Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993; Kagan, 1989; Slavin, 1989-90, 1990.

Strategy 3.5: Use Cooperative Learning. Teachers use cooperative learning strategies to encourage interaction and interethnic tolerance and acceptance among students of different ethnic groups. Cooperative learning enables students with different degrees of proficiency in English language and literacy, as well as academic knowledge and skills, to work together on tasks and projects and to contribute to each other’s learning.


All classrooms are heterogeneous in nature, with students having different backgrounds, expectations, strengths, and needs. But when students are from different countries and speak many different languages, the degree of heterogeneity increases dramatically. Students who have lived for years in African refugee camps join those whose entire lives have been spent in a large Asian city; rural Haitian or Jamaican children who have attended school sporadically join Russian or Chilean children with extensive education. In other instances, students whose families have fought one another sit next to each other, as do members of rival gangs, and students accustomed to wearing modest clothing in segregated classes are placed in mixed-gender classes, where some students wear shorts or other revealing clothes. Factor in differences in English-language proficiency, academic backgrounds and expectations, and socioeconomic status, and the mixture can be volatile. These differences, however, can also be the source of rich educational experiences, if students can be helped to work together and learn from each other.

Cooperative learning offers one means of having students learn from and help each other (Crandall, 1999). In cooperative activities, small groups of heterogeneous students work together to accomplish tasks and share rewards. When teachers structure these groups carefully, students from dramatically different backgrounds can maximize their strengths while learning from others. Each member of the group plays an important role. For example, a self-confident student who likes to talk in class may be given the role of reporting the group’s accomplishments, while a quiet student who is a good reader might be responsible for leading the group through the assigned reading. Students with limited English proficiency may take on the roles of timekeeper or illustrator.

Cooperative learning promotes positive social interaction and communication, builds teamwork and a sense of community in the classroom, provides multiple opportunities for students to rehearse their contributions and receive feedback from peers before giving a presentation to the teacher or the whole class, and allows everyone to be both a teacher and a learner (Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993; Kagan, 1994; Slavin, 1990). Peer teaching helps students develop a deeper understanding of content and enables them to learn from others. As Tighe (1971, p. 23) states, “Real learning . . . is not a solitary task. One person cannot be expected to discover five different interpretations of a piece of literature. But five people can. This is where the real dialogue begins. Each student can examine his ideas in relationship to those of his peer group.”

Cooperative learning has been found to do the following:

• Reduce anxiety by giving students time to practice and learn from each other in small groups.

• Increase motivation and promote authentic use of English as students communicate with each other to complete their tasks.

• Provide more opportunities for students to listen to and speak than is possible in teacher-centered classrooms.

• Allow students to receive support from and provide support to others in attempting to understand new concepts or differing points of view.

• Increase students’ self-confidence and sense of self-worth as they view themselves as valuable members of their team.

• Offer opportunities for students to develop cross-cultural understanding, respect, and friendships (Crandall & Tucker 1990; Crandall, 1999; Jacob, Rottenberg, Patrick, & Wheeler, 1996; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993; Kagan, 1994; Slavin, 1990).

Sometimes teachers must assign students to groups on the basis of their strengths and needs; at other times, groups can be formed randomly. When groups do not work out, reassignment of some students may be necessary, and students who prefer to work individually may need time to adjust to group efforts. But cooperative learning can benefit all students: those who are academically successful, those who have more difficulty, those who are English-speaking, those who are just learning the language, those who are outgoing, and those who are less so. It addresses different learning styles while helping students become comfortable with new ones. And it can help students develop much-needed autonomy as learners.

Among the many cooperative activities available, some of the most effective for multiethnic and multilingual classes are think/pair/share, jigsaw, roundtable or round robin, and numbered heads together.

Classroom Examples

Mr. Li’s biology class brings together 36 students from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are still enrolled in ESL classes. Some of these students have substantial prior education; others have much less. Some of them clearly enjoy science; others do not. Mr. Li recognizes this diversity and organizes his course around thematic units that he hopes will motivate and interest students by focusing on issues relevant to youngsters’ lives.

One unit centers on the rain forest and its potential destruction. Selecting a variety of readings that might interest different students, Mr. Li divides students into groups of four, each group responsible for teaching the rest of the class about their particular article. Each group reads and discusses the article and then answers a set of questions.

Mr. Li circulates among the groups to answer questions and stimulate discussion. When the students are comfortable explaining the article to the other members of their group, students return to the whole class to teach their peers. Mr. Li uses this jigsaw reading technique frequently, assigning shorter and less difficult articles and chapter sections to students with limited reading or English skills, and complex articles to those students prepared to read them. He finds that this approach helps students to think through and understand smaller portions of material. When students are responsible for reading an entire chapter, they may feel overwhelmed and either give up or resort to reading without understanding.

Sometimes Mr. Li checks to see how well students have taught each other by asking a group to answer questions about the article read by another group to build a sense of responsibility among students to make sure that they and their peers truly understand the material.

To introduce a new history chapter to her middle school students, Ms. Patterson asks them to write down what they know about that era and then to share it with a partner. After the two have shared, she asks them to join another pair of students, and together they combine what they know and develop a list of questions to be answered. This think/pair/share activity allows students to learn from each other in a nonthreatening way; it also establishes the beginnings of a set of objectives for the next unit. Ms. Patterson may use a K-W-L graphic organizer, in which students record what they know, what they want to learn, and then later, what they have learned in the unit.

Ms. Ramirez, who teaches a sheltered chemistry course to ELLs at various levels of proficiency, groups her students by language background and encourages them to help each other using their common primary language when necessary. Her class focuses on chemistry in the community, helping students to see the value of chemistry in dealing with community issues and problems. When students first arrive in class, they find a sign on the door warning them not to drink the water. They spend the next few weeks trying to find the source of the problem. As they learn the scientific method, they work in small groups to create bilingual posters illustrating their findings. Sometimes Ms. Ramirez has the help of a graduate student who is preparing to become an ESL teacher; at other times, she has a bilingual student aide. Even when she is alone, however, she finds that students help and learn from each other through their cooperative tasks.

Before a new unit, and again after the unit when students are preparing for the test, Ms. Ramirez uses a version of roundtable or round robin, assigning students to small groups and asking everyone to contribute to the overall task. For example, prior to a unit on petroleum, she asks students to identify as many sources of energy as possible. Each group passes a piece of paper and a pencil to its members until all ideas are exhausted. Then they share their ideas with the other groups while Ms. Ramirez writes a master list on the board.

Mr. Winter routinely assigns students in his ESL class to form teams for project work, bringing in topics and concepts from across the curriculum. Sometimes he places students who share a common language in the same group, so that they can use both languages in their projects. At other times, he requires all members of a group to use English to communicate. Students function as reader, recorder (writer), facilitator, timekeeper, materials organizer, reporter and speaker, or illustrator as they produce country reports, career posters, or science projects. After groups have been together for some time, he changes assignments to encourage a greater sense of community in the class and enable students to learn from a larger number of peers. Mr. Winter reports that cooperative group work has helped students from different ethnic groups recognize that they have things in common and can become friends.

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