Working together is better than working alone.

Reading is something that we do by ourselves, but learning to read is something that we do together. The best instructional strategies are cooperative in nature, which is why reading instruction uses groups of three or four students. By “cooperative,” I mean contributing to each other’s learning by playing a meaningful part of the learning process. A cooperative learning activity has the following characteristics.

  • Each student in a group has a meaningful role towards a group product or outcome.
  • Each student in a group is responsible for helping other students learn.
  • Each student in a group is responsible for demonstrating his or her own learning.

When interacting with text, readers draw from their experiences, prior knowledge, skills, memories, and perspectives, and yet students have different experiences, different knowledge, different skills, different memories, and different perspectives. Within a cooperative learning group, each student brings his or her unique characteristics to help other students make sense of—and expand their understanding of—the text.

Some learning activities must be conducted in small groups. For example, you cannot have a discussion by yourself. You cannot perform choral reading by yourself. You cannot understand how people react to word choices if you do not explore how other people interpret words.

On the other hand, some learning activities can be conducted alone. For example, you can have individual students complete a graphic organizer or research more information about a topic. You might ask individual students to group words by a particular sound or a category, such as synonyms. However, the risk of failure is much higher than if the students worked together on these tasks. They risk wasting their time when they could be learning from, and with, each other.

Individual Learning Integrated with Cooperative Learning

There is a time for individual learning activities. Students can engage in individual activities to prepare them for meaningful participation in cooperative activities. The best learning will come from the cooperative activities. As such, to help students get the most from reading instruction, any individual activities must be followed by cooperative activities. Those cooperative activities will use the individual students’ results or products.

For example, individual students may work on a graphic organizer to begin analyzing a text. They can then work with a partner to create one combined graphic organizer. The two students will seek common ideas, as well as new information and ideas. They will discuss each other’s ideas to determine what they should or should not include in their joint graphic organizer. Follow-up discussion will give individual students the opportunity to defend and explain their shared ideas, as well as their differing ideas.

One of my core operating principles is “The work we do together is better than the work we do alone.” This is equally true for learning. Students have a better chance to learn the content, skills, and concepts when they work cooperatively. They can develop a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of text and overall stronger skills in the reading components. And they will be more engaged in the process of learning and more willing to do the work of learning to read.

We learn together so we can perform alone.