Pairwork and Working in Small Groups

Most speaking practice in the classroom should be done in pairs and small groups with students talking to each other.  It is a common mistake of the untrained teacher to think that students must or need to talk to the teacher.

While talking to the teacher is certainly useful, each student in a small class of only 15 will get at most 3 minutes of talking time in a 45-minute class if conversation is teacher- centered.  In pairs, those same students could be directly involved in conversation as much as 22 minutes.

See the difference?  That is a seven-fold increase in the amount of time a student can practice speaking, listening and interacting in English.  One of the biggest problems EFL students have is the very limited amount of time they actually get to practice speaking and listening in direct interaction.  Often their only opportunity is in your classroom.

The teacher’s role during pairwork and small group time is to rotate around the classroom encouraging students and helping them focus on the target language/concepts of the lesson.   Including pairwork and small-group work in your PPP/ESA lesson is critical to the success and improvement of your students’ language skills.

Group Work

Some students (particularly students who do not feel confident about their ability to communicate, or to communicate in English) prefer to work independently, and find the group experience challenging and confronting.

Added to this tension is group work’s appeal for teachers in the face of increasing class sizes and staff workloads (Burdett, 2003). But teachers often underestimate the effort involved in organizing effective group work. Staff have commented that group work can be time consuming and difficult to implement.

Nevertheless, given the benefits for learning and future employability, it is important that all students have the chance to work in groups during their study at the university. When it comes to developing students’ group work skills, there is no single best approach or assessment strategy. It all depends on your particular learning and teaching context and objectives. The challenge is to choose a range of strategies that will allow your students to develop effective group work skills within the context of your discipline.


The page Ideas for Effective Group Work is a useful quick guide to some group work strategies you might use. For more in-depth resources, consult the following pages of this website:

Preparing for Group Work

All about expectations, group setup, the first meeting, group dynamics, and dealing with uncertainty and change.

Developing Students’ Group Work Skills

Help students learn how to identify group issues, listen reflectively, give constructive feedback, structure discussions, manage their groups, give group presentations and compile reports, review individuals’ contributions and deal with common group work issues

Facilitating and Monitoring Group Work

o   Your role in facilitating and monitoring group work.

o   Helping Students Reflect on their Group Work

o   Getting your students to monitor their development, reflect on their performance and identify how they can improve.


An effective discussion moves towards one or two major points, but unlike the Lecture, this process is not controlled by one individual presentation. Rather, the teacher must walk a fine line between controlling the group and letting its members speak.


Discussion lets class members work actively with the ideas and the concepts being pursued, and discussion sessions can be an extremely effective in changing behavior or attitudes. Consequently, teachers use them frequently in instructional situations where the goal is to:

  • develop problem-solving or critical thinking skills or
  • enable students to articulate a position or an informed opinion.


Most teachers are aware that getting students to talk, and keeping the discussion moving, can be problematic. Another common issue is long digressions or pointless arguments by dominant students or the whole group, which can throw a discussion off track.


1) Encourage students to contribute

You can direct a discussion by asking Questions before and during the session. The questions should offer a genuine starting point for debate.

At the beginning of a discussion session, ask students open-ended or multiple-answer questions such as, “What did you think about a particular chapter (or article)?” These have several advantages:

  • They decrease the odds that students will be completely unable to answer the question.
  • They encourage multiple viewpoints.
  • It is less likely that the most vocal student in the class will answer and dispose of the question straight away.
  • If you record these multiple responses on the blackboard, you can use them to begin further topics for discussion; students often participate more freely in discussions when they feel their own concerns and ideas have contributed to the agenda. (See Brainstorming)

2) Direct the discussion

Effective discussion leaders know their students’ skills and perspectives. They use this knowledge to decide whom to call on to start a discussion moving in the appropriate direction, and to maintain its momentum.

Send clear signals about the kind of contributions you want.

  • If you pose a question that asks for real debate, pause long enough for participants to think and respond; this is referred to as “wait time”. Not waiting long enough after posing a question is one of the most frequent errors by beginning teachers.
  • If silence follows after the first person presents an opinion, ask follow-up questions, such as, “How do the rest of you feel about it?”
  • Alternatively, pursue the topic with the first student by asking them to clarify or elaborate, or analyse further (for example, “What reasons do you have for thinking this?” and “How might someone state the opposite perspective on this point?”).

Emphasise that students should listen to each other and not just to you. Model this behaviour by:

  • building on a student’s point
  • withholding judgment until several responses are put forward, or
  • listing the multiple responses on the board and asking the students to regroup them.

Simply negating a student’s response and asking another student exactly the same question generally does not help to maintain active participation by all students. How you handle students” responses is important; just calling on them can have a stifling effect, especially for quieter members of the group.

If a student asks a complex question, or some members of the class don’t hear the question, restate it for the whole class.

3) Control the discussion

A vocal student who dominates a group is a common problem in discussions. Another problem can occur when the entire class hijacks the discussion and moves it on to another issue.

If you encounter these problems, it may be that the students do not have enough information to engage in the intended discussion. Another possibility is that the topic at hand might be too controversial for them to deal with it objectively.

Sometimes, finding out what students are thinking and how they respond to a given question is more important than momentary control. Listen for a while until you see the students’ agenda clearly; try to summarise the key points they have made, then, if appropriate, ask the group to connect their points to those you originally made.

4) Aligning discussion with the curriculum

To be truly effective, each discussion session must work within the course as a whole. Never operate without some kind of a curriculum-related plan. Sometimes, your students will comment or raise questions in class that will make you adjust the discussion’s objectives, but without a plan to begin with, it is difficult to make these adjustments responsibly.

One way to ensure the alignment of discussion with learning objectives is to assign specific tasks before each class, such as setting study questions to provide a common ground for the discussion and focus the students on the goals of the course.