When you’re planning your lessons how much time do you spend thinking about how you’re going to group students for the activities in your plan?

Do you think about whether you’ve got a balance between pairs, groups, whole class and individual work? If you have activities for pairs and groups, do you let the students decide who they’re going to work with or do you decide?

This tip looks at the advantages and disadvantages of the three main ways of grouping students. They are, giving students the choice, random grouping and selecting the groups yourself. You’ll probably find that no one way will always be the best choice for a particular group, but that you’ll use all three ways at different times depending on your students and the activities you plan to do.

Giving students the choice
The chances are, if you let your students decide who they want to work with they will always stick to the same people. In the same way, if you let them choose where they sit in the class they will always sit in the same place. The danger with letting the students decide who they want to work with on activities is that it will always be the same and therefore cliques of friendship groups will form within the class. This won’t benefit the group as a whole in the long run. Friends may not necessarily always work well together, so although you may decide to let students decide who they work with at times, you probably shouldn’t let them choose all the time.

Paul Seligson, a well known TEFL author and teacher trainer, recently gave a workshop about classroom management at a conference here in Barcelona. His view is that students should never be allowed to fossilise into ‘fixed groups’. He sees it as detrimental to the classroom dynamic and I strongly agree with him. He believes that students should be moved around and they should never even sit in the same seat two classes running. He has a poster in his classroom reading ‘Please change places after every class. If you don’t, I’ll have to move you. Life is short, please move.’ Like adults, teenagers tend to always sit in the same seat and work with the same people, and although they can occasionally be reluctant to be moved, it can be really beneficial to the group as a whole to jumble up your students at times.

Random grouping
The big advantage of forming groups at random is that it is seen as fair by all involved. If you need to make groups of five for an activity, work out how many groups that means for the students you have. If you have 20 students that makes 4 groups, so give each student a number between 1 and 4. Then ask all the number 1s to make a group, all the number 2s, all the number 3s etc. If you have an odd number some groups will have one student more. This may sound completely obvious, but if you’re completely new to teaching it can take a while to figure out!

Other ways to randomly group your students or make pairs is by using different coloured cards, all the yellows together, all the blues together etc. I’ve also seen some complicated looking dice throwing and playing card tricks to group students but have never tried them myself. If that’s your kind of thing, you could give it a go.

Selecting the groups yourself
There may be times when you want to select the groups yourself for certain activities. You may wish to mix the strong and weak students or to put all the strong students together for a specific task. Your students may well be aware of why you have selected certain students to work together so you may or may not decide to tell students how you chose the groups. Teenagers normally pick up on this quickly if you select the group by ability so you may want to think about how you are going to explain your choices to the students beforehand.

However you decide to group your students it’s something that should be considered at the planning stage. The teacher should always have the final say in how the groups are formed so however persuasive your students are, you should be the one who makes the decision on how groups are formed.

By Jo Budden
First published 2008