Cooperative Learning: A Comprehensible-Input Perspective

Many teachers are being told to use more cooperative activities in their classrooms, but does this approach actually improve student acquisition? Below are some common ideas about cooperative learning in the foreign language classroom, and a Comprehensible Input-based response to each.

Idea: The more time spent in pair and group work, the better. 

Time spent in pair and group work may have limited benefits for psychological or administrative reasons, but because the quality of input students receive during these activities is substantially lower than the quality of input from fluent sources, pair and group work is not the best use of the majority of instructional time.

Idea: Students learn by playing games. 

Students can learn by playing games. They can also acquire language by playing games — provided the game provides high-quality comprehensible input. Most non-teacher-led games do not.

Idea: Students will not speak English in cooperative learning settings. 

Of course they will! Linguists have known for many years that any two speakers tend to use the language both are the most fluent in. It is highly unnatural to expect two adolescents to use an unfamiliar language in which they are not fluent when they have a shared language of eloquence.

Idea: Students will stay on engaged and task in groups or pairs because they’re doing something specific. 

Of course they won’t! Most classrooms using pairwork and groupwork set tasks for which students have not yet acquired enough language to succeed, in the mistaken hope that students will “learn it” through “practicing it”. However, people acquire language through input, not output. And if the language is acquired, there’s no reason to be practicing it through a task.

Idea: Students can learn from each other. 

Hoping that two non-fluent speakers of a language will somehow make each other fluent is like hoping that two toddlers will figure out Calculus in a sandbox with plastic numbers to play with. To get maximal acquisition in the limited time available in school, we must maximize high-quality (correct and comprehensible) input. Students are not skilled providers of comprehensible input and suffer from shortcomings in accuracy, flexibility of expression and authenticity of language.

Cooperative learning is wonderful for topics that require learning (culture).

It is much less ideal for language acquisition.

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