Research School Network: The role of Collaborative Learning in Improving Literacy

The role of Collaborative Learning in Improving Literacy

by Kingsbridge Research School
on the

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning refers to a cooperative team-based approach to building knowledge, deepening understanding, and developing mastery skills. Its roots lie largely in the pedagogy developed by psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, known as social constructivism. This approach has had many different guises over the years: group investigation’ (Sharan & Sharan, 1992); Student Team Learning’ (Slavin, 1996); and – perhaps most familiar to educators – Cooperative Learning (Kagan, 2009). Whatever we decide to call it, the evidence base that has emerged from an extensive meta-analysis of studies is clear; when structured effectively, its impact on learning is consistently positive.

How can this help us to develop reading and writing skills at Primary and Key Stage Three?

Silent reading and models that rely on students reading to the teacher tend to emphasise one-to-one reading sessions that employ a traditional linear reader-responder model. Such episodes provide teachers with the opportunity to support pupils to develop fluent reading capabilities as well as teaching reading comprehension strategies through modelling and supported practice. These are of course vital, and form two of the reading-related recommendations or pillars’ of the EEF’s KS2 Literacy Guidance Report; however, the first pillar is in its own category and points to the extensive evidence gathered on the need to develop pupils’ language capability to support their reading and writing’. It is here that Collaborative Learning can provide a practical approach for teachers looking to do this.

Collaborative Learning is a cost-effective and evidence-informed approach for developing students’ language in a way that furthers them in their reading and writing, but only when it is done well.

Structured approaches and well-designed tasks

Although dialoguing can be a powerful tool for building the foundations of reading and writing (language development, comprehension, information retention etc.), there are some clear pitfalls that must be avoided if we are to get it right.

Too often, group work is mistaken for collaborative learning. The fundamental difference between the two lies in the interdependence, personal accountability and evenly-weighted participation levels that form truly collaborative’ collaborative learning. To seat students in pairs or groups and ask them to work together is nothing more than unstructured group work and gives no guarantee that each individual child will participate or that lower achieving students in particular will contribute. This can present a specific issue in relation to disadvantaged students who may be more likely to struggle or disengage when group discussion is underway, possibly due to a lack of the cultural capital that informs debate and discussion in the homes of their more economically advantaged peers.

The evidence suggests that approaches promoting talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains (Guidance Report P9). The two main ingredients for this are structure and practice. Without these, a teacher wanting to promote discussion of a text will likely see a mixture of hogs and logs” at tables, with students already equipped with discussion skills thriving, whereas others in clear need of progressing in this area slipping under the radar.

Structured, well designed tasks: there are countless Collaborative Learning structures available to teachers. Those with a deep understanding of the underpinning principles may already be able to design activities with multiple steps that help to embed interdependence, personal accountability and evenly-weighted participation. Others may believe their activities are carefully structured, when in fact, close observation reveals this is not the case, with redundant group members and disproportionate levels of participation. Whatever level of understanding a teacher has, there are structures that can be used to begin embedding Collaborative Learning as a means for developing students’ language capabilities to improve their reading and writing.

Examples of structures and strategies for meeting the EEF Guidance Report’s recommendations for Collaborative Learning

  1. Tasks need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some pupils will try to work on their own.” (EEF)

Use a time-based or turn-based approach when asking pairs or groups to discuss their ideas, questions, predictions etc. about a section of text.

– Turn based structures have a back and forth’ or clockwise around the table’ model that keeps going for a set period of time e.g. 1 minute. This is most suitable when short-response idea generation is the primary aim. This might replace the unstructured task of pairs/​groups simply being asked to produce a list.

– Time based structures have a set period of time for students to share, discuss or explain. For example, they will have 30 seconds each to discuss their ideas. Free timers can be found all over the web, but Kagan Cooperative Learning Timer Tools’ © work particularly well, as shown herein the form of the Turn Timer function in their purchasable software.

TIPS: Using random selection for who will go first has the long-term effect of students thinking that there is every chance they will be required to initiate a discussion following reading or preceding writing. This helps to build personal accountability into the structure.

Develop a bank of who’s up?’ selectors to use: the person with the darkest hair”; the person with the most buttons” etc. From this point, teachers can quickly kickstart a collaborative learning task and avoid the downtime spent on students deciding for themselves who will go first.

Producing a group response to a piece of reading can result in hogs and logs”. Role assignment can help to add the structure needed to engage all students in the task. One structure that does this assigns roles for students to populate an A3 template (right). Below is an example of roles but this may change based on the aims of the task:

Role One: Key words

Role Two: Themes

Role Three: Examples

Role four: Quotes

After a set period of time to allow for each role to be completed, the group co-construct their written response in the central area. Note: for this to involve all students, a scribe can be assigned with the remaining students being given idea chips’ to vote for ideas from other team mates areas to make it in’ to the writing. Each student must spend all of their chips and when a chip is spent everyone else listens without interruption.

  1. Competition between groups can be used to support pupils in working together more effectively within their group, though over-use of competition can focus learners on the competition rather than succeeding in their learning, so it must be used cautiously.” (EEF).

Healthy competition can work well in collaborative learning approaches, but the understanding that a teacher has of their students is paramount when deciding whether to inject such element into a lesson. If it’s likely to descend into a competition that disrupts learning, then make the call to leave this element out. However, if the sense of competition is low stakes and likely to work well with a group, the following ideas may prove useful.

– When generating ideas in a time or turn-based sharing activity, encouraging students to see who can generate the most ideas can work to motivate some students. However, emphasising quality over quantity is often preferable and so rewarding ideas of a higher standard may be the best way forward here.

– We all love a Post-it note © brainstorm! One way this can be given a competitive edge is to give different tables a specific colour of post-it note to work with. Next, ask students to send an envoy’ to other tables. If there are ideas that no other group has come up with, students take those post-it notes to the front and display them for the class to see. The team with the most original ideas can be rewarded. All teams benefit from seeing and integrating new ideas into their explanation of a text. Such a brainstorm could also be used to focus students on metacognitive considerations for preparing a written response.

  1. It is particularly important to encourage lower achieving pupils to talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks, as they may contribute less.” (EEF)

A silent debate can be used to get students dialoguing through writing. The key is to ensure that students understand that the task is to respond to what they see others writing on the sheet (best done on large A2 or flipchart paper). In order to monitor the contributions of lower-achieving students, the teacher issues groups with a pot of different colour pens at the start of the activity. This will allow the teacher to check on the contributions of individual students as well as embed a sense of personal accountability over time in the minds of learners as they come to recognise the task.

You can also modify the above activity for the group creation of out loud mind maps’ on something such as a chapter, theme or character in a book. Instead of a silent debate, issue students with a set number of contribution chips’ that must be spent. When a chip is spent, students explain the idea that they would like to add and justify its places on the mind-map. Teachers can also ask students to write their name on a corner of the sheet in the colour pen that they’ll be using. Both of these measures will help to ensure contributions from students and allow teachers to further monitor, praise and encourage lower achieving students to articulate their thinking.

  1. Professional development may be needed to support the effective use of these strategies.” (EEF)

Given the potential gains to be achieved in the classroom by implementing collaborative learning, the security of the evidence in this area and the low cost per pupil for embedding collaborative learning, it may well form a key CPD area for schools looking to focus their staff on evidence based practice. Many schools have run a session or two on Collaborative Learning but we know from the evidence informed CPD Standard from the DfE, that this is not enough to really affect long term teacher practice.


A programme of staff development in this area and revisiting our collaborative learning structure and strategy will be key to ensure that staff do not revert to the comfort blanket of group work’ over collaborative learning. If we are to ensure that the well-researched vehicle of collaborative learning can be harnessed in order to make the first pillar of the EEF’s guidance a reality in classrooms then the time has come to invest in a programme that supports teachers to develop effective uses of collaborative learning strategies.

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