In a recent two-year study Robert J. Stevens, Pennsylvania State University, and Robert E. Slavin, Johns Hopkins University, examined the long-term effects of a cooperative-learning program on the reading and writing skills of regular and special-needs elementary students. Previous research with this Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC) program showed that it increased third- and fourth-graders’ achievement in reading and language arts. In this study Stevens and Slavin sought to determine if the same positive effects could be maintained long term with a wider range of students. This study integrated special-needs students, most of whom were identified as learning disabled with achievement at least two years below grade level, with regular students in cooperative teams in second through sixth-grade classrooms.
Research in complex learning
Stevens and Slavin report that research has shown two characteristics to be essential for effective cooperative learning programs: an incentive to cooperate and individual accountability. Clear incentives for doing well as a group in addition to tasks that facilitate cooperation are necessary to encourage cooperative, task-oriented behavior. But group incentives alone are not sufficient to increase student achievement. The cooperative programs most effective in producing academic gains require individual accountability. The group’s success must depend upon the success of each individual member.
The CIRC program is based on recent research suggesting that students need more instructional support when learning a complex skill such as reading comprehension. Researchers recommend an apprenticeship approach in which the teacher provides direct instruction and modeling, followed by coaching as the students practice the task. Stevens and Slavin believe that cooperative learning can provide this kind of apprenticeship for students. After instruction and modeling by the teacher, peers work together and coach one another, explaining ideas and strategies in their own words. Researchers theorize that understanding is more likely to occur when students are required to explain, elaborate, or defend their position to others. They believe that explaining to others requires students to evaluate, integrate and elaborate on new information.
Testing the CIRC program
The purpose of this study was to examine the long-term effects of this cooperative program and to investigate its effectiveness with special-needs students. Six hundred thirty-five students in elementary schools using the CIRC program were compared to 664 students in matched schools that used traditional reading and language arts instruction. Seventy-two special-needs students at the CIRC schools were mainstreamed and compared to 65 students in special education pull-out programs in the control schools. All the teachers in experimental schools, including special education teachers, received two days of training in the CIRC program. Throughout the two-year study, classes were monitored and teachers received follow-up support as needed. Students’ scores on the California Achievement Test were used as a pretest to match students in experimental and control groups. At the end of each year it was readministered to compare achievement gains.
The CIRC program consists of three main elements: cooperative story-related activities, direct instruction in comprehension strategies, and integrated writing and language arts instruction. Teachers meet with reading groups for about 20 minutes each day to introduce and discuss stories from basal readers. The teacher introduces new vocabulary, sets a purpose for reading, and discusses the story with students after they have read it silently. Following the reading group, students work both in pairs and on teams. Pairs of students practice reading new words and reread the story aloud to each other to improve their decoding skills and reading fluency. Students summarize the main points of the story for each other and then work in teams to answer comprehension questions and write sentences using new vocabulary. They write paragraphs describing what has happened in the story or relating an event in the story to their own experiences. To check comprehension, each student takes a written quiz and reads new vocabulary words aloud to the teacher.
Students receive explicit instruction in comprehension strategies such as identifying the main idea, making inferences and drawing conclusions. Students also get instruction in language mechanics and language usage skills related to their writing. During these periods, students plan, revise and edit their writing.
Since putting special-needs students in regular classes often does not significantly improve their achievement by itself, special education teachers assisted the regular teacher for about 30 minutes each day during reading instruction.
Higher achievement in reading vocabulary and comprehension
The first-year results showed that CIRC students had significantly higher achievement in reading vocabulary and comprehension than students in the traditional program. After a second year in the program, CIRC students demonstrated significantly higher achievement in language expression as well as vocabulary and comprehension. Special-needs students mainstreamed in CIRC classes showed significantly higher achievement in reading vocabulary, reading comprehension and language expression than did comparable special education students taught in traditional pull-out programs.
The CIRC program demonstrated positive effects across all five grades and for special-needs as well as regular students. Stevens and Slavin conclude that this type of program is effective for mainstreaming special-needs students into regular classes. These researchers believe, however, that an important factor in these students’ success was having special education teachers in the regular classroom for part of every reading period.
Stevens and Slavin point out some limitations of their study. The schools in this study served primarily urban working-class families with small minority and disadvantaged populations. The degree to which these results could be replicated with different populations of students is not known. In addition, the study has not shown whether this level of support will enable special students to close the academic gap with their peers or only to make equivalent gains.
These results demonstrate that significant achievement gains on standardized tests of reading vocabulary, comprehension and language expression can be obtained from reading and writing activities that:
1.) focus on understanding and enjoyment of literature,
2.) stress higher-level comprehension and relate information to prior knowledge,
3.) include repeated readings and meaningful use of new vocabulary,
4.) explicitly teach reading comprehension strategies,
5.) use an integrated writing and language arts approach, and
6.) use cooperative learning to engage students in teaching one another.
“Effects of a Cooperative Learning Approach in Reading and Writing on Academically Handicapped and Non handicapped Students”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 95, Number 3, January 1995, pp.241-262.
Published in ERN March/April 1995, Volume 8, Number 2