Cooperative Learning Strategies with ESL Students

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, you will learn some strategies for incorporating cooperative learning into your lesson plans for English as a Second Language students. Strategies for writing, reading, speaking, and listening will be covered.

Cooperative Learning

The adage 'two heads are better than one' is true when it comes to learning a new language. Working with other students on writing, reading, speaking, and listening tasks is an interactive support strategy that helps improve English as a Second Language students' comprehension and productivity. Here are some collaborative activities that teachers can use with ESL students.

Writing Strategies

These writing strategies are great for students to practice writing skills and receive peer feedback.


Many teachers are already familiar with the Think-Pair-Share strategy. This version incorporates writing. After posing a question or prompt, students individually take a moment to think about their answer. Then, they write their response before getting together with a partner to share what they've written. As they consult with their peers, they can make changes or add to their writing. Finally, volunteers can share their written responses with the class.


In this fun activity, the teacher instructs students to respond to a writing prompt on a piece of paper. After students finish writing, they crumple up their paper to resemble a snowball, and toss it to a teacher-directed area (a specific corner of the room, or an empty trash bin, for example). Students then randomly select a piece of paper and read the response on the paper.

As an extension, students can write a response to what they read, and then repeat the exercise so that multiple students have a chance to read and respond to each student's work.

This activity makes writing collaborative, and also boosts student motivation. When students know that their peers will be reading and responding to their writing, they are more likely to produce their best work.

Reading Strategies

Cooperative learning reading strategies are a good way for students to practice their vocabulary with the support of a partner or group.

Story Map

A story map is a graphic organizer that combines reading comprehension and writing, while also teaching students how to effectively summarize a text. As students read literature, they keep track of essential information from the story on their story map, such as the setting, characters, rising action, climax, and resolution.

This task can be done individually, or with the teacher modeling for students how to fill in the information. Afterwards, students can work with a partner to re-tell the story using their story map, and write a summary of the story. Thus, this strategy effectively combines listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Lower proficiency students will need the most support with this task. The teacher will need to pre-teach the vocabulary associated with the elements of literature. Providing sentence frames, a word bank, and interactive support through the use of partners, will ensure that English Language Learner students can meet the standard.


In this activity, the teacher poses a prompt related to a text read in class. Each student responds to the prompt on a small piece of paper, such as a sticky note. Students then place their response on the wall. Students rotate around the room, reading one another's responses. They then break into smaller groups to discuss the prompt, commenting on each other's ideas from the wallpapering exercise.

Speaking Strategies

Collaborative learning with speaking allows students a chance to make conversation and put English into a usable format that they will likely use on a daily basis.


Students love working with partners on this activity. The teacher provides pairs of students with pre-written interview questions related to a topic being studied in class. First, Student A asks Student B the questions and fills them in on his or her sheet. Then, Student B does the same. Afterwards, Student A shares Student B's responses with the class, and Student B shares Student A's responses. This works great as an introductory lesson for a new unit because it elicits students' prior knowledge with the subject.

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