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Cooperative Learning

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

A common misconception among teachers is that since you are the expert, you must provide all the knowledge, and therefore, do most of the talking. While this may work well most of the time for a college course, this is not a good approach to teaching a language.

Learning a new language requires tons of practice. While you should encourage your students to find ways to practice outside of your classroom, the classroom provides a perfect place for structured practice that your students need. In general, you should aim to make sure that your students are talking more than you are. You should also use teaching techniques that keep as many students actively engaged for the most amount of class time. While students have different learning styles, and listening is definitely an important activity, listening to a lecture does not constitute engagement. If students are not being required to provide any kind of response or are not practicing the language that you are teaching and some a participatory way, your students will likely not progress very quickly. In addition, you need to ensure that you are receiving the feedback that you need to make sure that students are actually learning the concepts. That’s not possible if they are just listening to you lecturing or watching a video.

Cooperative learning techniques are the answer! I personally discovered this when I was faced with teaching citizenship to a group of 25 students of all levels from no English or reading or writing skills, to a woman who had a PhD from the United States! I tackled this by dividing my students in groups based on level. I taught a short basic lesson, then provided each group (about 4 groups) with their own lesson. I was shocked when my students’ test scored jumped more than any other class I had taught, especially the lowest students! While I did have some help from volunteers, this taught me the power of cooperative learning, or students learning from one another! Here is what this might look like in your classroom.

Small Group Work

Many teachers shy away from using small group work because they aren't unable to monitor each and every student and provide corrections. While this may be true in some cases, not utilizing small groups at all for that reason would be a huge mistake. Here are the benefits of doing small group work:

1. Small groups provide needed practice.

2. Small groups allow for more students to be actively engaged simultaneously. You want a noisy classroom!

3. We are social creatures. Especially for some students, working in groups give students a chance to engage with other adults, probably in a way they don’t get to throughout the week. This therefore increases their enjoyment of the class, as well as the likelihood they will come back. This is especially important in our post-pandemic world.

4. Shyer students may also feel more comfortable making mistakes and trying out language and a smaller group.

Small groups can be used effectively every class as part of the “I do, you do, we do” approach. After teaching and modeling a concept, such as a grammar concept, or reading a passage, practice with your whole class, and then allow the students to practice in groups. More modeling and structure will be necessary the lower the level of the class. The more advanced the students, the more the activities will require creativity, production of their own work “from scratch”, and higher level thinking skills.

If you have a multi-level class with a lot of students like I did, you may even rely on small groups for the bulk of your class! Just make sure you have enough volunteers or time to visit each group.

There many different ways to organize small groups and many different activities you can use. For ideas, see Kagan Cooperative Learning or visit

Learning Centers

That's right, learning centers are not just for kids. Why learning centers are great:

  • First, students have a chance to get up and move around. Just that very act will get the blood flowing back to their brains! It will be hard to fall asleep in your class when they are moving.

  • Did you know that simply being in a different part of the room can activate better learning? Being in the same place can aid learning in other ways, so it's important to utilize both.

  • Learning Centers are a great way to tap into all 3 learning styles: Visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Students will be moving, manipulating materials, and discussing the activity with other students. Talk about engaging students all at one time!

Here are some tips for implementing Learning Centers.

1. Learning Centers are great for practice and review. This can be review of concepts recently learned or a review of random other units or concepts covered (See this article on spaced repetition

2. Make sure to model each activity thoroughly, especially for lower levels. Demonstrate it on your own, then invite a couple of students to try it out in front of the class, correcting any misconceptions on how to do the activity. Identifying student misconceptions will also provide useful feedback for you as the teacher on your teaching techniques.

3. If you have enough activities and enough students, allow students to choose the activity that they want to work on based on their own perceived weaknesses. The accuracy of those perceptions will be based in part on the quality and frequency of the feedback that you give your students. This doesn't mean that you need to spend hours and hours grading papers, however. Feedback can be as simple as giving a verbal or written correction while students are working on an individual or small-group activity or planning regular mini-conferences on their progress (can be done during collaborative learning times).

4. Don't forget to show students how to properly put away the activity to avoid spending time cleaning afterwards!

5. Find ways to make the activity self-checking or provide the answers on a separate sheet of paper.

6. You don't need actual special spaces in your classroom to do Learning Centers. Simply move around the furniture that you already have or designate certain areas to certain activities. You can use folded sheets of colored paper to make signs to help students find the different activities.

7. Make sure that you have enough activities so that there are not too many people in each group, though some activities can accommodate more students. You don’t want more than 5 students for any activity.

8. You don't need to create totally new activities each time you do Learning Centers in your classroom. If there are skills that your students still need to practice, you can still use the activity. Depending on how frequently you utilize Learning Centers, introduce just a few new activities each time in addition to the activities already established.

9. Learning centers can be as structured or open as you choose. You can allot a certain amount of time for each round, and students move to the next activity after that time. In that case, each activity will need to be about the same amount of time to complete. Alternatively, you can simply allow them to choose an activity to work on. In that case, you will need to put out an extra activity or two based on the number of students.

Here are some suggestions for activities that could be placed in a Learning Center:

  • Board Games. There are many board games which can Aid in English language practice and learning. However, you can also find board games especially designed for language practice on ESL websites, such as

  • Matching activities. Match vocabulary words to definitions, for example. You can leave the matching pieces face up if there is a lot or the activity is difficult, or have students play it concentration style.

  • Card Games – For example, you can teach your students to play “Go Fish” to match present to irregular past tense verbs.


Once again, games are not just for kids! Fun goes a long way in helping your students to relax. Stress actually hinders learning, and so fun can open their minds to learn. However, you will want to adjust certain activities to be appropriate for adults. You want to be careful to demonstrate respect towards your students and not treat them like children, although we could all use a little fun! Games can be used as warm-ups, review activities, or event as a transition between activities to break up the pace. Here are some ideas:

1. Hot Seat

This is a great activity for reviewing vocabulary or facts. Split your class into two teams. Select one student from each team. Put two chairs at the front of the room (or you can have them stand) so that their backs are to the classroom board. Write a word on the board. All the other students on the team try to explain the word to the suited in the hot seat simultaneously. This means you will have a lot of noise in your classroom, so make sure the teacher next door is not giving there students a test! However, this is a high-energy activity that will be sure to create lots of rolling laughter as the student in the hot seat tries to decide which student to listen to! It also provides practice and describing things in English. Don't allow students to use foreign words, even lower level students! If students use their own language, the other team gets the point! This activity is great for intermediate level students, although you can use it with more advanced students by providing a longer list of words and moving to the next one as each word is guessed, providing for a higher Pace activity. You can prepay practice activity by writing the words or facts on individual sheets of paper tubi placed on the board. This would be especially helpful if your whiteboard is magnetic.

2. Flyswatter

This is another great activity for reviewing vocabulary and facts. Write the vocabulary words or facts on the board and random places, and you can even use different colors. To pre-prep this activity, you can write the words on large colored post-it notes ahead of time (this will be necessary if you will not be able to give up using your whiteboard during class, or you don't have a volunteer or a break time. Split your class into two teams. One student from each team comes to the board and is handed a flyswatter. The teacher says the definition of the word, or use it in a sentence, or gives an example, etc. The students must sWAT the correct word before his or her opponent does to get a point for their team. You will need to tell your students ahead of time whether their teammates can help them or not. In some cases I'll allow my students to provide clues such as the color of the word or the Post-it note. Anyone who says something in their native language disqualifies their team from that round.

3. Race to the board.

This activity can be raced to the board, or at the board, pending your classroom and your students needs. Race to the board: Split your classroom into two or three team and give each team a different colored marker. Ask a review question. After the question is asked, he was consult together, and if someone from the team knows the answer, that team member races to the board to write down the answer before the other teams do. If you find that certain students tend to give the answers every single time, you have a wide range of levels in the same classroom, then you will probably want to designate an order for the students. If you have a wide range of Ages in your classroom, for someone who is disabled for pregnant, or your classroom is small, furniture does not allow for safe "racing", opt for the "Race at the Board" version. Call the students to the board, then ask question. This will allow you to also hand-pick students so that those competing against each other are approximately at the same level.

4. Running dictation

Once again, be mindful of how you structure this activity or choose to skip this one if it is likely to cause injury or be difficult or embarrassing to some of your students. This activity is great for beginning level students. Split the class into several teams, depending on the size of your class. You should aim to have 3-5 students per group. Prepare some cards with sentences using vocabulary or phrases from class, or or with words that require some spelling practice. Place the cards in a certain location, such as on the marker holder under your board. When the game starts, one student from each team goes to the board to get the first card. That student may not show the card to the rest of their team, dictate the sentence to their team. Afterwards, a student must check the sentences of those students. You may also allow them simply to show the card. Once everyone's sentence is correct (except for the person who dictated the sentence who will not write), the next team member will go to the board to get the next card. The team that finishes their cards first and has everything correct, wins.

5. Jeopardy

This is a lower energy activity that can be adapted to any level, keeping in mind that it will require a little bit more preparation. At the very least, you will need to have a set of questions and answers already prepared. You can simply write out the categories and point levels on the board, or if you have access to a computer display, you can prepare a PowerPoint slide that can be reused for different sets of questions. Students from each team take turns choosing a category and point level. Make sure that the difficulty of the question course to the point level, as much as possible.

I hope you have fun trying out these activities in your class!

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