Collaborative Learning

                                  Collaborative Learning & Complex Texts

Related Standards

Speaking & Listening

Anchor Standard 1


Students should prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.


How Does S&L Standard 1 Relate to Complex Text?


Speaking & Listening Standard 1 presents increased expectations for students and is directly related to accessing complex text (reading standard 10) in that students discuss the complex text they have been reading.  Not only will this assist students in comprehending the text, but it will also provide practice in critical thinking, argumentation, and using evidence in their responses (reading standard 1).

      According to Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, authors of Rigorous Reading, collaborative learning is one of the most effective practices through which students access complex text. These peer-assisted learning opportunities furnish students with a means of applying the skills and strategies they have learned during teacher led or assisted classroom activities and serve as an effective scaffolding tool before students are expected to complete independent work.

     It’s not enough to have complex text in the classroom - students need support to fully access the text. Collaborative learning is an effective way to provide support as students read and discuss complex text.

    Student interaction with the text, the teacher, and other students is vital to enabling students to comprehend complex text.  

Building Structures for Collaborative Learning

Designs That Require Students to

Work Together 

To ensure that group work goes smoothly, teachers should post, teach, and revisit group norms for interaction, especially those that explain how to debate and disagree without being disagreeable, and how to seek, offer, accept, and decline help graciously.  When groups are first implemented, task complexity should be temporarily lowered to make it possible for students to attend to the collaborative learning processes and procedures that are new to them.  Once students are familiar with the group design, assignments that require “productive struggle” will keep students working together

Structures That Elevate Productive Struggle

The growing research on productive struggle in learning indicates that students who initially fail/struggle at a task are more receptive to subsequent instruction and show increased achievement and performance (Kapur, 2008).  It is best if students do not experience this struggle in isolation.  The best time for students to struggle is during collaborative learning.  When group work is too easy, groups typically divide the work and go their separate ways until they meet again to reassemble the pieces.  Ideally, the assigned task should be difficult enough so that students have a reason to talk with one another to resolve their confusion (Fisher & Frey 2013).

              * The task should be novel – not a mere reproduction of what the teacher just did.  With tasks that are too easy, students often “divide and conquer” and no thinking is required.

         *  The task should require interaction and teamwork.  The text should be of a high enough complexity that students actually need each other to broker an understanding of it.  This causes students to discuss the content – not just the task.

Require Groups to Use Academic Language

Academic language is the language used in textbooks, in classrooms, and on tests.  It is different in structure and vocabulary from the everyday spoken English of social interactions.  Many students who speak English well have trouble comprehending academic language.  Low academic language skills may contribute to low academic performance.

Students benefit from using the academic language and should be expected to use it as they work in groups.  Scaffolds can be used that encourage academic language and vocabulary.  Sentence frames are a great way to begin guiding students in using academic language.  Use the following example of sentence frames to assist students with argumentation in their discussions and to move discussion forward:

*I disagree with ______ because _________.

*The reason I believe ______ is ___________.

*The facts that support my idea are ____.

*One difference between my idea and 

  yours is ____________.

Ensure Grade-Level Work

 According to Fisher & Frey, it really doesn’t matter how good the instruction is if students are working on below grade level content.  The authors go on to say that even though many students are performing below grade level, lowering expectations is not the way to close the achievement gap.  During collaborative work, the group works together to make meaning and the text should be more complex than those texts students may use during their independent reading.

Key Elements of Collaborative Learning

Although there is a strong research base in support of peer-assisted learning, teachers also know that it is often a challenge to implement.  Collaborative learning requires careful planning.


Grouping – Heterogeneous or Homogeneous?

Research indicates that heterogeneous grouping works best.  Bennett and Cass (1989) found that the optimal group is composed of two lower-performing students and one-higher performing student.

Goal Setting

Successful collaborative groups understand what their goals are for the task at hand.  Give groups specific directions concerning the task.  Rubrics describing what you are looking for in the final product work well.   Timelines or task cards can also be beneficial for keeping students focused.


A common criticism of collaborative learning is that the distribution of labor can be uneven.  A way to combat this problem is through the use of both a group assessment linked to the completion of the project and an individual assessment designed to gauge each individual’s contributions to the effort.  The following strategies are ways to increase accountability:

              Collaborative Poster:  Each member of the group is assigned a different color marker to use in the development of a collaborative poster.  The colors serve as evidence of each member’s contribution.

               Discussion Roundtable:  Students divide a sheet of paper into quadrants leaving a box in the middle (see figure 4.3) As the student reads the text, he takes notes in the upper-left quadrant.  Students then discuss the text with the group and record what peers share in the other quadrants.  The middle section is used to summarize, identify theme, or write questions about the text depending on the task assigned by the teacher.

Collaborative Learning Structures

It is important to have structures in place that encourage students to read with deep understanding of the text.  When collaborative learning is first implemented, learning structures should be modeled by the teacher and procedures put in place for each group to follow.

Collaborative Strategic Reading

CSR teaches students to use strategies that fluent readers use – prediction, self-monitoring, and summarizing. The teacher first teaches and instructs the students in each of the strategies used in CSR. When students understand the strategies, they are put in groups and assigned a small “chunk” of the text.  Groups progress through the following steps:

-Preview: Before reading the text, groups discuss what they already know about the text and make predictions about what they expect to learn from the text.

-Click & Clunk: Students learn to identify when the reading “clicks” (smooth reading that makes sense) and when it “clunks” (unfamiliar words, rough reading).  Clunks signal students to employ other strategies to resolve comprehension problems – reread, read ahead to the end of the paragraph, analyze unfamiliar words for familiar word parts, ask partners for help.

Get the Gist:  At the end of each text chunk, students summarize the main ideas and important details.

Wrap-Up:  After the group has finished the entire reading, the group revisits their predictions and checks for accuracy.

When CSR is first implemented, it is helpful to assign roles within each group.  As groups become proficient with the process, roles fade away.  Studies show that when students are carefully taught the strategies of CSR, off-task group talk decreases.

*Both “click & clunk” and “get the gist” are completed several times until the entire reading. 

Reciprocal Teaching/Reading

(Also Discussed in March ELA Focus)

During reciprocal teaching conversations, students practice specific comprehension skills and are assigned roles of predictor, questioner, summarizer, and clarifier.  Roles can be combined or shared so that groups can consist of more or less students.

As the groups read, they pause periodically to talk about the text.  Students can keep the same role for the entire text or switch roles after each section.  If students are going to switch roles, it is very important that the teacher has procedures for the switch to avoid confusion. 

*Students can either read sections silently, or they can take turns reading in the group.

Where Does Collaborative Learning Fit In My Lesson Progression?

Teacher Led Focus Lesson (I DO)

Guided Instruction (We Do)

Collaborative Work (You Do It Together)

Independent Work (You Do It Alone)