Friday, 2 November 2012

Group work that works.

Want to make your group work extra productive? Here are a few tips I gleaned from a training event on Co-operative Learning and have subsequently adapted for use in the ELT classroom. These activities are easy to set up, resource-lite and guaranteed to inject a little "oomph" and movement into your classroom - why not try one (or two) today?

 Talking Chips

Possible Uses

  • Revising topic lexis, e.g.: What items can I find in the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, living room?
  • Revising social English, e.g. How can I greet people, apologise, bid farewell, politely disagree with someone?
  • Promoting learner autonomy through getting learners to discuss questions such as: How can I improve my reading, listening, speaking and writing? 

  Resources (based on a class of sixteen)
Twelve pieces of card (4 red, 4 blue, 4 green, 4 yellow)
Four questions on the whiteboard corresponding to the four colours above.

  • Give each learner a coloured card
  • Learners take a few moments to prepare their answer with someone from the same colour group.
  •  Learners walk around the room (play some music here if you can...)
  • The teacher calls out "red cards with blue cards" and "green cards with yellow cards" and on hearing this, the learners must quickly stand beside the appropriate person.
  • The learners then share their question and information until the teacher calls time. The teacher will then call out the next colour combination until everyone in the class has had the chance to listen all four questions and answers.
  • Finally, learners sit in mixed colour groups to share and note down what they have learned.


Possible Uses

Everyone will be familiar with this old favourite as a warmer or first day icebreaker. But have you ever considered using it differently? Instead of a "getting to know you" activity this can also be used as a way of:

  • exchanging information about your country
  • lexis/grammar points
  • spelling 


Ask learners to write down two true statements about their country and one lie. Or, if you wish to review a grammatical point you might wish them to write down two correct sentences (using the present simple) and one false. You'll want to monitor and check before proceeding to the next stage!

Learners work in four, and take it in turn to read out their sentences, while the rest of the group listens and spots the fib. It is important that you encourage learners to justify their answers. 

Numbered Heads Together

Have  you ever had the feeling that the same few people volunteer the answers in class most of the time, while a mute majority sit back and say very little indeed? It takes a lot of confidence to volunteer answers in class, and I say this as someone who slumbered quietly throughout my time at school.

Numbered heads ensures that quieter learners do not sit back and switch off, and also avoids putting learners on the spot.

  • Learners work in small groups (3 or 4)
  • Each learner is allocated a number (1,2,3 or 4)
  • Teacher asks a question
  • Learners have a few minutes to discuss
  • Teacher calls a number at random, and the learner with that number responds.

Three Step Interview
While the above activities lend themselves well to reviewing language items, the three step interview makes more room for learners to personalise language and express themselves.  It is particularly good for encouraging learners to listen carefully to what each other has to say and really maximises learner talking time.


A pre-prepared list of interview questions. These can be on any topic you feel your learners might like to discuss: their most recent holiday, their childhood, their language learning methods.


Learners work in groups of four
They are given five minutes to interview their shoulder partner, while noting down their answers
Learners then work in their group of four. They are given two minutes to tell the rest of the group what they learned about their partner.

Further Reading

Cohen, Elizabeth J. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, New York: Teachers College Press, 1986
Featherstone, Helen (ed.) "Co-operative Learning " Harvard Education Letter (Sept 1986): 4-6
Slavin Robert, "Co-operative Learning: Can Students Help Students Learn?" Instructor (March 1987): 74-78

photo credit: <a href="">The U.S. Army</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

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