4 Great Grouping Strategies for More Effective ESL Group Work

Two heads are better than one.

This is the oh-so-simple answer to the oh-so-common question, “Why the heck are we doing group work in class?”

You might ask yourself this question in more challenging moments, when it has become exceedingly difficult to rally students together, get them to choose groups peacefully, settle them down and have them really get work done together.

Every ESL teacher knows group work is necessary for language students. But sometimes we forget why we do what we do.

The True Value of Group Work in ESL Class

Group work has lots of advantages for students, so let’s run through some of the big ones.

  • It’s communicative. Students have to talk to each other, and that means they’re using those language skills which they’ve been working so hard to learn. It can be too time-consuming for one teacher to get around to talking to every student individually, especially in larger classrooms. This means that grouping students up is the best way to get everyone talking.
  • It’s project-based. They have to accomplish something rather than just complete fabricated exercises, which is more like real-life language use.
  • It reduces teacher talk time. We all strive to talk less and get our students talking more in class. Group work is the perfect way to do this.
  • It develops camaraderie among your students. For some members of your class, their fellow students are the closest thing they have to a family during their time overseas. If they’re foreign and living in the country for the foreseeable future, they’ll need friends who understand them even more. Encouraging these relationships helps everyone and may be just what some of your students need to develop a lifelong friendship.
  • It appeals to different learning styles. Some people learn best on their own, but there are others who learn better when they’re interacting with other people. Meeting this learning need is essential for the success of those students.
  • You have real language use on which to base assessments. You can give your students all the oral tests you like, but if you really want to see how they use language, listen to them while they work in a group. Their language will be more natural, less strained from test stress and a truer picture of what language they’ve acquired rather than what they’ve learned—because those can be two very different things.

How to Make ESL Group Work Actually Work

Go-to Group Activities

You and your colleagues can probably brainstorm and add a dozen others to this list, but here are some go-to group activities almost every ESL teacher finds helpful to use in class. They’re effective for getting students to talk to each other and putting their English skills to good use. They’re the classics, if you will.

  • Discussions — Sharing opinions or past experiences is a go-to in just about every ESL classroom. It’s simple and personal and gives students a chance to get to know each other better.
  • Games/board games — Games in general get players talking, but there are plenty of language-based games that really target skills that ESL students need.
  • Completing a project (task-based learning) — Students work together to accomplish a task which is complex and multifaceted, and thus requires a great amount of communication.
  • Solving a problem — From what to wear to class today to the cure for cancer, life is full of problems just waiting to be solved. While speaking English with natives, students will someday need to problem solve to understand what’s being said and to figure out how to craft new sentences. They’ll need to problem solve to get around in a foreign, English-speaking country. Students who work with partners often find unexpected solutions to everyday problems through conversation and idea sharing. This is more than just an ESL skill, this is a life skill you’re teaching.
  • Sharing information (jigsaw, etc.) — Though the teacher often gives the information to the students in these types of activities, the students are still responsible for sharing their information with the other members of their group. Each person must then use all of the information to complete a task such as answer comprehension questions.
  • Role-plays/strategic interaction — Just about any real-life situation can be recreated as a role-play for the ESL classroom. They’re practical and realistic ways for students to use language. To model real-life situations with fun and engaging content, be sure to check out FluentU.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

    Sometimes, a prompt or some content can help get the ball rolling when it comes to group activities. 

4 Ways to Group Your Students

You’ve got your pockets full of group ideas that work in class. But believe it or not, how you group your students might be more important than the actual activities you do. In fact, it might be the most important aspect to achieving successful group work in your English class.

A good activity is a good start. An engaging activity with the right student groups can really put your lesson over the top.

But what’s the secret to grouping students the right way?

It all depends on your goal for the activity. Here are some ways you can put your students together and why you might choose to group them each particular way.

1. Group by varying skill level

Did you know that even native speakers change the way they talk based on who they’re talking to and that person’s language use? It’s part of the feedback mechanism of the brain and why you might acquire a bit of a Southern accent when talking to your friend from Alabama or why you might start dropping final g’s if you hang out in New York for any length of time.

Okay, cool, but why do you need to know this?

Because when you group lower level students with higher level students, they’ll automatically and subconsciously improve their English usage just by hearing and talking to more advanced students. Crazy, isn’t it?

While a more advanced student will likely speak more like their lower level student partner, too, they aren’t losing out on the deal. We learn more when we teach. And when you group advanced students with lower level students, they’ll learn by teaching the other members of their group even if they don’t realize what’s happening. If you have a mixed level class, don’t despair. Your students can learn as much from each other as they do from you when they’re in these types of groups.

2. Group by the same skill level

While students can learn a lot by working with classmates at different language skill levels, that isn’t always the way you want to partner up your students. Sometimes mixed level groups can be dominated by advanced speakers and beginning students can get lost in the mix.

Not so when your groups are selected for their similar language proficiency.

In a group of all beginners, someone will have to speak up, and that means your lower level students will be talking more in class. In your group of all advanced students, everyone may want to drive the conversation. That means the members of that group will have to work on their discourse skills like taking turns speaking and using active listening. If you have students who dominate the conversation in class, this might be the right type of group for you.

3. Group by the same first language

Have you ever heard that grouping students with others who speak the same first language is taboo? Forget about it. Your students will actually be able to help each other in very unique ways when they’re grouped with others that speak the same first language.

More advanced students understand the specific language struggles faced by beginning students and can help them through struggles that they themselves have already overcome. Your advanced students can also explain using their native language which is a great advantage when you’ve tried everything to communicate to your students and they still aren’t getting what you’re trying to say.

Grouping by the same first language is also an advantage when you’re discussing some sensitive topics, those that might hit a cultural hot button. While not every speaker of a language comes from the same culture, many do, and if you’re afraid of cultural flare-ups because of a certain topic, try grouping your students this way to minimize the drama that might otherwise come up.

4. Group by different first languages

Have I convinced you that grouping by the same native language is a good thing? Well, stop it. At least sometimes. Because mixed L1 groups are useful to students in other ways. When all the members of a group speak different first languages, they’ll all be forced to speak English in order to work together.

This is particularly useful if you have students that just won’t speak in English because they always have the chance to speak their first language. A mixed L1 group also gives your students the chance to experience different accents in English and as a result improve their listening skills. Culture can also come into play in these groups. By talking with people from different areas of the world, your students can develop a better appreciation for each other and their home cultures. It’s a great way to learn about people around the globe along with their traditions.


We all know that group work is essential in the ESL class, but we might not think enough about how we group our students.

The best activity in the wrong group might be adequate, but with the right group it can be outstanding.

When you group your students in class today, think about what you want them to accomplish, what goals you want them to achieve as they speak with their classmates and then group them accordingly.

You might find that outstanding is easier to achieve than you realized.

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