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Teaching high school age non & low readers in the content area

Posted By: Barbara Denton on May 15, 2003
Have you tried Cooperative Learning in service with your content teachers? Check out this web site at http://www.cde.ca.gov/iasa/cooplrng2.html
I have used Cooperative Learning to teach history and science in middle school and high school. Students who are poor readers in a heterogeneous class are not left to embarrass themselves in front of the whole class. By working in small groups, they learn to help each other to succeed (I am not talking group grades! In fact, DON'T give group grades.) and to take some responsibility for the learning and success of others as well as themselves. The teacher divides the lessons into parts and sets up the groups. For instance, 5 groups of 5, with the students designated as A, B, C, D, E. All the A's meet together, the B's, etc., and read together their portion of that chapter, highlighting main points and writing that section of a test on the material. Then they each go back to their numbered group and explain their portion of the chapter. The teacher takes the test questions they have written, adds to them, teaches the class session to cover gaps, holds discussions, etc. Too often the teacher lectures or the students read out loud and students work in isolation, and then any collaboration is considered "cheating" (I don't mean on the test). Don't expect miracles overnight. You don't need to do it every day. It takes time, but even the first session covering content in small groups will be a pleasant surprise.

The following is an excerpt from the Cooperative Learning web site.
Key Elements of Successful Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning takes many forms and definitions, but most cooperative approaches involve small, heterogeneous teams, usually of four or five members, working together towards a group task in which each member is individually accountable for part of an outcome that cannot be completed unless the members work together; in other words, the group members are positively interdependent. A vivid example of interdependence can be found in the relationship between language-minority and language-majority students in two-way immersion programs. Native and non-native English speakers work together to become bilingual.
Positive interdependence is critical to the success of the cooperative group, because the dynamic of interconnectedness helps students learn to give and take--to realize that in the group, as well as in much of life, each of us can do something, but none of us can do everything. When cooperation is successful, synergy is released, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For cooperative groups to be effective, members should engage in teambuilding activities and other tasks that deal explicitly with the development of social skills needed for effective teamwork. Members should also engage in group processing activities in which they discuss the interpersonal skills that influence their effectiveness in working together.


The essence of the cooperative group is the development and maintenance of positive interdependence among team members. A sense of interconnectedness can help students transcend the gender, racial, cultural, linguistic, and other differences they may sense among themselves. Unfortunately, these differences often are at the root of prejudice and other interpersonal stress that students experience in school.
Students need access to activities in which they learn to depend on each other as they ask for and receive help from one another. Individualistic and competitive teaching methods certainly have their place in the instructional program, but they should be balanced with cooperative learning (Johnson and Johnson, 1994).

When students work in cooperative teams in which "all work for one" and "one works for all," team members receive the emotional and academic support that helps them persevere against the many obstacles they face in school. As cooperative norms are established, students are positively linked to others in the class who will help them and depend on them for completing shared tasks. By becoming knowers as well as learners in a supportive atmosphere, English learners can establish more equal status relationships with their peers.

When the environment becomes more equitable, students are better able to participate based on their actual, rather than their perceived knowledge and abilities. Teamwork, fostered by positive interdependence among the members, helps students learn valuable interpersonal skills that will benefit them socially and vocationally.


Academic and language learning requires that students have opportunities to comprehend what they hear and read as well as express themselves in meaningful tasks (McGroarty, 1993). Cooperative learning creates natural, interactive contexts in which students have authentic reasons for listening to one another, asking questions, clarifying issues, and re-stating points of view.
Cooperative groups increase opportunities for students to produce and comprehend language and to obtain modeling and feedback from their peers. Much of the value of cooperative learning lies in the way that teamwork encourages students to engage in such high-level thinking skills as analyzing, explaining, synthesizing, and elaborating.

Interactive tasks also naturally stimulate and develop the students' cognitive, linguistic, and social abilities. Cooperative activities integrate the acquisition of these skills and create powerful learning opportunities. Such interactive experiences are particularly valuable for students who are learning English as a second language, who face simultaneously the challenges of language acquisition, academic learning, and social adaptation. By stimulating language input and output, cooperative strategies provide English learners with natural settings in which they can derive and express meaning from academic content (McGroarty, 1993, and Swain, 1985).

Students do not know instinctively how to interact effectively with others. Social skills, like other skills, should be taught and reinforced. Teambuilding activities will help students get to know and trust one another. Other important social skills include accepting and supporting one another and resolving conflicts constructively. Teachers need to model positive interpersonal skills, have students practice the skills, and encourage the students to process how effectively they are performing the skills. Focusing on social skill development will increase student achievement and enhance the students' employability, interpersonal relationships, and general psychological health (Johnson and Johnson, 1990).

Adapting Cooperative Methods for
Students with Special Needs
Cooperative methods are very flexible and can be adapted for students with special needs. In diverse language settings, differences in students' English language proficiencies makes it necessary for teachers to modify the methods to ensure that English learners can participate fully with fellow team members. For example, teachers may ask one member of each team to be a bilingual facilitator who helps students work together. In addition, activities that focus on social skill development and teambuilding should be used frequently to facilitate cross-cultural communication and understanding among team members.

Teachers will also want to consider which language–English or the native language or both–should be used by team members to accomplish language, content, and cross-cultural goals. Frequent use of group processing activities will help teachers and team members identify and solve problems on the team that may be rooted in cultural or linguistic differences.


Cooperative learning represents a valuable strategy for helping students attain high academic standards (Kagan, 1993; Cohen, 1994). After nearly fifty years of research and scores of studies, there is strong agreement among researchers that cooperative methods can and usually do have positive effects on student achievement. However, achievement effects are not seen for all forms of cooperative learning; the effects depend on the implementation of cooperative learning methods that are characterized by at least two essential elements: positive interdependence and individual accountability (Slavin, 1990). Other important elements are described above.
In areas other than achievement, there is even broader consensus about the effects of cooperative learning. For example, when students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds work together toward a common goal, they gain in liking and respect for one another. Cooperative learning also improves social acceptance of mainstreamed students with learning disabilities (Slavin, 1990).

Professional Development

Because groupwork dramatically changes the teacher's role, professional development is vital to the implementation of cooperative learning (Cohen, 1994). To learn and employ cooperative strategies, teachers need access to extensive professional development that includes (1) the theory and philosophy of cooperative learning; (2) demonstrations of cooperative methods; and (3) ongoing coaching and collegial support at the classroom level. Implementing cooperative approaches is greatly enhanced when teachers' have opportunities to work together and learn from one other. As teachers observe and coach each other, they provide essential support to ensure that they continue to acquire the methods and develop new strategies tailored to their own situations. To facilitate such a coaching model, the "Coaching Instrument for Cooperative Learning" is available in Holt, 1993, pp. 183-187.
One way that teachers can become models of cooperation is to make team learning one of the disciplines they develop in the ongoing reform of their school (Senge, 1990). According to Senge, "team learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire." The dynamics of team learning are similar to those of cooperative learning. By working on teams to improve the school, teachers can improve their ability to use cooperative approaches in the classroom and become mentors of cooperation for their students.


Cooperative learning methods hold great promise for accelerating students' attainment of high academic standards and the development of the knowledge and abilities necessary for thriving in a multicultural world. However, like other innovations, cooperative learning approaches need to be tailored to the cultural and linguistic context in which they are used. Designed and implemented by teachers who are loyal to the key elements of cooperative learning and dedicated to regarding diversity as a resource, cooperative approaches can create supportive environments for that enable students to succeed academically, enhance their employability, and improve their interpersonal relationships.

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 Teaching high school aged non and low readers to read by R. Warren Donelan on April 15, 2003
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