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Concourse 2

Grouping learners


Why group students at all?

There are a number of advantages to grouping students at various times in most lessons.  They include:


Matching grouping to task type

Consider these 10 arrangements of learners and try to say what could be happening in each arrangement.

Click on each image for an answer.

1 4
2 3
5 6
7 8
9 10

There is more on this in the guide to classroom arrangement.  Here we are concerned with the reasons for choosing between possible arrangements.

The fundamental distinction is between

It's a simple process to classify all the arrangements in the diagrams above.  Try it.

This all begs a small question concerning where you should be in the setups we have considered here and that will depend on the role you are taking on.  For a breakdown of possible teacher roles, see the dedicated guide, linked below.


Group- / pair-work tasks

Here's an (incomplete) list of the sorts of tasks often (not always) best done in pairs or groups.

speaking tasks
role plays (social setting, commercial transactions, advice giving etc.)
interviews (tell me about, tell me what you think about etc.)
discussions (in groups of more than two, probably)
pairwork in threes (two learners talk, the third listens and takes note of uses of the target items, ways of taking turns / giving feedback to each other etc.)
writing tasks
constructing a dialogue using target items
planning a piece of writing by brainstorming things to say and the order in which to write them
writing lists and prioritising lists
structural / lexical tasks
noting differences in meaning between sentences with different structures
gap fills
sentence completion tasks
lexis matching tasks (item to picture, item to definition etc.)
reading tasks
reading two different parts of a text each and then exchanging the ideas and facts
reading information and making collaborative decisions about choices (holiday brochures, course descriptions etc.)
reading part of a story and speculating about what happens next before reading the next part to see if the guesses were correct
listening tasks
listening to a song / piece of music and comparing reactions
listening to an announcement and deciding who in the group it applies to
listening to each other telling a story and giving feedback

and so on.

We need to distinguish briefly between what are called open and closed pairs.
In closed pairs, the learners are all working on tasks at the same time and not paying attention to others in the room.
In open pairs, one pair is performing a task with the other learners looking on and, we hope, paying attention.  Usually, in this case, all the pairs will perform at some time.


When not to group students

Please don't assume from any of this that pair- or group-work is always preferable.  There are times when it is both appropriate and important that the whole class works together or individuals work alone.  For example, if the nature of the activity is to allow individuals to see if they have grasped the target of the lesson and can put it into practice, it's actually inappropriate to carry out the task in groups or pairs.
It is for you to decide what you want the activity to achieve and then choose the best way of conducting it.


The teacher's role

The other consideration here is where you should be and what you should be doing.  Again, there are distinctions

For much more on teacher roles, see the guide, linked below.


Take the time

  1. It is not a waste of time spending some of it making sure that an activity is properly set up and that the groupings are arranged in a way that makes the task easy to achieve.  It's also worth remembering that most people actually like to get up and move around at times.
  2. Be clear in your planning stage how you want people to sit or stand depending on the nature of the activity you have devised.  Add the description into your lesson notes so you don't forget to (re-)arrange the learners and the room accordingly.
  3. Become expert at setting activities up quickly and efficiently so that your learners gain the most benefit and the arrangement does not actually hinder them.  This usually means being slightly assertive (no, not rude) with instructions such as
        Mary, John and Peter.  Please sit here, here and here
        Right.  Everyone.  Move the tables back and come round into the front now, please.
    Do not shilly-shally with 'instructions' such as
        Be sure you can talk easily
        I wonder if you'd like to move over here.
    Those aren't actually instructions at all.

Related guides
classroom organisation for the guide to the overall arrangement of the classroom
teacher roles for a guide to what the teacher should be doing
task types to see how the types of task may affect what you are doing
activity types for a guide to the three essential forms of activities and what they do

Take a simple test on this.