Cooperative language learning

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Cooperative language learning is focused on the idea that teaching should make maximum use of cooperative activities and interactions. Fighting against older ideas that teaching should be teacher-fronted and that strong and weak students should be educated separately, cooperative language learning maintains that in cooperative group work students are likely to scaffold each other and therefore raise the language level of the class.

Theory and characteristics[edit]

Cooperative language learning is based on the idea that second language learning can be best done in heterogeneous groups, when all students work collaboratively and cooperatively for one common goal. It replaces the idea that students have to work competitively against one another. On the contrary, it rather supports the idea Vygotski claimed in his Sociocultural (S-C) Theory, which states that “Interaction not only facilitates language learning but is a causative force in acquisition.” (Saville-Troike 2006: 111).[1] Vygostki was of the opinion that social interaction is seen as the only way of learning a language sufficiently and therefore he came up with his idea of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), “an area of potential development, where the learner can achieve that potential only with assistance” (Saville-Troike 2006: 112).

Taking Vygotski's idea where language learning is done with social interaction, cooperative language learning focuses on language learning in natural settings through the use of interaction in pairs or/and group work. This means that interaction within one heterogeneous group can lead to a maximum of language learning, if the students work collaboratively. To do so, they have to use the L2 and share the idea of achieving a common goal, which is not on the first side the learning the language, but solving the exercises. This means that the actual language learning process can be seen as a side effect of the task, because students have to use the foreign language just as a means of communication. That also lowers the anxiety of talking in a foreign language and therefore it encourages students to make use of it, but being less afraid of making mistakes.

Richards and Rodgers (2001: 193f.) premise 5 principles that underlie the interactive and cooperative nature of language and language learning:

  1. "Humans are born to talk and communication is generally considered to be the primary purpose of language."
  2. "... most talk/speech is organized as conversation."
  3. "... conversation operates according to a certain agreedupon set of cooperative rules or 'maxims'."
  4. "... one learns how these cooperative maxims are realized in one's native language through casual, everyday conversational interaction."
  5. "... one learns how the maxims are realized in a second language through participation in cooperatively structured interactional activities."

Cooperative language learning puts these principles of language and language learning in the driver's seat.

Theory of learning[edit]

As already stated, the theories of Vygotski and Piaget can be seen as setting the base of cooperative language learning. As shown in the premise, social interaction is maintained to be necessary for language learning and thus corresponds perfectly with the principles of cooperative language learning. In working cooperatively, students share the idea of working together and achieving a common goal.

Every member of the group has different ideas and skills and in sharing them with the others, the group can take a maximal profit out of it all. Furthermore, different skills mean that every member of the group has the chance to participate and so every group member is important for the success of the group work. The emphasis of this approach is on cooperative work rather than on competitive work.

Cooperative language learning also encourages students in their critical thinking, because in cooperative environments, different approaches to certain topics occur and the students have to think and consider the whys and hows. Therefore they have to analyse possible solutions, which is another reason why heterogeneous groups are an advantage rather than a disadvantage in cooperative language learning environments.

Teacher and learner role[edit]

The teacher's role in this method differs from normal classroom settings. While frontal teaching may be the norm in some other methods cooperative language learning uses this form of teaching only on selected occasions. One feature of this method is the great mixture of teaching styles. A lesson can easily consist of frontal teaching sequences, as well as pair and group work phases where the teacher is more or less left out, depending on the activity (e.g. Gallery walk, Jigsaw etc.).

The teacher's task is to provide the material, to set the classroom settings, to set goals for the students, to structure the classroom and the activities and to help and monitor students in the work phase. However, the bulk of the work has to be done before class starts and so it can be said that in cooperative language learning classrooms are much less teacher-centred than some other methods.

The learner's role is primarily to work collaboratively with each other and develop and practice social skills. It is important to accept new ideas from other students, because the students have to share ideas (not compete to see who has the best), accept criticism and they have to learn to make use of the foreign language also when the teacher is not around.

Common activities in a cooperative classroom setting[edit]

Think, pair and share activities are common in a cooperative classroom setting.

See also[edit]



Brüning, L., & Saum, T. (2006). Erfolgreich unterrichten durch Kooperatives Lernen: Strategien zur Schüleraktivierung. Essen: Neue Deutsche Schule.

Richards, J.C. & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (second edition). Cambridge UP.