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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.