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Teaching Ideas

August 06, 2002

Promoting Oral Fluency via Group & Pair Work

Andy Hoodith

Saitama University

Imagine a class of 40 students: many teachers don't have to; they face the reality of such classes all the time.

Now compare this to a party with 40 guests. At the party, the people would probably divide naturally into pairs & groups, from two to groups of four or five. In a given hour or half-hour then, each guest has a greater number of opportunities to speak (though they might not take them).

The idea of group and pair work in language teaching is hardly a new one, but translating an idea into classroom practice often presents the teacher with practical, logistical, and organizational difficulties which can be difficult to overcome. Many teachers feel daunted by this, and often revert back to their tried and trusted methods. These may be fine in themselves, but if the teacher is bored with them (otherwise why consider new activities), then that attitude may well be transferred to students. On the other hand, a great new (for a particular teacher) activity which is badly prepared and implemented will likely have demotivational effects of a different kind. However, at least with the latter the teacher has the opportunity of trying again and improving things.

Listed below are a few of the difficulties which attempting group/pair work with large classes presents. As many teachers will know, the list is by no means exhaustive!

* Space: the arrangement of classroom furniture can mitigate against group work, though by no means does it completely prevent it.
* Instructions: it's essential that every student knows what the teacher wants him/her to do. This is obviously related to learner training, and many a good lesson plan has gone pear-shaped because some or all of the students hadn't grasped exactly what it was the teacher was after in terms of learner behaviour. This has implications for the limited use of the students native language in monolingual classes.
* Activity-Types: Group work is fine in theory, but what do the students actually do? This is the main focus of this session.

There are other problems, but for the purposes of this page I'll briefly deal with the first two areas mentioned above before presenting a lesson plan which gives some of the many options related to the third area; activity-types.

If the teacher has some flexibility in choosing the classroom, then this problem is relatively easily solvable. To recreate a "Party" style environment, have a party! Seriously, a gymnasium, large room with little or no furniture, or regular room with the furniture against the walls is quite adequate. If the furniture arrangements are fixed and there is no possibility of changing room, then the teacher must plan more carefully, and attempt to create gaps between the groups and circles of interaction. Drawing a plan of the room and visualising the arrangements will help to achieve this. Whatever the particular situation, don't be put off by the room you're in! It's a problem to be solved, so think!!

In a lesson of 40 minutes or even an hour, and with lower level students, a teacher can spend 25% of the time explaining what he/she wants, and the old adage comes to mind, "if they can understand these (complex) instructions, they probably don't need the simpler language that is the content part of the lesson". Carefully worded written instructions in (in this case) Japanese can be a useful aid in getting to the activity itself efficiently. However, students must also understand the limitations on the use of the their language: again this is part of learner training and relies heavily on the teacher's relationship with the class.

It's better to be strict, then ease up, than to allow students too much leeway to use Japanese in the first few lessons and then try to stop them overusing it. One method is to explain briefly in English, then if necessary supply written instructions in Japanese. If students are still not clear about what to do, then the written instructions probably weren't very good! You can then allow a couple of minutes for them to clarify the instructions for each other in Japanese -- not everything revolves around the teacher!

The following Lesson Plan introduces some ideas for large class group and pair work. As with the previous lesson plans in this series, it is hoped that this provides a trigger for adaptations and extensions to existing activities.

TIME: 60-90 Minutes

AIM: To provide speaking practice for a class of 40 students


Ask the class: "What will happen on December 31st 1999?" Elicit or teach the phrase "Turn of the century". Now ask, "Who is or was the most important person of the 20th century?" (alive or dead, any nationality: they needn't have been born this century, but must have been alive during some part of it). Then take 4 or 5 examples at random and write them on the blackboard, asking if other students have the same opinion.


Introduce your own example (unless one the students has named him), Albert Einstein. Write his name and then ask the following questions as you write them on the board:

Who was Albert Einstein?

Where was he from?

What was his field?

What did he do?

Is he alive now?

Was he important or just famous?

Explain "field" if necessary (or use another word), and elicit answers. Make sure students understand the difference between questions with factual answers and those which require that they give an opinion.


Give students 10 minutes to write down the names of the 10 most important people to have lived this century. Stress that there is no moral judgment here, so that personalities seen in general as "bad", e.g. Hitler, can be included. Also make it clear that students must be able to provide some basic information about each of the people they choose, as you did with Einstein.


Now divide the class in to small groups. If possible, these should be of a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 5. Tell students to take it in turns to introduce the people they have selected, with the other students asking fact and opinion questions about them. Ask students to be open-minded: they should change their lists if other students in their group suggest more appropriate people, although they can stick to their original lists if they want to.


Depending on how the time is going, Activity 3 can be repeated by forming a set of different groups. Alternatively, you can ask students to find one new partner to discuss the choices with as a pair. This option might give the more shy students an opportunity to give his/her opinion. As the students do activities 3 and 4, go round and make a note of the names which seem to be coming up most often. You'll need these later to make the final activity more "doable".


To finish the class, conduct a rough survey to arrive at the whole class decision on the 10 most important people of this century. You may want to make the voting more strict, but this may take considerable more time. You could tell the class that there will be a formal vote at the beginning of the next lesson, and that they can change their opinions in the intervening period.


Of course, there are several variations on this theme, both in terms of the initial question (you may choose the last millenium, for example), and the way the discussion is structured. You should always tailor the activity types and the items you wish to focus on on your students: you know them best!

Andy Hoodith
Andy Hoodith is an author and works at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. He is also a life-long supporter of Manchester City Football Club.

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