Learning and teaching another language is a long and complex undertaking. In this process, we usually encounter a multitude of questions about the factors that affect our way of acting. These factors may be learners, teachers, and the way of teaching, the required time, the place, and our purpose of learning another language. The world of teaching has changed drastically. The idea of using small groups in order to accomplish shared goals was nearly neglected in Grammar-Translation and the Audio-Lingual Method (Kagan 1986). Of course, there were some little attempts but they weren't systematic. On the other hand, we should know that schools are not buildings, curricula, timetables, and machines. Most fundamentally, schools are based on the relationships and interactions among people focused on learning. How interpersonal interactions are structured among everyone in the school environment determines how effective schools are. Cooperation among students is part of the larger issue of the organizational structure of the school. In the last decade, one of the systematic attempts to activate the role of group working in order to reach shared goals has been cooperative learning.
Cooperation is working together to accomplish shared goals. The value of cooperative learning has been recognized throughout human history. Organizing individuals to work in support of one another and putting the interests of the group ahead of one's own are abilities that have characterized some of the most successful people of our time. Group learning, with its roots in ancient tribal customs, has traditionally been a part of educational practice. Its effectiveness has been documented through hundreds of research studies (Johnson & Johnson, 1986; Kagan, 1986; Slavin, 1988). Cooperative learning is now widely recognized as one of the most promising practices in the field of education. During much of its history, however, cooperative learning methodology was developed in settings where few, if any, of the students came from non-English language background. Within cooperative activities individuals seek outcomes that are beneficial to themselves and beneficial to all other group members. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. The idea is simple. Class members are organized into small groups after receiving instruction from the teacher. They then work through the assignment until all group members successfully understand and complete it. Cooperative efforts result in participants' striving for mutual benefit so that all group members gain from each other's efforts (Your success benefits me and my success benefits you), recognizing that all group members share a common fate (We all sink or swim together here), knowing that one's performance is mutually caused by oneself and one's colleagues (We can not do it without you), and feeling proud and jointly celebrating when a group member is recognized for achievement (We all congratulate you on your accomplishment!). In cooperative learning situations there is a positive interdependence among students' goal attainments; students perceive that they can reach their learning goals if and only if the other students in the learning group also reach their goals (Deutsch, 1962; Johnson & Johnson, 1989). A team member's success in creating a multi-media presentation on saving the environment, for example, depends on both individual effort and the efforts of other group members who contribute needed knowledge, skills, and resources. No one group member will possess all of the information, skills, or resources necessary for the highest possible quality presentation.
Students' learning goals may be structured to promote cooperative, competitive, or individualistic efforts. In contrast to cooperative situations, competitive situations are ones in which students work against each other to achieve a goal that only one or a few can attain. In competition there is a negative interdependence among goal achievements; students perceive that they can obtain their goals if and only if the other students in the class fail to obtain their goals (Deutsch, 1962; Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Norm-referenced evaluation of achievement occurs. The result is that students either work hard to do better than their classmates, or they take it easy because they do not believe they have a chance to win. In individualistic learning situations students work alone to accomplish goals unrelated to those of classmates and are evaluated on a criterion-referenced basis. Students' goal achievements are independent; students perceive that the achievement of their learning goals is unrelated to what other students do (Deutsch, 1962, Johnson & Johnson, 1989). The result is to focus on self-interest and personal success and ignore as irrelevant the successes and failures of others.
There is a long history of research on cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts. Since the first research study in 1898, nearly 600 experimental studies and over 100 correlational studies have been conducted (see Johnson & Johnson, 1989 for a complete review of these studies). The multiple outcomes studied can be classified into three major categories: achievement/productivity, positive relationships, and psychological health. The research clearly indicates that cooperation, compared with competitive and individualistic efforts, typically results in (a) higher achievement and greater productivity, (b) more caring, supportive, and committed relationships, and (c) greater psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem. The positive effects that cooperation has on so many important outcomes makes cooperative learning one of the most valuable tools educators have.
In this research, the researcher will elaborate on the necessity of including cooperative activities for improving the reading comprehension. Then some cooperative techniques are introduced in order to realize this goal in practice.
1.2. Statement of the problem and purpose of the study
Traditionally over the past century, schools have functioned as "mass-production" organizations that divided work into small component parts performed by individuals who worked separately from and, in many cases, in competition with peers. Teachers worked alone, in their own room, with their own set of students, and with their own set of curriculum materials. Students were assigned to one teacher for short segments of time such as one class period each day and/or one school year. Teachers and students alike were considered to be interchangeable parts in the organizational machine (Johnson & Johnson, 1994).
In order to solve the abovementioned problems, new and useful ways of teaching should be used in the process of learning and teaching languages. To do this, we should change our competitive and individualistic conditions in our classes to cooperative ones. As a teacher of English language in Iran (West Azarbayjan), I know that if our students don't work cooperatively in their language learning classes, it is due to the fact that there are a lot of limitations for our students to improve their language learning abilities. Group working enhances and supports their language learning skills.
Mastering the essential components of cooperation allows teachers to:
1. Take existing lessons, curricula, and courses and structure them cooperatively.
2. Tailor cooperative learning lessons to meet the unique instructional circumstances and needs of the curricula, subject areas, and students.
3. Diagnose the problems some students may have in working together and intervene to increase the effectiveness of the student learning groups.
The essential components of cooperation are positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993). Systematically structuring those basic elements into group learning situations helps ensure cooperative efforts and enables the disciplined implementation of cooperative learning for long-term success.
The purpose of this study is to find the suitable and easy ways for improving English language reading skill in Iran and to give much information to our students and teachers to have fruitful usage in their daily studies and teaching time. We want to study the effect of using cooperative_ learning activities on improving reading comprehension of pre_university students in Khoy a city in West Azarbayjan.
1.3. Significance of and justification for the Study
Cooperative learning activities are often used in communicative language teaching (Richards, & Renandya 2002). So, from a communicative perspective, the most effective way for improving the learners' ability in learning another language especially through reading comprehension is using cooperative activities. According to Johnson (1990), cooperative learning:
• promotes student learning and academic achievement,
• increases student retention,
• enhances student satisfaction with their learning experience
• helps students develop skills in oral communication,
• develops students' social skills,
• promotes student self-esteem,
• helps to promote positive race relations, and
• help to promote positive race relations.
So doing a study about the effect of such important factors on reading comprehension seems to be very crucial.
1.4. Research Question and Hypothesis
Considering the aforementioned problem and cooperative activities in reading comprehension, the researcher has raised the following question:
Do cooperative activities improve learners' ability in reading comprehension?
According to the research question and the purpose of the research, the following null hypothesis has been proposed:
Cooperative activities do not improve learners' ability in reading comprehension.
1.5. Definition of Key Terms
Groups with five students are set up. Each group member is assigned some unique material to learn and then to teach it to his group members. The students should be helped to learn the suitable techniques of teaching the materials and they should know the importance of the materials in the process of learning. After practice in these ''expert'' groups (i.e. groups in which they learned how to teach the assigned material), the original groups reform and students teach each other (Wood, 1995).
Think- Pair- Share
It involves a three step cooperative structure. During the first step, individuals think silently about a question posed by the instructor. Individuals pair up during the second step and exchange thoughts. In the third step, the pairs share their responses with other pairs, other teams, or the entire group.
Each member of a team chooses another member to be a partner. During the first step, individuals interview their partners by asking clarifying questions. During the second step partners reverse the roles. For the final step, members share their partner's response with the team.
Round Robin Brainstorming
Class is divided into small groups (4 to 6) with one person appointed as the recorder. A question is posed with many answers and students are given time to think about answers. After the "think time," members of the team share responses with one another by turns. The recorder writes down the answers of the group members. The person next to the recorder starts and each person in the group in order gives an answer until time is called (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993).
Teachers stop any time during a lecture or discussion and give teams three minutes to review what has been said, ask clarifying questions or answer questions.
A team of four is established. Each member is given numbers of 1, 2, 3, and 4. The groups are asked the questions. Groups work together to answer the question so that all can verbally answer the question. Teacher calls out a number (two) and each two (i.e. the title of students in the groups) is asked to give the answer.
Team Pair Solo
Students solve problems which was given by their teacher first as a team, then with a partner, and finally on their own. It is designed to motivate students to tackle and solve at problems which initially are beyond their ability. It is based on a simple notion of mediated learning. Students can do more things with help (mediation) than they can do alone. By allowing them to work on problems they could not do alone, first as a team and then with a partner, they progress to a point when they can perform the job alone that which at first they could do only with help.
Circle the Sage
First the teacher polls the class to see which students have a special knowledge to share. For example, the teacher may ask who in the class was able to solve a difficult math homework question, who had visited Mexico, who knows the chemical reactions involved in how salting the streets help dissipate snow. Those students (the sages) stand up and spread out in the room. The teacher then has the rest of the classmates surround a sage, with no two members of the same team going to the same sage. The sage explains what they know while the classmates listen, ask questions, and take notes. All students then return to their teams. Each in turn, explains what they learned. Because each one has gone to a different sage, they compare notes. If there is disagreement, they stand up as a team. Finally, the disagreements are aired and resolved.
The class is divided into teams of four. Partners move to one side of the room. Half of each team is given an assignment to master to be able to teach the other half. Partners work to learn and can consult with other partners working on the same material. Teams go back together with each set of partners teaching the other set. Partners quiz and tutor teammates. Team reviews how well they learned and taught and how they might improve the process.
1.6. Limitations and Delimitations of the Study
The present study had certain limitations that need to be taken into account when considering the study. Some of these limitations can be seen as fruitful insight for future research to consider. The first and maybe the most important one was the cultural aspect of the work. It means that nearly all of our students and their parents and even schools' principals have no knowledge about the cooperative learning activities and their benefits for EFL learners and even for our educational system.
The lack of the above mentioned knowledge caused that some of the students and their parents to complain about the students' scores in their groups. Another limitation that should be noted was that the experimental work took place under conditions that were different from ordinary L2 or FL teaching/learning environments. Students working in groups kept changeing the ordinary physical form of the classroom. It was strange for the students and even for schools' principals. Finally, we found that the cooperation of principals in our schools in Iran is low and they think these kinds of activities will cause disciplinary problems in the schools and classes.
This study was conducted in Khoy (West Azarbayjan) and among pre-university students. Therefore, the results of this study should be treated with caution.