Group work v. whole-class activities

Group and pair work (henceforth group work) are so much a part of our everyday teaching routine that we hardly pause to think before partitioning the class to tackle some particular communicative task.

Group work v. whole-class activities - methodology article

But group work may not always be the best option. There will be a time and a place for whole-class activities in the English language classroom, just as there's a time and a place for group and pair work.

  • In praise of group work
  • In praise of whole-class discussion
  • Tact and sensitivity
  • Repertoire
  • Variety adds spice to the classroom

In praise of group work
Group work came into the standard EFL teaching repertoire with communicative methodologies in the 1970s. At that time, studies of contemporary foreign language classes revealed that as much as 80% of lesson time consisted of the teacher talking to (at) the students. In a class of, say, 30 students, it is evident that the learner hardly got a chance to practise the language. Teacher Talking Time (TTT) became taboo and ways were devised to stamp it out and train the students to actually perform in the language they were learning.

Group work was thus introduced into the EFL repertoire to come to grips with a particular problem. Group work made it possible for the teacher to devote more time to the students' oral production, which perhaps before had not been a priority of the foreign language classroom. Thanks to group work, less confident students get the chance to put their knowledge of the new language into practice in a non-threatening environment, away from the critical eye and ear of the teacher. Instead of being dependent on the teacher, students get used to helping and learning from each other. Meanwhile, the teacher is left free to discreetly monitor progress and give help, advice and encouragement where and when it is needed.

In praise of whole-class discussion
An important aspect of whole-class discussion is the welding together of the whole group and the camaraderie that comes about when a whole group works together towards a common goal. Moreover, there is diversity in numbers; the larger the group, the more variety there is in the ideas, opinions and experiences which can contribute to the learning process. This can stimulate a greater involvement in each member of the class. Furthermore, whole-class discussion is likely to be content based, rather than form based, encouraging fluency and a more memorable and meaningful exchange among the participants. It might also be more appropriate for the introverted and reflective learner. Finally, if we are talking about classes of 15 students or so, there are likely to be many opportunities of letting the whole class function as a single unit instead of dividing it into groups.

The two techniques can go hand in hand. After a session of group work, a whole-class feedback phase will give cohesion to the learning process. Ideally, the group work that has gone before will ensure that everyone has something to say, and also a reason for listening. Having "rehearsed" in a more intimate context beforehand, students may face the whole class with more confidence in their ability to handle the target language.

Tact and sensitivity
Dealing with whole-class discussions requires the experience and sensitivity to strike the right balance between neutrality and commitment, the tact to deal with explosive situations and domineering students, the knowledge and the analytic mind demanded by the topic under discussion, and the diplomacy to ensure a fair discussion with maximum participation.

Dealing with group work demands just as much tact and sensitivity. The teacher may have to decide whether to intervene to bring an enthusiastic discussion onto a more linguistically fruitful path, or to stay in the background to allow the students to make their own discoveries about the language and the best way to learn it. Should groups be of mixed ability, so the more able language learners help the weaker ones, or would same-ability groups be preferable, so that faster learners can progress at their own pace, while the teacher gives extra help to individual learners in the slower groups?

Like any kind of praxis, group work can lose its meaning if it is handled in an automatic and unthinking way. It was developed under particular circumstances to solve a particular problem and it is not per se intrinsically better than any other technique. No technique is the panacea for all our teaching problems and its value should be reviewed from time to time.

The article on this site about repertoire demonstrates the point clearly. We are advised to take a regular look at the techniques we are using and, if one, such as whole-class discussion activities for example, has fallen out of our active repertoire, we should ask ourselves: Is there a good reason for this? It worked before; can it work again?

Although we build up a repertoire of tried and tested techniques and we cannot be constantly 'reinventing the wheel', we also need to be wary of unimaginative and ritualistic routine. Just as old numbers from our past teaching praxis may be found to have a value, parts of our current repertoire may prove to have none. So from time to time it is worth putting our group work practice under scrutiny and asking ourselves the same question: Is there a good reason for doing this? Badly handled group work can be as detrimental for the learning process as any other inappropriate technique.

Variety adds spice to the classroom
It is generally recognized today that individual learners have different learning styles, strategies and preferences. It is also generally accepted that to be effective lessons need a change of pace and focus to maintain the concentration of the learners. For both these reasons it is important that we teachers have a wide and flexible repertoire. And for this reason, asked to choose between group work and whole-class activities, my inclination is to say: Both! 

Simon Andrewes, teacher, president of Granada English Teachers' Association

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