We’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes responds to Susanna’s blog comment about monitoring pair work.
I wonder what the best way is to monitor pair work effectively. I use pair work because it helps students get used to speaking; however, I am aware that they may be making a lot of mistakes which I don’t have the opportunity to correct. Not all students are willing or able to correct their partner’s errors. Have you any advice on how to ‘listen in’ to six pairs of speakers?”
Susanna’s question is a common one: we put our students in pairs to discuss a topic, but we can’t monitor what they are saying, so we don’t know if they are making mistakes that we need to correct.
To answer the question, we first need to establish why we ask students to discuss something in pairs to begin with. At the heart of the matter is whether the purpose of the pair work activity is for speaking practice. The majority of the time, the purpose of discussion in pairs is for students to get more practice speaking in English, to build their fluency. In this case we need to ask ourselves: Do I need to correct every problem?
Since pair work discussion is primarily for fluency, not accuracy, the best thing to do is to let the students communicate with each other without the interference of the teacher. This can make some teachers (and students) uncomfortable. They may feel like they aren’t doing their ‘job’ properly if they aren’t correcting or seen to be correcting.
Here are some tips for pair work:
1.Outline the benefits of pair work
Make it clear to the students when they are meant to be practicing their accuracy and when they are meant to be working on fluency. Better yet, make the communication task so engaging that students will want to try to contribute something meaningful to the conversation.
Teach students some communication strategies such as asking for clarification (Sorry, did you mean….?; Can you explain….please?) and checking understanding (Do you see what I mean?). These phrases can be posted on the wall for students to refer to during communication activities.
3. Let them talk
Students need to learn to solve communication problems on their own – this is part of the learning speaking process. They also need to learn to do it on their own – to build their confidence in their speaking abilities.
4. Monitor but don’t interfere
One strategy many teachers use is eavesdropping – listen to the conversations and make a note of any important errors or vocabulary issues. Make a note of good use of language, too. At the end of the activity, write the mistakes on the board (without saying who said the sentence!) and get the students to correct. This will be much more memorable to the students than stopping them in mid thought will be, when their focus is on trying to get their message out. By doing it at the end, students can be more focused on correcting the mistake. Be sure to point out any good language use so that students can also see what they did right!
5. Develop your eavesdropping technique
If you are standing near one pair, listen to another. Do this so that the pair you are nearest doesn’t get nervous and stop talking.
6. Answer student questions quickly, then move away
If a student has a question about how to say something, help him or her out, then move on so that the pair can continue their conversation.
7.Let them know that mistakes are OK
Teach students the importance of trying to say something even if it’s not completely accurate. Some students don’t want to say anything unless it is correct. This may mean they are accurate, but not able to say much at all. Help them understand the importance of getting their message across. Make sure the classroom is a ‘safe’ place to try out language and make mistakes.
8. Ask students to reflect on their own performance
After the activity, ask students to make a note of anything they wanted to say but couldn’t. At this point you can help them create the phrase they needed. Ask students if they noticed when they made a mistake and if they were able to self-correct at any time. This kind of reflection on performance can help students be more self-aware and independent.
Invitation to share your ideas
Do you have anything to add on the subject of monitoring pair work? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below. You can also take part in our live Facebook chat on Thursday 6th March from 12:00 – 13:00 GMT.
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