This is the third article of a four-part series on teaching the four C's effectively to English learners: Critical thinking | Communication | Collaboration | Creativity

Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity have been dubbed as the four C's of 21st century learning. In the first two parts of this four-part series, we explored critical thinking and communication. Collaboration is the next topic we will explore.

It is difficult, in a sense, to completely separate out collaboration from communication — these two topics are especially intertwined. All of the four C's are interconnected in some ways, but collaboration and communication go hand in hand.

Effective collaboration must be taught to students. Any teacher who has tried putting students into groups to work together without first setting up guidelines knows that group work can be a slippery slope, with some students thriving and others not participating effectively. When working with English learners, there are special considerations when having students collaborate, including language proficiency levels and cultural backgrounds.

The phrase "two heads are better than one" rings true in education both when discussing the planning of instruction as well as when students work together. Classroom teachers and English language development specialists can and should collaborate to design effective, engaging and appropriate instruction for English learners, blending content and language instruction.

Student projects have long been used in the classroom as a learning tool. At times, students are asked to work with others to create a product or solve a problem, or otherwise work with a group. Yet many students report that they dislike group work as they end up doing most of the work while other students do little.

English learners may be intentionally or unintentionally left out of the project due to perceived language constraints. When this occurs, it hardly reflects collaboration, but rather parallel work or perhaps even little work on the part of some of the members of the group and potentially unfair accountability practices.

As a 21st century skill, collaboration entails more than just working together. In order to be successful, students today must demonstrate flexibility and compromise as they work to achieve a common goal and a sense of shared accountability. At the same time, they celebrate individual goals and accomplishments, and plan, practice, implement, evaluate and revise actions or strategies.

The American Management Association includes working effectively with individuals from diverse groups and those with opposing viewpoints as a critical skill for employees today.

In this sense, our English learners have a potential advantage over other students. Because they speak a language other than English, this can be used as an asset in communication and collaboration with people who speak those same languages. They also have cultural knowledge and experience than can be helpful in a variety of settings, including in the business world after finishing school.

The importance of collaboration in today's society is clear, and is demonstrated throughout history. When people work together to achieve a common goal or to solve a problem, deeper learning, new and innovative products, and mutual benefits arise.

Technology and globalization have only increased the need for collaboration among people from diverse backgrounds and differing perspectives. Collaboration is a skill for both teachers and students, and we can intentionally build collaboration techniques into our teaching practice.

Collaboration skills

There are many skills inherent in collaboration that may go unnoticed or overlooked, especially when not considering the specific needs of English learners. These skills include cultural practices that may or may not align closely with the cultures of the students.

Of course, language structures and specific words may also be unique to some of these collaboration skills, and depending on the proficiency level of the student may need to be taught explicitly. Below just a few of these skills are listed, although students will need to practice and eventually master many more as they learn to collaborate effectively.

Starting and ending a conversation

For English learners, it is sometimes challenging to start off the conversation as additional processing time and thinking about how to articulate thoughts in English may be required. Consider assigning students as A/B partners, and alternating who will start the conversation. Ending a conversation may include making decisions on who will complete each task or portions of tasks.

Responding to prompts

Students at times are not sure how to respond to prompts or questions posed in class. Sharing with students how to include the question in the response is a helpful tool that teachers often share in regards to writing, but it can also be used in oral responses. Sentence starters and frames can be helpful in this context as well.

Asking for help

Many students have a difficult time asking for help from others. This may have cultural ramifications or be due to a student being shy and introverted. Hand signals or gestures are a safe way for students to signal that they need help. Offering times outside of class, such as before or after school, may also be a helpful support to students.

Asking questions

Students may not know the appropriate time to ask questions and may have difficulty formulating the question. Question stems are a helpful tool for all students, especially English learners. Question stems can be developed based on Bloom's Taxonomy, Webb's Depth of Knowledge or Costa's Levels of Questioning. If students are taught what the various levels mean and require, they can use the stems effectively to ask questions of the teacher and of each other.


Teaching listening can be a challenging task for teachers. Cultural practices such as eye contact and responding with nonverbal cues can differ significantly in differing cultures. For a more in depth discussion on teaching listening, see this previous this previous article written on the topic.

Classroom collaboration ideas

There are myriad ways to increase collaboration in the classroom. Increasing communication skills, as discussed in the previous article in this series, is an effective starting place. Having students discuss complex concepts and issues that have been presented comprehensibly is helpful and a strong first step. Cooperative learning has long been touted as an effective way to build in collaboration in the classroom.

Cooperative learning

Spenser Kagan has written extensively about cooperative learning and how to incorporate it into instruction. He devised the acronym PIES to describe the key elements of cooperative learning:

  • Positive interdependence: This requires the contribution of each of the group members in order to accomplish a specific goal.
  • Individual accountability: Each student is held accountable for his or her contribution. In addition, students and the teacher should be able to measure whether the group as well as each student has met the lesson objectives.
  • Equal participation: Each student must contribute to the task at hand. No one student can do all of the work while the others do little or nothing.
  • Simultaneous interaction: The more students talk with each other, the more they will learn. When we have more students engaging in conversations at the same time, more students are able to negotiate for meaning, apply content and language skills, and learn at a deeper level.

Numbered heads

The numbered heads strategy can be used in a number of ways. One of those ways involves having students seated in small groups of three or four students. Each student within the small group chooses or receives a number, one through three or four depending on the number of students in the group.

During instruction, the numbers can be used in a variety of ways. For example, the teacher may want students to have a conversation in pairs. Students at the table can talk in odd/even number pairs (person one with person three, and person two with person four).

Students can also have a small group discussion. The teacher can then use these numbers to call on students to share. For example, the teacher might say, "Person number three at this table, what is one key point your group discussed?"

This holds each student accountable for having listened and participated in the discussion. If the students does not have an answer ready, encourage him/her to talk to their team members. At that point, you can either move on to another group and have them share, or wait a moment as the group discusses the topic (the former is preferred, as it keeps the pacing at a more lively pace).

After a moment, go back to the original team and person you called on and have him/her share. It is important to go back to the same person in the group, as you are holding them personally accountable to share, but with support from the other group members.

English learners and sometimes shy students can have their opportunity to share overrun by extroverted or fast-processing students who do not have the patience to wait for the student called upon to share. It is important, though, that we provide each student with the opportunity and support to be heard.

Individual accountability through color-coding

When having students work on a project together, one way to hold students accountable and assess each individual's work is to have them work using a different colored pencil or pen.

For example, each student is to contribute to the brainstorming process. As ideas get written down, students use a specific color that only they can write with in a specific group (James writes in green, Elijah writes in red, Karen writes in blue, and Chiara writes in orange). In this way the teacher can instantly see who wrote what. Even if students are only required to add two or three ideas, each student is held accountable to writing.

Assessment of student work can also be differentiated. Even though each student should participate equally, the language structures an English learner at a more beginning proficiency level produces may differ from students who are native speakers or who are more advanced in English proficiency. The teacher can take this information into account when assessing the project.

Building collaboration into your practice masterfully takes time and practice. Managing student groups so that they are productive and meaningful and so that students are truly collaborative can be a challenge.

If having students work in cooperative groups is new, begin with a small step. If you are a veteran at incorporating cooperative groups and collaboration into your practice, analyze and take into account the participation levels of each students.

Are your English learners, shy students, students with special needs, and all other students participating equally? How could you increase the level of participation and collaboration in your classroom?