I’ve been trying to think of creative ways to group students in class. When I want students to discuss something or work on something with a partner, it’s easy to just say, “Turn to the person next to you…” There’s nothing wrong with that, and I do still have students work with the person sitting next to them often. But sometimes it’s nice to give students a chance to talk with a different partner, and it’s good to have students stand up every once in a while and get their blood flowing.
I know that some comprehension-based teachers tend to avoid using partner activities since they are often associated with the pseudo-“communicative” activities that are really just grammar drills. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are many possible reasons to have students work with a partner. For me, one of the purposes is simply to break up the class time and to help the students feel active and engaged in class. My class periods are usually two hours (and sometimes four hours!) long. That’s a long time for students to just sit and listen, so I’m always trying to find ways to make my class active and engaging while maintaining an emphasis on input. In this post on his TESOL Toolbox blog, Mark Trevarton suggests changing the interaction pattern (who’s talking to whom) 2-3 times every hour. Obviously, the exact number will depend on the classroom context and may differ from day to day, but the general idea is that switching frequently between who is interacting with whom can help keep up the energy level in the room. Having students talk with a partner is almost like a little brain break—especially if they have to physically stand up and move around to find their partner.
Having students talk with a partner also gives them a chance to share their opinions with someone else and to process what they’ve just heard. And it can provide a small, low-stress measure of accountability. For those students who may be prone to zoning out instead of listening in class, having short breaks in which they talk to a partner can help them stay focused.
I rarely have students do extended work with a partner; most often, it is just for a simple activity or a quick conversation. For example, after I tell my students a story, I might have them tell their partner what their favorite part of the story was and why. With lower-level students, you could even have them talk with their partner in their native language, if possible. Or, students might do an activity like working together to unscramble the sentences within a paragraph.
I made a document that lists the different pairing methods I like to use in class since I think that having different ways of pairing up students can help keep things novel and exciting. When I’m trying to decide how I want students to find their partner, I can just look at the list. I don’t use these every day, but they are fun to use every once in a while.
Click the picture to access the document:
The first section is a list of ways for students to pair up, and the second section is a list of different ways for all the students to line up together in class. After students are lined up, you can pair up the students based on their order (the first two students in line are one pair, the next two students in line are the next pair, and so on).
Some of these pairing methods do require some negotiating and talking together as a class when finding partners. For example, “Find a partner who is wearing a shirt the same color as yours” will obviously not work out perfectly since not every student will find someone with a perfect color match. But that’s a good thing since it leads to meaningful communication as you all discuss together which students should pair together—for example, “Let’s see, we have three people who are wearing blue and one who is wearing yellow. So maybe the person with the light blue shirt can go with the person wearing yellow, and the two people with darker blue shirts can be together.”
It’s just a small way to help promote a fun, interactive atmosphere in class.