17th April 2018

TEFL Masterclass: the power of grouping learners

By Bryan Holmes

ESL classes usually require students to work in groups or in pairs. Groupings are beneficial for learners for several reasons and this week’s blog will take a quick look at the rationale behind group work and its value. Let’s begin by looking at the some of the reasons we encourage group work:

1. Increasing student talk time while highlighting language needs.

Varying interaction patterns for new teachers is often difficult. Pairing students together promotes a learner-centered class rather than the teacher leading it. Moreover, it encourages additional speaking and listening. You may be questioning what the benefits are so let’s look. Firstly, it provides learners an occasion to improve speaking strategies, such as making suggestions or negotiating while checking answers or using language to clarify it. Learners are often unaware how and when to interrupt, or may have difficulties disagreeing politely; hence as an instructor it’s a good opportunity to feed in the language needed. Lastly, it provides the teacher time to note errors such as grammatical, phonological, or address other communicative issues. I personally use this time to integrate rising and falling intonation practice or to raise awareness of connected speech e.g. assimilation, juncture etc.

2. It Builds Confidence and Strong Group Dynamics

When grouping learners, it’s important to know the rationale behind it. For example, who are you grouping together and why? At times, I group weaker learners with stronger ones; this way they can support one another e.g. it can reinforce the language aim for stronger learners while providing needed help for weaker learners. An additional advantage is that it allows the instructor to give an equal amount of attention to everyone when monitoring and is useful to address individual needs. It builds a cohesive element in that it avoids cliques especially with young learners. Furthermore, it’s an opportunity to instill patience and cooperation while improving social skills among classmates.

Task based activities can be made communicative so that students must interact with one another to finish the project rather than completing a typical worksheet individually. Incidentally this allows the teacher to assess linguistic competence in an authentic context rather than a controlled setting as the communication is natural and unscripted. This helps to develop learners’ communication skills by allowing them to personalise and experiment with the content rather than reciting formulaic sentences.

Below are some additional grouping techniques:

• Grouping learners L1 who speak the same or learners who speak different languages.
• By gender e.g. males on one side females on the other.
• By the same or different skill level.
• Regrouping by color, number, or object.

3. Improves Classroom Management, Timing and Pacing

Grouping students together when working on tasks maintains focus and keeps the learners on track. It can improve timing by avoiding early finishers. It can also support learner engagement as it increases STT and interaction when learners are working in pairs or small groups. Whereas if the discussion is teacher led, usually only one student is discussing the question with the instructor while everyone listens. Moreover, it balances the interaction patterns and keeps the lesson learner-centered as it maintains a communicative edge.

As seen, grouping learners can bring added value to any lesson and is a vital element. Not only does it improve issues with classroom management, it adds real linguistic value for the learner. You can learn more about differentiated learning groups here.

Are you interested in putting these skills into practice? Check out our upcoming teacher training workshops in Hong Kong.

Bryan Holmes is a teacher trainer and the part time course director for the Trinity CertTESOL English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL, MATESOL, and Cambridge DELTA. He has a special interest in phonetics and phonology and has been teaching for 10 years.