Pair ‘Em Up! – A Culture of Collaboration

Pair ‘Em Up!

I wrote an article a while ago about the difficulties that language teachers often face in the classroom with regards to ‘preconceptions of teaching’, which related to the expectations we have when entering a new classroom and how that shapes our engagement in a course.

One of the main issues with this conventional classwork is that so much of it is done alone. There are many reasons for this, not least for testing and measuring individual accomplishment and the effectiveness of teaching. In an ideal world, however, collaborative work makes more sense, bringing together our differing individual talents and skills to work towards a shared goal (much like in pretty much any working environment).

Consequently, I would argue that no lesson activities should be completed alone. I aim to never set a task, including reading comprehension, as a solo activity. Obviously they can’t share their eyes, but they should be discussing their understanding of the text together. I realise this goes against some of the traditional methods of teaching languages, but that’s kind of the point.

Through doing this students will feel less self conscious about the mistakes they make and gain the confidence to take more risks with their L2, from being ‘in the same boat’ as their partner. By taking these risks they will push themselves further and ultimately be better off for it. Furthermore, pair work naturally encourages learners to help each other, taking a lot of the correction work away from the teacher and freeing you up to bring something else to the activity.

No subject lends itself more to this type of teaching than learning a foreign tongue. Language doesn’t exist alone; it requires a speaker and an audience. And if it takes two to tango, as they say, doesn’t it seem more natural to teach it that way?

The good news is that it needn’t require a revolution, you’ll just need a bit of creativity and quick thinking. What’s more, with a bit of adaptation, you don’t can absolutely use your existing teaching materials.

Once you change the way you plan and set your activities you’ll find there will be increases in student engagement, conversation and most importantly motivation. To get you started, here are my favourite pair-adapted activities for each of the four skills.

Gallery Reading

One of my favourite activities for digesting reading material is a gallery, and it needn’t take much preparation. It can be used with almost any class size too!

  • Take your existing text and divide it literally into separate paragraphs. Four to eight paragraphs works well, but it can depend on the level.
  • Place the texts at different points on the walls of the classroom, at eye level.
  • Have the students complete their gist tasks by walking around the room in pairs, quickly reading each paragraph in any order, and discussing the answers to the gist task together. If the texts are independent of each other, i.e. from a multi part text, this could be a ‘matching headings’ exercise. If they form one long text, it should be a ‘put the texts back in order’ exercise.
  • After finishing the gist gallery viewing, keep the students standing and do your whole class feedback.
  • Set your detail task and have the students walk again between the texts. Alternatively, assign each pair/group a text for which to complete the task. This can work nicely for tasks such as ‘underline all examples of x grammar’ or ‘find all the adjectives/verbs’.
  • The class can then feedback again from their standing positions.

So what have you achieved here? Well, for one, you’ve had the students work as a team to complete both the gist and detail tasks. It’s different, It gets your students moving and it involves all the benefits of working collaboratively. If nothing else, it’s probably a refreshing change and will appeal more to those who aren’t too interested in reading (which in 2017, is not something to turn our noses up at.)

Why not… 

…make it a race or a competition?

…use students’ (anonymous) writing activities as the texts?

…have students read aloud individual paragraphs during feedback to incorporate some listening?

Decoding – Listening Together

There’s nothing more demotivating for a student than listening to a recording, almost immediately losing track after just a few seconds, then feeling like they haven’t understood a word. Listening itself is a skill that has less to do with a knowledge of vocabulary or grammar, and more to do with ignoring distractions, decoding connected speech and understanding pronunciation.

Listening to a difficult text and decoding it can be an excellent way of listening as a group. It encourages listening for specific sounds, sentence stress and identifying connected speech. It involves whole class feedback to listening and can be a real entertaining way of training the ears of your students.

  • Choose a listening text that the students are generally finding difficult to understand, but is at the correct level for their ability.
  • Play the sentences containing the answers and try and elicit the answer.
  • Tell the students that instead of listening for individual words, to count the number of words they hear.
  • Play a short sentence – no more than six to eight words.
  • Ask students to shout out how many words they heard. Usually it will be 20-30% less than were actually spoken.
  • Place a ‘-‘ on the board representing a gap for each of the words in the sentence.
  • Ask the students to listen again, concentrating hard, and try to complete whichever gaps they can.
  • Cue lots of shouting out. Complete the gaps that they guess correctly.
  • Remind/teach students about sentence stress. Have them listen for the stressed words.
  • Listen another time. Repeat until the sentence is complete.

This is a fun, whole class activity which can not only make students much more comfortable with recordings and to train them to identify some important aspects of listening, but also makes them aware that they’re not alone in their plight. Highlighting how English is spoken is an important step for all students in understanding about listening for meaning and not trying to capture every single utterance.

Teaching listening is not just about listening to recordings or conversations, it’s equally important to understand how to listen. These exercises can be invaluable for this.

Why not…

…piece the text back together bit by bit on the board with a short dialogue, then have students practise the dialogue together when it’s finished?

…then repeat the conversation in a loop and gradually remove words, meaning they are forced to remember lexical chunks and the context as well as help each other to keep going?

…focus on some interesting bits of connected speech or common sentence stress and drill it as a group? For example ‘do you want to watch a film – ‘dya wanna’’?

Writing in Pairs

Writing lessons are one of the trickiest for modern language teachers for a number of reasons. Notwithstanding that we are rapidly losing reasons to write by hand in our real lives, there is also the constant challenge of making writing ‘real’ in the classroom in order for it to be at all useful for teaching language. It’s not that writing by hand is just currently being replaced by other means, it’s that for a lot of young people it’s long ago already been replaced and has never been part of their lives.

A good way to make them more engaging? You guessed it, pair ’em up.

  • This one is quite straight forward. Set the writing task as usual, but give it to the class in pairs.
  • If the task requires the student to write about themselves, simply ask the class to invent a person and be creative or silly with it. A lot of the apathy towards writing tasks such as this is the lack of desire to talk about yourself for fear of being boring. This is eliminated when you have them write about a fictional person.
  • Have them check their own text for errors as they go along, whilst monitoring for any they’ve missed.
  • After the activity, have the students swap texts and correct each other’s work again in pairs.
  • Feedback on the texts or better yet, set a simple reading task and do a ‘Gallery Reading’ as described above. Your students will get to move about a bit after a period of sitting and writing, and they will get to share their work which is generally good for morale.

By pairing the students up during the activity you have doubled the amount of creativity, which is usually the first stumbling block in a ‘write a thing’ activity with no real inspiration. Secondly, you’ve covered self correction again as ‘two heads are better than one’, and by not having to correct as much you can spend your monitoring time eliciting language, making note of good examples and generally overseeing and facilitating learning rather than teaching – the goal every language teacher should aspire to.

Why not… 

…have them send their text in class as an email and then correct together on the projector/computer together?

…have them do a role-play as a written text message conversation instead of spoken?

…have them write a genuine email to another classmate or student from a higher level who can correct them?

A/B Conversations – Self Correction Speaking

Speaking is the one skill that lends itself naturally towards pair and group work, but all speaking activities are not created equal. My favourite type of pre-prepared role-plays, A/B conversations are a great way of getting your students self-correcting so that, you guessed it, you’re free to monitor in other ways.

It takes a little more preparation than the other activities in this blog, but it’s a really nice twist on just reading a simple conversation, changing roles and repeating. A/B conversations force the learners to complete a sort of ‘on-the-fly’ gap-fill activity, whilst possessing the correct responses for their partner to enable them to correct each other.

A typical A/B conversation for practising the present perfect may look something like this…

Student A – Complete using the present perfect

Student B – Complete using the present perfect


____________ you ____________ (see) Katy today?


Have you seen Katy today?


No, I haven’t seen her. Why?


No, I ______ (not see) her. Why?


She ____________(not respond) to my text. I hope she’s ok.


She hasn’t responded to my text. I hope she’s ok.


Have you tried calling her?


______ you ______ (try) calling her?


Yes, I ____________ (try). But I ____________ (not be able) to get through.


Yes, I’ve tried. But I haven’t been able to get through.


Don’t worry, She’s done that to me before too.


Don’t worry, She _____________ (do) that to me before too.

As you can see, both students have the same conversation except that their side requires the target language to be conjugated. If they do this incorrectly, their partner has the correct answer for them. You can then spend more of your time monitoring focusing on something else, such as pronunciation or assessing individual students.

Why not…

…try with simple sentences containing adjective pairs for beginner students? For example ‘I’m quite short, but my brother is really ____!’

…have students change roles after finishing?

You’ll Never Work Alone

It would be silly of me to suggest that working alone has no merit at all. In fact, some students may prefer this from time to time or even expect it. However it’s important to remember that everyone learns differently, and whilst there are methods that work for the majority, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, as they say.

By adapting your activities using the techniques above, you can cater for and appeal to more learning styles whilst using the same materials you always have. And if by doing this you can engage a previously apathetic student, wouldn’t it all be worthwhile?

Give it a go. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Do you have any ideas for adapting activities to get students working in pairs? Do you think working alone is sometimes more beneficial than pairwork? Did you just enjoy the article and want to let us know? Why not leave us a comment below!

This is part three in our series ‘Nurturing and Promoting Conversation in the Classroom’. Part one, ‘Don’t Interrupt! How to Correct Correctly’ can be found here. Sign up to our newsletter and never miss a post, or follow us on the social media links on this page.

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