There are many reasons why teachers should provide students with pair and group work in the classroom; first and foremost, it will allow students to engage in authentic, real-life interaction, which is the ultimate goal of speaking activities. The language they will use in this sort of interaction is more realistic than choral speaking or drilling techniques. Furthermore, pair and group work will allow them to use whatever target language we are focusing on for the lesson. We might also mention that pair and group work will have students working cooperatively with each other, which can contribute to our efforts to create an environment conducive for learning. Students may be more motivated to talk to each other rather than to the teacher. Below is a few practical tips to remember when using pair and group work in the English language classroom:

1. Success depends on preparation. You want to make sure that students don’t get into their pairs and groups and start making plans for the weekend, in their first language. In order for pair and group work activities to succeed, students must be aware of the purpose of the activity. The activity choice itself must allow the students to use the targeted language item to complete a communicative task, which in turn must contribute towards the lesson’s aims.

2. Allocate the work in an appropriate way to suit the classroom dynamics. If students are not accustomed to this kind of interaction, you may have to organize the mode of interaction, assign partners/groups, and rearrange the classroom to facilitate communication. For students more experienced with pair and group work, a simple request to get into pairs or groups will be sufficient. However, be aware of the number of students, and try to choose the mode of interaction that will elicit participation from all students. You may also have to monitor the group roles, to ensure everyone is doing their fair share in the activity.

3. Nurture and promote face to face interaction. Sometimes you will have to organize the seating of the students to ensure they have face to face communication. Eye contact is crucial to effective English communication, so talking to the back of a partner’s head is not going to work well in a speaking activity.

4. Be prepared to be flexible. Just because the activity prescribes individual work for a grammar exercise, doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. Look for opportunities to modify an activity to increase interaction among students. That grammar exercise can be done individually first, then answers can be compared with a partner or in groups; alternatively, students can verbally discuss the answers first, before writing their answers down.

5. Appropriate the group size to the task. Again, adapting an activity to optimize the speaking for students may require you to modify how many students work together in a group. A simple pair work activity can be extended by having one pair compare their answers or opinions with another pair.

6. Demonstrate the activity to ensure comprehension. Sometimes you’ll give the instructions, and set the students to do the activity, while a couple of students are still unsure of what they are supposed to do. An easy preventative for this is to demonstrate the activity. Answer the first discussion question yourself to show what they have to do, or demonstrate with a confident student. Comprehension of the task will allow them to get to work on it right away.

7. Monitor the activity. This includes making sure the students are all participating, speaking in English, and using the prescribed target language or expressions. Monitoring also means you go around to each pair or group, listen or observe their language production, and provide language support: give encouragement, discreet correction, and positive feedback on their progress throughout the activity. And remember to keep an eye on the time!

8. Anticipate and deal with students who finish early. Nothing creates more restlessness in students than finishing an activity before the rest of the pairs or groups, and having nothing to do. Most students will continue to talk to their partners – in their first language. An easy way to avoid this is to have a few other tasks ready for those who finish early. It can be an extension of the original activity, or a different task entirely.

9. Do a debriefing session after the activity. Every activity should have a conclusion – take opportunity to provide further speaking opportunity for students by having students report back to the class. This will give them another chance to use the language practised in the activity, and help to reinforce their confidence with the target language. Students are also curious to know what opinions or conclusions other students in class may have.

10. Remember to comment on their success at the end of the activity. Students need to know how they’ve done with a task, and if we don’t tell them, they’ll be left wondering if they did everything right. A moment to comment on their performance and participation will boost their self-esteem, and help motivate them to continue with the lesson.

Incorporating pair and group work in the English language classroom will bring many rewarding experiences for students, and will help to build a gelled classroom of interactive speakers. Working together with a partner or in a group turns the classroom into a social environment that will have students using English in a fun and practical way.

Michael Bunyak

English Teacher at Canadian Education College, Singapore