Working in pairs and groups

The tendency with primary learners is to treat the class as a whole group and underestimate their ability to work in pairs or in small groups. Even very young learners can become independent in their learning and guided early on they will be more likely to grow into autonomous and successful language learners.

Jo Bertrand

The advantages of pair work and small group work

  • Gives learners more speaking time
  • Changes the pace of the lesson
  • Takes the spotlight off you and puts it onto the children
  • Allows them to mix with everyone in the group
  • Gives them a sense of achievement when reaching a team goal
  • Teaches them how to lead and be led by someone other than the teacher
  • Allows you to monitor, move around the class and really listen to the language they are producing

Pitfalls and how to avoid them

  • You could lose control of the class. Set up a signal before you start, like a visual time out with your hands, so that they know when to stop. Don’t shout for them to stop as they will just shout louder!
  • You are not able to listen to everyone at once and hear what they are saying – set up groups of three where A and B talk while C monitors. Then swap roles. They are producing language; you just want to make sure the language they are producing is English. Have a fun system of every mother tongue word you hear the monitor must stand up and then stay standing. The activity stops if all monitors are standing. This will make them aware of using English as much a possible and using their first language as little as possible.
  • The classroom will get very noisy. This is OK, as long as they aren’t shouting. Move them into different places in the room so that they can hear themselves speak.

How to set up pair and group work

  • Be sure to fully explain the procedure before splitting the class up.
  • Always demonstrate either yourself of with the help of a volunteer exactly what they have to do.
  • Ask them to tell you what they have to do before they do it (in their mother tongue if need be) to check their understanding.
  • Have fill in activities ready for the quick finishers – but be sure that they have completed the task correctly first and haven’t just finished early because they misunderstood what they had to do.
  • Don’t forget to have feedback time after pair work so that the children don’t feel that they have been wasting time. It’s important to share their work as a whole group although this doesn’t have to be systematic.
  • Set a clear time limit.
  • Control who works with who so children aren’t always being dominated or dominating others.

Activities which lend themselves to pair work

  • Roll the ball
    This can be used to practise any language that requires a question/answer pattern. They can roll the ball to each other and have to say the appropriate sentence as they roll the ball. E.g. 'Hello.' 'Hello.' 'What’s your name?' etc. Remember the sentences they practise should be fairly short.
  • Information gap
    Give each pair a picture. The pictures should be nearly the same with two or three elements missing from each picture. Without showing each other the pictures they should describe the missing objects. They will practise colour, prepositions of place, and adjectives such as big, small, etc. Then they can compare their pictures.
  • Telephone conversations
    Sitting back to back they can practise telephone language or just simple exchanges that don’t have to be connected to the telephone itself. Sitting back to back should arouse their interest and help train them with listening skills. It’s a challenge, but a fun one!

Activities which lend themselves to group work

  • Posters
    Used to practise categorizing skills, reviewing colours and names of toys. The children can be in charge of finding pictures of toys and grouping in terms of colour or type of toy and displaying their work.
  • Cuisenaire rods
    If you can find a set of these wooden, colour coded rods you’ll find they come in handy for a whole host of activities. Give a random selection to the small groups. Together they must imagine a scene and build it to then describe to the class.
  • Weather dressing
    Bring in a selection of items of clothing. You can ask the children to bring in one item each the week before but bring a few extra yourself to account for those who forget. Put the items in four piles around the room to make access easier and to avoid a scramble on one pile. The class should be in four groups – one for each season. They have a few minutes to collect a certain number of items that they could wear in that season. Everyone must have at least one item. But no-one in the group must have the same item as their other group members. The language they use can be describing to their group what they’re wearing, using colours and clothing vocabulary, and saying in what weather conditions they would wear the item. The other group members can say if they think it’s appropriate for their season or not.
Language Level


Submitted by Cath McLellan on Tue, 04/07/2020 - 08:08

Hi GWT Tora

We are building up a range of resources to help teachers with the move to teaching online. We have a series of webinars which you can access here:

You might find this webinar particularly interesting as it deals with how to use breakout rooms online, ideal for pair or group work:

You can also find information about support clinics and some online lesson plans here:

Hope that helps,

Best wishes,

TE Team

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