The Power of Collaboration and Active Engagement for ELs

For today’s blog on collaboration, I have collaborated with author and professional development provider Karen Nemeth. Karen is a nationally known expert in early childhood education and dual language learners.

Teachers in many general education classes lecture to impart information to their students. This teaching method prevents  English learners (ELs) from benefiting and participating in the content instruction. ELs learn best when they collaborate with classmates to create a product of some kind (Cohen, 1998). Many ELs come from cultures where collaboration is the norm. Collaboration provides rich opportunities for language learning and oral language practice (Kagan 1995).  Furthermore, young children who are learning English are generally visual and kinesthetic learners who learn best when a hands-on product is involved. ELs benefit from collaborative endeavors because they learn to:

  • increase social interaction
  • build oral language skills
  • develop academic language

In this blog, we will be looking at several different ways teachers can foster collaboration in their classroom.

Cooperative Learning

In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups on a structured, short-term activity. Teachers can help ELs find success in small group learning by assigning jobs or roles to the students so that every one has opportunities to have their voice heard, and to influence the work of the group. While this strategy is useful in supporting verbal interactions in the group, it also builds each individual student’s confidence and sense of belonging. Cooperative learning promotes collaboration, face-to-face interaction, and the development of social skills. It requires input from every member of the group.

Teachers generally choose tasks that arise from questions and areas of interest expressed by the students. Taking students’ interests into account is especially important for students learning a new language.. Choosing tasks or goals that call on ELs’ prior experience and knowledge will help them be prepared to understand and to contribute right from the start.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is an inquiry-based learning method in which students

  • gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time, and
  • investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.

PBL includes significant content, 21st-century competencies, in-depth inquiry, driving questions, student choice of project, and public audience. It  has an established process that allows students to engage more deeply in sustained exploration of topics assigned by the teacher that arise from student interest. Teachers need to keep the English language level of their students in mind and form well-balanced groups. PBL generally addresses content information through hands-on learning with students working together and depending on each other to reach a goal. This is an excellent way for ELs to learn both language and content, to gain confidence, and to learn how to interact socially with classmates.

Maker Education

Maker Education is a relatively new movement in education that focuses on supporting learning in all domains via student engagement in making things. Hallmarks of Maker Ed are creativity, problem solving, flexibility, and exploration. The focus is more on working together on the process than on achieving a particular product or goal.  A Makerspace, by definition, provides physical outlets for messy and creative thinking, innovating, and creating. We suggest that teachers add collaboration to the definition so that ELs may be included in this learning. An example of a Maker Ed project might be a collaboration to try different ways to produce planters out of recyclable materials. In this case, the learning is in the trying and testing, no matter what the results turn out to be. Although Maker Ed has become popular in high schools to support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), it can be used to support content-area learning across the curriculum and at all grade levels.

An important element of all of these examples of collaboration is that they include opportunities for teachers to

  • assign students to small groups that will facilitate participation and social learning  by ELs.
  • give ELs opportunities to produce oral language as they are learning.
  • encourage oral language practice in naturally occurring conversations with the valuable social context that supports this learning. Students can collaborate even when they speak different languages, or when they have very different levels of language proficiency.
  •  establish clear rules for each student’s participation and for acceptable terms of feedback. This is important for ELs.
  •  scaffold group collaboration to get students on the right track.


Cohen, E. G. (1998). Making cooperative learning equitable. (Realizing a positive school climate). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kagan, S. (1995). We can talk: Cooperative learning in the elementary ESL classroom. ERIC Digest Reproduction No. ED 382 035


Karen Nemeth is an author, consultant and presenter focusing on effective early education for dual language learners. She is a consulting editor and author for NAEYC, the co-chair of the early childhood SIG of NABE, and she is on the board of NJTESOL/NJBE. Karen is the author of many books on teaching dual language learners, including: Many Languages, One Classroom, and Many Languages, Building Connections. She coauthored Digital Decisions and New Words, New Friends, a bilingual book for young children.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to The Power of Collaboration and Active Engagement for ELs

  1. Lauren says:

    I completely agree with you. You need collaboration in your classroom in order to make it run smoothly. It is especially hard for English language learnedness to sit in a class during the instructional time and having to sit their quiet while the teacher is lecturing them. The general education teacher needs to communicate with the Special education teacher and work something out. The way that will help them is by working with other student that might be able to help them and if possible putting them with someone that might speck their first language. It is more difficult having students that don’t understand but that is part of the job.

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