Using Group Work in Your ESL Classroom

Group work may take a little more planning as a teacher, but the benefits are clearly visible, if utilised correctly. The purpose of doing group work is to build confidence, give learners a less threatening environment to express themselves in, learn from peers, and build community.

Often the dilemma facing a teacher who would like to try group work is how best to group their students. Here are some tips from the academic director and trainers at Destination TEFL:

A mixed level class could be put into groups of the same ability, and the same task gets adapted to suit the different group levels – in other words the activity is scaled up or down according to ability. The class feels that they are all doing the same task, however those students who are more advanced are challenged with an activity that is upscaled to their level, and those of a lower level can still participate and improve their skills. Alternatively, the teacher could purposely put mixed levels together, so that stronger students can help more challenged students as we learn well from peers, and peer teaching helps to reinforce a concept for the student teaching it to their peers.

For group work, good classroom management skills do come into play. The teacher needs to ensure that everyone is participating. In the classroom, it’s good to mix up activities with a combination of group work, pair work and individual tasks, as it reflects real life and prepares the students for a work environment where they will sometimes have to work individually as well as in teams.

For group work a pyramid activity can work well, where students do the task individually and then pair up and reach a consensus, and then the teacher puts pairs together into groups. Each time the task is repeated until it is the whole class. This allows students to recycle and reuse the taught language over and over, building their confidence.

In our culture lesson, we set up stations around the classroom with mini articles on aspects of Asian culture. Trainees spend 30 seconds at each station to match a title to an article. There is then another round where they spend 3 minutes at each station to answer more specific questions about the article and the aspect of culture it refers to. Then in groups they create their own presentation on a culture topic and the task sheet as a group.  Then they do it as a listening skills lesson where the group reads their summary, presenting it to the class and the rest of the class answers questions.

Here are some suggestions on how to repair and regroup students in order to mix them up:

‘Mingle-mingle’ gets students out of their seats and interacting using one of the following ideas below. During this time, encourage them to use English, rather than their home language. Choose an idea based on your class’s age and language level.

  • Uno cards – each student gets a card, and they look for the person with the card that added to theirs equals 10.
  • Puzzle pieces – they look for the person/people whose pieces complete their puzzle
  • Collocations – each person has half a collocation daily/newspaper, sports/arena, etc.
  • Verbs – each person has either the V1, V2 or V3 of the same base verb and they have to find the other people who complete the set.
  • Chocolates – each person gets a chocolate and they find others with the same chocolate. Stickers or ink stamps work well too.
  • Colours/Shapes/Animals/Emotions – each student is given a coloured square and they need to find the other people with the same colour, shape, animal, etc.
  • Parts of Speech – each person is given either the name of a part of speech or the part of speech and they have to find their match.
  • Tenses – same as with parts of speech but with the tense name and an example sentence.

Some fun ideas to get students lining up for an activity – line up based on:

  • Mobile phone battery percentage
  • Birthday
  • How far they live from school
  • How many of something they have, or have done that day (steps walked today, coins in your pocket, cups of coffee had today, etc)

We do hope that you will try to incorporate more group and pair work into your lessons. A little more effort on your part will reap rewards both on a learning and fun level.

Guest post written by Rose-Anne Turner, admissions director, Destination TEFL – with input from Kathryn Webb, Academic Director and the trainers at Destination TEFL.

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Can Play-Based Learning Be Used in the Secondary Classroom?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

Play is a term that is often associated with the teaching of small children, with the
aim being to
maximize spatial experiences so that long term memory, manual
dexterity and skills are developed.

“An AMAZING Book!

The Department of Education for the Government of Western Australia have the following to say about the importance of play:

Play is a powerful and important activity. It has a natural and positive influence on children’s social, physical, emotional and cognitive development. The best learning happens when children play. It is important to let your children play every day.

Department for Education, Government of Western Australia [2020]. Available at https://www.education.wa.edu.au/play-based-learning (accessed 1st November 2020)

Play doesn’t have to be limited to primary school and Early Years, however: teenagers and young adults can also benefit greatly from tasks that include competition and creativity of some kind. Try these ideas:

  • Play learning games with your students on a regular basis. This makes learning a lot of fun and helps to cement concepts firmly in the working memory of each student. Check out this blog post on learning games that require virtually no equipment and can be applied to any subject area.
  • Carry out practical activities related to your subject area (where possible). As a science teacher, this is quite standard for me as I am required to run experiments and laboratory investigations with my students on a regular basis. In other subject areas, anything that gets students moving and using their hands or technology to build, create or interact with something can be a great way to develop working memory (provided that the task being assigned is on-point and very closely related to the learning outcomes of the set curriculum (see my blog post on Cognitive Load Theory for more on this here).3.1-01
  • Get your students to build things. Materials like plastic bottles, bottlecaps, cardboard, coloured paper, plasticine/modelling clay, straws, shoeboxes and old rope can all be used creatively by students to make models of the concepts they are studying. I’ve used this technique across my teaching in Science to get students to create everything from atomic models to makeshift ‘eco gardens’. Here’s a model atom that one of my IGCSE Chemistry students made out of rudimentary materials a few years ago:

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What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

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Accompanying video (What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?):

It was a cold winter morning in Bangor, North Wales (UK). The year was 2004, and I was a second-year molecular biology bachelor’s student at Bangor University. My professor had given my group of students the task of finding a genetics-related research paper from any academic journal in the library, and then breaking it down into simple language so that we could present our findings to the rest of the class.

The task was incredibly difficult! In fact, it was so difficult, that it’s up there with one of the most cognitively demanding tasks I’ve ever completed. The paper our group selected centered-on ‘apoptosis’ (that’s when cells basically ‘commit suicide’), but the context and language of the paper was so specialized that the majority of what was written in it went right over our heads. The research had been written by PhD-level and post-doctoral experts and specialists.

We we’re 21-year-old kids who’d recently finished our ‘A’ – Levels.

Nowadays, educational experts would argue that the ‘cognitive load’ of the paper was too much for us to glean anything significant from it. We didn’t even have the language skills to understand what most of the paper was describing.

Difficulty vs. Pace

Cognitive Load Theory is a research-based tool for assessing the difficulty and pace of the tasks, assignments and instruction we deliver in-class to our students. In essence, when difficulty is high and pace is fast, then the cognitive load is high. When difficulty is low, and the pace is slow, then the cognitive load is also low.

That’s a very simplified synopsis, however. According to Mindtools.com, Cognitive Load Theory “takes a scientific approach to the design of learning materials, so that they present information at a pace and level of complexity that the learner can fully understand.”

“An AMAZING book!”

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds on earlier models of memory and knowledge retention (such as the Atkinson and Shiffrin model of human information processing) and was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller. The theory is considered to be the most modern and ‘up-to-date’ explanation of how memory is developed and stored. In the past 5 or so years, the theory has gained momentum and popularity in teaching circles, thanks in some part to Dylan William’s iconic tweet of 2017:

I’ve taken the excellent image below from a 2015 research paper by Edwards, Aris and Shukor, and I’ve modified it slightly to highlight what I believe to be the key takeaways:

Key points to bear in-mind about CLT:

  • Keep unnecessary, superfluous material to a minimum (e.g. news articles that may be topical and interesting, but link tentatively to the content that the kids actually need to learn for the final exam).
  • Increase exposure to actual, relevant learning material (this is called ‘intrinsic load’). This may include textbook sections, websites, learning software and summaries.
  • Present information through all of the senses (use movement, action, practical activities and outdoor activities where possible). See my blog posts on outdoor learning and spatial learning for more tips on how to embed this.
  • Practice, practice and practice some more! Use past-exam paper questions, quizzes (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizlet and BBC Bitesize), textbook questions and exam-style questions to really get the students to process the information they have learned. This is called ‘Germane load’, and it must be maximized in order to create long-term memory.

Recommended video

UKEd Academy discussion on Cognitive Load Theory with Steve Garnett (author of Cognitive Load Theory: A handbook for teachers):

Bibliography and references

Mind Tools Content Team (2016) Cognitive Load Theory. Available at https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/cognitive-load-theory.htm (Accessed 18th October 2020)

Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. (eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Edwards, B., Aris, B., Shukor, M. (2015). “Cognitive Load Implications of Social Media in Teaching and Learning”. Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering Science and Technology (JMEST). Vol. 2 Issue 11, November – 2015.

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