When planning an activity, a detail that often goes unnoticed is the way that students are working together. Student arrangements are so important, though. An individual activity is much different than a whole class collaborative activity, which could involve more than 20 students working together. You, as the teacher, should know what groupings are available to you, and how to change or modify a suggested grouping.
Each type of student group has both positive and negative aspects. Likewise, there is a time and place for working independently or working together. Before getting into the specifics of your activity planning, take a minute to consider different student arrangements and choose which one fits the goals of your students, lesson, and activity.
Remember that you, as the teacher, have the power to make any adjustments to a textbook or activity that you see fit. The textbook provides raw materials, but it’s your job to make those materials come alive in class.
If you're embarking on a journey to reinvigorate your classroom activities and curriculum, consider my earlier article on the topic, titled ESL Activities for Adults: A Pre-Planning Guide. In that article you'll find things to consider before you even begin planning your activities. In fact, it's a great place to start in order to define your goals and objectives.
ESL Activity Arrangements
There are six different types of student arrangements at the most basic level. You’ll find activities for every one of these arrangements all throughout ESL materials and textbooks, and each has it’s benefits. However, choosing the right arrangement is extremely important, and the best way to do that is to first consider what you want students to get out of an activity. After you've identified your goals, take a look at your options below.
Individual activities are great for giving students time to practice their own language skills. Some activities and topics are best suited for individual completion. Worksheets and reading activities are great for students to complete on their own. While speaking and listening almost always have to be done in community, pronunciation; grammar; and writing can be done successfully in an independent fashion. If your goal is for students to master a specific language skill or task, you may want to allow them time to practice or complete the activity alone.
Pair-work is one of the most common types of student arrangements. Working with partners gives students another individual to bounce ideas off of and depend on to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge and abilities without being overshadowed or forgotten. I love having students brainstorm, edit, or speak with partners, as it allows them to experience language in community while still having space and time to be heard.
Small groups (3-6 students) are great for when you have an uneven amount of students, which makes pair-work difficult, or want your learners to use their language with others. I’ve found small groups really useful for building collaboration skills. There is a risk of having some students sit back and allow others to take the lead, but if this is your worry simply give each student a role or responsibility.
Large groups (7+ students) may be an option if you’re working in a large class and simply don’t have the space to accommodate small groups. I would be wary of students who may not be heard with so many other voices being used. However, as I mentioned above, simply giving students roles and responsibilities helps with this issue. One of the types of activities that I love using large groups for is group research and presentation. A larger group means that there is a wide variety of students who are good at different aspects of the assignment. Students who feel more comfortable on the research end of things can excel at that, while students who feel more confident presenting are able to use that skill.
A class mingle grouping means that students are working with individuals as a whole class. For instance, having students walk around and interview other students. They’re mingling with the whole class instead of simply working with one other student at a time. These activities are great for allowing students more freedom to choose who to talk to, but you can risk students talking to only one other individual for the entirety of the activity. Nevertheless, this grouping is the one that most naturally reflects a party setting or social situation.
A class collaboration grouping means that the entire class is working together, not as individuals, but as a collective whole. These types of activities are great for discussion in smaller classes. As with the other larger-scale groupings, you have to be careful of students who get lost in the shuffle of things. Class collaboration is also great for mimicking business-type settings (such as a board meeting) or for brainstorming together as a class.
How to Change the Arrangement of an ESL Activity
Remember that you, as the teacher, are responsible for making the language come to life in the classroom and for making decisions that will aid your students in their language journey. If you’re using a curriculum and it suggests an individual activity, but you think it would be better suited for small groups, make the change!
If, when changing the arrangement, you are increasing the grouping (i.e. from individual to small groups), you may need to broaden the parameters of the activity. For example, if the individual activity is to fill out a grammar worksheet on the verb ‘to be’, you may need to broaden that by having students correct sentences together and then present a mini-lesson to their peers on the grammar point.
On the other hand, if you are decreasing the grouping (i.e. from class collaboration to pairwork), you may need to be more specific with what you expect. Instead of having students discuss together the benefits of learning a second language, have your pairs create a role play discussion/debate about learning a second language. One student must be of the opinion that learning a second language is not a good thing or too difficult/not worth it, while the other student must be of the opinion that learning a second language is a good thing! Have the pairs perform their role play for the class.
In changing the arrangement of a task, you may have to change the goal of the assignment. Each of the two examples of activity changes above maintain the same topic as the original assignment, but the goal changes. The grammar worksheet-presentation activity changed from a goal of simply practicing a grammar point to being able to reteach the grammar point. The discussion-role play changed from a goal of simply discussing a topic to creating a debate and performing it.
There are SO many different ways to arrange students, and countless ways to "spice up" the arrangements I've listed above. Teacher, don't forget - you're in charge! It's easy to just follow a curriculum or textbook, but deviating from a set activity can make all the difference in your classroom.
I Want to Hear From You!
What is your go-to student arrangement?
I almost always have students working in pairs, and I'm always trying to incorporate more variety, which leads to the next question...
What is one student grouping that you want to try to use more often in your classroom, and why?