pair-and-group-work-in-the-language-classroom

4 Activities with Pair and Group Work to Increase Student Talking Time in the Language Classroom

Thirty students. One teacher. Sixty minutes.

Yikes. It’s a daunting task, but don’t be intimated. Instead use those numbers to your advantage!

Whether or not this is your reality, learning how to leverage the benefits of pair and group work could be the boost you’ve been after.

Try out these activities and pretty soon you’ll be excited about those oversized classes.

Benefits of Pair and Group Work in the Language Classroom

What’s easier, learning a language in solitary confinement or learning it in the real world?

Just like babies need human interaction to learn how to speak, language learners need interaction to learn an additional language.

For some students their only chance to practice speaking is in the classroom. Pair and group work lets you take full advantage of this valuable opportunity by:

  • Providing real-world experience. Give students the chance to use the language in the way that they ultimately plan to—to communicate with other people!
  • Increasing student speaking time. Let yourself take a break and move away from the presenter-listener (teacher-student) model. With these activities, you becomes the facilitator but the students become the primary speakers.
  • Adding variety to the class. By changing up the classroom structure you avoid monotony and predictability, helping students stay alert and on their toes.
  • Improving the classroom environment. When you take a back seat you’re giving students the chance to interact with each other and get to know one another better.
  • Boosting motivation. When students see that they’re actually able to communicate in their target language, they’re reminded of the real rewards of learning that language.

4 Top-notch Pair and Group Work Activities for the Language Classroom

1. Divide and Conquer

How can we give students complex assignments that aren’t necessarily time intensive? By letting them help each other.

Articles and short stories are great, but there might come a point when you want to introduce your students, especially your adult students, to a full-length novel or longer piece of work.

By splitting up one assigned reading between multiple students you’re lessening the workload without sacrificing the reward: a complex, full-length plot.

Here’s how this looks:

  • Assign one book to each pair or group.
  • Ask them to divide the chapters up evenly among themselves.
  • Each class, a different student summarizes their assigned reading to their group. So if student A presents chapter 1 on Monday, student B will present chapter 2 on Tuesday, or whenever the next class is set to be held.
  • Alternative: Give each group a different book then let them summarize their book to the entire class at the end of the course.

These quick, 10-minute reading recaps can become a part of your daily routine until each group has finished its novel.

This format ensures that students fully understand what they’re reading, while also letting them practice explaining, clarifying and speaking aloud.

When students have others counting on them, they’re more likely to complete the assigned reading. It’s best to split students up into groups of two or four. If you have groups of four, give two students the same assigned readings and the other two students the same assigned readings. This redundancy is nice to have in case one of the students doesn’t complete the assignment.

If you give each group the same book, have them report on a different aspect of the book at the end of the course, i.e. the plot twist, the protagonist, the antagonist, the setting or the author. This will prevent the presentations from being repetitive.

You can look for appropriate reading lists by googling the university, high school, middle school or elementary level required reading lists for countries that speak your target language.

For example, if I had intermediate level English speakers, I would look up junior high level chapter books. In this instance “A Christmas Carol,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Call of the Wild” would all be suitable options.

Here’s an example of a high school required reading list on Goodreads.

2. Think-Pair-Share

This take on traditional pair work is as simple as it sounds and gives students the chance to think for themselves, work together and present their ideas. The success of this exercise all hinges on the quality of the question you ask.

It works like this:

  • Pose a question to the class. Some good ones include:

Is globalization a good thing or a bad thing?

Is travel important? Why? What are the impacts?

Why do we have traditions? Do we need them? Are they important? Why? This can refer to familial or cultural traditions

  • Give students 10 minutes to brainstorm their individual answers and write them down.
  • Next put them into pairs and have them compile a collective response.
  • Then regroup as a class and ask each pair to present its view.

Be sure to ask critical questions during that last portion to challenge each pair’s view, whether or not you agree with it. If it seems like the class shares a common view, try to play devil’s advocate.

For example, if the whole class thinks that travel is important, ask questions like:

Wouldn’t it be better for indigenous societies if we traveled less?

Wouldn’t the environment benefit from less travel?

Would we all be more content if we stayed in one place and didn’t know what was out there?

Don’t be afraid to push some buttons and let the debate get lively.

Make sure your questions reflect the maturity level of your class. If your students are older, you can stick with interesting political or moral questions. Check international news outlets like Sky News for relevant topics. If you have a young group you can ask questions about travel or tradition.

Its three-part format makes this a perfect go-to exercise to get your students analyzing and writing independently, discussing and solidifying a point of view with a partner and then presenting and defending it.

3. Describe and Draw

During those long afternoon classes when your students seem particularly lethargic, bust out this hands-on drawing activity to get everyone involved:

  • Split the class into pairs or groups.
  • Give student A a picture and the other students a blank piece of paper.
  • Student A takes 10 minutes to describe the picture to the other students, who have not yet seen it.
  • They draw what is being described to them.
  • Encourage the drawers to ask questions so that there’s shared talking time.
  • If time allows, assign a new picture describer and continue until everyone in the group has had a turn.

It helps if the photo is a scene and not just one object so that the student can say, for example, “There is a sun in the upper right-hand corner and a school in the middle. Two cows are standing on a hill behind the school, etc.”

Check out sites like Fisher-Price or Parents to find appropriate printable photos.

This is a fun way to change the pace of the class, involve creativity and provide student talking time. They will get to practice speaking clearly, clarifying ideas and asking questions. If you’re focusing on certain vocabulary that week, then just choose an image that incorporates that vocabulary, i.e the interior of a house, a farm or outer space.

4. Common Bonds

It’s the first week of class and you feel like your students don’t quite know each other yet, or maybe you want to create a lighter and more open classroom environment. Don’t underestimate the lasting benefits of a good icebreaker, especially a speaking-centric one.

Try this exercise to wake your students up and get them in a social mood:

  • Have students split up into pairs.
  • Each pair determines three things both students have in common and writes them down. (i.e. We both have two siblings. We both love sailing. Neither of us have ever broken a bone.)
  • Next have them walk around the classroom and mingle with one another until they have talked to all of their classmates and have written down three similarities they share with each of them.
  • The class reconvenes and each student then reads out one similarity he or she shares with each fellow student.
  • As the student is presenting, the other students raise their hands if they also have that in common.

Activities like this automatically boost motivation because they let students use their target language to communicate, an exciting way for them to see how far they’ve come and to measure how they’d do in the real world.

What’s nice about this one is that it’s appropriate with virtually all age groups and doesn’t need to be adapted.

If you’re teaching a class rather than a single student, use the numbers to your advantage. There are endless ways to leverage pair and group work to engage and benefit your students.

Start with these four and enjoy where they take you!


Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: www.aFarCorner.com 

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