Configuring groups to maximize practice

groupwork4Waiting for an elevator at the Colorado TESOL conference, I heard two teachers complaining about a session they had attended. “The presenter was only talking,” said a tall woman in an engineer’s cap. “There was no interaction, so I left.”

It seems that group work has gotten to the point where even teachers at conferences want and expect it. They and their students have experienced the value of comparing answers to questions, testing out ideas, or even doing a bit of problem solving or group writing. The time passes more quickly when collaboration is going well, and there is a buzz in the room that just feels right.

With group work becoming the norm in the second language classroom, teachers are continually looking for new ways to implement it effectively. One of the most interesting new notions, and one that lends itself to pairs and groups, is iteration.

Diane Larsen-Freeman spoke about iteration as part of her plenary talk at the 2014 TESOL in Portland, Oregon. Her work with chaos theory and its implications for language learning has convinced her that students need opportunities to speak about something, not once, but several times. She suggested that in iterating and reiterating their thoughts in authentic communication, learners develop their language.

In other words, each time a student describes a place, shares an opinion or tells a story, that person becomes more effective at communicating about that topic, perhaps adding or changing details in an effort to become increasingly clearer to their audience. Words, phrases and grammar are consolidated and the learner’s language ability as a whole moves forward.

The following two configurations are suitable for giving students opportunities to iterate and reiterate. Because the audience changes, the interaction remains authentic, giving the speaker opportunities to refine, improve, and consolidate learning for a fresh audience each time. Note that each is meant to follow an activity in which students have prepared something to say.


  1. Tell what you did last weekend to practice past tenses.
  2. Share a restaurant review to practice present tenses.
  3. Tell whether you agree or disagree with a text you have just read.
  4. Summarize your ideas for the paper you are about to draft.
  5. Give instructions about something you know how to do.


The following is a basic template for an activity that Dr. Larsen-Freeman shared in her talk. Because of its simplicity, it can be adapted for several purposes.

  • Count off students into two groups. This can be done by numbering them 1, 2, 1, 2, until everyone has a number.
  • Tell the 1s to come to the front of the room and stand in a line facing the back. Then have the 2s come to the front and line up facing the 1s.
  • Tell the 1s to initiate the speaking tasks. Instruct the 2s to listen and perhaps to summarize what they understand or ask a question.
  • (optional) Give them a time limit, e.g., 2 minutes. Then start the activity.
  • Have them switch roles and repeat.
  • Next have the 1 at one end of the line move to the other end of the line and tell the rest of the 1s to move one step to the right so that they are facing a new partner.
  • Have the 1s tell their story to the new person, but give less time, for example 90 seconds.
  • Repeat the process, reducing the time until students have had three opportunities to speak.

When the activity is over, consider doing a small group reflection. For instance, ask them if they feel that they have improved by the third round. It can be a simple show of hands or a discussion of the process.

Variation: Instead of a line up, have them form a circle. Instruct the 1s to form a circle facing out, and have the 2s encircle them facing in so that 1s and 2s are facing each other. Then have the 2s move one step to their right for each iteration.


This activity, long a favorite of reading teachers, can also be adapted for practicing a prepared talk.

  • Count students off to create, if possible, an even number of groups with an even number of people. Ideally, this means three groups of three, four groups of four, or five groups of five. (Because this is rarely possible, extra students can be distributed among the existing groups so that there might be two groups of three and one of four, for example. In other words, a group can have an extra student but not be short a student.)
  • Next, have the students with the same number sit together, all 1s, all 2s, all 3s and so forth.
  • Have each student in the group share his or her talk. Other members of the group can be given a role such as to give feedback on the content or accuracy of the talk or to be a timer to insure that all group members have an opportunity to speak.
  • When all group members have given their talk and received feedback, direct the students to “jigsaw.” This means they stand and form new groups that do not have the same number: groups comprised of 1,2,3 or 1,2,3,4, for example. Note that the new group will not have any of the same people as the first group, so the students will have a fresh audience, and can revise and clarify anything that they had trouble with during the first iteration.

Depending on the number of people in each group, and the processing time, a jigsaw can take the better part of an hour. During this time, the teacher can monitor, take notes to inform future lessons and provide assistance where needed. It is an ideal time to “learn” their learning by really listening to students use language in authentic ways.

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