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25 ways of randomly placing students into pairs or groups

There are many benefits to getting students to work in pairs and groups. These range from giving students more speaking opportunities to creating better overall classroom dynamics.

There are three broad ways of grouping students. We can let the students choose who they wish to work with, the teacher can make the groups, or we can group them randomly. In this post, I’ll show you a wealth of way that you can organise your students randomly into pairs and groups.

The suggestions are organised into two sets. The first set of suggestions gets students to form a line which the teacher then divides up into pairs or groups of the desired size. The second set of suggestions gets students directly into the pairs or groups.

Form a line

This grouping method requires students to stand up and form a line, complying to the set rule. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. All except one of these require no extra preparation before class.

  1. When did you last eat ice cream? – Students get into a line ranked in order of when they last ate ice cream (pizza, chocolate, etc.). The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups as required.
  2. Something in your bag or pocket – Each student chooses and takes out a personal item that they have in their bag or pocket (encourage students to choose a more unusual item, not just a pen, keys, a coin, etc.). Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the name of the item they are holding. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  3. Birthdays – Students get into a line ranked in the order of their birthdays in the year. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  4. Words from the unit – The teacher selects words from the unit of the course book and writes each one on an individual piece of paper. The teacher gives one word to each student. Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the words. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  5. What’s your favourite food? – Students write their favourite food (animal, place, singer, etc.) on a piece of paper. They get into a line in alphabetical order of the word they wrote. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  6. What time did you go to bed last night? – Students get into a line ranked in order of the time that they went to bed last night. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  7. Alphabetical order – Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of their first/given name (or surname). The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, students could write their names backwards and get into alphabetical order of the reverse spelling of their names.
  8. The youngest person living in your home – Students get into a line ranked in order of the age of the youngest person who lives in their home. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  9. How long did it take you to get here today? – Students get into a line ranked in order of how much time it took them to get to school today. The teacher then divides them into pairs or groups.
  10. Where did you go on your last vacation? – Students get into a line ranked in alphabetical order of the name of the place they went on their last vacation. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, this could be about the city/place they would most like to visit.
  11. Last 2 digits of your phone number – Students get into a line ranked in order of the last two digits of their phone number. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, this could be done with the last two digits on a personal ID.
  12. What was the last thing you ate? – Students write the name of the last thing they ate on a piece of paper. Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the food they last ate. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  13. Number of letters in your name – Students get into a line based on the number of letters in their full name. Students should decide if they wish to omit any name they do not normally use or do not like. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  14. How much time did you spend away from home yesterday? – Students get into a line ranked in order of the amount of time they spend away from their home yesterday. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  15. Last word on the page – The teacher assigns a different page number of the course book to each student. The assignment of the pages could be done in several ways, but the easiest is probably to get students to count consecutively around the class, although not necessarily starting on page 1 (e.g., 33, 34, 35 etc.). Students look at the last word on their assigned page and get into alphabetical order of their words. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  16. Date on a coin – Each student takes out a coin and looks at the year written on it. Students get into a line ranked in order of the dates on their coins. Some students will probably have coins with the same year, in which case they could rank themselves by how old or new each coin looks. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.

Directly into pairs or groups

Most of these suggestions require some degree of preparation before class.

  1. Grab the string – To get students into pairs, the teacher has pieces of string (one piece for every two students). The teacher holds all the pieces of string in a bunch in the middle and every student chooses and holds the end of a piece of string. The teacher then lets go of the string and students get into pairs with the person holding the other end of their piece of string (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP).
  2. Lollipop sticks – The teacher has the name of each student written on an individual lollipop stick (or name card). The teacher chooses sticks at random to put students into pairs or group. Note: there are also free apps that can randomly group students in a similar way.
  3. What’s the category? – To get students into groups of 4, the teacher chooses words of 4 kinds of fruit, 4 kinds of colour, 4 kinds of animal, 4 kinds of furniture, etc., and writes each word on a separate piece of paper. Each student gets a word at random. Students get into groups with people who have the same category of word.
  4. Lengths of ribbon – The teacher has some pieces of ribbon cut into lengths (string or strips of reused paper also work). For example, if there are 12 students in the class and the teacher wants to make three groups of 4 students, there will be 4 short ribbons, 4 medium-length ribbons and 4 longer ribbons. The teacher holds all the ribbons so that students cannot see how long each ribbon is and gets each student to select one. Students get into groups with people with the same length of ribbon.
  5. Parts of a picture – The teacher has a number of different pictures and each is cut up into pieces (the number of pieces corresponds to the size of the groups required). Each student gets a piece of a picture at random. Students get into groups with people who have the other pieces of the same picture.
  6. Halves of sentences – To get students into pairs, the teacher chooses different sentences from the unit of the course book and writes each one on a strip of paper. Then each sentence is cut in half. Each student gets half of a sentence at random. Students get into pairs with the person with the corresponding half of the sentence.
  7. Letters – The teacher prepares pieces of paper each with the letter A, B, C, or D, etc. written on each one. The teacher gives one piece of paper to each student. Students get into groups with people with the same letter. This can also be done with coloured tokens or coloured pieces of paper.
  8. Team captains – The teacher selects some students to come to the front and be team captains. The number of team captains will depend on the required number of groups/teams. Each team captain then takes it in turns to choose team members. This can be done by team captains selecting who they want to be in their team or by randomly taking lollipop sticks or name cards (see 18).
  9. Count around the class – The teacher allocates a number to each student (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, etc.) around the class. When all students have a number, all the students with the number 1 get into a group; all the students with the number 2 get into a group, etc.

Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995 and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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Ready to write? Tips on preparing Kindergarten children to write

School children writingMargaret Whitfield, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips on preparing kindergarten children to write.

Have you ever thought about how complex writing is? It involves fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, control of the arm and shoulder, recognition of letter shapes, association of letter shapes and sounds, and so on. It’s a wonder anyone ever learns to write. The fact that children usually master it is proof of their amazing learning power. The early stages of learning to write involve developing concepts about writing as well as the basic skills that form the foundation of writing development.

Children begin to understand and to enjoy the idea of writing well before they are actually able to write. They see adults and older children writing and, as always, want to join in. Their experiences as they do so can influence both their progress and their later attitude to writing, so how can we ensure that they’re positive ones?

Encourage scribbling early mark-making

Make sure that opportunities for writing are widespread and varied, and that you praise all children’s efforts. When you refer to what children are doing as writing and ask about what they’ve written, you reinforce the idea that they’re doing the same thing as the ‘grown-ups’. You are valuing their effort. The marks may just be scribbles at this stage, but they’re a crucial stage on the path to recognizable writing.

Some everyday opportunities for writing:

  • writing labels for items in the classroom, e.g. toy food in a shop
  • writing a label on a picture they’ve painted or drawn
  • writing a message or a card for a family member

Be CREATIVE

Pencil control is a fundamental skill to master, but there are also many creative activities that will contribute to writing skills that don’t involve pencil and paper.

The following will all develop children’s motor skills, and parents may also like to do some of them at home:

  • Manual craftwork, e.g. manipulating small pieces of paper to make a collage picture
  • Making marks in sand with sticks or fingers
  • Covering a chalkboard with chalk and painting it with a wet paintbrush

In addition, using modelling clay helps to develop the muscles in the hand – get children squeezing, squashing, and rolling balls and sausage shapes.

Focus on letter SHAPES

For children to develop from early mark-making to recognizable letters, they need to recognize the letter shapes. (They also, of course, need to associate letters with sounds before they can use letters meaningfully, but that’s another topic.) Flashcards and posters with the letters are really useful for this, but they can be supplemented and combined with lots of other activities. For example:

  • Have children make the shapes with their bodies. Give two children a flashcard of letter ‘b’, for example, and ask them to work together to make the shape.
  • Match magnetic letters to flashcards.
  • Have children make the letters of their name with salt dough. They can decorate the letters when they’re baked.
  • Letter hunt: give a child a letter flashcard and ask them to find as many examples of that letter around the classroom or on a page of a storybook.
  • Use objects such as buttons or pipe cleaners to make the shape of a letter shown on the flashcard. Watch teacher trainer, Freia Layfield, show you how to make the most of this kind of activity in class and download a free photocopiable activity template.

Make writing part of role-play

Role-play is a key part of children’s play at this age, and it can provide great opportunities for meaningful writing activities. If you leave clipboards with pencils around the classroom in different play areas, children can be encouraged to build writing into their play.

Here are some ideas for combining role-play and writing:

  • Shopping: write a shopping list
  • Firefighters: write the address of the fire
  • Doctors: write a prescription for some medicine or some notes about the patient’s condition
  • Superheroes: write a secret message to another superhero and hide it for them to find
  • Traffic cops: write parking tickets for scooters left in the wrong place – or even speeding tickets!

And finally, be patient

Different children progress at different rates. A child may, for example, have less developed fine motor skills but a good understanding of sound–letter correspondence. Try not to ‘correct’ children’s writing too much and remember to praise their efforts; they will be encouraged to write more and so get the practice they need to progress.

Would you like more practical tips on getting kindergarten children to read and write? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for the free webinar on how to get kindergarten children writing on 22 January 2014.


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Managing the Perfect Classroom

Eager children in classKathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina, co-authors of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, share some classroom management tips.

As teachers of young learners, we all know the benefits of a well-managed classroom. Our students are alert, focused, and excited to learn. All of our energies can go into teaching the lesson, rather than dealing with management issues. So how can we achieve this perfect classroom?

It’s important to remember that good classroom management is like fire prevention – our aim is to avoid problems in the first place. A teacher who is well organized and prepared, and who has specific goals for each lesson, is off to a very good start! However, there are other things we can do to keep our students focused and happy.

We’d like to begin with two broad perspectives on classroom management, and then move on to some simple strategies that you can use right away.

1. How students perceive learning determines a lot of their behavior

If students sense that learning is a one-way street, with information flowing only from the teacher to the student, management problems can occur from the very beginning of the lesson. Some students may be bored, others may feel forced to learn, and others may seek to stand out and be noticed by misbehaving.

The solution is to create a classroom of curiosity, nurturing a spirit of “wondering”. These qualities of curiosity and wondering are natural to students, but are often lost in traditional classroom settings. As teachers, we can reignite these qualities by being curious and wondering ourselves, as in:

I wonder how caterpillars turn into butterflies.
I wonder how this machine works.
I wonder if there is another way to do this.
I wonder how energy is created and used.

After observing this type of questioning from their teacher, students are encouraged to join in and ask their own questions. They perceive that they are seeking answers together, and that there may be many possible answers. Students become empowered to learn and discover as a class. They are also eager to share what they have learned with their teacher, making them partners in learning. As a result, there are fewer occasions for misbehavior or boredom.

2. CCBA – Catch Children Being Amazing!

We created the acronym CCBA (Catch Children Being Amazing) to remind teachers that students respond better to praise than to criticism. By noticing and pointing out how something is being done well, teachers give students specific examples of good behavior and learning. As you continue to comment on your students’ good behaviors, creative ideas, and positive contributions, you can easily shift the focus of attention from bad to good. Here are some examples:

  • I’m really pleased to see how well you all made a circle and got ready to sing.
  • Look at how Jenna and Miki are making big letter shapes together.
  • Michael, you wrote your story so neatly in your notebook.

Noticing and commenting on your students’ good behavior and achievements also builds confidence. Students often tell their parents later about a CCBA moment in their class. In so many ways, CCBA creates a positive classroom environment that supports learning for the entire year.

Here are some simple classroom management strategies you can try tomorrow!

Kathleen Lampa demonstrating the 'quiet signal'

Kathleen Kampa, Oxford Discover co-author

1. Refocusing Student Attention

Occasionally, it is necessary to get your students’ attention, especially if they are chatting after an activity is over. It is best to do this in a calm, quiet, and confident manner.

Here are two simple strategies you can try. Before using them, it’s a good idea to practice with your students several times until they become natural.

The first strategy is called the “quiet signal”. To do this, raise one hand while placing the forefinger of your other hand over your lips. Students then imitate these actions. Soon everyone is quiet.

The second strategy is to use a simple clapping rhythm. When students hear it, they repeat it. This signal is a clear way to get your students’ attention.

2. Transitional Songs

Transitional songs help move students smoothly from one activity to the next. They’re particularly useful for classes with young learners. Here are two songs you’ll be able to use tomorrow in your classroom.

Come and Sit In Front of Me (by Kathleen Kampa)
Melody: The Muffin Man

Come and sit in front of me, in front of me, in front of me,
Come and sit in front of me, in front of me.

Let’s Make a Circle (by Kathleen Kampa)
Melody: Skip To My Lou

Let’s make a circle big and round,
Let’s make a circle big and round,
Let’s make a circle big and round,
Everybody please sit down.

3. Celebrating Success

Creating a climate of success is important. Students work hard in your classroom, so celebrate their achievements! Here’s a chant you can use often throughout your lesson:

We Did It! (Celebration Chant by Kathleen Kampa)

Celebration Chant – We Did It!

We did it! We did it! We did it today!
We did it! We did it! Hip hip hooray!

4. Working Together

When students work together in pairs or small groups, they’re building the 21st Century skill of collaboration. Students who work together toward a common goal are focused and engaged learners. When dividing students into pairs and groups, it is important that the students view the process as fair.

First, decide the size of each group, based on the activity and the number of students you have. Sometimes an activity asks for students to work in pairs, or groups of three or four students. Some groups can have one additional student if the class cannot divide equally into groups.

There are many ways to divide students into groups. For example, if you want eight groups, students count off from “one” to “eight.” If you want six groups, they count off from “one” to “six”. Students with the same number then work together. Another method is to have students pull colored cards out of a box without looking. Students with the same color work together.

Students can also be placed in pairs or groups prepared beforehand by the teacher. One strategy is to place shy students with more confident students. This creates a unique opportunity to unify the class and include everyone in the learning process.

Classroom management issues exist with every class. However, by creating a positive environment of curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and encouragement, your class will develop a group personality that embraces learning.

Happy teaching, everyone!

Kathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina

Would you like more practical tips on classroom management and developing 21st Century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for a webinar on Making the most of classroom management on 17 & 19 December.


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‘All together now’: using songs and actions for kindergarten classroom management

Pre-school children singing

Photo courtesy of Gryphon House.

Margaret Whitfield, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips on using songs and games for Kindergarten classroom management.

There are many reasons for using songs and actions in the kindergarten classroom. They’re memorable, they engage different types of learners, channel energy effectively and – best of all – they’re enjoyable. But songs and actions are also fantastic for encouraging teamwork and managing the classroom.

How can songs and actions encourage teamwork?

Singing a song is in its nature a collaborative activity. All the children can join in to create something that they’re proud of. Harness this by allowing children to join in at different levels. Give them a tambourine if they’re too shy to sing – they’ll still be absorbing the language, learning the natural rhythm and intonation. If they’re super-confident, give them a line to sing solo. Try arranging the children in a circle and moving around as you sing the song – the children have to work as one or the circle collapses!

Ask groups to work together to make up actions or new verses. Have the group teach their verse or actions to the rest of the class, using props and flashcards, if appropriate. By working in groups like this, children are encouraged to collaborate and the less confident members of the class are more likely to contribute. (Try this free song activity idea from Freia Layfield, an Oxford University Press Teacher Trainer.)

Think about how you teach songs as a way of promoting teamwork. Encourage the children to be involved in the process. Begin by simple options – listen again, or sing? Clap the rhythm or ‘la-la-la’ to the tune? The children can move to different areas of the classroom according to their choices. Then have a child be in charge of the CD player. Teach the children simple phrases (Pause, please. Play it again, please.) so that they can direct the child working the CD player. With older children, once they are used to being in control, you could challenge a small group to work together with the CD player to learn the song.

How can songs and actions be a tool for classroom management?

All children have their own ideas about what they want to be doing, and it can sometimes be challenging to focus them on the job in hand, particularly if it’s not one they’re fond of.

My experience is that many very young children will respond better to commands if you sing them – however simply, and however badly. Clean up, put your shoes on, wash your hands, and so on. The same can be true with actions – it’s like a code you share with the children; for example, clap your hands to get their attention, hold them in the air, then rub them together as though washing your hands. One advantage of both these approaches is that you’re not using your voice in the usual way.

A step on from this is to turn everyday classroom routines into short chants and songs. This can be particularly effective if you use a tune that children know and like; for example, try teaching this ‘clean up’ song, sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge is falling down’:

Time to clean up everyone, everyone, everyone.
Do it together, let’s have fun,
Let’s get busy!

If you build in some actions, as well, you can ensure that children are focused on the song and not carrying on with what they were doing. In our forthcoming series, Show and Tell, my co-authors and I have included chants to support good behavior, so you can build these into your classroom routine and use them as a fun reminder. For example, when a child drops something (or looks as though he/she is about to!):

Little hands be careful,
Pick it up and hold it tight.
Little hands be careful,
And it will be alright.

You can also use songs as a reward. Leave time at the end of the lesson, pick a child whose work or behavior has been especially good, and ask them to choose their favorite English song for the class to sing.

These are just a few ways that songs and actions can be used to promote teamwork and help with classroom management. If you have any feedback or ideas of your own to share, please post!

Would you like more practical tips on classroom management and how to develop communication, collaboration and other 21st century skills with your kindergarten children?
Visit our site on
Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for the webinar on Making the most of kindergarten classroom management on 18 December.


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Improving communication skills with online tools

student laptopMichael Man will show you how to use messaging, discussions and chats effectively with the Online Practice and Online Workbooks for your course. You can take part in his webinar ‘Messages, Discussions and Chat – improving communication skills with the Online Practice and Online Workbooks for your course’ on 8th October 2014 from 10:00 – 11:00 and 15:00 – 16:00 BST.

Communication and collaboration tools

How can we give our students more individualised instruction and feedback? How can we extend communication outside the classroom? Teachers can struggle with these issues especially when large classes and teaching demands get in the way.

Individualised instruction and feedback

All the courses with new Online Practice and Online Workbooks (listed below) have integrated communication and collaboration tools. By using the Messages tool, teachers can contact the entire class with updates or announcements. This is a useful tool for reminding students of deadlines or other classroom management issues, and is also useful for relaying information about upcoming aims and learning objectives. As well as reaching the class as a whole, teachers can contact groups of students. This is not only useful for differentiating instruction, but also during stages of project work. For example, teachers can give each group targeted guidance or further instruction. The Messages tool also allows for individual messaging so that teachers can personalise feedback. In this way teachers can direct students to exercises which would benefit them, set targets to work on and send reminders related to those targets.

Extending communication outside the classroom

Learners often struggle with finding ways to use English outside the classroom. The Discussion tool provides a way for students to do this in a non-threatening environment.  Teachers can assign a discussion task as part of assessed coursework or to continue a class discussion that students may not have had time to complete. These discussions can be monitored or viewed later by the teacher who can then use them to help students build language strategies for better interaction. The discussions are also a useful resource for assessing in which language areas students may need revision or follow-up work. The Discussion tool can also be set up for use by groups so that they can meet in a virtual space to discuss project work.

The live Chat function is another way to increase contact time with English, and many students will already be familiar with if they use social media. These can be whole class chats or set up as groups. Ideas for using the chat include setting up reading circle discussions or doing role plays. Roles can be assigned to individual students within the chat – a moderator, for example, could ensure that all the students participate by inviting comments from less ‘chatty’ participants.

Live Chat function

These tools are suitable for students at any level and are available for courses with Online Practice and Online Workbooks at oxfordlearn.com:

—   Aim High
—   American English File, second edition
—   Business Result DVD edition
—   English File, third edition
—   English Plus
—   Headway Academic Skills
—   insight
—   Network
—   New Headway, fourth edition
—   New Headway Plus, special edition
—   Oxford Online Skills Program: General English and Academic English
—   Q: Skills for Success, special edition
—   Reach Out
—   Solutions, 2nd edition (International, Nederlands and Maturita)
—   Speak Now
—   Stretch

Find out more at: www.oup.com/elt/teachonline