Pair activities bring any ESL classroom to life.
Your students are likely excited at the mere hint of a pair activity.
Regardless of what skills you want to focus on, you can find a way for your students to strengthen those skills…together!
That’s right, pair activities can be used for more than just speaking. They can be used to build listening skills, reading skills and writing skills, too.
What’s more, they’re an incredibly fun and engaging way for your students to learn.
In fact, making a point of utilizing an ESL pair activity once a week can build motivation and get your students to fall in love with learning English.
Not only will they have fun working together, they will develop all kinds of important skills that simply can’t be taught in a more traditional classroom environment.
ESL Pair Activity Benefits for Teachers
Pair activities offer tons of benefits for your students, which we will get to in a moment, but there are also several benefits to you, the teacher, in utilizing pair activities in the classroom as much as possible.
A lesson plan containing pair activities in the practice and production stage is not only a chance for your students to develop English using all the essential language skills, it’s a chance for you to manage your classroom and do your job more effectively.
Here are just a few of the things pair activities can do for you.
- Keep students focused. Sure, you may think pair activities to be a bit of a distraction, as two students will often get together and become “Chatty Cathys.” But if you keep your ESL material focused and easy for your students to work through, your pairs will keep their focus on the lesson material. A short video or piece of content from the FluentU library is a great way to provide context for your students.
- Give you an easy way to introduce variety. Your students may get a bit tired of the same old lesson plan format and switching things up into pairs is a perfect plan of action. Your students will jump at the chance to learn new material in a new and exciting way.
- Give you a chance to cut the cord. Letting your students break away from you and work with a peer will allow them to become successful without you hovering. Not only will this build their confidence exponentially, but it also takes the pressure off of you to always be present and watching.
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ESL Pair Activity Benefits for Students
Your students will benefit just as much as you from pair activities. More so, even. The student benefits far outweigh the teacher benefits here in a strict sense, but of course, everything you do is for their language growth.
Your students will gain confidence in collaborating, negotiating, listening, dictating, self-expression, description and so much more.
Here are a few things pair activities can do for your students.
- Build their confidence. Your students will gain confidence when they have to negotiate material with a partner. If you are always there to guide them, they may start to develop a complex. They may begin to think you are their English lucky charm. When they succeed without you, however, they develop by leaps and bounds in ways that are just not possible in a traditional ESL lesson.
- Let them benefit from collaboration. Oftentimes, ESL students get used to only using English in ways that it’s used in the classroom. When they partner up, they have the opportunity to speak, write, listen, build dialogue, debate and develop those essential collaboration skills they will find useful outside of class.
- Engage in self-expression. Your students will develop self-expression skills they may miss out on when working without a partner. ESL students need outside experiences with their peers in order to confront challenges in English expression.
Pair activities can be used in multiple ways and can be utilized to cover several skills and sub-skills essential for your students’ growth. In some corners of the world of ESL activities, teachers find pair activities only useful for speaking and discussion skills. These uses are absolutely valid, but there are more ways to expand those pair activities in order to cover all aspects of ESL. Introducing and exposing your students to a variety of skills and sub-skills through pair activities is an opportunity not to be missed.
You can easily develop writing pair activities, listening pair activities and/or even pair activities with absolutely no speaking, if needed.
However, the following list will go into detail about a few exceptional ESL pair activities that are engaging, exciting, fun, challenging and which, above all, can be used as handy, general lesson templates.
You can implement any of these great ESL pair activities into your lesson plan to teach any number of skills.
Dynamic Duo Drive: 6 Versatile Pair Activities for ESL Superhero Teams
1. Short Story Creation
Over time, your students will begin developing quite an extensive English vocabulary. They will blossom into grammatical wonders, building wonderful sentences and well-structured paragraphs.
You will eventually have to let them stretch their legs and spread their wings, finally allowing them to put all their English skills to the test and create a story all their own.
In most cases, they have had the chance to read a few stories and understand the flow needed for a story to work. Now all they need is a writing partner to craft an exciting, concise story with. This ESL pair activity is a perfect way to get in multiple skills at once.
Have your students pair up. It’s always recommended to switch up the pairs as much as possible. If they get too comfortable with their partner, they will hit the proverbial English learning ceiling.
This fun ESL pair activity will bring out collaboration that includes speaking, reading, writing, editing, story dialogue (how native speakers really talk) and English expression. Unfortunately, though, you can’t just let your students go wild. You will need to guide them in some way.
A great way to do this is to present a place, some interesting characters (maybe people, animals or both) and evoke a conflict for your students to use in their story.
Conflict will help your students to develop dialogue between the story’s protagonist and supporting characters.
Once they have a well-developed short story, let the dynamic duo share it with the rest of the class. This will give them great public speaking practice and further their presentation skills in English.
You can also have your students put together an illustration for their story, depending on how far you want to take the activity.
2. The Interview
The age-old interview is one of the best ways to get to know someone. Even though your students may already know one another quite well, there is always more to discover. Utilizing the interview as one of your pair activities is a great way to build more confidence around asking and answering questions.
This pair activity helps students to practice speaking, asking questions, developing answers and thinking quickly. It works as an “on the spot” question-and-answer session that your students will enjoy and find challenging. But this activity doesn’t need to be just about speaking. There is a wide array of other essential skills your English-hungry students can easily develop during the interview pair activity.
For example, you can compile a list of interview questions for your students to read and, before the pair activity begins, have them develop one follow-up question for each of your main questions.
You can also have your students write what they learn about their partners as the in-depth English interview progresses.
These two small tweaks to this exceptional ESL pair activity will cover several skills.
Having your students share what they have learned about their partner aloud is another fun way to get more out of the interview pair activity. Developing presentation skills is always great for keeping your class engaged, growing and building ample amounts of confidence together.
3. Acting Out
Looking for another wonderful way to get your ESL students up and moving while learning essential new material and growing? Developing an acting pair activity is perfect for really getting their creative juices flowing. Having them act out specific scenes as a pair is an excellent way to break down confidence barriers in situations they may one day face outside the classroom (or on the spot in English academics).
In this ESL pair activity, you will let your students craft scripts and later act them out. There is a twist that will add an element of fun: The partners develop their dialogue separately and act it out together without collaborating first or discussing how it will flow.
You will want to whip up a very concise worksheet for this ESL activity. This worksheet will help guide your students in a specific direction relating to a scenario. The dialogue your students create will be of their own imagination, but they will have a small guide to follow in their development.
Here is one example of how this could work:
- Set the scene. First, you will need to set the scene of where the dialogue will take place. For this example, we will use a neighborhood park on a sunny day. This will give your students an image to help their creativity flow.
- Guide the conversation. Each student will read a set of short questions and develop their dialogue sentences from these. The first question on the worksheet could be, “How do you introduce yourself to someone new?” or “How do you open a conversation with a stranger?” From these questions they can craft a working dialogue. For example, “Hello, do you come to this park often?”
- Add layers. Next, you will add layers to the situation. In the park example, you could add dogs into the mix. Here your students will see the next set of questions to help them build more dialogue: For example, “How do you ask what breed a dog is?” or “How do you compliment someone on their dog?” Your students may develop dialogue like, “Your dog is so cute, what breed is he or she?” The important thing to focus on is the natural flow and language of a conversation, like in these examples.
In order to get fun dialogue, it’s essential to guide your students a bit towards some more specific areas. Again, you will give your students a specific scenario, for example, a sunny day at the park or waiting for the train.
This is an excellent chance to run over a few vocabulary words they can use in their dialogue as well. For our dog walking example, using words like “breed” or “leash” may be beneficial in overall understanding for your students. Once you have gone over vocabulary, you can have them fill out a dialogue sheet silently by themselves.
After they have crafted their scripted lines, it’s time for the fun to begin. One student will read their first line and then their partner will follow with their first line. The two lines may have nothing to do with each other, which is sure to draw a laugh or two from the peanut gallery.
You can have the class chime in afterwards and help the two actors piece together a more well-developed and coherent dialogue.
This ESL pair activity covers writing, creativity, reading, speaking, dialogue and collaboration as a whole class.
4. Practical Role Playing
This ESL pair activity puts students in a role they will eventually find themselves in at one time or another. You will need to do a bit of teacher brainstorming for this pair activity, putting together specific scenarios that are commonplace in everyday life. You will not provide them with much dialogue—maybe a few beginning lines to get the roles developed, but after that it’s all improv.
Let the partners work out their characters ahead of time to ensure they will be ready for their role playing scenario. One great scenario is shopping: Have one student be the clerk and one student be the customer.
Create a conflict to add depth: For example, the customer wants something, but the clerk doesn’t have it, exactly, and needs to suggest a new item.
This pair activity will allow your students to develop quick reflexes in English and develop the quick thinking and problem solving skills essential to dealing with daily issues in an English-speaking country.
They will also develop in speaking, reading and maybe character outline writing as well.
This ESL pair activity will allow your students to grow while having a laugh or two.
5. Great Debate
Who doesn’t enjoy a great debate or a friendly argument? This ESL pair activity is excellent for putting your students to the test and challenging them in new ways, especially as partners.
Oftentimes, pair activities are utilized for collaboration: This one won’t be as much, however. All the collaboration here falls within the topic and debate itself.
In this pair activity, you will give your students a chance to use all their English superpowers and go head-to-head with their partner over an important and interesting issue.
However, as you are sitting at home, crafting this amazing lesson plan and pondering topics for your students to debate, remember that this is not a presidential debate. There is no reason to discuss topics with little to no relevance to your students.
Let them debate topics covering things happening in their communities, cities and countries. This will allow them to apply English to the issues that directly affect them. The class period before having the debate is the perfect time to brainstorm a few issues your students are interested in. Make a list of topics on the board, discuss them each briefly and let your students make notes and suggestions about what is important to them.
After all the issues are on the table, employ your students to build a working outline of the key attributes they will cover during their debate. Go over the importance of “pros and cons” with supporting evidence to back what they say.
This pair activity is excellent for discussion, research, writing, reading, listening and of course the art of debate and supporting points in a clear and concise way. This activity also gives your students the tools they need to discuss what is happening in their communities and around them in English, a skill they will use and always appreciate.
6. Picture Portrayal
This ESL pair activity is an oldie, but still a good and relevant one to get your students excited, enthused and engaged. Pictures are a great resource for students to discuss, think and collaborate over. In this activity, partners will have a solid one-on-one discussion that will possibly cause new vocabulary, new sentence structure and great grammatical skills to emerge.
Keeping your class level in mind, you should pick pics that will challenge your students without making them feel inadequate. This activity is a delicate balance of fun, challenge and philosophical breakthrough, so you should be on the lookout for pictures that help develop deep thought and allow your students to have mentally exciting ideas. They should be able to craft several ideas from a single photo.
Here is a great example of a photo you can utilize for this pair activity. This photo is also excellent for ESL students who live in Latin American countries, since it was taken in a church in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The photos you use should bring out questions as well as descriptions. Depending on the type of lesson you are planning, the photo can be used here to teach vocabulary, grammar and/or self-expression.
Asking your students to describe the photo will bring out a lot of nouns, verbs and adjectives.
Asking your students to write down what the photo means to them, a more philosophical type of exercise, will give them a lot of self-expression practice, practice sharing emotions and maybe the experience of finding they have difficulty expressing what they think. All of these are essential to student growth.
The key to this activity is to let your students first individually view the photo and craft their own thoughts about it without outside interference. This will evoke singular thought, in English. Putting a time limit on the individual part of this activity will benefit your students’ quick response abilities.
After your students have developed and recorded their ideas surrounding the photo, put them into pairs and let their ideas collide in a perfect ESL storm of subjective thought and collaborative discussion. Your students will enjoy discussing unique and thought-provoking insights with their partners as you float around the classroom, listening to their words and perceptions.
Pair activities are an essential part of any ESL classroom.
They allow your students to discover key language skills that may be lost in more focused lessons.
So switch up your lesson plans and let your students run wild with all they have learned and continue to learn.
Pair activities can build speaking, writing, grammar, listening, confidence, quick response, English expression and so much more!
Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.
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