Language should be communicative. That means the more your ESL students use English to communicate, with you and with one another, the better their language skills will be.
Communicative language is also creative; speakers use the language that they know to share their ideas and opinions, even if they make mistakes in the finer points of grammar or vocabulary. The point is that communicative language users are able to get their point across with whatever language tools they have at their disposal. Making language communicative is why group work is so important in ESL classes. Working with fellow students gives the members of your class a safe place to practice using language for practical purposes, and in class match ups can have even more benefits if you are intentional about who gets grouped together. Sometimes, though, finding the right matches is challenging. Here are some tips for making pairs and groups that work when it comes to in class communication.
How to Make the Best Student Pairs
Grouping by the Same Native Language
Sometimes grouping students according to their first language is a good option. This is never truer than when you have a false beginner in your class. Your more advanced students will not only have compassion for the student at the very start of her English studies, they will also have advice and strategies for learning the language that apply specifically to a speaker of that first language, strategies they have used first hand. Allowing students to share (in their first language) will reduce stress for your beginning students and may help them over learning hurdles that might otherwise trip them up. In addition, students with the same first language often come from the same countries or people groups (though not always). When they do, students can help each other understand cultural differences that go beyond the language they speak at home or at school. This will also reduce your students’ stress and help them be more receptive to learning in English and more successful with their efforts. I have seen great success grouping students in a mixed level class by their first language. Everyone participates in the group work, and everyone benefits from it.
Grouping by Different Native Languages
Have you ever been frustrated while teaching your ESL students because they continued to use their native language rather than English? If you teach a group of internationals, you might want to consider grouping them with speakers of a native language other than their own to avoid that frustration. While grouping with the same native language may be the right choice at times, other times you will want your students to work with someone who will need them to speak in English. Intermediate and advanced students should have enough English under their belts to speak only English in the classroom. And even though it is possible, it’s not necessarily comfortable. Human nature pushes us to speak in our native language when our conversation partner can do the same. When you pair your students with speakers of other languages, that natural inclination is gone. And even students who may not feel comfortable speaking in English and who might otherwise be unwilling to do so will find themselves articulating the English that they know to get their ideas across. I find grouping by different native languages works best with intermediate and advanced students who are capable of speaking English (even if they aren’t confident doing it). Both mixed level classes and same level classes will benefit from grouping in this manner.
Grouping by the Same Skill Level
When your class is composed of students at the same skill level, you may not have much choice about grouping by level, but that doesn’t mean your students won’t benefit anyway. When students are at the same skill level with English, participation tends to be more equally spread across the members of the group. No one dominates conversation or does all the work while others sit by not participating. If you are teaching a mixed level class, you may choose to group students by level for these reasons.
Grouping by Different Skill Levels
While the majority of my ESL classes have been level specific, I have taught several mixed level classes. Subject areas such as conversation, American film, vocabulary development, and TOEFL prep have meant my classes contain students throughout the spectrum from beginning to advanced. And while this type of class can be challenging at times, it might be just what you and your students need to create the best pairs for in class activities. Language research has shown that speakers of any language naturally modify their speech to approach that of their conversation partner. That means that a less proficient speaker of English will have better performance when she is partnered with a more proficient English speaker than with a less proficient English speaker. That happens with no intention on either’s part. If you teach a mixed level class, partnering your less proficient speakers with more proficient speakers will help them improve all facets of their spoken English. There is a negative to this type of pairing, however. This also means that the more proficient speaker will modify his language to be more like the less proficient speaker, so grouping mixed level isn’t always going to be the best choice. The key is including this type of partnerings enough to challenge and improve your beginning students without causing damage to your more advanced level students. If you teach mixed level classes, use both strategies to make sure your students gain all the benefits they can from in class activities!
There is no question that group work is important in ESL classes.
The benefits from that group work, however, can be made greater if you pair and group your students in strategic ways. If you think about what you want your students to gain from their in class coupling, you can choose the best option for student pairs, and your students will be well on their way to English fluency.
How do you pair and group your students for in class activities?