about pair work

about pair work

what pair work is:

• ‘Pair work’ is a classroom activity in which the whole class is divided into pairs. (It is really a type of group work, using 'groups' of two.)

• Because the point of pair work is to get students speaking and listening, the content of a pair work session should be mainly oral. (For some types of pair work, it is best if students have no books, papers, orn pencils.)

• It is difficult to give instructions once a pair-work session is underway, so the activity should be well planned and carefully explained. Otherwise it is likely to be unproductive.

• The idea of pair work is to improve listening and speaking skills by requiring students to exchange information with each other. Pair work should always be accompanied by some sort of ‘test’ to ascertain whether or not information really has been exchanged.

• In some kinds of pair work, split dictations for example, the test is built in to the activity itself. In other cases, it will be a follow-up activity of some sort.

the unique advantage of pair work:

• Like classroom work with larger groups, pair work has two important advantages: it offers intensive, realistic practice in speaking and listening; and it promotes a friendly classroom ambiance that is conducive to learning. But beyond that, pair work has another important advantage that activities done with larger groups do not have.

• Pair work is a way — the only way, I believe — of getting everyone in a classroom speaking and listening at the same time.
In other words, it is an efficient, productive way of spending precious classroom time. If a teacher were to spend, say, three minutes talking individually to each student in a class of, say, twenty students, the whole procedure would take an hour. Working in pairs, those twenty students can get the same amount of practice in three minutes.

the difficulties of pair work

a price to pay for the productivity gain offered by pair work, however. It presents several difficulties and it's important to be prepared for them and to know how to alleviate them.

(1) high noise level:

If pair work is successful, it's noisy. I don‘t think there’s any way of avoiding this problem in a classroom — except perhaps in the unusual situation of a room that is much too large for the class it contains. Of course, students can be asked to speak quietly, but pushing this may have an inhibiting effect. In a normally crowded classroom equipped with easily movable desks or tables, the problem can be alleviated by keeping as much distance as possible between the pairs. The best ‘solution,’ however is simply to keep pair-work sessions short — twenty minutes is probably a reasonable maximum. A high level of noise can be tolerated for approximately that amount of time. If the session lasts longer, the noise will become distracting and annoying.

(2) furniture.

The best furniture for an ESL classroom is small, light tables, and simple, light chairs; these can easily be rearranged for pair work. But, of course, many classrooms are not ideally furnished for ESL work. Large tables are difficult to move and to arrange but if they are accompanied by light, movable chairs, they can often be left in place and chairs placed opposite each other on both sides. Fixed tables or fixed desks, particularly those with attached seats discourage pair work but they do not make it impossible. Something that works fairly well can always be figured out.

(3) partners with no information to offer

Since information exchange is essential to pair work, if one student in a group has no information to exchange, the activity will fail. When pair work is preceded by an ‘information-acquiring activity’ — as in the paired stories activity for example — this problem can be largely eliminated by making sure that everyone understands their material well. And of course it is also important to make sure that the information and the method of conveying it are appropriate for the students’ level.

The best way to alleviate this difficulty is by ‘rotation’ — having students change partners — once, twice, or more — during the activity. Doing this means that each of the conversations will have to be kept quite short in order to keep the whole activity within the twenty-minute time span, but that, it is to be hoped, will bring a healthy intensity to the conversations. Rotation also requires a good deal of shifting from one place to another and that may cause some complaints during the first pair-work sessions. These complaints will quickly be forgotten, however, as students get used to doing pair work.

Work with larger groups presents the same difficulties that pair work does but not to the same degree: the noise level will be lower because fewer students will be speaking at the same time; furniture is less likely to be an obstacle because less moving is required and large tables work well; and the success of the activity will not be jeopardized because one student can’t participate fully.

Finally, apart from the specific difficulties discussed here, because it is a type of group work, pair work also presents all the general difficulties of group work. These are discussed in “about group work.”