All About Adolescent Literacy

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Use Cooperative Learning Groups to Engage Learners

When teachers structure cooperative learning groups as part of the overall reading program, they also open the door to a multiple intelligences approach to literacy, which is inherent in cooperative learning. This article offers guidance on Literature Circles and Cooperative Tear, two cooperative learning strategies supported by research.


Cooperative learning is rated by Joyce (1999) as the number-one strategy to increase student achievement and to enhance self-esteem."How do I know what I think until I see what I say," is a paradoxical statement that somehow explains the thinking power of group work. As learners express their thoughts to their team partners, the thinking becomes visible to their peers and to themselves.

The strategy called literature circles (Bjorklund, Handler, Mitten, & Stockwell, 1998) taps into powerful learning experiences. Students work in small groups with a selected novel or story. They take on various roles and responsibilities as they read and discuss sections of the book. By putting thoughts from their reading into their own words, learners process the written language in terms that make sense to them. They use their speaking vocabulary to interpret the written language, and, in the process, learners clarify and crystallize their own thinking.

Establish roles and responsibilities

Establishing the roles and responsibilities of the group members encourages all members to participate (Johnson, Johnson, Holubec & Roy, 1984; Slavin, 1983). One student leads the discussion with predetermined questions. Another shares a favorite passage, while still another might quiz members on selected vocabulary. This team effort builds a sense of trust and safety and a sense of belonging, while at the same time, building a strong understanding of what critical reading is all about. It makes reading active, interactive, and engaging for all members.

Cooperative learning makes it easier for students to ask for help in a small, safe setting. It also makes it easier for students to question, share, and critique. When teachers structure cooperative learning groups as part of the overall reading program, they also open the door to a multiple intelligences approach to literacy, which is inherent in cooperative learning. Using interpersonal intelligence as one approach, Gardner's (1983) theory suggests seven other entry paints to learning: verbal/linguistic (of course), visual/spatial, logical/mathematical, musical/rhythmic, bodily/kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and the naturalist.

Working in teams, learners are able to draw their perception of a particular reading (visual), sequence the events (logical), find the rhythm of the language (musical), dramatize the reading (bodily), keep a reading response journal (intrapersonal), and discern the environmental settings of the readings (naturalist). Imagine the richness of the reading experience in these literature circles. It seems impossible not to be drawn into the web of intrigue as the plot of a story unfolds and as the members of a cooperative learning group enhance that unfolding.

Literature Circles

Cooperative learning strategies that incorporate roles and responsibilities and involve choice within a given structure are highly effective for literacy instruction. Literature circles, based on such strategies, are one way to assist struggling readers.

Similar to book clubs. literature circlcs (Bjorklund et al., 1998) usually consist of five or six students. If you arc trying this practice with your class, note that one motivational strategy is to use standard books such as novels rather than picture books. Students often want to read more sophisticated material but need support. While students must read at their developmental level for deep understanding and reading successes, the literature circle gives students the help they need to tackle more advanced books.

To use literature circles, follow these simple steps:

1. Select themes such as friendship, trust, courage, or fear. Gather four to five books on the theme, and let students select a book and form small groups (literature circles) accordingly.

2. Here are some roles that teachers might assign:

  • Discussion Leader: creates Socratic questions for discussion
  • Wordsmith: defines significant vocabulary
  • Literary Luminary: illuminates the literary sections by reading aloud
  • Character Actor: role-plays characters, actions. motives. etc.
  • Illustrator: captures key images from the reading
  • Surveyor: graphs the plot line of the story

Naturally, the roles played in literature circles should be age appropriate and suited to students' abilities.

3. Plot the reading assignments for each book and have students meet to discuss, share, and read aloud, using the assigned roles to keep the group moving along.

4. Use a culminating day for groups to share their books with other groups, as students may want to read the other books on their own.

Cooperative Tear Share

A surefire cooperative strategy to try with younger and older readers is the cooperative tear share. rt is a compelling strategy in which students are active, interactive, engaged, and invested. In this cooperative strategy, there are four students per group. They fold a blank piece of paper into four corner sections and number them 1. 2. 3. 4. In turn, the students count off: 1. 2, 3,4. Now. all four are instructed to read the designated piece that is assigned, and all four are instructed to respond, in the appropriately numbered corner of their papers, to each of the four questions posed: student number 1 responds to questions 1-4 and so on. At this point the teacher may model an oral summary. cautioning the students not to give a running report on each of the four responses but rather to summarize the results. Each team proceeds by having its members share individual summaries and reflect on the responses and the activity itself.

Once the team has completed the reading and writing assignments, team members tear their papers into four sections, and each passes the various numbered sections to the team member of that same number. Number 1 papers go to team member number 1, number 2 papers to the number 2 student, etc. Next, the four members look over the four papers of the same number and create a summary of the responses.

The richness of this strategy is that students are actively involved in the folding, tearing, and passing of the sections. They are interactive in their sharing of the information with each other, and they are engaged in the reading and writing of their responses and in the summary of all four responses. Finally, they are invested members of the team because they know they hold one critical part of the whole.

Fogarty, R.J. (2007). Literacy matters: Strategies every teacher can use. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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