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Pros and cons of pair and group work

Most teachers have made frequent use of pair and group work for many years, notably since the rise of communicative language teaching in the 1980s. Even before then it would have been common for pupils to work in pairs on simple role-play and dialogue tasks. So pair and group work is standard practice, if not universally supported by language teachers.

It’s always worth evaluating, however, whether a practice works - whether, in this case, it helps students develop their proficiency.

Pros

Rod Ellis (2005) summarises the advantages of pair/group work (based on Jacobs, 1998)

“1. The quantity of learner speech can increase.
In teacher-fronted classrooms, the teacher typically speaks 80% of the time; in groupwork more students talk for more of the time.

2. The variety of speech acts can increase.
In teacher-fronted classrooms, students are cast in a responsive role, but in groupwork they can perform a wide range of roles, including those involved in the negotiation of meaning.

3. There can be more individualization of instruction.
In teacher fronted-lessons teachers shape their instruction to the needs of the average student but in groupwork the needs of individual students can be attended to.

4. Anxiety can be reduced.
Students feel less nervous speaking in an L2 in front of their peers than in front of the whole class.

5. Motivation can increase.
Students will be less competitive when working in groups and are more likely to encourage each other.

6. Enjoyment can increase.
Students are ‘social animals’ and thus enjoy interacting with others in groups; in teacher-fronted classrooms student-student interaction is often proscribed.

7. Independence can increase.
Group activities help students to become independent learners.

8. Social integration can increase.
Group activities enable students to get to know each other.

9. Students can learn how to work together with others.
In typical teacher-fronted classrooms students are discouraged from helping each other; group work helps students to learn collaborative skills.

10. Learning can increase.
Learning is enhanced by groupwork because students are willing to take risks and can scaffold each other’s efforts.”

Cons

But you’ll be familiar with some of the disadvantages associated with pair and group work. Here are a few:

1. First, when comparing pair and group work, pair work offers the great advantage that each partner gets to speak more and is obliged to take part. With group work the ‘lazy member’ phenomenon can occur, as one or more members. let the dominant ones take the strain.

2. Pairs and groups may go off-task or resort to using L1 when doing their activities. There are significant behaviour management issues involved with pair/group work.

3. Not all students like pair and group work. Some prefer to work directly with their expert teacher.

4. The teacher cannot be certain that a task has been satisfactorily achieved since it’s impossible to monitor every individual. Pais/groups may report they have done the task and understood, but you can’t be sure this is the case.

5. The quality of the language pupils hear will be variable, sometimes inaccurate and almost certainly impoverished compared with teacher input. If acquisition largely depends on receiving comprehensible input at the right level, then this cannot be guaranteed.

6. It is less likely that pupils will receive negative feedback (correction). Although you can set up a task with the instruction to give feedback to each other, there is no guarantee this will occur. Many pupils are reluctant to correct their peers and, like you, do not want to discourage fluent communication.

7. In relation to Point 6 above it is possible that ‘fossilisation’ of errors will occur, meaning students continue to make the same errors.


Remarks

When you bear in mind the range of advantages and disadvantages involved with pair and group work you might well conclude that it should be used in relative moderation, but much depending on the class in front of you and your ability to manage it successfully.

Effective pair and group work can help build good relationships between pupils and between you and the class, as they realise that you are giving them more opportunity to practise their skills. You can go round offering light-touch help, or just sit back and observe the fruits of your previous labours. (Note that this may be more likely to encourage them to speak freely, without anxiety.)

There is a also something to be said for variety in lessons, so it often makes sense to begin an activity as a teacher-led task (modelling how the activity works) before letting students carry on in pairs - and I would express a definite preference for pairs over groups for reasons of efficiency and behaviour management.

For some classes pair and group work may make no sense at all if the class is incapable of working without close teacher direction. For others, for example very well-behaved but reticent classes, pairs and groups may be an effective solution.

I would also argue from my own experience that as students grow older, the more likely they will benefit from working in pairs (or groups). Beginners are usually keen to put their hands up and help you maintain successful teacher-fronted lessons with lots of input and interaction, whereas this enthusiasm wanes after a couple of years or so (sooner for some!). So you might find, as I did, that information gap tasks, paired games and small group activities come into their own ta intermediate and advanced level. Even so, at all levels access to good quality listening input is always vital, so it may be a mistake to neglect your own voice or audio/video recordings.

I began this post by asking if pair and group work ‘works’. Well, I know of no definitive research evidence which demonstrates superiority of pair/group work over teacher-led lessons. Just imagine how difficult it would be to carry out such a study, what with all the variables you would need to control for!

As with a good deal of classroom practice its success will depend on your belief in its effectiveness, your management of tasks, the class’s disposition and even such factors as the general cultural attitude to such practice (pupils expectations count for a good deal).

To conclude, the Ellis (2005) article makes a number of points with regard to carrying out small group work effectively. These include:

1. Students’ orientation to the task
For groupwork to be effective students need to be convinced that the task is worthwhile and not simply an opportunity for some ‘fun’.

2. Individual accountability
Each student needs to be made accountable for his/her own contribution to the completion of the task. One way is by asking each student to make an explicit comment on their personal contribution in the post-task report.

3. Group composition
This includes making sure that potentially disruptive pupils are separated.

4. Collaborative skills
You can train pupils in the strategies needed to engage in effective collaboration (e.g. how to disagree and how to negotiate meaning).

5. Teacher’s role
You can model collaboration, observing and monitoring the students’ performance, and intervene when a group is experiencing obvious difficulty. Also you can sit with students helping them to do the task.


Tips and tricks

When setting pupils off on a task give them a. very precise time limit, e.g. 8 minutes (rather than 5 or 10). This helps create a sense of urgency.

If you see a group going off task intervene quickly, possibly with the whole class, to make sure your expectations are absolutely clear. Once classes know that your expectations are high they are less likely to go off-task in the future. Effective pair work becomes a habit, not a chance to have a rest.

Place yourself at the rear of the class to avoid being obtrusive but allowing you to keep an eye on things.

For some tasks, interrupt the activity after a few minutes to model good responses, or ask a good pair/group to model their performance.

Don’t feel the need to have pairs/groups model their performance at the end. In their own minds students may feel the task is over and done with and want to move on.

For some tasks students may benefit from recording or filming their speech and listening back, but it’s probably best not to play back recordings to the whole class.

Vary your pairs or groups from time to time to add variety and allow pupils to hear different voices.

Never forget how anxiety-inducing speaking in front of a class is for some pupils, especially in another language. Pairs and groups are a great way to build confidence in students.

Where appropriate, clearly model the task beforehand with one or more pupils and check that they know exactly what to do. Clarity of instruction is vital and this may be best done in English.


References

Ellis, R. (2005) Instructed second language acquisition: A literature review. https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/word_doc/0011/8975/instructed-second-language.doc

Jacobs, G. (1998). Cooperative learning or just grouping students: The difference makes a difference. In W. Renandya & G. Jacobs (Eds.), Learners and language learning (pp. 145-171). Singapore: SEAMEO.Physical arrangement of students
Jacobs (1998) proposes that students need to be seated in a way that they can easily talk together and maintain eye contact, share resources, talk quietly and take up less space.
6. Collaborative skills
Teachers can provide training in the strategies needed to engage in effective collaboration (e.g. how to disagree and how to negotiate meaning). The extent to which students are able to use these strategies in groupwork needs to be constantly monitored.
7. Group permanence and cohesion
Cooperative learning requires that students have time to consider how their group is functioning and find ways of working together effectively. If groups are constantly changing, students will not have the opportunity to develop the ‘positive interdependence’ (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993) considered essential for group cohesion. The ability to work effectively with others is a process that requires time.
8. Teacher’s role
Jacobs (1998) mentions a number of possible roles for the teacher: modelling collaboration, observing and monitoring the students’ performance, and intervening when a group is experiencing obvious difficulty. Also a teacher can function as a task participant, sitting with students to do the task. The problem with this latter role, however, is that many students find it difficult to react to the teacher as a group member rather than as an instructor.Physical arrangement of students
Jacobs (1998) proposes that students need to be seated in a way that they can easily talk together and maintain eye contact, share resources, talk quietly and take up less space.
6. Collaborative skills
Teachers can provide training in the strategies needed to engage in effective collaboration (e.g. how to disagree and how to negotiate meaning). The extent to which students are able to use these strategies in groupwork needs to be constantly monitored.
7. Group permanence and cohesion
Cooperative learning requires that students have time to consider how their group is functioning and find ways of working together effectively. If groups are constantly changing, students will not have the opportunity to develop the ‘positive interdependence’ (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993) considered essential for group cohesion. The ability to work effectively with others is a process that requires time.
8. Teacher’s role
Jacobs (1998) mentions a number of possible roles for the teacher: modelling collaboration, observing and monitoring the students’ performance, and intervening when a group is experiencing obvious difficulty. Also a teacher can function as a task participant, sitting with students to do the task. The problem with this latter role, however, is that many students find it difficult to react to the teacher as a group member rather than as an instructor.



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