UPDATE: For a summary of most useful Kagan structures for CI instruction as well as specific activity ideas, click here. For a comprehensive list of Kagan structures and ideas, click here.
I started my CI journey at the beginning of my career when I taught in a TPRS classroom. In fact, we could actually go even earlier when I observed my would-be master teacher at work during my teaching program and was amazed by what he was doing, so I requested that I be placed in his class for student teaching. I'd never heard of Comprehensible Input or TPRS, but I was hooked! I have been 100% on the CI boat from the very beginning and it shapes everything about my classroom, from the activities we do to assessment to the posters I have on my wall. When it comes to foreign language teaching CI is king. Of course, I know I'm likely preaching to the choir here, but I wanted to make it clear where I stand in terms of the importance and superiority of CI. I also want to make a comparison:
I was introduced to Kagan two years ago during a staff development activity. Since then, my school as worked to become a "Kagan" school, complete with our own certified Kagan coach on staff and complete professional development days dedicated to official Kagan training and credits. At first I was resistant to using Kagan in my classroom - I argued that I needed to be the one providing input because students can't possibly learn correct language without a proper model! I resisted for the entire first semester. Then, I had the opportunity to observe our Kagan coach at work (he teaches middle school math) - and I was hooked. Again, I was amazed by the energy and engagement levels of students at all levels and I had to have that same thing in my own classroom! Kagan, like learning about CI and TPRS, has again revolutionized my classroom and I won't go back to how things were before.
Before I go any further, I should point out that Kagan can be a LOT to process, but it's best to take it little by little. Just like CI (and especially TPRS), misunderstanding and misapplying the Kagan methodology is likely to end in frustration and abandonment, claiming "it didn't work for me." I believe it can and will work for you as long as you are careful and really know what you are doing. If you are new to CI, focus on developing your CI skills first. That is the foundation of your language instruction. Once you are ready to dip your feet in the Kagan pool, keep reading and follow the "next steps" at the end of this article.
What is Kagan?
For those of you unfamiliar with Kagan, it is a style of cooperative learning that provides structures/strategies to increase engagement and accountability. However, the full Kagan methodology is just that - a methodology. Like with CI, most teachers have to re-think their classroom paradigm and have some philosophical discussions about the what, how, and why of teaching and learning. However, those that teach and assess using CI have already made most of those same paradigm shifts. In particular, Kagan emphasizes student-centered teaching and personalization, learning through communication and interaction, building a positive and supportive classroom environment, and moving from teacher-controlled classrooms to student-driven lessons where mistakes are OK! For many teachers, these can be radical ideas - I would argue that for many CI teachers, these ideas are standard and best practice. In many ways, Kagan and Comprehensible Input are made for marriage. However, just like with any real marriage, careful considerations must be made in order to make the marriage a success:
- First, CI must always come first in a foreign language classroom. This is your content. It determines your objectives and goals for what you are teaching.
- Kagan is the how, and like everything else in your classroom, the structures you choose to use and when you choose to use them is driven by the content. Match the structure to the CI content, NOT the other way around. Don't use Kagan structures just to use a Kagan structure - it should enhance instruction, not drive it!
- Most Kagan structures are output based, but there are a handful that are input based. There is an underlying assumption that students will collaboratively process the content through communication - or in other words, language that they've already acquired. However, for us, the acquiring the language IS the content. That means that our list of useful Kagan structures is limited when we're looking for something that is truly CI, but that doesn't mean that the usefulness of Kagan is limited. You're not supposed to use every Kagan structure or use Kagan for a certain amount of time. Rather, as stated above, start with your CI content and objectives, then match the appropriate structures when and where needed. (It is definitely worth noting, however, that many CI strategies do use output to measure understanding, such as retells or free writes, and Kagan can often be employed in these areas to both boost engagement and give variety).
- I contend that CI classrooms do elicit output on a regular basis as a formative assessment, although it may not be in the foreign language. For instance, students are regularly asked to translate sentences into English to demonstrate understanding - this is output! Technically, "teaching to the eyes" is output in the form of body language (although not a very tangible one nor one one that can be easily translated into the all-important data we are often asked to provide to support and inform our teaching).
- Many of the activities we are already doing are one step away from being a Kagan structure because it is simply good teaching. Oftentimes, adding the Kagan structure helps take these activities to the next level to reach their full potential for student learning.
There are four fundamental components to every Kagan structure for engagement, summarized by the acronym PIES (which every other teacher understands to be a fruit-filled pastry, while I understand to be "feet"!). If one of these is missing, the structure will not work as intended:
- Positive Interdependence - students must rely on one another in a positive way to achieve their goals. (This is where proper Kagan grouping comes into play - every group and every grouping must be intentionally heterogeneous in their proficiency levels or you don't have the expertise required in order to help students grow. Kagan grouping is a MUST if you intend to use Kagan, so be sure you don't "skip" that part of your Kagan training or reading).
- Independent Accountability - Every student has their own role and contribution that can be measured separately from other students. No one can "check out".
- Equal Opportunity - Each student has the same opportunity to participate.
- Simultaneous Interaction - Depending on the Kagan structure, at least 25% of students are actively and visibly engaged. For most structures, this is 50% or even as high as 100%. When using a Kagan structure, I become the facilitator and can quickly and efficiently glance around my room.
How do I use Kagan in a CI classroom?
- Determine my objectives. This is where your CI methodology will drive instruction. These should be specific, measurable, and answer the following questions: What will the student be able to do after this lesson? How ill I know they can do it? There's a bit of a catch on that second question because it does require some sort of output from the student. It's not enough to say that students will understand a story - how do we know they are understanding? In Storytelling and PQA, we measure their understanding by responses to questions. Thus, I usually write these objectives as "TSWBAT demonstrate comprehension of a story by responding to questions in Spanish" or "TSWBAT answer personal questions in Spanish" (which, it's worth mentioning, are both output-based measures).
- Decide how I'm going to teach those objectives (skill development phase). Instruction is always CI-based, so I pull from my CI toolbox. At the same time, I think about what will make the method most effective. For example, I'm going to have students do a reading activity - great! However, I know that some students will read faster than others, some are ready to move on before others, and some students will fall through the cracks. How can I fit everyone's needs? Kagan allows each pair or group work at an appropriate level and speed, allowing high students to get higher while my low students are able to meet the basic objectives that are expected of them. I can walk around and monitor my students (who are trained to ask for help when they collectively don't know the answer) and provide assistance when necessary. I rarely have to provide re-direction because the students hold each other accountable (this goes back to positive interdependence - it takes both of us to meet the objective!). Now, an already great activity is even better.
- Decide how I'm going to measure student learning (formative assessment phase/closure). During skill development, I've already been doing formative assessments. However, do I really know that everyone got it? And how do I make sure the students know they got it? For my CI classroom, this is where Kagan is an essential component of my day. I reflect on what every student should be able to do by the end of an activity (or entire lesson) and scroll through my list of Kagan activities to find one that matches the skill they've learned. Have we done PQA at a level that I feel comfortable with students reading a previously used PQA question word-for-word to another student, and the other student using a sentence frame in order to answer that question? Yes? Then Quiz-Quiz-Trade or Fan-N-Pick is perfect! It also gives me another opportunity to pack in some comprehensible input in the form of reading even if the kids butcher how to say the words (which they shouldn't if they've had enough input!).
- Review my lesson. Is it founded in solid CI principles and best practice? Have students had enough CI input prior to this lesson to be adequately prepared/Is it matched to student ability and proficiency, especially the level of output being elicited? Will all students learn what I want them to learn (and how do I know that all students got it)? Is it the most effective way to achieve that goal? I must be able to answer "yes" to all of these questions - if not, it's time to revise.
To really make this process efficient, I keep a catalog of CI strategies and Kagan structures handy to flip through during steps 2 and 3. I recommend that you develop your own personal catalog of the structures you've tried (meaning that you didn't just give it a shot once, but actually did it 3-5 times and ensured you followed every step every time) and found most effective for your classroom, along with the specific activities and objectives that you've used them for. I'm working on categorizing Kagan structures by the types of CI activities that they pair well with, including whether they are suitable for input or output activities. At most, you may only ever use 5-10 different structures during a given year - this again emphasizes that you are not expected to use every Kagan structure, just the ones that work best for you and your content area!
How do I get started?
First, get familiar with what Kagan really is and how it looks in the classroom. Do a little bit of reading to understand the fundamentals and familiarize yourself with some of the most common structures (see The Essential 5). If possible, attend a conference (you'll want to start with the "Kagan Structures Level I" 4-day workshop). If you can't go to a training or attend a conference, then you should read the Kagan Cooperative Learning book. However, DO NOT read this book front to back - that would be far too overwhelming! Start with the essentials - I recommend reading about the Seven Keys for Success (Chapter 5) and previewing the Structures (Chapter 6). That should be enough to get started - look over the other chapter headings and read/apply as it suits you. There is a LOT more to true cooperative learning that just what is in those two chapters, but it's enough to get the very basics down.
Next, group and label your students appropriately. If you've read about teams and grouping in the book above, you'll know the what and why for this. I skipped the heterogeneous groups and went straight to the structures my first time around - it was ok, but not really what it could have been because I had the blind leading the blind. I really saw the benefits of Kagan when I had my students grouped properly - my high students were processing information on a deeper level as they had to explain to their partner(s) why they know that word means "they live" instead of "he lives" (it has an n!), while my students at lower levels were getting quality input, all while building a positive relationships and value for one another. Don't make the mistake I did - if you're going to do Kagan, do it right the first time and carefully assign those groups (I recommend purchasing the Team Tools software to make this a breeze!). Then, make sure students know their letters and numbers (Kagan style - see the book!) - these help with the facilitation, management, and efficiency of Kagan activities. For those without desks (I'm hoping to join your ranks next year!), you can label your chairs with the group names, numbers, and letters and then teach your students who their "group mates" are so they can quickly move their chairs to be with their groups.
Finally, use the lesson planning steps above to carefully select the structures that will support and enhance your instruction. Start small with simple structures (your first few structures will likely come from The Essential 5), and only try one or two Kagan structures at a time. It will take 3+ tries to really make a structure work, so don't give up! Double check and make sure you are following all of the instructions and steps. If you realize you missed something or students are confused, don't be afraid to pause the class and clarify. I usually teach structures like this:
- Display written instructions along with an image (the Kagan cartoon images are easily found online if you do a Google Image search for the structure). Keep these simple. I provide the instructions in both Spanish and English so that I can stay in the target language, but students get a CLEAR idea of what I'm asking them to do (or I will ask for permission to speak in English, as I sometimes do if there's something we really need to be clear on). Having the image helps them "lock in" the idea of the structure, much like TPR does for CI language structures.
- Explain the steps. I read through the steps as I point to the instructions to "prep" students for the general idea of what we will be doing.
- Model the structure. I use a group of volunteers and we /practice demonstrate what happens during the structure while the rest of the class watches.
- Check for understanding. In English (after asking permission to speak in English and granting them permission as well), I ask students questions about what I expect them to do, and they tell me. If I have solid and correct responses, we're ready to start.
Follow the steps above, and you should be well on your way to an effective CI/Kagan classroom. Please leave any questions below and let me know if I can be of any assistance - I would be happy to be your "virtual Kagan tutor"! I will update this post once I have the "catalog" of Kagan structures matched to CI strategies that I referenced above. Happy teaching!