Cooperative Education - The Key to Bilingual Success?

by Pamela Porter
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XI, Number 1, March 1999, Unlocking the Future: Early Literacy

When Margarita Calderón, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University and Howard University's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, tested the Bilingual Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (BCIRC) model she developed, she thoroughly expected students to succeed in making the transition from their native Spanish to English. And while students in the program consistently outperformed their peers on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), there was another exciting outcome: teachers involved in the experiment also flourished. That's probably due in large part to the philosophy of cooperation-the driving force behind the model-that also extends to educators in BCIRC's comprehensive listening, speaking, reading, and writing program. Calderón notes that the majority of the teachers involved in an Ysleta Independent School District 1988-93 study are now in leadership positions or are pursuing advanced degrees.

Rosa Lujan, who has accomplished both, currently works as bilingual education specialist for the YISD. She is enthusiastic about this method of teaching because of the positive experiences she had as a teacher using the model in second- and sixth-grade classes.

"It's amazing how creative the children can be," Lujan says, as she gives examples of children at risk who have "blossomed" and are now doing well in high school or are attending college. "But the program made for more creative teachers, too-it challenged you to look at what you're doing in a community of teachers working together."

Calderón believes that one of the factors that contributed to the success of the Ysleta experiment is this teachers' learning communities (TLC) component. "TLCs took apart, changed the model, and adapted it to student needs. Teachers taught one another and would look at what emerged," she observes. "In this way, we were constantly taking the model, massaging it, until it became a more powerful teaching tool."

Based on the Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC) model developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, this bilingual version also incorporates innovative transitional and English as a second language (ESL) strategies that are effective in teaching reading and writing in both first and second languages (see "BCIRC Strategies,"). The curriculum is based on a 90-minute daily cycle of activities. According to Calderón, comprehension and writing skills are learned through teacher-directed, cooperative, and individual activities. Students are assigned to four-member, heterogeneous learning teams and work collectively to help each other learn academic material. A book club component promotes student-generated activities, and parents are encouraged to read with their children each night.

Table: Differences between Experimental and Control Classrooms

Differences between Experimental and Control Classrooms Based on TAAS Scores, 1991-92 School Year

"Very definitely, it works," Calderón says of the BCIRC model. "Students learn English faster and more effectively. And they learn additional skills—study, collaborative, and critical thinking skills. BCIRC is a great vehicle for teaching languages," she adds. She points to statistics gathered during the Ysleta study that back up this claim and shows graphs illustrating that students enrolled in the BCIRC classes surpass those in control classes on all skills—including math—on both the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) and the Norm-referenced Assessment Program for Texas (NAPT).

Calderón explains that the BCIRC method of teaching monolingual students a second language has become part of a larger program currently used in the El Paso Independent School District that reaches students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade—Success For All. Four schools in El Paso, along with nearby Hueco and Socorro campuses, are incorporating SFA techniques and join the 1,200 schools in the United States that have embraced the comprehensive schoolwide restructuring program.

Picture of Esther Natera

Esther Natera, regional instructional facilitator for EPISD's Bilingual/ESL program.

"I'm sold on the strategies they use-the focus, the processes-because I see the benefits for the kids," says Esther Natera, regional instructional facilitator for EPISD's Bilingual/ESL program. She believes the BCIRC, CIRC, and SFA programs are successful because children become thoroughly engaged in activities that reinforce the reading process long enough to be remembered. During site visits to the SFA schools, she sees that there are other ways students with limited vocabulary skills can express themselves and develop cognitively. Natera also appreciates the continuous monitoring of the reading process, which allows students to get the intervention they need before problems arise.

Natera points out, however, that cooperative learning is "a very, very structured program and could be overwhelming for teachers." But when used correctly, the teacher assumes the facilitator role and the percentage of student talk increases. "And for second language learners, what is important is the language," she stresses.

Saul Lopez, a friend and colleague of Calderón's who is administrator for five middle schools in Juárez, Mexico, has noticed a definite improvement in student skill levels since he began using BCIRC strategies in his schools two years ago. He calls the model "a wonderful tool to implement the new theories of educational reform in Mexico" and shares his experiences with Calderón.

He discovered that by putting parents in teams, they become more effective and dedicated in the home reading and discussion portion of the program. He has also noticed that students have more confidence when speaking in front of groups and that their behavior improves. "So we're learning together," Calderón explains. "This is true cooperative learning—on a binational level."

Picture of Saul Lopez and Margarita Calderon at work in office

Saul Lopez, school administrator in Juárez, Mexico and Margar’ta Calderón at work in Calderón's El Paso office.

Lopez and Calderón agree that they have experienced many of the same successes and failures, even though Mexican teachers are mandated to use official textbooks and regularly have up to 50 students in their classrooms. The educators point out that without sufficient time devoted to this process, limited staff development or no follow-up, BCIRC becomes less effective.

As students work together to master reading and writing skills in two languages, they also learn cooperation and "people skills" that are invaluable. They become higher-order thinkers and become less afraid of failure. When teachers are able to use this cooperative learning approach to education, students grow—and so do the teachers.

BCIRC Strategies

Strategies used in the Bilingual Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition model include a variety of interactive activities that build upon reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking skills in two languages. The program also allows for team building as the students work with peers and share background knowledge. The sequential activities that take place before, during, and after reading are described below.

Building Background
and Vocabulary
Teachers survey reading selections to identify content and language that might be unfamiliar to students, then with and for students, they develop semantic maps that become word banks for use in reading, writing, and discussion.
Making Predictions

After a teacher models how to make and confirm predictions, students work with team members to examine the title and illustrations of a story to predict elements of the story, which are shared with the entire class.
Reading a Selection
Students follow the text of the story as the teacher reads aloud and "whisper read" during the next reading.
Partner Reading
Sitting in pairs, ear to ear, students first take turns reading aloud alternating sentences. As time progresses, confidence builds and students read alternate paragraphs. They help each other with pronunciation and comprehension before reading the material silently on their own.
Treasure Hunt: Story
Reading partners discuss the answers to Treasure Hunt questions on story grammar, then work in teams of four to collectively answer questions from the teacher. Students compete against other teams and are called on randomly, so they make sure all group members know the material.
Story Mapping
Next, each team creates a story map—a visual aid that organizes story elements such as the main idea, events, problems and conclusion of the story.
Story Retell
Students retell the story to their partners, who evaluate them, then the pairs discuss what they like about the story. Students also recite their stories before the class and for parents at home.
Story-Related Writing
In teams of two or four, students work to develop important elements of writing—character and plot development and the sequencing of events.
Words Out Loud
and Spelling
Students help each other master new words and use them in meaningful sentences.
Partner Checking
Partners, who assess whether tasks have been completed, verify each other's progress on a Student Assessment Form, which tracks assignments.
Meaningful Sentences
The meanings of several selected words are discussed and teams "write and polish" a meaningful sentence that is displayed on the wall. Soon, students create meaningful sentences in pairs and then individually.
After three class periods, students are tested on their grasp of the story and write meaningful sentences. Test scores and evaluations determine team scores while tracking individual progress.
Direct Instruction in
Reading Comprehension
Comprehension skills such as identifying main ideas, drawing conclusions and comparing/ contrasting is provided by the teacher throughout the lesson cycle; students practice these skills together before taking individual quizzes.
Writing Workshops
During a series of mini-lessons, students learn and practice techniques on how to complete writing assignments.
Independent Reading
Students are asked to select a book and read it at least 20 minutes each evening, while parents participate in discussion about the material and verify that students have devoted the required amount of time to reading. Students, who turn in book reports and completed forms, earn points for their team.


Pamela Porter is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Las Cruces, NM. She is a frequent contributor to New Mexico Magazine.

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