Managing group and pair work in the ELT classroom: some key points to consider

By Joanna Nifli (MA TEFL/CELTA certified EFL instructor)

This blog post will:

  • Focus on the different options available for grouping students
  • Discuss the factors we need to take into account when managing pair and

             group work

  • Focus on the three stages in managing classroom activities,
  • Consider how to make classroom instructions more effective
  • Discuss the use of L1 and L2 in when managing classroom activity

Promoting learner creativity

        A lesson that is relevant and meaningful to our learners will most definitely help increase their willingness to participate. Promoting learner creativity will also kill boredom and boost their motivation. We must give them the opportunity to share their interests, their ideas, whatever excites them with the rest of the class. We should let them use their imagination to come up with stories, role plays, games, quizzes. This way they get the chance to learn the foreign language and construct knowledge in a context that is meaningful to them.

    Comprehensibility in the tasks is equally important to meaningfulness. We must make sure that we encourage their creativity through authentic and interesting activities but also that our learners have received clear and explicit instructions. We must also regularly check for understanding and encourage clarifying questions from the part of the ss.

    Harmer (2001) talks about the importance of ‘imaginative tasks’ in promoting effective learning and boosting learner motivation. In order for our learners to become more actively involved in the learning process, we must therefore focus on stimulating their creativity through authentic, meaningful tasks. The options are endless: real-life simulations, storytelling, article writing, writing a story based on a song they have just listened to, students pretending to be a famous writer/actor/singer/politician, writing stories based on pictures/songs, students collaborating on a role-play etc.

Boosting our learners’ intrinsic motivation

    Different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our ss have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson. Teachers must be an influential raw model to their learners and to try and instill to them the passion in learning a foreign language. We have to prove to them that English is useful, easy and fun. By rewarding their efforts and praising them, we automatically give a confidence boost to our learners. This feeling of achievement brings a deep sense of pleasure to the ss and fuels the learning process. Their intrinsic motivation will be increased and they will be more willing to participate in the lesson, not because they have to but because they want to.

    For Penny Ur (1996), ‘purposeful and original activities’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. We must give our students a reason to want to express their thoughts and ideas in the L2. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved in the lesson and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners need to feel motivated enough and discover new lexis and L2 structures on their own in order to appropriately convey meaning in the target language.


Teacher -> Class    Presentation Feedback Instructions Revision Drilling Eliciting ideas  
S, S, S (individual students)    Reading Listening Brainstorming tasks  
SS, SS, SS (pairs)    Speaking Role plays Dialogues Listening  
G, G, G (groups)    Games Discussions Debates Role play  

Focus on the different learning styles

    In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. A whole class discussion or students filling out questionnaires on what they like and what they don’t in terms of topics and task types could enlighten us on the activities we can select for our specific language classrooms. We need to focus on topics our students will feel eager to write/talk about. This way we will be satisfying our learners’ different learning styles and we will be more successfully directing our teaching towards their needs.

    It is important to remember though that participation during the lesson is beneficial as long as it is not stressful. Some students may not be willing to interact with others. We must therefore carefully examine our students’ different learning styles and focus on what our learners could benefit from. We need to be able to direct our teaching towards our learners’ strengths and offer personal focus and guidance to our ss. We must carefully examine and monitor our learners and adjust our teaching in order to satisfy their learning styles and needs.

Giving instructions

Why do you think a class might have problems with this instruction?

OK, everybody, would you, Maria sit down. Now what you have to do is, when not linear you, you take this sheet of paper that I’m handing out now and keep it secret, and some of you are ‘A’, it’s written at the top, and some are labelled B’, OK, can you see that, don’t show your paper to anyone and then you have to describe to your partner, sit face to face, could you move your chairs around and describe what’s on your paper so that your partner can find out what’s different, and you must agree, then when you find something you draw it on your paper. OK. Do you understand?  

Scrivener 1994: 97.

Scrivener (1994: 98) advises teachers to try to re-write the ‘bad’ instructions above and:

1. Identify the essential instructions the teacher wanted to give.

2. Delete unnecessary language.

3. Write out the instructions in the right order.

Scrivener (1994:98) also proposes 5 steps to better instructions:

Scrivener (1994:98)

Creating student groups


We have the following options (Harmer 2001: 120-122):

Friends: discipline problems, mother tongue use, lack of focus

Language level/ability

Chance (tip: cut a photograph, stand in line-birthdays)

Managing group and pair work

We need to think about the three stages of before (task-setting), while

(monitoring) and after (feedback).

Task-setting (giving instructions)

 We need to do the following in task setting:

(Most importantly to do something to motivate them and  make them want to do the activity)

1. Recruit the students to the task. This involves getting them motivated to do the

task. Teachers should check they understand what to do before the next stage.

2. Give instructions. These may involve demonstrating ( a small part of) the task. Teachers should check students have understood what to do before the next stage.

3. Start them off and don’t stop them to add more instructions!


We need to decide whether to:

Watch from a distance (hovering around)
Give feedback
Troubleshoot (sorting out any problems)


Feedback should not be doing the activity again. It should add something to the task.

We might ask ourselves these questions about organizing feedback.

  How can we involve the learners in giving feedback? peer feedbackHow do we check they all have the right answers?How can we vary our ways of organizing feedback (in other words not always “What’s your answer to number 1, Maria?°)How much feedback do we give? (Is it really necessary to go through everything they did?)Do we give feedback on content (topic) or form (grammar)?How can we ensure they can show off what they have done for comparison, comment, fun, etc.? (suggestions: OHT, passing them around, placing them on a board, journals)  

Promoting learner autonomy

    In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (listening strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.

    Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. By letting our students have their say and choose the topics they want to focus on, we instantly give them a more active role, we make them co-designers of the lesson. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners feel they are in control of the lesson flow and become more engaged in the language tasks.

    Reflecting on the lesson is also beneficial. We must show to them that their opinion matters by giving them the opportunity to comment on what they liked from the lesson, what troubles them or any changes they would make.


Harmer, J. (1998). How to Teach English. Harlow: Longman. Chapter 3.

Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Longman.

 Chapters 8 and 9.

McDonough, J. and C. Shaw. (2003). Materials and Methods in ELT. Oxford:

Blackwell. Chapter 11.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann, Chapter 2.

Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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