Group Work & Pair Work in TEFL

A couple of young students working together.

Groups or Pairs - small groups or pairs of students working together is a highly effective and essential strategy for teaching. The opportunity to use groups in your class should never be passed up and almost any activity can be adapted so that it can be carried out by small groups or pairs rather than the class as a whole.

Many papers have been written about the advantages of group work and we would encourage it strongly.

Note that in this article when we use the terms group it can almost always be applied equally to pairs.

Why Use Groups?

There are many advantages to using groups, not least being the fact that with groups you allow more students to speak and use their English‏‎. Imagine a 60 minute lesson with 15 students in the class. After registration and admin, explanations and so on perhaps there are 40 minutes where the students can speak English.

With 15 students in the class this mean each student - under perfect conditions - will spend perhaps just over 2 minutes speaking. If, however, you divide the class into 5 groups then this means each student - again under perfect conditions - can spend well over 10 minutes speaking. If you have the class in pairs then this goes up to 20 minutes.

The conclusion is obvious!

But there are other reasons as well amongst which are:

  • Shy students‏‎ may feel happier talking with one or two other students rather than in front of the whole class.
  • In a large class students may often feel anonymous; in a small group they get a chance to shine.
  • Students can teach each other; stronger students can help weaker students and we all know that teaching is a great way to learn!
  • If students know there will be group work they will prepare for it (compare this to a class which never has group work; students here can fade into the background and spend all term doing little or no work).

Teacher's Role in Group Work

When dealing with a class as a whole, the teacher generally stands at the front and talks. With small groups your role changes, you have to move about the class and "listen in" on each group, offering help and praise where necessary.

And here's another advantage to using groups in the classroom. If a shy student doesn't understand something it may take them a lot of courage to put their hand up and ask for help; they might feel intimidated to do so in front of the whole class. However, in small groups it's easy for a shy student to ask about something since they're only with a couple of other students.

Creating Groups

As a teacher if you ask your class to get into pairs or groups, almost inevitably the students will hook up with their friends or the person closest. However, it's good practice to vary this so students have variation in their practice and they don't get bored or complacent working with the same other students.

How big the groups are depends on the activity, however an useful size is probably about 3 students. This makes sure each student in the group gets plenty of practice to use their English within the group and there's less possibility of a student zoning out as they might do in larger groups.

Here are a few ideas to get different groups going:

  • Have the students "number off" up the number of groups you want. So if you have 15 students in the class and want 5 groups have the students number off 1 to 3 (then begin again at 1). After this all the 1s get together in a group, all the 2s get together in another group and so on.
  • Fun with younger students; have the students mingle and move about the class. When you shout out they have to get into pairs (or threes or whatever number per group) with the students closest to them.

See also Hidden Relations‏‎ for an activity to get students into groups.

Of course sometimes there's an extra student after the groups have been divided up. Rather than pair them up with you as teacher, add them to another group for the activity.

Potential Problems

There are sometimes a few problems with groups.

  • Wasted time in forming groups. If you ask the class to get into groups then it could take 5 minutes or more before they've sorted themselves out. One way to overcome this is for you to decide who should work with whom. Alternatively you could use one of the methods above.
  • Noisy arrangements. If you ask the class to get into small groups they is likely to be a lot of chair moving and scraping as they organize themselves and arrange themselves; this might disturb the class next door. If this might be a problem you can have the groups come together and work while standing up.
  • Also, remember to keep an eye out on any tensions in class with certain students not wanting to work with other students. You need to be aware of this and never force students to work together if they don't want to. This also applies in some countries where mixing sexes in class is not done.

Group Work: Are You Doing It Effectively? a blog article quite simply on that: is your group work effective?

Image © Old Shoe Woman
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