Monday, 25 May 2009

Pair and Group Work: Two Powerful Allies to Promote the Communicative Classroom

Discussion taken from "Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom." (Tricia Hedge, Ch. 2)

Aim: to analyse and discuss two main reasons for using pairwork and groupwork in the communicative classroom.

Guiding questions:
  • Do you agree with them?
  • Would you add any from your experience?
  • What do you think are the disadvantages of pairwork and work in small groups?
  • Would you place any conditions on their successful use in the classroom?
Reasons for using pairwork and groupwork:
  • It enables students to take risks with the language and to see if they can negotiate meaning.
  • It gives students the opportunity to monitor how well they understand and are understood.
First of all, I have to say that I do agree with both reasons. I think that giving students the opportunity to take part in student-student interactions (in contrast with student-teacher interactions in which the "communicative" relevance of the message is most of the times blurred by a feeling of being tested -a feeling that, of course, can be washed away through fostering natural interaction with our students.-) is a not only a great way of helping them build their communicative skills but also a must if we want our classroom to be a communicative one. This idea of student-student interaction is what allows our students to take risks (it is always more relaxing to make a mistake while talking to a partner than when talking to the teacher no matter how communicative we may be) and to see if they can negotiate meaning. However, there is one problem that may arise and it's what makes a connection between making mistakes and negotiation of meaning. When it comes to mistakes, they can always be overcome by students if they do not hinder communication. If students understand what they say regardless of its language accuracy, they will probably not care about the accurate version of the message simply because that is not their concern. So, if our aim as teachers is to foster fluency and communication, how and when are we going to focus on the accuracy of the messages our students are sending? When students are carrying out the activity, they will certainly find a way of making themselves clear even if they have to resort to their mother tongue. Therefore, if they were to be in such a situation but in a real context with native speakers, how can we be certain that they will understand and be understood?

The answer, I guess, must be balance. As it is generally the case, extremes are not good. Of course we do teach communication (if not, what would we be teaching a language for?) but, whether we like it or not, we need to, somehow, find a balance between fluency and accuracy. It's true that when it comes to pairwork and groupwork activities, students do not generally have the time to sit down and analyse not only what they are going to say what how they are going to say it due to time constraints. That is why paraphrasing, monitoring and process writing and speaking are so important! Gradual and process writing and speaking are a perfect opportunity for preparing not only the content of the message but also its form in a guided way. Monitoring is also of key importance since the teacher needs to be there with the students, ready to help them but, of course, without invading them: suggest! Do not impose! That is why, from my personal experience, I really think that they work wonderfully when they feel they are free enough to explore and self-discover answers but when, at the same time, they know you are there to help them. Finally, it is essential for us to teach them how to monitor themselves. We should let them know that monitoring does not mean that they have to self-correct every word they produce but that they have to be ready to spot any unclear message or idea so as to find a way of making it understandable for others. Accuracy is not the perfection of isolated grammatical structures but the appropriateness of a certain language form for putting across a certain message in a certain context. Accuracy is not a weapon to kill fluency but an excellent tool to enhance it.


  1. Hi Alez!!!!

    Quite a demanding task!!! Training them to become COMMUNICATORS is harder that teaching "just English", right???
    Love ur thouughts about the importance of giving them the tools and making a clear point on accuracy as a tool for fluency.

    it's amazing reading U... keep on blogging...



  2. Hi Alez!
    I agree 100% with the idea that communication does not depend exclusively on fluency but on accuracy as well. This point you've made implies there maybe certain stages of the lesson (when fluency is the main concern) more suitable for pair and group work than others: in other words, when working for accuracy, it might be better to have the class work as a whole or foster st-T interaction.

    As we all work with monolingual classes, I believe the main challenge lies in teaching our students how to become effective listeners, so that they can actually help learner-speakers realise whether they can convey their ideas effectively (in an EIL context, I mean).

    Looking forward to your next post!