Cooperative Learning Strategies

Cooperative Learning has been proven to be effective for all types of students, including academically gifted, mainstream students and English language learners (ELLs) because it promotes learning and fosters respect and friendships among diverse groups of students. In fact, the more diversity in a team, the higher the benefits for each student. Peers learn to depend on each other in a positive way for a variety of learning tasks.

Students typically work in teams of four. This way, they can break into pairs for some activities, and then get back together in teams very quickly for others. It is important, however, to establish classroom norms and protocols that guide students to:

  • Contribute
  • Stay on task
  • Help each other
  • Encourage each other
  • Share
  • Solve problems
  • Give and accept feedback from peers

Cooperative Learning for ELLs

Cooperative Learning is particularly beneficial for any student learning a second language. Cooperative Learning activities promote peer interaction, which helps the development of language and the learning of concepts and content. It is important to assign ELLs to different teams so that they can benefit from English language role models. ELLs learn to express themselves with greater confidence when working in small teams. In addition to 'picking up' vocabulary, ELLs benefit from observing how their peers learn and solve problems. If you decide to assign each student in a team a role (such as reporter, recorder, time keeper, and materials manager), you might want to rotate roles each week or by activity. This prevents what typically happens if students select their own roles - the same students wind up performing the same tasks. By rotating, students develop the skills they most need to practice.

Some Cooperative Learning strategies

There are some popular strategies that can be used with all students to learn content (such as science, math, social studies, language arts, and foreign languages). However, they are particularly beneficial to ELLs for learning English and content at the same time. Most of these strategies are especially effective in teams of four:

  1. Round Robin

    Present a category (such as "Names of Mammals") for discussion. Have students take turns going around the group and naming items that fit the category. (Kagan, 2009)

  2. Roundtable

    Present a category (such as words that begin with "b"). Have students take turns writing one word at a time. (Kagan, 2009)

  3. Writearound

    For creative writing or summarization, give a sentence starter (for example: If you give an elephant a cookie, he's going to ask for...). Ask all students in each team to finish that sentence. Then, they pass their paper to the right, read the one they received, and add a sentence to that one. After a few rounds, four great stories or summaries emerge. Give children time to add a conclusion and/or edit their favorite one to share with the class.

  4. Numbered Heads Together

    Ask students to number off in their teams from one to four. Announce a question and a time limit. Students put their heads together to come up with an answer. Call a number and ask all students with that number to stand and answer the question. Recognize correct responses and elaborate through rich discussions. (Kagan, 2009)

  5. Team Jigsaw

    Assign each student in a team one fourth of a page to read from any text (for example, a social studies text), or one fourth of a topic to investigate or memorize. Each student completes his or her assignment and then teaches the others or helps to put together a team product by contributing a piece of the puzzle.

  6. Tea Party

    Students form two concentric circles or two lines facing each other. You ask a question (on any content) and students discuss the answer with the student facing them. After one minute, the outside circle or one line moves to the right so that students have new partners. Then pose a second question for them to discuss. Continue with five or more questions. For a little variation, students can write questions on cards to review for a test through this "Tea Party" method.

After each Cooperative Learning activity, you will want to debrief with the children by asking questions such as: What did you learn from this activity? How did you feel working with your teammates? If we do this again, how will you improve working together?

Other ideas

A simple way to start Cooperative Learning is to begin with pairs instead of whole teams. Two students can learn to work effectively on activities such as the following:

  1. Assign a math worksheet and ask students to work in pairs.
  2. One of the students does the first problem while the second acts as a coach.
  3. Then, students switch roles for the second problem.
  4. When they finish the second problem, they get together with another pair and check answers.
  5. When both pairs have agreed on the answers, ask them to shake hands and continue working in pairs on the next two problems.

Literature circles in groups of four or six are also a great way to get students working in teams. You can follow these steps:

  1. Have sets of four books available.
  2. Let students choose their own book.
  3. Form teams based on students' choices of books.
  4. Encourage readers to use notes, post-its, and discussion questions to analyze their books.
  5. Have teams conduct discussions about the book.
  6. Facilitate further discussion with the whole class on each of the books.
  7. Have teams share what they read with the whole class.
  8. For the next literature circles, students select new books.


This page has been copied with permission PENDING from Kagan Publishing & Professional Development from the following book: Kagan, Spencer & Kagan, Miguel. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009. 1.800.933.2667.


Calderón, M. (1984, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1996, 1998). Cooperative Learning for Bilingual Instruction: Manual for Teachers and Teacher Trainers. El Paso, TX: MTTI.

Calderón, M. (1984, 1986, 1990, 1994). Second Language Acquisition: Manual for Teachers and Teacher Trainers. El Paso, TX: MTTI

Calderón, M. (1984, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1996). Sheltered Instruction: Manual for Teachers and Teacher Trainers. Baltimore, MD: Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University).

Ferreiro, R. & M. Calderon, (1998) El A B C del apendizaje cooperativo. Mexico, D.F.: Trillas. (can be ordered from Baltimore, MD: Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University).

Kagan, Spencer & Kagan, Miguel. (2009). Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooprative learning: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.
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I am writing a summary of articles about ELLs's language acquisition and would like to share this article with my instructor.

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