Our previous blog post asserted that “no language learner should ever be an island” recognising the importance of having peers and native speakers to work with and learn from. As language teaching moves away from the traditional teacher-centred lecture format, it’s vital that students are given an opportunity to develop more collaborative skills.
Not only does this better prepare them for the modern work environment, but collaborative language learning has also been proven to have a highly beneficial impact on learning outcomes. After all, one of the main aims of communicative language teaching is to develop the learner’s skills so that they might become better participants in conversation. And as Hedge’s 2000 research points out this can certainly occur in collaborative learning settings.
This blog post looks at the benefits that collaborative language teaching approaches can bring to your classroom and outlines how they can be effectively and efficiently delivered.
What is collaborative learning in the context of language education?
Collaborative learning occurs when a group of two or more students work together to achieve a shared goal or learning objective.
Students interact and share their knowledge to complete a task, discuss concepts or to find a solution to a problem their language teacher has posed. As they collaborate students learn together, addressing each other’s misunderstandings, clarifying misconceptions and correcting mistakes. Students in the group might be working on separate tasks contributing to a common goal, or working together on a single shared task.
In either case, collaborative learning activities should always focus on learning by doing. This is vital when learning a new language as building fluency only comes with increased use and confidence. Indeed, collaboration activities can provide unique and rich opportunities for language learning and oral language practice (Kagan 1995).
To summarise, as outlined in a recent OUP blog post:
“To be a successful language user, it is not enough to know; students have to adapt their knowledge to create meaning and communicate with someone else.”
Why use collaborative learning exercises in your language classroom?
There are many benefits for including collaborative learning in your language lessons. But perhaps most importantly, they are great for second language learners because they prioritise conversation and focus on developing listening and speaking skills. Additionally, the language is, in these scenarios, used for a meaningful purpose rather than just for an academic exercise. This maps directly to Swain and Lapkin’s recommendations for language learners that were first published in 1995.
In addition, collaborative exercises make students rely on each other to build knowledge and in so doing, make the learning process more meaningful and interesting. Students also feel part of a community of learning, where everyone is working towards the same goals and supports each other to succeed. As a result, students feel more in control of their learning journeys and are more confident and motivated to continue learning.
This experience is heightened when students of different academic levels are brought together in a group. Students are now not only responsible for their own learning but are also responsible for supporting and developing their peers. In this way, students can be inspired to achieve by using the example of their friends and peers.
Collaborative learning also enables students to:
- Develop higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, leadership and social skills.
- Flourish in an inclusive classroom environment
- Build self-esteem and personal responsibility.
- Be exposed to and increase their understanding of diverse perspectives.
Embedding collaborative learning in your classroom
At the beginning of a collaborative learning activity, the classroom and instruction from the teacher will probably look pretty familiar – the teacher stands at the front of the class and talks whilst the students listen. Yet this presentation phase is vital to set the scene and to introduce the task. This could be as simple as getting students to work with a partner and debate a topic in their target language.
Subsequently, students should then be given sufficient time to fully engage with and participate in the task. The initial focus is usually on accurate use of the language, as the teacher moves from group to group, assessing progress, answering questions and providing encouragement. Where good progress is being made, students can be challenged to go further, combining what they have just learned with what they already know.
At the end of each activity (or group of activities), it is advisable to have a quick debrief to review progress. Select a handful of students to share a summary of their activity with the class. Use other students / groups to address any errors or misconceptions and then give all students the opportunity to ask questions and clarify their understanding.
For larger project-based activities, it may be necessary to give students time to establish a plan, roles and rules for working together. Introductory ice-breakers and team-building exercises might also be useful to foster cohesion if students are going to be working together for an extended period.
The following points are also well worth considering if you’re looking to start using a collaborative approach in your classroom.
- Students will need encouragement, support and practice to make collaborative learning effective. It will not happen otherwise!
- There’s a vital role for teachers to play in designing the activities. They need to be planned and thought through just like any other lesson!
- Linked to the above, careful thought is required to ensure that the groups enhance rather than damage classroom dynamics. This should include mixing up friendship groups and ability levels. Similarly make sure that quieter and lower ability students get the opportunity to fully contribute and participate throughout.
- Carefully consider how to incorporate competitive elements. These can be motivational but should impact the students’ learning.
Is it possible to deliver collaborative learning remotely?
Although more usually associated (for obvious reasons) with in-person teaching, collaborative learning can also be effectively delivered online. Sanako produces a range of language teaching tools that help educators to create and deliver engaging and effective collaborative learning activities. For example our browser-based language teaching solution Sanako Connect specifically supports educators to:
- Easily create bespoke, interactive language learning resources to introduce group-based activities in Sanako Connect by using a wide variety of stimulus materials including text files, PDFs, video, audio clips, presentations and web pages.
- Divide students into pairs or group discussions and assign them live online role play and discussion activities. Outputs and deliverables can also be collected and reviewed on the same web-based platform.
- Make lesson resources easy to find and to access synchronously and asynchronously. In Connect, students can flexibly participate in lessons from anywhere with an internet connection and can conveniently access all of the language lesson resources within a single application.
- Give feedback directly to individual students or simultaneously to each group via a text-based message, live audio and video, or a shared audio file. Educators can also record oral feedback and are even able to target their comments to particular points of the students’ recorded oral submissions.
If you’d like to find out more about how Sanako’s dedicated language teaching solutions could transform your approach to language teaching, please contact us now to arrange your FREE demo!