More student participation and less teacher talk. This simple principle can be hard to put into practice. Students may be eager to improve their speaking skills, but find it intimidating to speak in front of the whole class, especially those who are shy or lack confidence in their language ability. And in mixed-level classes, more advanced students may dominate opportunities for communicative learning. Even the mechanics of pairing students and forming groups can sometimes be challenging.
But the advantages of having students work in pairs or small groups are worth the effort. Here at ESL Library, we strive to incorporate group and pair work activities into our lessons. These activities allow learners to practice speaking in a relaxed environment. As an added bonus, group and pair work strengthens the sense of community in the classroom.
There are times when it works best to have students of the same ability work together (e.g., if you are giving different versions of the same material based on level) or have students from the same country collaborate (e.g., when they are preparing a presentation about a custom in their culture). But, for the times when you want to randomly partner or group students (such as at the beginning of the term), here are a few quick and fun suggestions.
Ways to Group Students
- Have students line up in the alphabetical order of their favorite animal, food, restaurant, etc. Then pair or group them with their neighbor(s) in line.
- Have students line up in numerical order, based on their house or apartment number, birthdate, month and year they moved to this country, and so on. Then count them off.
- Ask students to form groups according to clothing: everyone who’s wearing sneakers, jeans, a necklace, a red shirt, etc.
- Distribute index cards and ask students to write down information about themselves (what time they went to bed the night before, how many siblings they have, the season they were born in, etc.). When students walk around the class looking for matches, don't allow them to show their cards to each other. Instead, have them practice forming questions (e.g., What time did you go to bed last night?, How many brothers and sisters do you have?, What season were you born in?).
- Play a modified version of musical chairs in which there is the same number of chairs as there are students. Play a song and have students mingle and practice making small talk with their classmates as if they were at a party. Stop the music and have students grab a seat. Pair them with their new neighbors.
- Create a set of index cards with synonyms—matching pairs (e.g., yell / shout) if students are going to be working with a single partner or matching sets (e.g., kind / thoughtful / considerate) if they will be working in groups. Just make sure you tell students ahead of time the number of group members they should be looking for. After each student is given a card, have them walk around the classroom looking for their classmate(s) whose card(s) matches theirs.
- When you want to divide your class into two teams, ask students to cross their arms. Put all the folks who crossed their left am over their right arm on one team and those who put their right arm over their left on the other team. Believe it or not, the two ways of crossing arms are split fairly evenly across the population, no matter what language you speak or country you come from.
- There are also some great online tools for sorting students. Here are three of my favorites: Random Group Creator, Class Dojo, and Super Teacher Tools.
If you have any other ideas for pairing or grouping students, please share them below!