to the demands/goals of the task, providing contextual support for verbal learning and making use of informal as well as formal learning methods.

McGroarty also stresses the need for more research into the process of language development in cooperative settings. Teachers are aware that factors such as age, gender, status and ability levels affect student participation in whole-class and group work. The picture in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms is even more complex. A potential shortcoming of the book is perhaps that the issue of developing crosscultural communication skills has not been addressed more explicitly, although several authors mention the need for team and class building. Some of the activities suggested for this, however, appear (to this reviewer at least) to be culturally very ˝American,ţ and so may clash with the expectations of students (and teachers) from other cultures. With its emphasis on interpersonal skills and the need to evaluate interaction between learners, CL certainly lends itself to the development of such skills, but the adaptation must be two-way.

In Chapter 4, Kagan and McGroarty further explore the ways in which cooperative classrooms provide an environment likely to maximise both language development and content knowledge. This is achieved through the provision of group work involving plentiful, appropriate and comprehensible input in a structured context which requires negotiation of meaning in a safe, non-competitive environment. The cooperative learning principles (positive interdependence, individual accountability, social skill development and the simultaneity principle) all contribute to an acquisition-rich classroom environment in which second language learners receive the support they need from both the teacher and their more proficient peers. While one of the tenets of CL is the value of heterogeneous groups, the authors also explore the use of homogeneous groups to allow learners to work in their first language or to receive instruction specially adapted to their level of second [-2-] language proficiency without being excluded from the class group as a whole. In the second part of the book, several of the units suggest the use of such homogeneous groups to prepare less proficient learners for interaction with their peers.

For language teachers familiar with the linguistic debate on the importance of group work (e.g. Long 1989), cooperative structures and ˝microstructuringţ suggest techniques which will maximise interaction within a context of activities familiar in the language classroom. Long═s two-way tasks, for example, follow the principle of interdependence, and research into the interaction to which they give rise lends support to the value of cooperative learning for language development. The benefits of optimal access to language and content learning, of course, do not only accrue to the second language learners but to the class as a whole.

In Chapter 5, Corine Madrid illustrates how CL can facilitate limited-English-proficient (LEP) students═ learning in three distinct areas: academic content, English language arts, and social skill development. Whether LEP students are from a range of backgrounds or share a common language, cooperative structures are suggested for use either as a single activity or as a sequence over a number of lessons.

The sixth chapter focuses on CL as a effective strategy at the secondary level, where it allows LEP students to maximise the amount of time available for hearing and using language in a low-risk environment. Author Barbara Chips argues that CL can not only provide content support and facilitate productive interaction with peers, but also stimulate students to higher levels of thinking, thus preparing them for academic learning and testing.

As in the previous chapter, the structures and activities presented can be used individually (for example, as a five-minute team builder) or in longer sequences. This flexibility is no doubt intended to assist teachers to familiarise themselves with the techniques and incorporate them gradually into their classroom repertoire. A possible drawback, however, is the perception that the content-free structures are on-off activities which will not be related to a coherent program of instruction and so will remain content-free. In this chapter, for example, Chips presents seven activities designed to develop social skills for teamwork and improve comprehension and oral production skills. She then shows how various other structures can be combined into a unit of work. This sequence, however, seems unrelated to the activities presented in the first section. It might have been more coherent if the author had presented the sequence of teambuilding/social skill development activities and then shown how these same activities could be adapted to fit specific academic content and linguistic objectives in a unit of work. [-3-]

The final five chapters present model units that use a range of cooperative structures and are designed for classes from Kindergarten to Grade 10. Three of the models present lesson plans for a sequence of instruction over four days. The remaining two involve three phases which may be extended over a number of teaching periods.

Each model presents a rationale and considerations for meeting the needs of LEP students. There are also details of the instructional setting, a proposed timeline, and the academic, language, and social objectives for each lesson or phase of the unit. This standardised format and the step-by-step instructional plan setting out what both teacher and learners will do generally provides the reader with a clear picture of the proposed activity sequence, although authors occasionally assume familiarity with cooperative structures which have not been explained elsewhere. Thus, although the book lends itself to browsing, for the uninitiated there is benefit in reading it sequentially, as each author provides certain insights and advice which complement the work presented in other chapters.

Cooperative Learning: A Response to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity is a clear, practical and easy-to-read introduction to cooperative learning which will be useful to non-language specialists dealing with LEP students in mainstream classes, and also to language teachers for whom cooperative learning provides structures for the creation of supportive learning environments which maximise interaction. The balance between theory and practice will also appeal to practitioners who are not only given an opportunity to see how colleagues have used CL but also a rationale on which to base their own context-specific adaptations.

Reference

Long, M. H. 1989. Task, group and task-group interactions. University of Hawai═i Working Papers in ESL, 8(2), 1-26.

Jane Crawford
Queensland University of Technology
<J.Crawford@qut.edu.au>

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