Cooperative Groups: Engaging Elementary Students with Pragmatic Language Impairments

Article excerpt

Ms. Frost, a second-grade teacher, stops to talk to a group of students working on a cooperative group wordmaking lesson. She nods to Kevin, clearly the leader of the group, when he shows her how many cards they have matched. Ms. Frost turns her attention to another child in the group, James, who has been identified as having a learning disability. She asks James to slww her liow to do the first part of the task. James sits up in his seat, picks up an index card with the word out printed on it, taps the card softly on the desk, and looks at the other cards on the table. After about 4 seconds, Ms. Frost takes the card from his hand and places it next to an index card containing the word side. After this modeling, Ms. Frost pats James on the shoulder, smiles, and asks him to do another one. He complies and correctly matches the words base and ball. Ms. Frost congratulates him and walks over to another small group. As she steps away from James, he slouches down in his seat and starts rolling a pencil back and forth across his desk. He watches the other children as they encourage each other to find word matches.

Peer-assisted learning continues to evolve and often takes a variety of shapes in today's elementary classroom. These strategies follow prescribed grouping of students, assigned roles, purposeful teacher facilitation, and related structured components. Although, the methods are quite specific, the essence of student grouping is to further social interaction, provide opportunities for social/communication engagement, allow for multiple perspectives to be shared while completing a task, offer interactions where students listen and communicate with peers, and generally foster collaborative engagement. Kamps and her colleagues (2008) evaluated the effectiveness of classwide peer tutoring in the area of reading, and overall learning. Slavin and his colleagues (Slavin & Lake, 2008; Slavin, Lake, Chambers, Cheung, & Davis, 2009) highlighted the effectiveness of cooperative learning, in enhancing academic achievement, attendance, appropriate behavior, intergroup relations, social cohesion, and more.

Although one of the critical features of student grouping is student level of engagement, little research has been conducted on the topic. Engagement means that students are actively contributing to the goals of the assigned task, within the structure of the group. Working in an elementary professional development school in which researchers and practitioners collaborated, I conducted a qualitative study to examine the level of engagement of students working in cooperative groups (Stockall, 2006), An analysis of 20 hours of observation, including 487 photographs of children working in groups, yielded five separate dimensions or categories of student engagement (see Table 1).

Although my earlier study (Stockai!, 2006) focused on student levels of engagement, it raised other questions related to the quality of interaction taking place in the groups. Field notes revealed that some children identified as having language impairments seldom volunteered information, asked questions, or answered questions - and when they did, others in the group tended to ignore their contributions. Using the levels of engagement as a quick screening assessment helped teachers pinpoint students who were excluded, unengaged, or passively involved within the group and make a decision to intervene or continue assessing the quality interaction. However, without knowing the cause of the breakdown in the cooperative learning group (Slavin, 1996, Stevens & Slavin, 1991), teachers either hesitated to act or responded to the breakdown in highly directed ways (e.g., "Let Tommie talk, too" or "Tommie, you need to participate"). Without knowing the exact nature of the breakdown, it can be difficult for teachers to determine appropriate intervention strategies.

Communication Breakdowns

For students with specific language disabilities, communication breakdowns can occur for a number of reasons (Yont, Hewitt, & Miccio, 2000). …