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by Erica Fischer on Mar 8, 2013

Collaborative Learning: Bringing Language Learning Back to Life

Collaborative learning can keep language students from becoming zombies, but how can teachers keep group work level-appropriate and comprehensible?

Despite the best efforts of Thursday night’s #langchat moderator, @CoLeeSensei, participants talked much more about the benefits and problems with collaborative learning rather than sharing specific strategies. Although a few very good ideas were presented, much of the discussion focused on why collaborative learning is important and some of the best practices for using it in the classroom.

Problems with Collaborative Learning

Although many teachers use collaborative learning in their classrooms, it was clear that it was not always as effective as they would like. From problems with organization, grading and the tendency for students to get off-topic or off-language, there were plenty of problems to share.

  • @km_york said, “They’ll go through the motions if I collect and check the paper, but it’s an organization nightmare #langchat’
  • @CristinaZimmer4 said, “While my IV Ss can collaborate in TL, sometimes lang impedes their creativity. Hard to think in 2nd lang!”
  • @SenoraMcLellan said, “My students get very competitive when they work in groups and have to stay in TL.”
  • @SrtaTeresa said, “It’s always a challenge to get all students in the group to participate and not have one or two take over or do everything.”

Zombies in the Classroom – What to do with off-target language?

A key problem that @SECottrell brought up was with the type of language that students use within collaborative learning projects. She asked, “How do you keep students from pursuing language that’s too high for them? Our novices want to talk about zombies. Their zombies want to use laser rays to conquer narwhals in the netherworld.”

This began a very creative exchange about how to guide students towards more level-appropriate language. @Srtaberry said, “Have them describe what their zombies look like, where they are from, what they do etc…” @km_york said, “I’ve had stories with zombies, narwhals, and slot machines. I try to keep them to cognates.”

@kvisconti shared her impression of the underlying issue – how to keep collaborative learning on-task and level-appropriate without dampening student enthusiasm for their intended subject matter. She lamented, “I don’t want to draw the line and say they can’t talk about something but topics can be all over!.” @SECottrell finally seemed to answer her own question: “I suppose the key is to steer their zombies into level-appropriate activities!”

Students Teaching Students

Another major issue brought up was how to keep kids on-target when teachers are not the focus of instruction. While group work is very effective in allowing students to use higher level thinking and communication, it is difficult to ensure that all students are fully engaged. @CoLeeSensei asked the critical question: “How do we also lead kids to be able to collaborate effectively when we’re not ‘there’?”

Some teachers advocated a de-emphasis on instruction in order to make collaborative learning more natural. @muchachitaMJ said, “I’ve seen that it helps to give a little input and then give students a chance to produce a little. Too much teacher = students check out.” Not only does this allow students to engage in more communication, but the lack of overt correction might be a more natural way to learn. @kvisconti said, “Making mistakes on their own is part of the learning process!” @SraSpanglish said, “I’ve researched this. Studies show NO difference–teacher, student, right, wrong–as long as they’re conversing.”

More Input, Less Collaboration?

On the other hand, a number of participants felt that incomprehensible input from fellow students, regardless of how engaging it is, does not help a student progress. @lclarcq expressed concern about the lack of teacher involvement in collaborative learning. She said, “Sadly much individual group time is so that teacher is not interacting with students. Often this is what students and tr prefer.”

@SECottrell made a very valuable point about differentiating between fellow novice input (which is often flawed), and that of a professional teacher. She said, “Novices are incapable of correcting their mistakes. [The] only remedy is correct input…I push novice teachers to do more input, less collaboration.” @lclarcq agreed, saying, “Brief, more controlled collaboration is key… What works, consistently, is focused personal SUCCESSFUL interaction in TL that is comprehensible and geared for students’ abilities.”

Making Collaborative Learning Work

Despite all the problems, #langchat participants agreed that it is vital to helping students learn. In light of its importance in the world language classroom, there are some key elements that collaborative learning must have in order for it to be successful and engaging.

Set Students Up for Success. Some teachers shared the belief that students who feel comfortable taking risks in class will be more successful in collaborative activities. This is best set up for the student through effective scaffolding and a low-stress atmosphere. @SrtaTeresa said, “The students need to feel confident that they have the tools to complete the task in the TL.”@senoralopez agreed, saying, “It is necessary to scaffold activities so students can collaborate and feel successful doing it. Give words they will need when they’re talking.”

Teach Appropriate Behavior Early. One of the best ways to get students actively participating is to set collaborative learning as a standard from day one. @senoralopez said, “It’s important to begin school year creating the culture in the room and expecting collaboration.” In addition appropriate language and interaction should be modeled so that students feel confident in how the activity should progress. @kvisconti said, “Like any other skill, productive and successful collaboration in language classroom needs to be taught!”

Prepare Students with Comprehensible Input. @CristinaZimmer4, @CoLeeSensei and @SenoraMcLellan all shared great ideas on how to prepare students for collaborative learning activities. @CristinaZimmer4 gives “quiet time” before an activity so that students can think about words they might need during the discussion. @CoLeeSensei sometimes does pre-activities or games that use the structures that might be necessary. @SenoraMcLellan also shared a great idea: “I write phrases/vocab words on the board and keep them their while we speak. After a while they don’t even look at it anymore.”

Encourage Self-Reflection. Self-reflection can turn the often-messy process of collaboration into a fantastic learning experience for students. Simply having students ask what words they wished they had known (as suggested by @CoLeeSensei) is a great way to get students more engaged in learning. She said, “’Our self evaluation after collaborative activities always refers to ‘did not use English’ and also asks for target language words they ‘needed’.”@natadel76 shared, “For me, they always self-evaluate and evaluate one of their partners on the same grid – maybe I scare them – but they do!”

Emphasize Communication, Not Grades. Instead of focusing on the grade attached to a collaborative learning activity, give rewards for participation and creativity. It might be interesting to provide competition for students who can stay in the target language the longest. @CoLeeSensei exclaimed, “If anything has to have a grade attached to keep students motivated, something is very broken.”

Great Ideas for Collaborative Learning

  • @Sra_Hildinger said, ‘I have had students draw people, then describe them to their partners, then they see how close they came.”
  • @CoLeeSensei “Stations! We do them once a weekish. Teacher stays at one station for small group conversation is always possibility.”
  • @km_york said, “[My] Favorite speaking activity: each student with a small piece of paper writes a question from the board. Then, each one asks five others and writes their answers. Finally, they report back.”
  • @golferbrian said, “Place skeleton sentences and students substitute different words in/out. [They must] do task in the target language. Students create these on previous day.”
  • @BryanBosworth, @DonaKimberly, @Val_Hays, @CristinaZimmer and @SECottrell all discussed the benefits of using an online video collaboration tool such as Skype or Epals. @SECottrell had a caution, though: “[I] found that students were intimidated because the others’ English was better than their Spanish.”
  • @lclarcq said, “Each student reads 10 sentences from a story. They circle what [they] don’t understand, then they do a one min partner chat. Does partner know?”
  • @km_york talked about her table competition idea. She sets her class up in “team” tables. “Each day starts with a competition that requires them to work together to win. I offer five extra credit participation points for winners. Activities are scrambles, cloze, trivia, riddles, etc.”
  • @lclarcq said, “Together label sentences Beg Middle or End of story sentences, then match sentences to pictures.”
  • @SraSpanglish said, “I use groups of 3 with 2 partners with different questions and a monitor. They discussed cooking show plans that way today.”
  • @cadamsf1 shared her secret for effective collaborative assessment: Giving and taking away points. She said, “[Students] start with 50 and they earn or lose based on TL use. It’s not enough for them to not use English they must use TL.” She also uses handheld recorders to monitor the students’ language usage. @natadel76 responded, “@cadamsf1 Love that idea! They can also record on their phones or school iPads and sent it to me.”

Thank you!

A big thanks to @CoLeeSensei for trying to keep us focused during #langchat. We are glad that she is so flexible! Also, thank you for participating in our weekly discussions. It is so great to have fresh perspectives about language teaching and how we can do it better.

We love to find ways to help you learn as a language professional. Please help us know what to talk about during #langchat by sharing your topic ideas for upcoming chats with us. You can also find a complete transcript of this chat online at:

Additional Resources

Hulu Latino
Spotify Tops Tracks in Spain
National Spanish Examinations (NSE) Online Practice Exercises
Group Evaluation Protocol (@SraSpanglish)

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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