As EFL teachers we are concerned with two main issues in language learning. The first issue addresses the skills students should acquire in EFL classes as a result of teaching-learning experiences. Such skills are often measured by students’ achievement. The second issue takes account of the strategies EFL teachers use to help students acquire such skills and in turn increase their achievement.
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Writing is a skill which requires efforts from both the student and the teacher. It is one of the four language skills which are given emphasis in second language learning. Writing is one of the skills which need to be mastered by the learners to meet the secondary school graduation requirements (Panofsky et al 2005). They learn different genres of writing like descriptive, expository, recount and narrative based on the prescribed syllabus of their providers. Language learning involves learning the language code as well as the culture associated with the language (Becket &Gonzales 2004).
Students’ writing abilities are affected by the type of instructions teachers use within their classroom practices. It is one of the productive skills that learners are expected to achieve in order to ensure their communicative competence. While learning writing, students are supposed to get involved in many activities that enable them to produce a piece of writing at the end. They can be engaged for example in class discussions, act in role playing or get involved in peer editing (Hensen, 2002). While engaged in classroom activities students build up experience and have more practice that may finally give the chance to reach a proper product of writing.
In teaching writing, teachers strive hard to find strategies to facilitate increasing students’ achievement. There are many methods adopted by the teachers in teaching EFL writing in the classrooms. One of the methods recommended in teaching writing is the incorporation of cooperative learning (Kagan 2002). Students can be grouped in a variety of more flexible ways so that they spend some portion of a school day in heterogeneous groups and some portion in homogeneous groups. (Grady et al 2007).
Supporting students’ writing involves providing some form of assistance that helps them carry out one or more processes involved in writing. These procedures include structuring how students carry out a particular writing process, having peers to help one another as they compose a piece of writing , providing students with feedback on their performance, focusing students’ attention on specific aspects of tasks, and providing a model of what the end product should look like (Graham & Perin 2007).
In most EFL classes, some learners perform better beyond grade-level, others struggle with target language, while another great part of the class falls somewhere in between. In their effort to meet the needs of such a diverse students, educators tend to assign pair and group work with students of different ability levels finding ways to involve all students in the activities. These ways could include communicative and cooperative tasks to allow scaffolding of less advanced students. In such a classroom environment, advanced level learners perform as a bridge to assist the learning process and lower level classmates show a readiness to cross that bridge (Sean, 2002). As a general rule, it seems reasonable to propose that classroom harmony might better be achieved in a group of motivated students who are allowed to take part and cooperate.
Statement of the problem
Teachers as well as educators seem to have struggled to find answers to questions about heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping: Are they of certain benefits for learners? Do they harm anyone? Who gets the benefit or the harm the most? And why? (Kulik 1992). The answers to such questions are not always clear-cut and often depend on whom you ask and what learning outcomes are considered important. To many educators, grouping is considered as an proper response to academic diversity. To others, the practice has harmful unintended consequences and should be abandoned (Ansalone, 2001).
Statement of the purpose
Consequently, this study aims to investigate the effect of homogeneous grouping versus heterogeneous grouping on EFL students achievement in writing in the hope that it may settle the argument on which is better for both high and low achievers. Homogeneous grouping can be defined as dividing students into small groups which include students of the same ability or level for example high achievers together and low achievers together. While heterogeneous grouping can be defined as dividing students into groups that include mixed or different levels, high and low achievers together.
When tackling the issue of cooperative learning or grouping it is useful to draw upon the theories of social constructivism and multiple intelligences so as to view intelligence from a multi-dimensional perspective. Social constructivism emphasizes the significance of the social environment in cognitive development. Vygotsky, as reported by Seng et al. (2003), wrote: “Every function in the child’s cultural development environment appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level, first between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological)”. Vygotsky (1978) supposed that intelligence starts in the social environment and directs itself inward. Other writers on constructivism elaborated on this theme. Students must interact with other students as well as materials in order to learn. The conventional ways of teaching through lecturing and recitation do not work effectively (Hillocks, 2002). Teachers must allow a learning environment in which students search for meaning, appreciate uncertainty, and inquire responsibly (Brooks, 1993).
Gardner (1993), in his work on multiple intelligences (MI), highlighted the importance of precisely understanding the profile of intelligences of the individual learner to provide a more enlightened search for remedies for difficulties. Edward (2004) stated that the problems students encounter at school are because of the fact that they have different kinds of minds and therefore remember, understand, perform, and learn in differently. Gardner identified 8 separate intelligences; two of them are linguistics and interpersonal intelligences. Armstrong (199) stressed the need to provide learning experiences which may accommodate those 8 intelligences through a variety of multi-spectrum experiences.
Moreover, there are two cognitive theories that are directly applied to cooperative learning, the developmental and the elaboration theories (Slavin, 1987). The developmental theories presume that interaction among students around appropriate tasks raises their mastery of critical conceptions (Damon, 1984). When students interact with other students, they will need to explain and discuss each other’s perspectives, which lead to greater understanding of learning targets. Also the effort to resolve potential conflicts within collaborative activities develops higher levels of understanding (Slavin, 1990).
The elaboration theory proposes that one of the most effective means of learning is to explain the material to someone else. Cooperative learning activities improve elaborative thinking and frequent giving and receiving explanations, which increases the depth of understanding, the quality of reasoning, and the accuracy of long term retention (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1986). Thus, the use of cooperative learning methods should lead to the improvement of students’ learning and retention from both the developmental and cognitive theoretical perspectives.
Cooperative learning has its roots in the theories of social interdependence, cognitive development, and behavioral learning. Some research provides remarkably strong evidence that cooperative learning results in greater effort to achieve, more positive relationships, and greater psychological health than competitive or individualistic learning efforts (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994(
Cognitive growth springs from the arrangement of a variety of perspectives at the time individuals work to reach common goals. Both Piaget and Vygotsky saw cooperative learning with more able peers and instructors as resulting in cognitive development and intellectual growth (Johnson, et al., 1998). The assumption of behavioral learning theory is that students will work hard on tasks that provide a reward and that students will fail to work on tasks that provide no reward or punishment. Cooperative learning is one strategy that rewards individuals for participation in the group’s effort.
Slavin (1987), highlighted two main theoretical perspectives related to cooperative learning, motivational and cognitive. The motivational theories of cooperative learning stress the students’ motivation to accomplish academic work, whereas the cognitive theories emphasize the effects of working with others. A major element of cooperative learning is positive interdependence, as students perceive that their success or failure depends on working together as a team (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1986). From the motivational theories perspective, cooperative goal structure creates such a situation in which the only way group members can achieve their goals is when the group is successful” (Slavin, 1990,). As a result, for the reason of attaining certain goals, students are likely to encourage their group members to do whatever helps the group to succeed and to help one another with a group task.
Review of Literature
A number of studies examined the effects of cooperative learning techniques on student learning. Humphreys, Johnson, and Johnson (1982) compared cooperative, competitive, and individualistic strategies and concluded that students who were taught by cooperative methods learned and retained significantly more information than students taught by the other two methods. Sherman and Thomas (1986) reached similar findings in a study which involved high school students taught by cooperative and individualistic methods.
Slavin(1983) based on a review of 46 studies related to cooperative learning found that cooperative learning resulted in significant positive effects in 63% of the studies, and only two studies reported higher achievement for the comparison group. Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, and Skon (1981) conducted a meta-analysis of 122 studies related to cooperative learning and concluded that there was strong evidence for the advantage of cooperative learning in promoting achievement over competitive and individualistic strategies.
Johnson and Ahlgren (1976) investigated the relationships between students’ attitudes toward cooperation, competition, and attitudes toward education. The results of the study pointed out that student cooperativeness, rather than competitiveness, was positively related to being motivated to learn. Humphreys, Johnson, and Johnson (1982) also found that students studying in a cooperative learning treatment group rated more positively in their learning experience than did students in competitive and individualistic treatment groups. In a study involving elementary and secondary students Wodarski, et al., (1980) concluded that 95% of the elementary students enjoyed the cooperative learning activities and that they had learned a lot about the subject.
Cooperative learning can result in positive effects on student achievement (Devries & Slavin, 1978; Cohen, 1986; Davidson, 1989; Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Okebukola, 1985; Reid, 1992; Slavin, 1990). Academic benefits include higher achievement in reading comprehension, writing (Mathes, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 1997) and mathematics (Ross, 1995; Whicker, Nunnery, & Bol, 1997) and improved conceptual understanding and achievement in science (Lonning, 1993; Watson, 1991). Social benefits include more on-task behaviors and helping interactions with group members (Burron, James, & Ambrosio, 1993; Gillies & Ashman, 1998; McManus & Gettinger, 1996), higher self-esteem, more friends, more involvement in classroom activities, and improved attitudes toward learning (Lazarowitz, Baird, & Bolden, 1996; Lazarowitz, Hertz-Lazarowitz, & Baird, 1994).
Emmer and Gerwels (2002) stated that some research on cooperative learning addressed instructional components. In a number of studies students were taught interaction skills, such as how to question or to help each other so that they did not give answers but facilitated each other’s thinking (Fuchs, Fuchs, Kazdan, & Allen, 1999; Gillies & Ashman, 1996, 1998; Nattiv, 1994; Webb, Troper, & Fall, 1995). When students are taught these skills, positive outcomes like increased intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, and liking for school can result (Battistich, Solomon, & Delucchi, 1993).
Ability grouping can be carried out between-class or within-class (Dukmak 2009). Between-class ability grouping refers to a school’s practice of forming classrooms that contains students of similar ability. Within-class grouping refers to a teacher’s practice of forming groups of students of similar ability within an individual class (Gamoran, 1992; Hollified, 1987). A review of the literature on cooperative learning shows that students benefit academically and socially from cooperative, small-group learning (Gillies, 2002).
Mixed-ability grouping is based on cooperative learning which demonstrates positive success related to student’s achievement. In this type of grouping, students work collaboratively to successfully achieve a desired educational outcome and develop a greater understanding and respect for individual differences. All forms of diversity within the learning environment are embraced (Felder & Brent, 2001; Freeman, 1993; Saleh, Lazonder, & DeJong, 2005). Moreover, in a mixed-ability, teachers respond to the individualized needs of all learners (Kulik & Kulik, 1992). The most compelling argument against ability grouping is the creation of academic elites – a practice which goes against democratic ideals (Slavin, 1987).
Johnson and Johnson (1999) and Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1998) say that cooperative learning has five basic elements positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, appropriate use of social skills, and periodic processing of how to improve the effectiveness of the group (Johnson &Johnson1999 ). When these elements are properly implemented, the research has shown that “group collaboration in the classroom can increase learning and achievement, social skills, self-esteem, and attitudes toward classmates and school” (Slavin, 1990 as cited in Webb, Nemer & Zuniga 2002). Placing students in teams or cooperative learning groups has many advantages. It helps to build a student’s communication skills, can help increase tolerance and the acceptance of diversity, promotes higher level reasoning, promotes increased generation of new ideas, promotes greater transfer of information from one situation to another, increases retention, builds teamwork skills, reduces stress, and “increased willingness to attempt challenging tasks” (Baker & Campbell, 2005; Huss, 2006; Lin, 2006; Payne & Monk-Turner, 2006; Patrick, Bangel, & Jeon 2005; Kim 2004; Vaughn, 2002; Johnson & Johnson, 1999; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998; Slavin, 1996). The cooperative learning experience also [gives] students the opportunity to review and learn information that they did not understand before the cooperative learning activity (Webb, 2002).
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According to Lin (2006 ), research has concluded that cooperative learning is the top ranked teaching model that promotes greater higher-order thinking, problem solving, and achievement. Students can remember 75-90% of materials when they learn it in cooperative learning situations (Lin, 2006). In a survey of college students after an experiment involving group work, Payne and Monk-Turner (2006) found that 90% of students favored group work and that 90% learned from their group members. Since 1924, 168 studies have been conducted that compare cooperative learning to competitive and individual learning. These studies have shown that cooperative learning yields higher academic achievement than individual and competitive learning (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998). Cooperative learning groups are also said to be particularly beneficial to low academic achieving students and students of color (Huss, 2006; Vaughn, 2002).
Cooperative learning groups appear to be effective in many ways. Students work as an influential part of the group when they believe their efforts will add to the success of the group (Baker & Campbell, 2005). Students are successful and learn in cooperative learning groups because they learn by doing rather than listening (Payne, Monk-Turner, & Smith 2006 ) They are also actively using the material and information (Zimbardo, Butler, Wolfe, 2003). Cooperative learning also strengthens students social interactions, it gives them the desire to achieve, to develop more positive interpersonal relationships, and have greater psychological health than competitive or individualistic learning efforts” (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1994 as cited in Morgan, 2003,). Cooperative learning can teach students that knowledge can be, or should be, shared with fellow students; that differences in opinion can be rationally negotiated even under conditions of test pressures; and that cooperative learning procedures can be enjoyable and productive” (Zimbardo et al., 2003, ). These types of lessons enable students to learn how to work well with others. The interdependent relationships that develop within a group help to facilitate the group’s success. Everyone feels the goal of the group will be met if everyone achieves their individual goals (Vaughn, 2002; Morgan, 2004). According to Morgan (2004), group members should also be aware of the fact that a single group member can affect how and/or if the goal is achieved.
The cooperative learning experience is most effective when the participants work well together and they successfully achieve their goal. There are many characteristics to successful teams. Some of these characteristics include open communication, effectively listening, open-mindedness, clear roles, an established leader, clearly defined tasks, teamwork where everyone works together and contributes, there are well developed attainable goals (Payne, Monk-Turner, 2006; Baker & Campbell, 2005), and a timeline (Payne & Monk-Turner, 2006). In a classroom, there are also many things a teacher can do to help insure the success of a group activity. The teacher should provide strong guidance (Payne & Monk-Turner, 2006; Baker & Campbell, 2005), model the desired behavior, provide immediate feedback, and reward desired behavior (Lin, 2006; Baker & Campbell, 2005). The teacher can also use checks and balances to monitor productivity, employ various problem solving strategies (Friend & Cook, 2007), lengthen the amount of time the group spends together, provide proper group behavior training, establish “ground rules” (Mitchell, Reilly, Bramwell, 2004) and allow group members rate each other (Lin, 2006). If the teacher monitors, provides rewards and allows the students to rate each other, it may reduce the effects of a slacker and keep students from getting a grade they do not deserve (Payne & Monk-Turner, 2006). Students that slack off can demotivate hard working students and give them a negative feeling about group work (Ashraf, 2004).
Many studies have been conducted that demonstrate the success of teaming. Robert Slavin has conducted extensive research on the implementation of cooperative learning models in schools. He has examined the effects schools becoming complete cooperative learning centers on their academic achievement. He has found many successful situations where lower performing schools were transformed because they converted to a cooperative learning format (Slavin, 1999 22-23). Payne and Monk Turner (2006) conducted a study that examined how students felt about teams. In this study, they assigned students to groups, gave them an assignment, and then asked them how they felt about the assignment after the group project was completed. They found that 90% of the students had a favorable experience, 90% of the students learned from their group members, and 85% of the students felt they learned teaming skills that could be transcended into business. Baker and Campbell (2005) conducted a study in which students were placed in groups and observed that the students who worked in groups, as opposed to working individually, were more successful because they had more access to knowledge, they felt pressured to succeed to keep the group from failing, and the various personalities helped alleviate the stress of the problems. For example a member often told jokes to help lesson the tension. Additionally, members often provided positive reinforcement and motivation.
Placing students in groups to take tests is another way to use cooperative learning and group work. Morgan examined the benefits and non benefits of college students completing exams using cooperative learning groups. She concluded that “The increased depth of understanding, the feelings of support, respect for other’s contributions, and the clarification of information produced more students with a greater awareness of the material and more developed social skills to be contributing members of teams” (Morgan, 2004 ). The understanding of successful cooperative learning group models not only affects groups in grade school; it also affects groups in jobs and college. According to Payne, Monk-Turner, and Smith (2006) “employers want college graduates that have developed teamwork skills.” Miglietti (2002) says that group work is commonly used in the workplace and employers want to hire people with these skills. Furthermore, these skills can be learned when students are placed in successful teams where the goals have been reached. Socialization and communication are examples of skills that students learn in groups that can help their transition into the business world (Payne et al., 2006). In a survey of college students, after a study involving group work, Payne and Monk-Turner (2006) found that 85% of college students admitted that doing group work would probably work on teams in future jobs.
Homogeneous grouping has been proposed and implemented as a potential solution for meeting the needs of the mixed ability classes, suggesting that students of different abilities can be gathered in groups of same ability for the purpose of facilitating teaching (Slavin, 1987). This type of grouping is based on the pedagogical belief that the teacher has the advantage of focusing instruction at the level of all students in particular groups (Ansalone, 2000).
An extensive research has been conducted on ability grouping suggesting that academically, high-achieving students achieve and learn more when they are grouped with other high-achieving students (Gentry & Owens, 2002; Grossen, 1996; Hollified, 1987; Page & Keith, 1996). In mixed-ability grouping it is difficult to provide an adequate environment for teaching to everyone. Since students differ in knowledge, skills, developmental stage, and learning rate, one lesson might be easier for some students and more difficult for the others (Slavin, 1987). In ability grouping, high-achieving students view their own abilities more realistically and feel that they are appropriately challenged with their peers (Fiedler, Lange, and Wine-Brenner, 2002).
It is suggested that teachers of mixed ability classes can raise instruction level for high achievers and increase the pace of teaching whereas low level students can have individual attention. As a result advanced pupils can be taught more difficult concepts while low achievers can deal with simple and fewer things. Advocates of homogeneous grouping opine that it is an outstanding means of individualizing instruction. Achievement is thought to increase as teachers would adjust the pace of instruction to students’ needs.
Kulik and Kulik (1982) and Slavin (1987) carried out meta-analyses of studies at the elementary school level, finding benefits of within-class ability grouping. Both low ability students and more advanced ones placed in separate groups, benefited from instruction addressed to their level. More recently, Mulkey et al (2005) found that same ability grouping has constant instructional benefits for both high and low level students. Marsh (1987) supports homogeneous grouping as a technique to cope with mixed ability classes assuming that grouping children homogeneously enables those in lower ability groups to profit with respect to self-evaluation by being isolated from advanced peers. Furthermore, Allan (1991) supports that pupils model their behaviour after the behaviour of similar ability children who are coping well with their school work. The proponents of homogeneous grouping conclude that research fails to support that homogeneous grouping doesn’t accomplish anything (Loveless, 1998).
Although teachers of mixed ability classes seem to have positive attitudes towards homogeneous grouping (Scherer, 1993, Mulkey et al, 2005), a severe criticism of ability grouping has been raised in the last quarter of the 20th century. It has been stated that this type of grouping stigmatizes lower ability students, providing them with inferior instruction. A number of researchers attack homogeneous grouping for not guaranteeing that all advanced or all weak students are alike. Matthews (1997) conducted a relevant research with students in grades 6 through 8 and concluded that gifted students are noticeably more diverse than they are homogeneous. They are of different degrees in their abilities, their learning styles and interests, their advancement, their social/emotional development and their test-taking skills.
Ability grouping may reduce the self-esteem and aspirations of low ability children and therefore slow down their academic progress. Welner and Mickelson (2000) carried out an extensive research review and found that low ability children are exposed to lowered expectations, reduced resources and rote learning. Children’s self-concept is affected and expectations are internalized (Ireson and Hallam, 1999, Gamoran, 1987). This implies that students of low ability in mixed ability classes are provided with low expectations if placed in same ability groups causing them feelings of inferiority. This is confirmed by Ansalone (2001) and Hallinan (1994) who demonstrated that children assigned to lower ability groups, are exposed to less and more simplified versions of the curriculum whereas high ability groups have broader and more challenging material covered. In this sense, Oakes (1992) and Wheelock (2005) support that educational benefits in mixed ability settings are not provided by homogeneous grouping but rather by a challenging curriculum and high expectations.
Heterogeneous grouping, that is gathering children of varying abilities in same groups has been proposed by many researchers as an effective strategy to promote academic development of students having diverse background knowledge and abilities. Brimfield, Masci and Defiore (2002) believe that ‘all students deserve an academically challenging curriculum’ (p.15). So, our goal is to find a way to engage all pupils of the mixed ability classroom in the lesson irrespective of their abilities. The authors point out that by creating mixed-ability groups, we send the compelling message that everybody is expected to work at the highest possible level as high and low ability students deal with the same challenges. Disadvantaged pupils are at reduced risk of being stigmatized and exposed to a ‘dumped-down’ curriculum in a mixed-ability setting. Teachers’ expectations for all pupils are maintained at higher levels and less able students have opportunities to be assisted by more able peers.
It is assumed that heterogeneous grouping provides pupils access to more learning opportunities. Johnson and Johnson (1987) recommend assigning children of high, medium, and low abilities in the same group maximizing the heterogeneous make up of each group. Such ability diversity within the same group creates an effective learning environment (Manlove and Baker, 1995) providing learning opportunities for low-level students as well as opportunities to more advanced children to provide explanations to others revising, consolidating and using some things they have encountered before. The teachers can use cooperative tasks among high and low achievers of mixed ability groups or pairs in order to promote task engagement of all students in the mixed ability class as advanced children can provide explanations and guidance in carrying out a task.
Cooperative tasks among high and low achievers are valued by the sociocultural theory of Vygotsky (1978). Pupils of mixed ability classes differ at their competence level and prior linguistic experiences. Vygotsky supports that children who are exposed to books and other out-of-school factors which contribute to linguistic development i.e .prior knowledge of English from private institutional instruction, are expected to have already run through a large part of their ZPD. On the other hand, pupils with poor literacy opportunities i.e. without prior knowledge of English may possess a larger Zone of Proximal Development (Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991). So, they may benefit greatly from peer interactions which are likely to help low level students reach higher levels of performance.
In this framework, Lyle (1999) showed that both low and high achieving students value the opportunity to work together as all pupils believed that they benefited. It was concluded that peer interactions can facilitate literacy development especially of low ability students. In this vein, Guralnick (1992) points out that social competence acquired in group work affects the elaboration of all students’ cognitive competencies, implying that both low and advanced learners of mixed ability classes may gain from such settings.
The role of peer learning as contributing to language development has also been emphasized by Mize, Ladd and Price (1985) Webb (1989), Jacob et al (1996) and Slavin (1996). Rogoff (1993) refers to children’s social sharing of their cognition through interaction. When pupils participate in collective activities, they guide each other’s efforts. According to Tudge and Winterhoff (1993) advanced children give constant feedback through conversation forcing peers to strive for reaching higher levels of performance.
Various studies have indicated a positive correlation between cooperative learning and achievement in mixed ability classes. For example, Walters (2000) asserts that cooperative learning is suitable for teachers dealing with increasingly diverse classrooms as it easily accommodates individual differences in achievement. Accordingly, Fulk and King (2001) support that ‘class-wide peer tutoring’ improves all students’ learning. They add that serving in the role of tutor seems to be particularly beneficial for improving the self-esteem of students with low achievement while they may, for example, grade their partner’s reading. Therefore, it appears that CL may satisfy the needs of a mixed ability class.
Studies conducted by Pica and Doughty (1985), Porter (1986), and Cotterall (1990) indicate that learners of different abilities produce more in mixed ability pair and group work by helping one another to overcome cognitive obstacles. This conclusion is consistent with Urzua’s (1987) finding that the mixed ability children in the observational study conducted, appeared to have developed a sense of power in language through the process of working with trusted peers i.e. writing and revising.
The benefits of cooperative learning are more touchable
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