TESL
about group work




about group work


introduction

• ‘Group work’ refers to any classroom activity in which the whole class is divided up into pairs or larger groups. The specific advantages and difficulties of pair work are discussed in 'about pair work.' The comments here are concerned with the advantages and difficulties of working with ‘groups’ of any size.

• Group work has a well-established place in the theory and practice of language teaching. Still, many teachers and many students seem to be unenthusiastic about it. Teachers, I suspect, often have misgivings because working with groups means loosening control of the students. This is not an easy thing for a teacher to do: There is a natural tendency — at all times and in all places I imagine — for teachers to feel they must always be clearly in command of their class. And there is a connected tendency for teachers to fear the consequences of giving up even a small part of their authority.

• Students, on the other hand, often find group work unappealing because they it puts them under pressure to act. As long as the classroom is teacher centered, students can remain passive. In groups, they are expected to speak , to understand, and to think. They are also expected to be amiable and cooperative.

• It would be extremely unfortunate, however, if, because of these natural misgivings, teachers and students missed out on the benefits of group work. In what follows, I’ll say something, first, about what the benefits of group work are — and then something about the difficulties it presents and how they can be alleviated.


the benefits of group work

• The primary benefit of group work is that it provides practice in speaking and listening. These skills will never develop fully without a large amount of practice, and, outside the classroom, most ESL students — even those studying in English-speaking countries — get very little.

• Of course, there are ways of practicing listening and speaking that do not involve dividing a class into groups, but none of them are likely to provide practice that is as engaging or intense, as a good group-work activity can be — or to offer an experience that resembles real-world communication as closely.

• The great, general difficulty with group work is that it requires enthusiasm and cooperation. No doubt, one reason ESL teachers sometimes avoid group work is because they realize this and they also realize that unlike silence and orderliness, enthusiasm and cooperation cannot be demanded.

• However, even though these things cannot be commanded, they can be fostered. And — because it requires them — group work does foster enthusiasm and cooperation. In fact its secondary purpose is, it seems to me, is to encourage an enthusiastic and cooperative classroom ambience, and one that is therefore also freer and more relaxed — and more conducive to learning.

• This potential for improving the ‘feel’ of a class is something that should be kept in mind by teachers who are reluctant to do group work. It is natural for a teachers to feel a need to keep control of a class, but it is also natural, it seems to me, for teachers, to feel oppressed by the need to put large amounts of effort into controlling students. In addition to its other virtues group work offers teachers a way of relieving themselves of some of the hard, unpleasant work of control.

• Despite its great advantages, in addition to the general, ‘theoretical’ difficulties just discussed. group work does present several other ‘practical’ difficulties They can all be alleviated, but none of them can be eliminated entirely. The best attitude to take toward them, it seems to me, is to acknowledge their inevitability, to do whatever is possible to reduce their bad effects — and beyond that, to accept them. However difficult it may be to get groups working properly in the language classroom it is always, I believe, well worth the effort required to do so.

The four major problems with group work are briefly discussed below and suggestions are made as to how they can be alleviated.



(1) native language speaking

• Even in a highly multi-lingual class where just a few students share the same language, group activities may be subverted by students who insist on speaking their native language. This can be an occasional problem even in a highly multi-lingual class. In a unilingual or nearly unilingual class, it can be a constant, and very frustrating one. It cannot be eliminated; but it can be greatly reduced by a combination of persuasion and logical argument.

• One way of making a simple but powerful argument against native language speaking is by asking offenders a couple of questions: “You’re here to learn English aren’t you? How is speaking your own language going to improve your English.? “

• ‘Demonstrations’ with two or three students doing a brief activity, entirely in English, in front of the class can help. Part of the problem, after all, is that students feel there is something silly or even absurd in speaking to each other in English when it is so much easier and so much more pleasant to use their native language. If they see classmates doing this effectively, they may change their minds.

• The most important thing from the teacher’s point of view is to be patient and to remember that the problem cannot really be solved until the class as a whole accepts the idea of working with each other in English — but that if that acceptance comes, the problem can disappear in a moment.

(In a highly-multilingual class this problem can be more or less ‘solved’ by putting students in groups in which everyone has a different native language, but doing that makes it difficult to maintain ‘group fluidity’ — in other words, to ensure that the make-up of the groups changes from one session to another. Sacrificing group fluidity in order to prevent native-language speaking may sometimes be a good idea — but it is a high price to pay for a solution. The importance of group fluidity is discussed further in (4) below.)


(2) students objecting to speaking to other students because their English is not good

• Some students object that language practice with other students who have a strong accent and who make grammatical errors is valueless, and that it may even be damaging. They apparently fear they will inevitably, even if unconsciously, imitate the imperfect speech of other group members. They only want to listen to a ‘model’ with accurate grammar and good pronunciation — the teacher, in other words.

• This is not a completely unreasonable objection and it is important for teachers to have something convincing to say in reply.

• The objection is reasonable at first glance because it seems to amount to this: “Nothing is to be learned and something is quite possibly to be lost byy speaking to someone whose English is no better — and perhaps worse — than yours.”

The best response to the objection is, I think, the following:

- the other students in your group aren’t teaching you, they’re providing you with an opportunity to practice your English

- There is, it is true, always a small possibility that you will be misled about the correct pronunciation of a word, or the correct way to form a grammatical structure, by another member of your group, but there is at least as great a possibility that you will learn something about pronunciation and grammar from listening to the other students in your group, even to those whose English isn’t, generally speaking as good as yours.
- Moreover, when you are actually using language for practical communication with another person — as you are in group work — you will inevitably be frustrated by the fact that you have difficulty in being understood. And you will naturally struggle to overcome this difficulty by improving your pronunciation and your grammar. In doing this you are much more likely to be influenced by your memories of the English you have heard spoken by your teacher and other good ‘models’ than by the English of the other people in your group
- Finally, even if the danger of being misinformed by follow group members was greater than it is, there would still good reasons for group work. Practice is essential: learning a language is not simply a matter of coming to know things about the language; it’s also a matter of getting your tongue and your brain, and your ears used to working with the language and the only way you’re going to get that practice in class is by talking to your fellow students.

It is also, it seems important for a teacher who is faced with this sort of objection to remember that although it is not completely unreasonable, it is likely to come from students who are troubled by a teaching method that radically different from the one they are used to. And that fact suggests that, once again, patience and subtle persuasion will be an important part of any solution.

(3) domination
Groups of all kinds tend to be dominated by one or two of their members — and the result is always a group that is less productive than it could be. Domination is particularly damaging in a group of language learners, however, because the whole purpose of this kind of group is to practice speaking: Group members who do not speak can gain nothing at all; they are wasting their time.

Here again, the best way of alleviating the problem is with a mixture of logic and persuasion.

The best argument, it seems to me, is to appeal to the conscience of the ‘dominators.’ They should be made to see that by discouraging others from speaking, they are depriving them of one of the things they came to the class to get — speaking practice. And it should be pointed out, in addition, that the students who are being dominated are likely to be the shier, less confident ones — and therefore the ones who need practice most. It’s also possible to appeal to the pride of the dominators, and their natural desire for status among their classmates, by suggesting that they try to make their group more productive by actively encouraging the quieter, more passive students to participate.

As with other types of damaging group behaviour, the best way to persuade students to put good advice into practice, is to walk from group to group gently reminding or reproaching when necessary. (It is important, I believe, not the actually join any of the groups or even to stand beside one for too long a time because this will have an inhibiting effect.)

(4) animosities

Sometimes, of course, a student in a language classroom will come to dislike another student. In a wholly teacher-centered class these animosities usually go unnoticed, but they can be a serious obstacle to group work. Occasionally, one student will simply refuse to work cooperatively with another student, forcing the teacher to move him or her to another group.

Like domination, animosity is a natural social tendency. But — again like domination — it is even more damaging in a language-learning group than it is in groups of other sorts: even if it is kept under control, it will create an atmosphere that is not conducive to learning. And, as with domination once again, it is the students who most need language practice who will be most severely affected. Even if the animosity is not directed toward them, they will be inhibited by it.

However, although animosities, can stand in the way of effective group work, the work itself can have the effect of reducing animosity. A frequent result of getting two people who dislike each other to work with each other is to persuade them that they do not dislike each other as much as they thought they did.

The conciliatory power of group work is even greater, I believe, if groups are kept ‘fluid’ — in other words, if their make-up always changes from one session to next. If group fluidity is scrupulously maintained, students know that, if they have to work with someone they don’t like one day, the next day they will probably be free of that person; and it is easier to make the effort to get along with someone temporarily than it is to accept the necessity of getting along with them for a long time.

The only way to ensure group fluidity is by creating randomly selected groups. It is possible for a teacher to create such groups at the beginning of every session. But this can become a time-consuming nuisance — and it is difficult to ensure that the results will be truly random: there will always be a temptation to avoid groupings that seem to be unfortunate for one reason or another. An ‘automatic’ method of some kind seems preferable.

The easiest method is to assign each student a permanent number, and then to create groups by choosing the numbers ‘blindly’ in some way at the beginning of each session — pulling numbered cubes or even numbered slips of paper — out of bag or box for example.

It is also possible to turn random selection of groups into a brief but useful whole-group conversation activity by cutting up an appropriate number of photographs into an appropriate number of pieces, distributing one piece to each of the students and asking them to circulate, find the other people with parts of the same photo and form a group.