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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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#EFLproblems – Monitoring pair work

Two men talkingWe’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.

Susanna wrote:

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.

2.Encourage clarification-seeking

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.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.