Ruda-Peachey Education Ltd

Thinking before grouping

I remember at one point in my teaching career when I fell in the trap of the ‘think-pair-share’ routine. Basically, I would ask my class to work individually first, then with a partner, and finally to share their work with the class. Don’t get me wrong, it worked well and learners knew what to do - it seemed ideal. Until I realised that I was bored. And if I was bored, they were probably bored too. The materials used were engaging and the tasks were effective, but the execution was dull. So I started redesigning the structure of my lessons and the way I introduced the tasks. It turns out that beginning with ‘We’re going to try an experiment!’ can get the students quite excited about the task ahead!


How often do you ask your students to work in pairs or in groups? Chances are that it happens quite often. With the introduction of various communicative approaches and methodologies in the 70s, it became apparent that giving students the opportunity to share their ideas with their peers improved engagement and developed their ‘foreign language muscle’. As a result, their progress in language learning improved dramatically. Since then, many grouping patterns have been developed and pair- or group-work has become a staple in most ESL/EFL classrooms.

But anything, though effective, can turn into a habit - and eventually become boring - for the teacher and the learners, if applied mechanically. So I wonder if you ever think about how you set up your group work.


Advantages of working with others


There’s no doubt that practicing a language with others brings several advantages to learners, and it is a useful tool for the teacher.


  • It increases student-talk-time. The purpose of languages is to communicate. Therefore, it seems only obvious that learners make the most of their classroom environment to practice what they have been learning. 
  • It improves fluency. Practicing a foreign language with others allows learners to build their ‘muscle memory’, bringing their language knowledge from the back of their mind to the front. This makes their notions readily accessible for immediate use.
  • It promotes project-based and task-based learning. The learners have a common goal to achieve and they have no option but to communicate with one another to accomplish their task.
  • It facilitates bonding. While learners are spending time abroad, the classroom is the place where they form new relationships, even long lasting friendships. To develop this bond, working together, solving tasks, and sharing ideas are key.
  • It provides a base for assessment. When learners work in groups, their language use will be natural and free from test-related stress. It will help you understand which language areas are weaker and need to be addressed individually or as a class.


To pair up? To group? Or to go solo?


The most effective interaction patterns are those assigned according to the task at hand. 


Reflect! You want your learners to practice reading a model dialogue for intonation. Would you ask them to work in pairs, in groups, or individually? Why?


  • Pair work is best suited for classroom activities that require two-way communication, such as completing worksheets, checking each other's work, two-player games, and writing and practising dialogues. In pairs, their speaking time is maximised, although it becomes more difficult for the teacher to monitor. 


  • Group work is suitable for generating ideas and planning, as well as creating more complex dialogues and role-plays. It fosters an environment where peer- and self-correction occurs naturally, although there might be some drawbacks. 

Reflect! Have you ever had any problems when group work is underway? How did you tackle them? Was your approach successful? Why? Why not?


Here are some of the issues you might have encountered:


 Issue: student-talk-time is reduced.

 Solution: increase the number of groups to reduce the number of participants in each group. E.g. instead of three groups of four, organise four groups of three.


 Issue: some learners (usually the weaker ones) take the back seat and let others do all the work.

 Solution: assign roles for each participant. E.g. note taking, reporting, collecting data etc.


 Issue: the same students tend to do the same things.

 Solution: assign roles according to their weaknesses, rather than their strengths. E.g. the confident and chatty student should be the notetaker, while the quiet one should report or share information verbally. Tip: give them extra time to organise themselves.


  • Whole-class interaction lends itself well to review games (Jeopardy! anyone?), debates, discussions, and error correction moments. This kind of interaction allows for different types of communication patterns: S-T, Ss-T, S-S, S-Ss, and Ss-S. Just like pair- and group- work, whole-class interaction promotes the production of the target language.


  • Individual work is ideal when learners have to express their personal opinion or experiences, like in essay writing, for example, or monologues. It helps change the pace of the lesson and allows for quiet thinking time.

How do you group your learners?


As I previously mentioned, effective tasks and engaging materials can become dull or underwhelming if the group pattern is not well thought out.


Reflect! What do you consider when grouping your students?


There are several ways to group your learners:


  • Random grouping. The advantage of this way of grouping students is that it seems fair. The easiest way to organise this is to figure out first how many groups you can form. In a class of 24 students, for example, you could have 6 groups of four, or 4 groups of six. If you choose the latter, give each student a number from 1 to 4. All students with the number 1 will form a group, those with the number 2 will form another and so on. 


  • Students’ choice. People are creatures of habit, so students are likely to sit in the same spot and pick the same partners to work with. I feel that this, in time, will lead to a sort of routine that wouldn’t be beneficial for classroom dynamics. Occasionally, however, learners can be allowed to choose who to work with - especially at a younger age, it can be used as a reward.


  • Teacher’s choice. Knowing your learners and keeping in mind the purpose of the activity should guide you towards the optimal grouping criteria. For example: 


    • Different L1. This one is probably  the most obvious and popular one. It is particularly useful if you have learners who try to avoid speaking English, especially in a ‘predomonolingual’ classroom. Learners with different first languages will make different mistakes - this promotes peer-correction and strengthens their bond.


    • Same L1. This is often frowned upon, but I believe that it can be very useful, especially with very low level learners or mixed ability groups. You will be pleased to find the stronger student is able to explain in their L1 that grammar point/vocab meaning which the weakest learner cannot grasp! An additional advantage to this type of grouping is that it helps combat homesickness - which kind of makes sense.


    • Same skill level. Even though your learners appear to have the same CEFR level, in reality they have strengths and weaknesses in different language areas. Grouping the most fluent ones together will give them the opportunity to work on areas that they might not need to consider often, such as accuracy,  turn-taking and listening skills. On the other hand, putting accurate but quiet learners in the same group will encourage them to work on their fluency and build their confidence to speak in front of others.


    • Different skill levels. In contrast to the previous point, this type of grouping will give each learner their chance to develop their language skills in different ways. The lower level learners will try to push themselves when working with more advanced students. The more advanced ones will take great pride in teaching others, while automatically improving their communication skills.


Fancy giving your interaction patterns a revamp? 

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