Cross Currents
Vol. XVIII, No. 1
Summer 1991
Page 37 - 40

Cooperative Learning in a
Humanistic English Class

Kanchana Prapphal

 This paper presents cooperative learning as an effective way to involve EFL students
in using English and to make learning more enjoyable.  This approach helps build rapport and, in the words of Moskowitz, fosters a climate of “caring and sharing” in classroom.

 A study conducted on an English class at the Chulalongkorn University Language Institute illustrates how cooperative learning fosters commitment to tasks, and encourages students to work cooperatively, to learn to be problem solvers, to become knowers rather than merely assimilators, and to act as evaluators and assessors.  An informal evaluation of the study indicates that cooperative learning is a promising humanistic approach which increases student participation in EFL classes in the Thai context.  It appears to facilitate the learning process both cognitively and affectively.

Cooperative Learning

 Kagan (1985) describes the cooperative learning system as consisting of team building, management techniques, and rewards based on a complex system of points.  He presents these five basic types of cooperative learning:

1) peer tutoring, where teammates teach each other to carry out given tasks;
2) jigsaws, in which each member of a group is given a piece of information and must share that information with the others in the group to complete a task;
3) cooperative projects, where the members of a group work together to complete a group project;
4) cooperative, individualized projects, where students work alone on a particular assignment or project, but evaluations of their individual progress contribute to a group grade;
5) cooperative interaction, where each student is graded individually although completion of the task requires a cooperative effort.  Richard-Amato (1988) views cooperative learning as a management technique.  She suggests that “in cooperative learning, students help other students within groups of four to five persons in an effort to reach goals.  Adaptations of cooperative learning can be effective at many age levels from the late elementary grades up through adult levels.  It can be used in both second and foreign language teaching situations”.  (p. 193)

Teaching Materials

 Cooperative learning utilizes materials which Rodgers (1988) categorizes as manufactured, modeled, modified, and mined.  Manufactured materials are commercial texts.  Modeled materials are those prepared by teachers based on, or supplementing, commercial materials.  Modified materials are those taken from non-language learning sources and modified for language learning purposes, such as jigsaw materials––stories cut up into sections which are distributed among individual group members who then must share their information with the rest of the group in order to accomplish a specific task.  Finally, mined materials are those from authentic sources.

 Prabhu makes a distinction between course materials and source materials.  The former refers to “the inputs to be presented to learners, in the order in which they are to be presented.  They constitute both the teaching content and the teaching agenda, in the sense that their units are easily usable (and meant to be used) as lesson plans”.  However, source materials are “those which provide a range of possible inputs, without envisaging that all of them will be used in any classroom or that all classrooms will use the same inputs”.  (Prabhu, 1988, p. 11)  The use of source materials requires the teacher to share classroom decisions with learners, an aspect of what Allwright (1981) calls learner-training.

 Clarke (1989) advocates learner involvement in determining what happens in the classroom.  He proposes five principles underlying learner contribution in an external syllabus:

1) learner commitment;
2) learners as materials writers and collaborators;
3) learners as problem solvers;
4) learners as knowers; and
5) learners as evaluators and assessors.

 Based on the belief that learners are active participants in the learning process, not passive recipients, and that teachers are facilitators, not drill leaders or mere presenters of materials, cooperative learning was tested in a Foundation English class at the Chulalongkorn University Language Institute.

The Study

 Subjects:  Twenty-seven dentistry students who took the Foundation English Course in 1989 participated in this study.  There were thirteen male students and fourteen female.  In response to a questionnaire, eighteen students indicated positive attitudes towards learning English while nine students expressed a lack of interest.

 Procedures:  Since the Foundation English Course, which aims at providing communicative skills, is required for all first year students, the same course materials are used by all teachers.  However, since learners differ in abilities, attitudes, needs, learning styles, and strategies, source materials were introduced to encourage learner contributions to the course.  Clarke’s five principles were implemented as follows:

1. Learner Commitment  During the first hour the students were asked to indicate their preferences for cooperative projects by choosing from a list of possible projects given in a questionnaire prepared by the instructor.  They were free to arrange their own groups, or to let the teacher arrange the groups.  Each group negotiated with the teacher concerning the nature of the tasks to be completed and the date of presentation.  An informal contract was drawn up to encourage the learners to take responsibility.

 2. Learners as Materials Writers and Collaborators  Once the project was approved, each group selected, adapted, or wrote the materials themselves
  outside of class.  The materials had to correspond to the specified tasks.  At this stage, the teacher acted as a consultant and facilitator.  The learners could modify their projects but they had to inform the teacher.  Although Thai was allowed in the preparation stage, students were encouraged to use English as much as possible.

 3. Learners as Problem Solvers  Each group was assigned the task of designing an activity in which their classmates could participate.  This was very fruitful because each group was trained to present meaningful problems for their classmates to solve.  They also learned how to work together and to share ideas.  In addition, the task of designing the activities was in itself meaningful, creating situations which required the use of real and authentic language.  During the presentations, the students of each team were responsible for classroom management.  They divided their classmates into teams, and one member of the team read the directions while the others helped record scores and acted as facilitators.  What follows are the activities they contributed.

 Proverbs  (4 group members)

1. Divide students into four teams.
2. Give a list of 10 Thai proverbs in English to each student.
3. Tell the stories which correspond with the proverbs, one at a time.
4. Ask teams to guess the right proverb in English and translate it into Thai.
5. The first team which answers correctly gets one point.

 Directions  (3 group members)

1. Divide students into five teams.
2. Ask students to listen to directions and find the right places on a map.
3. Read the directions twice.
4. The first team which answers correctly gets one point and the team that gets the most points is the winner.

 Songs 1  (3 group members)

 “Eternal Flame” and “Greatest Love of All”

1. Listen to the songs and fill in the missing words.
2. Answer questions about the songs.  (Extra credits are given for difficult questions.)
3. The team which receives the most points is the winner.

 Songs 2  (3 group members)

 “Wonderful Life”  and “Different Seasons”

1. Divide students into five teams.
2. Listen to each song twice.
3. Fill in the blanks.  Three points are given for the correct answer for the first listening and two points are given for the correct answer for the second listening.
4. The team which receives the most points is the winner.

 Comparisons  (3 group members)

1. Write 15 names of rare animals on the board.
2. Read some information about the animals and let the other students guess the name of each animal.  The student who guesses correctly gets one piece of candy.

3. Cite some special features  (focusing on comparisons) and have the other students match the names of animals with the features described.  Here, the student who gets the correct answer gets two pieces of candy.
4. The winner is the one who has the most candy.

 Descriptions  3 Mini-Tasks  (3 group members)

 Mini-Task 1:   Describe five students in the class and ask each team to match the
    names with the pictures.
 Mini-Task 2: Give pictures of seven people to each student.  Read the description of the thief twice and ask each team to find the thief.
 Mini-Task 3: Guess the nickname of a student’s boyfriend or girlfriend.  Give clues by showing pictures.  The first letter of the item in the picture is one of the letters in the student’s name  (e.g.  a jar of coffee = the letter “c”).  By recombining the letters, groups can guess the nickname of the student’s boyfriend or girlfriend.  The team which receives the most points is the winner.

 Quizzes  (4 group members)

1. Divide the students into four groups.
2. Ask general trivial questions.  If a team member knows the answer, he or she writes the answer on a piece of paper.  A correct answer to easy questions is worth one point.  If the question is difficult, it is worth two points.
3. Let the two teams with the most points compete in the final round.  Here, the questions will be more difficult than in the first round.

 Vocabulary Revision  (4 group members)
1. Select vocabulary from the previous lessons.
2. Play “anagrams” and ask the other students to write the correct words.
3. If nobody gets the correct answer, give the first letter.  If nobody can get the right answer, give the meaning of that word.

 4. Learners as Knowers  By designing these classroom activities, learners acted as
knowers.  They were not “assimilators” or “spoon feeders”, using Allwright’s terms.  The tasks reinforced what the students had learned in their previous lessons as well as encouraged positive attitudes towards language learning.

5. Learners as Evaluators and Assessors  At the end of each group project, the students were asked to evaluate the performance of their peers on a 7 point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (disliked very much) to 7 (liked very much).  The means of all the projects are as follows:  Proverbs  (X = 4.68); Directions  (X = 4.79); Songs 1  (X = 4.91); Songs 2  (X = 4.85); Comparisons  (X = 4.87); Descriptions  (X = 4.94); Quizzes  (X = 4.87); and Vocabulary Revision  (X = 4.80).

The results show that most students were satisfied with the performances of their peers.  The group mean (X) was the score the members of each group received and was counted as one part of their grade.


 In addition to the quantitative data, the students were asked to comment on the group projects.  Following are some of their opinions translated into English.

 “I like group projects because they provide knowledge and a relaxing atmosphere.  They also promote cooperation.”

 “I like group projects very much.  I used to think that English was difficult but now I think I can cope with it.”

 “Group projects make learning English more entertaining.  Group projects should be continued.”

 “I like group projects very much.  They make me feel relaxed.  I think group projects don’t have to strictly follow the lessons.  They should focus on listening and games.  Very good and very entertaining.”

 “I like group projects a lot because I was relaxed.  They make us practice language skills such as listening.  They provide world knowledge, new vocabulary and make the class enjoyable.”

 The only negative comment was that in designing the tasks some groups should have paid more attention to content.  That is to say the tasks should not be too trivial.


 Cooperative learning seems to be a promising humanistic approach which encourages student participation in English classes.  It helps promote positive attitudes
towards English, and peer teaching, as well as teaching students to work together and developing their cognitive abilities.  Moreover, it helps lower affective filters, which may hinder the process of language acquisition, by creating a relaxing and friendly atmosphere in the classroom.  Cooperative learning helps develop a feeling of cohesiveness and caring that far exceeds what is already there and helps foster a climate of caring and sharing.  (Moskowitz, 1978)  The extent to which this approach is examined and adopted depends on the caring, sharing, and daring of each language teacher.


Allwright, R.L.  (1981).  What do we want teaching materials for?  ELT Journal, 36(1),
 5 – 18.

Clarke, D.F.  (1989).  Materials adaptation:  Why leave it all to the teachers? ELT Journal,  43(2), 133 – 141.

Kagan, S.  (1985).  Cooperative learning:  Resources for teachers.  Riverside, CA:  University of California.

Moskowitz, G.  (1978).  Caring and sharing in the foreign language class.  Rowley:  Newbury House.

Prabhu, N.S.  (1988, April).  Materials for language learning and teaching:  New trends and developments.  Paper presented at SEAMEO RELC 23rd Regional Seminar on Materials for Language Learning and Teaching:  New Trends and Developments, Singapore.

Richard-Amato, P.A.  (1988).  Making it happen.  London:  Longman.

Rodgers, T.  (1988, April).  Materials to support cooperative language learning:  A classification and critique.  Paper presented at SEAMEO RELC 23rd Regional Seminar on Materials for Language Learning and Teaching:  New Trends and Developments, Singapore.