Katherine Bilsborough - Interaction patterns: why and how?

This blog post is about why it’s important to think of the interaction patterns of our learners and suggests six stress-free ways of setting up pair work activities.

Variety: the spice of life

For me, the best lessons have a variety of interaction patterns. Learners might start off the lesson doing a mingling activity as a warmer. This would involve the whole class. Then they might spend time doing individual work, maybe reading a text or doing some exercises. Later in the lesson learners might work with a partner in a speaking activity, perhaps finishing off the lesson with group activity such as a team vocabulary game.

The 4 Cs

Varied interaction is important for several reasons, not least to ward off boredom and to make sure learners get to know each other and form classroom relationships. Another consideration these days is that teachers are encouraged to use activities that foster the development of the 4 Cs: ‘creativity’, ‘collaboration’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘communication’. We can easily add these 4 Cs into our lessons by thinking a bit more creatively about the way we organise our learners to do an activity. Collaboration and communication, by definition, require pair work or group work activities. Creativity and critical thinking are also better served through working with others, whether it is to make a classroom poster or to knock around ideas and opinions after a reading text.

Find a partner!

The worst thing you can possible say to a group of students is ‘Get into pairs’ or ‘Get into groups of (four’). It’s asking for trouble. I can’t believe it’s just me who learnt this the hard way. Children get left out, teenagers make it known exactly who they ‘don’t’ want to partner, the long-suffering, sweet-natured student in the class will inevitably be lumbered with the most awkward/bossy/problematic student in the class again – because everybody else has quickly paired up with ‘anyone’ so as to avoid being in that spot. I’d say that in 9 out of 10 cases, it’s better to do the pairing or grouping yourself, especially as you get to know your students and have ideas of levels and abilities, of ‘who’ will work better with ‘who’ and which students should be kept apart.

Here are a few methods for pairing that I’ve used successfully with primary learners, teenagers and adults. Some can easily be adapted for groups.

Quick numbering

For a quick way to pair up learners randomly, check the total number of learners in the class, then point and nominate numbers as you count. First count from 1 to the halfway number, then continue by repeating the halfway number and continuing by counting and nominating numbers backwards. When you finish, tell learners to find their partners - ‘the person with the same number’.

Matching words

A variation on the numbering activity can be done with pairs of words. First make a list of pairs of words. These are words that make matching pairs in some way and cannot be matched to any other of the words within the same rule.

Suggested ways of matching:

  • Words with the same number of letters (do & it, big & one, door & mine, etc.)
  • Words that rhyme (king & ring, turn & learn, etc.)
  • Words with the same number of syllables (talk & leg, button & parrot, cinema & Portugal, etc.)
  • Words with the same last letter (left & Egypt, strange & lime, etc.)


Ask learners to imagine they could be any animal in the world, just for the day. Tell them that you are going to go around the class asking everyone in turn to tell you which animal they are. Once an animal has been taken, it cannot be repeated, so learners should think of a second or third animal, just in case.

Go around the class asking each learner to tell you their animal. Write a list and make a note of the learners’ names next to each animal.

Then form pairs or groups by ‘randomly’ pairing animals from your list. By saying ‘the bear, the eagle, the wolf and the tortoise’, you appear to be making random groups of animals – when, in actual fact you are probably looking at the names of these learners and making sure the groups will work effectively.

Find your partner

Choose a topic that easily lends itself to partnerships or pairs.


  • Literature (author & novel title – Hamlet & Shakespeare)
  • Geography (country & capital city – Wales & Cardiff)
  • Descriptions (adjective & noun – gold & ring)
  • Sport (sport and player – tennis – Andy Murray)

Make pairs of matching cards – one each for each learner.

Note: For odd numbers, it might be possible to make a set of three, depending on the topic (e.g. author and two novel titles).
Shuffle the cards ad hand them out at random. Then give learners a few minutes to find their partner. This is a good opportunity for simple speaking activity with learners asking and answering to find their partner, for example:

A: Did you write Hamlet?
B: No, I didn’t. I’m not Shakespeare.

Half a headline

Collect plenty of news headlines. Cut the headlines in half and share them out randomly. Students A have the beginnings and students B have the endings.
Learners find their partners by mingling, reading out their headline beginnings and endings and seeing whether they match and make sense.
*Of course this can be done with simple sentences too. Other ideas are song titles, refrains or sayings, names of films or books, etc.


Most primary coursebooks come with picture and word flashcards. These are also useful for putting learners into groups. Take (four) flashcards from different lexical sets, shuffle them and them hand them out to learners. Learners have to find the other members of their group by asking a simple question. E.g. ‘Are you a kind of transport?’

No votes yet

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.