To Pair or not to Pair: Pair-work in the ESL Classroom: Part One



Here’s a series I tried to guest post elsewhere; however, it was just too long and involved for the needs of that blog. So, I’m posting the work here for now, as I think it can be some pretty useful material (and it does no one any good simply saved on my hard drive!)




What benefits does pair-work offer your students?

Here’s a question that comes up on language teacher forums frequently:

“How do I get my students to use the target language more in class?”

Despite teachers insisting on target language use only, we continue to be frustrated when students use the home language instead.

This frustration often comes from the classroom activity. Book work, drill work, question / answer periods, individual presentations, even group discussion; none of these activities seem to stimulate the students into speaking out in the target language.

If you switch gears, restructure your activity to include pair-work, you can easily find your students chatting away in the target language. Pair-work is fun, relaxed, there isn’t the stress of performing individually, knowing the right answer, the right word, the right structure.

Before starting a pair-work activity, though, you’ll want to have prepared both yourself and your students for exactly what will be going on.

Pair-work significantly increases student talking time

Take, for example, a regular old classroom activity: question / answer. You know the routine, you’ve read a short text together, you as a teacher ask pointed questions, you expect your students to answer. If nobody raises their hand, you choose someone. You might not get much more than a one or two word answer from that student. Plus, everyone’s eyes will be on him. Wouldn’t that make you a little uncomfortable too?

In addition, let’s say you’ve got an hour for class and about ten students in that class. Do the mathematics yourself. How much time does each student actually get to speak? Again, a question / answer activity:

  • Students settle in the classroom: 5 minutes
  • Teacher outlines today’s classwork: 5 minutes
  • Class reads through the sample text: 10 minutes
  • Teacher asks ten questions about the text: (in total) 2 minutes
  • Students, in turn, answer their question 2 to 3 minutes per student: 30 minutes
  • Teacher has to give some homework: 5 minutes

Of all that hour, students only get a chance to practice a minute or two each. Any wonder they’re not motivated to use more target language in class?

In pair-work, the students concentrate on the fellow student or students, ignoring the rest of the class. The teacher basically keeps quiet, is not the center of attention, walks about and encourages students (in their pairs) to do the work at hand.

As focus has been taken off of individual response, everyone can talk at once, everyone spends a big chunk of the class time practicing with their partner.

Pair-work gives the teacher more time for individual attention

Instead of addressing comments to the entire class, or to the individual who has just answered a question, the teacher can move from pair to pair, listen closely, make a comment meant only for those students.

This type of connection is also important in developing teacher/student relationships. The student no longer feels singled out in front of his peers. The attention he receives is personalized, meant for him alone to hear and understand.

In addition, while you’re making these personalized comments to each of the pairs, you can keep notes of the observations that would apply to the group as a whole. During a general evaluation period, you can make these observations available to everyone, again, instead of pointing out the weakness of one particular student. This leads to more confidence on the part of each student when using the target language.

Pair-work is a productive / fun alternative to regular class work

We as teachers are sometimes trapped by our curriculum. There’ll be the book to get through, tests to be given. The school or academy will have its own agenda; there are probably even expectations placed upon us by state educational standards.

We all know that getting through the coursework with the students can lead to routine text work, lecturing, homework, exam preparation. While these activities are often the norm, they do not usually excite our students to use the language they are learning. Language learning becomes so much memorization of vocabulary and structure to get the grade.

Pair-work, on the other hand, directly involves the students in language use. It can become either a focus for learning the established material or can serve as a productive and fun way to practice that material.

Breaking away from the standard class structure and letting students work in pairs, make some noise in class, is both a way to help them become responsible for improving and to make the class experience dynamic. This will have your students looking forward to class.

Now, on to part two.


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