Having students work in groups offers many advantages. Group work can increase the amount of practice available to each student and help to individualize instruction. Furthermore, group work can create a more relaxed learning environment and motivate learners by involving them personally. Perhaps most importantly, group work can facilitate learner interaction, providing learners with access to the linguistic input they need in order to advance their language skills.
Arranging Group Work in the ESL Classroom
When arranging for group work, there are some important factors to keep in mind. First, what is your purpose for using group work? Just having students work in groups does not automatically mean they are learning the language skills you want them to. Consider your objectives carefully and how the characteristics of group work might help students to achieve those objectives. For example, group work can be very effective for stimulating thinking and generating ideas in pre-reading or pre-listening activities, or in preparation for speaking activities.
Second, how many students in the classroom should work together in each group? Smaller groups offer more opportunities to participate for each student, but larger groups allow for a greater range of ideas and input. Third, how should the groups be arranged? For example, depending on the language objectives of the activity, you might want students of similar proficiencies grouped together, or students of mixed L1 grouped together to encourage the use of English.
Finally, consider the different roles that students might take on, especially in larger groups. If you plan to have groups report on their discussions to the class, consider having groups decide on roles – reporter, note taker, leader, moderator, etc. When students have clearly assigned roles which they understand, group work will be much more productive and organized. When used thoughtfully and with purpose, group work can be a very enjoyable and effective tool to help your learners develop their language skills.
Grouping Students by Proficiency
While not all ESL classes are the same, you will likely have one where it is a struggle to teach due to excessive talking. Like a round of Whack-a-Mole, as soon as you stop the lesson, redirect the talkers, and begin again, another group of students starts up. This can be super frustrating, and if you are a teacher who likes total control, aggravation may become the rule of the day. By grouping your students according to proficiency and then providing differentiated instruction, you can preempt such situations.
Both practices can work within the larger TESOL framework and not only enhance student learning but also make big classes easier to manage. For example, following the P-P-P model, you’d build your lesson around the same theme or concept and then open with a short, engaging presentation to grab your students’ attention. However, once you’ve got that attention, don’t lose it by launching into lengthy instruction. Quickly segue into group-oriented practice and production tasks, differentiated according to each group’s level.
Grouping Students for Tailored Instruction
Trying to give whole-class instruction to a bunch of really chatty students typically leads to a lot of stopping, scolding, and repeating. Grouping students by proficiency allows you to provide instruction that’s tailored to their language learning needs. It sounds time consuming, but consider the alternative. You address the whole class but then only some are listening—how many times will you repeat yourself for those who weren’t listening or didn’t understand?
You can manage this by setting your most proficient students to task first, which allows you to spend a little more time with the least proficient ones. If these students are better behaved, then give them their instructions in writing, either on the board, in a handout, or direct to a tablet. Then they can start working immediately. Just ensure that the instructions are level-appropriate to minimize the need for clarification. Also, be sure to assign a greater volume of work; otherwise, these students may finish quicker and need to be kept busy while the rest of the class completes their work.
If, for example, the task is crafting sentences, give the most proficient the largest bank of the target language, have them generate more sentences, and make the work more critically and creatively challenging. If they do finish ahead of the rest, have easy self-access tasks available and train them on how to extend their own language learning.
Once you’ve provided the most proficient group(s) their assignment, then move on to the less proficient groups and set them to the task. You should seat the least proficient students in the front of the class or nearest your desk as they are more apt to disengage if further from the action.
This may also make it easier to provide support depending on where you station yourself in the room. Whatever written directions are provided should be carefully calculated to their level to encourage independence without taxing them too much. And remember to differentiate the work—you want the least proficient to grasp the core linguistic concept and demonstrate mastery of relevant functions and exponents appropriate to their level.
With sufficient planning, grouping and differentiating by level can actually save you time, get better results, and sidestep a lot of unnecessary headaches down the line. This is especially true for those teaching larger, mixed-ability classes—how well you differentiate for and group your students can have a significant impact on classroom management.