One of the most important elements of a good English class is getting students talking.
There is no better (or easier) way to make this happen than group work. Group work is flexible, communicative, and can take as little or as much time as you want it to. Here are some tips to keep in mind to make sure you are making the most out of your group work activities.
10 Tips for Getting Group Activities Right
Preteach the Vocabulary Your Students Will Need for the Task
No matter what topic you are covering in your group assignments, the odds are that your students will need some task specific vocabulary to complete their work. Take a few minutes before your group work to teach these words to your students so they can use them during the group activity.
Review Any Necessary Grammar Structures They Will Be Using During Their Discussion
Like with vocabulary, your student may need certain grammatical knowledge to complete the task you assign. They might need to use the imperative form to give instructions to a classmate, or they may need to use the conditional structure to talk about what might happen if they find themselves in certain circumstances. Whatever the grammatical need, take a few minutes at the beginning of the class to cover it with your students so they will have the tools they need at their disposal for the group assignment.
Brainstorm Useful Phrases or Sentences That Students Might Use
Once your students are familiar with the vocabulary and grammar they will need for the task at hand, take a minute or two to brainstorm with your class different sentences they might find useful during their assignment. You can make a list of these sentences on your board and have them available to your students during their assigned tasks. They will help more reserved students speak freely, and more advanced students may use them without even having to look at the board.
Group Students Strategically
At times, it is best to group your students by skill level. A group of lower level students are more likely to talk when there are no advanced speakers in their midst. But grouping students by level is not always the best choice. You can also group against level – matching lower level students with upper level ones. In so doing, the lower level student will naturally up their speaking skills to be more like those of the advanced student. (It’s a natural language learning mechanism hard wired into the human brain.) More advanced students will also benefit since they will often teach their partners or group members the language skills the latter are missing. As they say, when one teaches, two learn.
Give Your Group Work a Purpose
You can have students talk just for talking’s sake, but group work can be so much more when it has a purpose. Give your students a goal, a task to accomplish while working with their classmates. This will give your groups focus and direction, and your students will be less likely to wander down the long road of distraction when they know they have to accomplish something in the time they are given.
Give Your Group Work a Time Limit
Along with your group work goal, set a time limit. This will also help students stay focused on the task at hand and keep their minds and mouths from wandering on to other topics like what plans they have for the weekend.
You don’t want your students wandering around the classroom while they are engaged in group work (most of the time), but you should be doing just that. Though it can be tempting to sit and grade papers or make lesson plans during group activity time, it’s really better for you to make the rounds among your groups. If you do, you can make informal speaking evaluations of your students, see where students are using vocabulary and grammar both correctly and incorrectly, spend a little time interacting with students in a conversational setting, and get meandering groups back on task.
Give Every Student a Reason to Talk
It can be easy for quieter students to sit back and let others do all the talking during group work. You can avoid this with your class by giving each person a unique role in the group assignment. You might consider giving each student in the group a different piece of information necessary to solve the problem, or assign each person a specific role in the task. You might also have your groups compile each person’s opinions on a certain topic. You’ll have to decide how to include each students depending on exactly what task you are asking your groups to accomplish.
Consider Recording Your Groups’ Conversations
Recording your groups’ work will do two things. First, it makes the atmosphere more formal without making any changes to the task or the lesson. In this more formal setting, students will have a chance to use more traditional and formal language than they might use in a casual setting, a feat not always easy to achieve in a communicative classroom. Secondly, when the conversation is recorded students can go back and listen to their own speaking role in the activity. They can then do a self-evaluation, either on their general speaking skills (like pronunciation and spoken grammar) or their role in the activity. If you also evaluate your students, you can discuss the similarities and differences in your assessments.
Don’t Shy Away from Controversy
Though it might be best to avoid controversial topics in polite company, that’s not the case in your ESL class. When you are discussing a topic heavily laden with opinion, your students will have a hard time sitting back and just going along with the other members of their groups. Differing opinions are a great reason to speak up. On top of that, when a speaker is emotionally tied to what they are saying, they think less about how they are saying things and just say it. This will give you a good read on the real skills your students poses in pronunciation and spoken grammar (rather than the best performance they might be putting on for you during less intense discussions).
Group work is something that every ESL teacher should make a regular part of class.
If you keep these tips in mind, you can be sure that you are making the most of the time you give your students to work and talk together.