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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