Striking a balance between coercing your students to participate in pair or group activities and allowing your students to participate on their own can be difficult, but it is crucial – chemistry is key. Group activities are not only fun for students but essential in language learning, but they are only really successful when students feel comfortable enough to be fully involved in the activity. Cooperation and teamwork are key soft skills that can be difficult to build into your ESL classroom.
Group activities benefit students in a number of ways. Students receive encouragement from their peers and group or team-based activities add a manageable amount of pressure that can imitate using a non-native language in real life situations outside of your lesson.
Before you begin a lesson that includes a group activity, there are a few things you need to consider. The activity might be great… for half of your students. Ideally, you want your lesson activities to appeal to all of your students and therefore you will need to consider how you group your students.
Identify your students and group them accordingly
Each student has their own way of learning and interacting with other students. Hopefully you have some superstars who participate in everything, want to answer every question, and be involved in everything. You probably also have students who would rather sit on the sidelines and not participate at all. Of course, these are two extremes which means most of your students sit somewhere in between. It is important to identify the personalities and strengths and weaknesses of your students in particular when working with mixed-level learners.
When your lesson plan includes a group activity, take some time to consider the students in the lesson and plan how you will pair or group your students. It’s not as simple as “opposites attract”, so don’t just group your weak and strong students together. Instead, look at the activity and aim to group students based on the desired learning outcomes.
Class size can be a large determiner of what sorts of grouping you can accomplish in your class. If you have a class of four students, then you will more than likely do a lot of pair work. If you have a larger class, say twenty students, then pair work may not be effective. It is important to take your class size into account. If you have a teaching assistant or co-teacher, then managing big group activities is significantly easier, but if you don’t then don’t plan anything you can’t manage by yourself.
Students feel comfortable working in group of their peers; however, you may encounter a problem if you choose to have students engage in peer assessment. Students may feel uncomfortable and hold back from correcting mistakes or giving feedback to their classmates. Rejection is a genuine fear, so if students are tasked with peer assessment or feedback, rather than focusing on the bad, focus on the good.
Consider the Personal Model approach to teaching outlined in the article An introduction to Teacher-Centered and Student-Centered learning. Teachers who adopt the Personal Model lead by example. Students learn through observing and following the teacher’s process. Whenever you give feedback, remember that your students are watching and may imitate how you do it. When working with new students, you could prepare a grading sheet with a list of things for students to consider when offering peer assessment. Peer review and assessment is a great way to see how students interact and the feedback they offer their peers may be insightful for you.
Remember that every student and class is different. Use the time you have with students to learn about them and how they learn.