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Concourse 2

Grouping learners


Why group students at all?

There are a number of advantages to grouping students at various times in most lessons.  They include:

  • maximising speaking practice for the learners
  • varying interactions to maintain energy levels and interest
  • encouraging peer-correction and collaboration
  • taking the focus off the teacher and putting it on the learners
  • appealing to people with strong interpersonal intelligence
  • lowering the stress levels by limiting the number of people the learners address
  • giving learners practice in understanding other learners (teaching English as a lingua franca)


Matching grouping to task type

Consider these 10 arrangements of learners and try to say what could be happening in each arrangement.

Click on each image for an answer.

1   4
2    3
5   6
7    8
9 10

There is more on this in the guide to classroom arrangement.  Here we are concerned with the reasons for choosing between possible arrangements.

The fundamental distinction is between

  • tasks which require people to collaborate (such as working together to answer questions on a text, reading a text and helping each other understand, writing a paragraph together, planning a presentation, coming up with lists of characteristics and so on).
    These sorts of tasks usually involve the need for a desk or table to work at and it's frustrating for learners if they have to balance papers on their knees.
  • tasks which require people to confront each other in some way (such as interviewing each other, discussing a problem or playing some kind of role).
    These sorts of tasks need a different arrangement in which people are arranged face to face rather than side by side and can be set up with a table between them (which increases social distance) or without (which removes a filter to communication).

It's a simple process to classify all the arrangements in the diagrams above.  Try it.


Group- / pair-work tasks

Here's an (incomplete) list of the sorts of tasks often (not always) best done in pairs or groups.

speaking tasks
role plays (social setting, commercial transactions, advice giving etc.)
interviews (tell me about, tell me what you think about etc.)
discussions (in groups of more than two, probably)
pairwork in threes (two learners talk, the third listens and takes note of uses of the target items, ways of taking turns / giving feedback to each other etc.)
writing tasks
constructing a dialogue using target items
planning a piece of writing by brainstorming things to say and the order in which to write them
writing lists and prioritising lists
structural / lexical tasks
noting differences in meaning between sentences with different structures
gap fills
sentence completion tasks
lexis matching tasks (item to picture, item to definition etc.)
reading tasks
reading two different parts of a text each and then exchanging the ideas and facts
reading information and making collaborative decisions about choices (holiday brochures, course descriptions etc.)
reading part of a story and speculating about what happens next before reading the next part to see if the guesses were correct
listening tasks
listening to a song / piece of music and comparing reactions
listening to an announcement and deciding who in the group it applies to
listening to each other telling a story and giving feedback

and so on.


When not to group students

Please don't assume from any of this that pair- or group-work is always preferable.  There are times when it is both appropriate and important that the whole class works together or individuals work alone.  For example, if the nature of the activity is to allow individuals to see if they have grasped the target of the lesson and can put it into practice, it's actually inappropriate to carry out the task in groups or pairs.
It is for you to decide what you want the activity to achieve and then choose the best way of conducting it.


The teacher's role

The other consideration here is where you should be and what you should be doing.  Again, there are distinctions

  • Is the nature of the activity one in which people are actually learning the target language or skill?
    If it is, you will need to make sure you can get involved.  Your job is to support the learners in their efforts, to assess how well the targets are being learned and to intervene when things go off track.
    Look at the arrangements above and note the ones which involve the teacher.
  • Is the nature of the activity one which simply prepares people to go on to the real learning phases of the lesson?  That is to say, an activity whose outcome is less important than the process of doing the task.
    These tasks usually come early in a lesson and require the learners to exchange current ideas about a topic or to discuss views and see what they already know.
    In these sorts of activities you need to know what's going on in a general way (so you can highlight interesting ideas and thoughts in a feedback phase) so you need to listen carefully and wander around but you do not want to be intrusive or interruptive.
  • Is the nature of the task one in which you need to address everyone, either to present or to get / give feedback?
    Activities like this require you to be able to make eye contact with and see everyone in the group so you need to be where that can happen.  There is one arrangement above which allows for this.  It also allows for people to see everyone else in the group and that keeps people involved.


Take the time

  1. It is not a waste of time spending some of it making sure that an activity is properly set up and that the groupings are arranged in a way that makes the task easy to achieve.  It's also worth remembering that most people actually like to get up and move around at times.
  2. Be clear in your planning stage how you want people to sit or stand depending on the nature of the activity you have devised.  Add the description into your lesson notes so you don't forget to (re-)arrange the learners and the room accordingly.
  3. Become expert at setting activities up quickly and efficiently so that your learners gain the most benefit and the arrangement does not actually hinder them.  This usually means being slightly assertive (no, not rude) with instructions such as Mary, John and Peter.  Please sit here, here and here or Right.  Everyone.  Move the tables back and come round into the front now, please.  Do not shillyshally with 'instructions' such as Be sure you can talk easily or I wonder if you'd like to move over here.  Those aren't actually instructions at all.

Related guides
classroom organisation for the guide to the overall arrangement of the classroom
teacher roles for a guide to what the teacher should be doing
task types to see how the types of task may affect what you are doing
activity types for a guide to the three essential forms of activities and what they do

Take a simple test on this.