Making Group Work Work

groupwork1Truthfully, sometimes it is easier to just lecture. The default mode of the traditional classroom is that the teacher is standing, sometimes pacing, while students are sitting, watching, listening, and taking notes. These roles are still easy to fall into, especially when teachers are entertaining. Still, no matter how accommodating students can be, they are in a more passive role while the teacher plays a more active one.

In communicative language teaching, the class is more varied. There may still be teacher-fronted mini-lessons, but they are followed by pair and small group work. The teacher circulates, drops in on groups, answers questions, and gathers information, which then informs the next stage of the lesson. The teacher is still active, but in a different way.

Still, collaborative practice and tasks can be challenging to implement. When teachers relinquish control, students must step up and assume more responsibility. The following five principles can help make this process go more smoothly.

Help students feel comfortable with each other

Ice breakers and other community building activities can help students feel safe and more likely to take risks with their English. Many teachers take the first class period of a session to do getting-to-know-you activities. For example, in line ups, students stand, walk around and organize themselves in alphabetical order according to first name, last name, or city of origin. They can then introduce themselves to the class as a way to check. Or they can do a mingler in which individuals find three people who have something in common.

As a follow up, many teachers also take the first few minutes of subsequent classes to have students discuss a question with a partner or play a small game such as Pictionary (Draw a picture that represents a word or phrase and ask students to guess what it is. Then have student volunteers do it.). These ice-breakers can help participants transition from their outside lives to the community of the classroom.

Tell students why they are doing group work

Never assume students know how a task supports language aims. So making the rationale behind the task clear to students is essential. For example, say “Compare your answers with a partner. See if you agree or disagree because more than one answer might be correct.” Or, “Make a time line of important dates in your life. Later you will use the time line to practice the past and the past perfect. It will be easier to do the practice if you have the dates already written down.”

A reflection stage may also be useful. After a group experience, teachers can ask students to share what they practiced. Many books also include checklists that incite reflection on learning, which can both inform the teaching and help students consolidate learning.

Level the task to students’ ability

For a task to be successful, it should not be too demanding.  When language learners are practicing something new, they need to be able to focus on what they will say and how they will say it.  For example, giving high-beginner students a picture, and having them ask and answer questions about it might work well with the present progressive because they share a single visual image and can focus on form.

When a task requires a lot of cognitive energy, such as a critical thinking or imagination, it may require staging. For example, a role-play between a celebrity and a talk show host might be too hard for anyone to do spontaneously, let alone a language learner. However, it may be fun and motivating if students prepare for it. For example, first the celebrities can gather and spend some time brainstorming the details of their lives while the hosts could work together to come up with questions. Then they could be paired up for the practice. With prepared possible answers, both partners can give more attention to the interaction.

Give clear instructions

Who has not had to repeat instructions… several times… to several groups? While some of the responsibility for understanding lies with students, instruction delivery can be a factor in students not being able to get started. There should be no distractions, and the steps need to be delivered concisely. Many teachers script instructions as a way to avoid pauses, back-tracking and general confusion. Consider the following instructions for a very simple activity in which students tell each other stories and give feedback on their understanding:

  1. I’m going to count you off to form pairs.
  2. First, you will find your partner with the same number.
  3. Next, listen to your partner tell his or her story.
  4. Finally, say, “Let me see if I understand correctly.”
  5. Repeat your partner’s story back to her or him.
  6. Switch roles and repeat.
  7. I am going to walk around and listen. Do not stop talking when you see me.

This activity actually has 7 elements! By planning the instructions ahead of time, the teacher can avoid missing an important step or having to call the class back together to explain a part that was unclear the first time. Furthermore, these steps can be provided as a hard copy or written on the board or screen.

For complicated tasks, teachers can also model the activity with a stronger student. The model can then be followed by a stage in which the teacher elicits the steps of the activity to review and consolidate understanding.

Consider the influence of outcomes and tests

Occasionally, even when everything else is in place, students may be resistant to group work. Often this is a result of a disconnect between the daily life of the class and testing or other student goals. For example, in a cram course for the TOEFL, students may feel that a speaking practice activity is not a good use of time.  In this case it might be batter to change the type of activity.  Perhaps the teacher can put test items on index cars and have students go through them one at a time and discuss answers in a way that feels more relevant to their needs.

Alternatively, tests can be adjusted to value groupwork.  The teacher can start by creating a rubric for interviews that values speaking and listening skills as well as target language. This rubric can be shared with students so they see the value of oral practice. Then students practice in groups. The teacher calls one pair at a time to come up and interview each other. The teacher observes and asseses using the rubric to give feedback on student performance.  

Some teachers seem to have the magic touch when it comes to group work, but there is often effort and forethought behind their success. By attending to how students feel, what they know, and making instructions clear, teachers can go a long way towards fostering group work that moves students toward language independence.



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