Putting students into groups

1. Gestures
For example: point to pairs of people who should work together while saying “Student A, student B- work together”; use your forearms and open palms to “cut” between people to divide the class up; show the spot on the floor someone should move their seat to; make a sweeping circle motion with both arms to show the that chairs should be brought round to face each other more; spin your index finger round to indicate a chair turning round 180 degrees; cross arms over to show people swapping seats; or count people who should be in the same team or group off as you point at them. Please note that in many counties there are taboos about particular ways of pointing at people or gesturing for them to come, e.g. “come here” with the index finger is rude is most places.

2. Move seats
Another simple physical way of showing who should work with who is to take chairs and move them around. The simplest way is to pick up a chair yourself and put it in front of a student, ask their partner to move there to face them (or face the opposite direction if you are doing phone calls or making sure they can’t see each others’ worksheets in an information gap exercise), then ask all the other students to do the same with their chairs. You can do something similar to change into new groupings by taking a chair and putting it at the end of the row of students. The student from the other end of the row then moves to that chair, and all the other students turn to their other side to work with someone new (without the majority of students having to change chairs themselves).

3. Names
Saying “Jonas and Felipe, work together” is very obvious and one of the best ways of arranging groups, and most teachers do it naturally. The only possible problem with this method is that during the early lessons when you most need help with putting people into groups is also when you are least likely to know their names. I have written another whole article on the topic of learning names, but it is also possible to use their names without knowing them yet by calling random names from the class register.

4. Language
Useful phases for putting students into groups include “Work in pairs/ groups of three”, “Who is student B? Raise your hands. Okay, all the student Bs turn your chairs around/ move to the right side of the room/ stand up and go to the (running dictation) text on the board”, “Change partners”, “Work with someone you haven’t worked with today yet”, “You two, switch chairs. And you two do the same”, “Stand up and move over here”, and “A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D. All the As work together”. See my articles on classroom language here on TEFL.net for ideas on how to make sure they understand such language.

5. By category
For example, all the boys/ people who have part time jobs/ people taking TOEFL work together.

6. Stand up and organise
The easiest way of doing this for the teacher to organise is for students to stand in a line in order (of age, height, distance of their journey to the school etc.) and then split them off into groups, asking them to find a place to sit down and work together.

7. Mingle and get together
This is similar to Stand Up and Organise above, but students mix and organise themselves into groups. Who works together can be decided by finding things in common, finding that someone has done something you have never done before, by their roleplay card matching yours (e.g. famous couples) etc.

8. Make your own groups
This is one stage above Mingle and Get Together in giving them control of the process (good if you want to train them to become more self-sufficient or if they at good at sticking to English while organising themselves). Tell the students how many people should be in each group, that they should work with someone they haven’t worked together with today yet, that they have to stand up and sit in a new chair and work with their new partner etc, and then tell them to all stand up and get on with it.

9. Group leader
If the techniques above will result in chaos or just standing around doing nothing, get one person to organise each group. The easiest way of showing who is leader and what they should be doing is giving the future group leader the worksheet or pack of cards that their group will be using.

10. Change when you are ready/ finished
Another way of them organising themselves is to tell them to change groups whenever they have finished, for example agreeing a ranking activity with their partner and then moving onto another group to compare and negotiate with them. You will need to decide whether people have to wait for other groups to finish before they join them, or whether they can move whenever they are ready and so make the other groups bigger. You might also need to explain your policy on whether people can work with the same person more than once.

11. Rotating groups
One way of organising people moving on when they are ready is to have one person from each group staying where they are throughout the activity and the other people moving round from group to group whenever they are ready. This works well for activities where the people staying still tell stories or pretend to be shopkeepers.

12. Move on from teams
Students who have never been asked to work in pairs or groups before will at least be used to working as a team. You can ask the teams to prepare what they are going to say together and then split them up to work with someone from the other team to challenge them with whatever their team prepared. Good examples of this are preparing negotiating positions and then negotiating separately and seeing who gets the best deal, deciding on minimum requirements for a holiday and going to different travel agents to see which one is best etc.

13. Give out the worksheets
Then tell them to find and work with someone with the other worksheet

14. Pieces of paper
The easiest way of organising this is to give out pieces of paper with numbers on them, and students then have to find and work with someone who has the same number as them.

15. Get it set up before

Get the tables, board games, cassette players for jigsaw listenings etc ready, and then either point specific students to where they should go or just tell them how many people should go to each one.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net November 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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