You really must get your students to speak.
That’s the only way they’ll achieve English fluency and find their own voices in their new language.
It’s not good enough if it’s just in their heads.
It’s not good enough that they’re mumbling along while the whole class chants together.
You’ve got to get your ESL students in the zone.
You need to use pair work because:
- Individual students will be speaking out loud and getting a chance to exercise their English speaking skills.
- Working with a partner is less threatening for shy students.
- All students will be involved, not just a select few.
- While the students are all occupied with their partners, the teacher can walk around and observe.
- It can be a lot of fun, and the students will be motivated.
- It’s an opportunity for repetition without boredom, and as such is super useful for practicing grammar and vocab.
This is the moment that can make or break your lesson. If you simply say, “Choose a Partner!” some students will excitedly grab their best friend, while others will slump in their seats feeling that no one will want to choose them. It’s time to be creative, have a bit of fun and take your students by surprise.
Take a look at the following ideas for assigning partners and letting students organize themselves. You’ll need to take into consideration the size of your class, the age of your students, how familiar they already are with each other and your teaching style.
- Sometimes let them just choose their own partners. They can work with the people they’re most comfortable with, and they can even work in threes if that makes them comfortable.
- Make it a lottery. Each student writes their name on a scrap of paper, puts their name in a container and then you—or they—pull out the names to decide who works with whom (this time).
- Have a different kind of lottery. Make a card for each student in your class. Half the deck of cards will have English words written on them, and the other half of the deck with have pictures which correspond to these words. Of course, this could relate to recent vocabulary they’ve learned. Pass out the cards and then let the students move around and find their partner (the student with the card that matches theirs).
- Have fun and practice language by getting them to pair off after lining up according to height, age, birthday or alphabetically by first (or last) name.
- Get them to pair up with someone who’s wearing a similar color shirt or shoes, or something that follows on from a vocabulary category that you’ve already been teaching. (Always allow leeway so that no one ends up feeling left out.)
- Prepare the classroom ahead of time sticking colored post-its under chairs or desks. There could be numbers, words or pictures to match up as with the lottery cards. (The surprise of looking for their sticker adds to the fun.)
The important thing is to make sure that no one dreads pair work (including the teacher)!
Pair and Share: 14 Ideas for ESL Pair Work Speaking Activities
1. Read a conversation script together
If you’re using a textbook or creating your own materials, you’ll often want students to practice a conversation to shake things up. To help them learn good spoken English and also use proper conversational intonation rather than a flat reading voice, give them these instructions:
“Always look at your partner when you speak.”
To achieve this they must first read the line they’re going to say, hold the words in their memory, look up at their partner and then say the line. When they’ve said their line(s), their partner can look down, read and prepare to say theirs.
This may seem slow, at first, but they’ll retain the language much more effectively and they can practice good English intonation (which is so different from many other languages).
2. Act out a drama or role play
This involves more action than just reading through a script. The students may or may not have prepared the words themselves—it’s up to you if you want them to draft a script together at some point.
They could be improvising or repeating learned words. They could be moving around and acting things out. They could even be using props! But the one thing that they’re not doing is reading. Students love being active, and this could be a good follow-up activity to the previous one. This really takes the speaking to another level.
This could also be a very quick activity for in-class review of recent lessons. For example, your students could quickly pair up and practice asking each other the time, complaining about the lateness of the bus or discussing something else involving vocabulary you’ve just been studying.
3. Information gap
This is often referred to as a “jigsaw” activity. It involves getting pairs to converse naturally about a topic. When you speak to someone in real life, you don’t know the whole story already—and a script will give away the whole story.
In this activity, you’ll be giving each student in a pair half of the information for the conversation. Then you’ll let them talk about it until they both have the complete story.
Many textbooks include information gap activities, and there are worksheets for this that you can take from ESL websites. However, you can also create your own worksheets and stories to suit what you’re presently teaching in class. Some examples are:
- A filled in crossword puzzle with each part missing different letters or words.
- A story or series of sentences with gaps for different words in each.
- Two pictures with different items or details removed from each.
4. Line up role plays
In this activity your students get to pair off several times with different people and have a similar conversation with each new partner. They get to practice improvising a little bit instead of just repeating the same things over and over. Students are divided into two groups and each group is assigned one of two roles, such as:
- Complainers and listeners
Or anything else that you’ve been working on teaching in class.
Students in one group pair up with members of the other group, each for a few minutes, and then move on to another at your call. They could have specific guidance from the teacher about what to discuss at each position or they could improvise, depending on their level of ability.
For example, in a buying and selling role play each Seller could have a list (or pictures) of what they’re selling. This could either be devised by the teacher beforehand or created by them during the activity. The Buyers could each have a shopping list (words or pictures) also devised by the teacher or created by students. The Sellers could be seated, and the Buyers could each approach a Shop, ask about something(s) on their shopping list: do they have the item, how much is it, etc.
When the students hear the signal or call from the teacher, each Buyer moves on to another Seller’s table. It’s kind of like speed dating!
5. Getting to know each other
One of the first things that any ESL teacher does with a new class is have students introduce themselves to one another. This can be done in pairs to reduce the pressure and possible stress of being in a new group. You can even add new layers to the whole “getting to know you” phase, as students can swap partners and tell their new partner about their old partner.
With partner swapping activities, it often works to have the students sit in two circles, one inside the other. When a change is called, one circle can move to the next partner in a specified direction.
If this isn’t one of the very first lessons, the students can use the same partner swapping movement but instead ask about other topics such as hobbies, favorite foods, family. As before, have them move on to tell their next partner about their last partner (using appropriate pronouns and verb tenses).
6. Two team games
After pairing up, partners can compete against each other.
The class lines up in two lines, one from each pair in each line. As they arrive at the front of their lines, they’ll be competing with one another to answer a question, spell a word, write something on the board, fill in a blank or whatever competition you set up that’s relevant to your lesson at the time.
Alternatively, after pairing up each pair can be a team and work together. When their turn comes, they’ll approach the board and try to list the greatest number of food words beginning with the letter B. Of course, you’re welcome to change this up according to your recent lessons’ thematic focus.
You could also lead into this activity by having partners sit together momentarily to discuss options and ideas.
7. Picture dictation
After pairing up for this activity, partners will need to sit facing each other, one with a blank sheet of paper and the other with a simple picture held so that their partner can’t see it. (Make sure that the light doesn’t shine through so that their partner can see it.) The student with the picture dictates to their partner what to draw.
Dictation vocabulary will depend on what stage your students are at. If the picture is very simple then it can be described in terms of shapes (circle, line, straight, etc.), sizes and spatial relationships (next to, under, etc.). For a more complex picture, the elements could be described as they are (man, dog, house, hill, etc.)
To make it interesting, the students could both have the same background picture in front of them to start. One student in the pair will have simple stick figures or animals in the foreground that the other student doesn’t have. The student with the more elaborate illustration will then attempt to describe how to complete the drawing.
8. Rhythm games
Young students especially enjoy a sense of rhythm, and becoming aware of rhythm is actually an important part of their general language development, not just second language acquisition.
In pairs, they can improve their concentration and coordination with clapping games where they follow a sequence of clapping their own hands and then their partner’s hands, possibly adding other body percussion such as knee pats and shoulder taps. You may remember some of these sequences from your own playground days, or you could create some of your own.
Choose an English poem or song (which maybe they’re already learning) and increase their appreciation of it as well as improve their learning by getting them to practice saying it with their partner while following a clapping sequence.
9. Grammar chants
Grammar chants and jazz chants were famously introduced to the ESL community by Carolyn Graham. You can find many examples of her original works as well as similar offerings from others on the Internet, and you can very easily create your own based on what you’re teaching in particular. (There may even be some examples in a textbook that you’re using.)
Chants are different from other practice conversations (see above) mostly by virtue of the strong rhythmic nature of them. They can be practiced as a “Call and Respond” whole class activity, but the best way to get students familiar with them is by working in pairs. It’s recommended that students be encouraged to click their fingers (if they can) or move to the strong beat of the chant.
10. Who’s who?
There’s a well-known game out there called “Guess Who?” or “Who’s who?”. I’m betting you’ve heard of it!
One student selects a character. The other student looks at a collection of character pictures and asks questions about their appearance or clothing until they can guess the right character.
Along with practicing the appropriate usage of vocabulary and pronouns, practicing questions and answers is always an excellent basis for a classroom activity.
The student holding the complete set of character pictures, the one who’s trying to guess which character has been selected, must ask yes or no questions. Students often do a lot of practice with “Wh- questions” but fumble over using auxiliary verbs (such as “do” and “does”) in yes or no questions.
There are many downloadable versions of this game available such as this Guess Who Matching Game, or you can create your own set of characters from clip-art or printed out celebrity photos to suit the concepts you’ve been teaching.
To add extra interest, you could even have your students create simple pictures of people and scan them into a printable set for this game.
11. Puppet plays
Whether reading a script or simply improvising, using puppets can help shy students as well as add excitement. When practicing a dialogue with a partner, each student can manage two puppets—one in each hand—or even more if finger puppets are used.
Creating the puppets themselves first gives added interest and opportunities to practice English. A picture of the character printed out (or drawn by the students) can easily be cut out and stuck onto a Popsicle stick, chopstick or drinking straw. The picture can be stuck or drawn onto a paper bag for a quick hand puppet. If small enough, puppet characters can be sticky-taped onto finger-tips.
12. Telephone conversations
In this paired activity, partners sit back-to-back to have a phone conversation. This requires careful speaking and careful listening as a lot of the usual visual cues are missing. They could be given specific questions to ask each other and information to find out.
Of course, nowadays many students actually have their own phones, and maybe if the situation is suitable—for example, they aren’t paying too much for calls, and you can trust them to speak only English—you could send one group outside or into another room and they could actually phone each other.
13. Memory cards
Students in pairs can practice vocabulary and even some rules or concepts by playing the well-known game of “Memory” or “Concentration” using cards with relevant words and/or pictures. The matching pairs could be identical pictures or words, or a picture and a word, or two things that go together in some other way.
The cards are spread face-down in a grid. Each student takes a turn and turns over two cards. They should then say the word out loud and make sure their partner sees and hears it. If the cards don’t match, they’ll turn them back over in the same positions and the partner takes their turn. If the cards do match, then the student picks them up, keeps them, gains a point and has another turn.
14. Story retelling
Everybody loves a good story! As an ESL teacher you’d do well to tell stories as often as you can. They don’t need to be long, or even particularly significant, but you’ll notice as soon as you start to tell a story (even about something that happened on the way to work) that your students will “prick their ears up.” Even if they don’t understand all of it, they’ll want to listen.
After telling a story, especially when you’ve noticed interest, reinforce it by pairing students up and seeing if they can retell the story to each other. They may have slightly different—correct or incorrect—memories of the story to compare.
You could even ask them to change the ending. Young students could then go on to illustrate the story and tell their versions to the class.
What to Do After Pair Work
Pair work is never an end in and of itself. It’s a practice time where all of the students get to be involved.
Sometimes, especially if they’ve been working on a drama or play, it’ll be suitable to finish the session by having a few pairs come forward and demonstrate what they practiced in front of everyone.
Generally speaking, not everyone will want to do this. As with any speaking activity, they should be encouraged to speak up but not forced to do so (and there should never be ridicule from the rest of the class).
The key is to make things fun, and the learning will follow!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you’re really digging these fun, interactive ESL speaking activities, then you’ve got to try FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. These are videos that your students already love watching, so they’ll be beyond excited to interact with them in the classroom.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
Worried that students might be stumped by some of the harder videos? No way. FluentU brings authentic content within reach by providing interactive captions and in-context definitions right on-screen. For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.
Bring English immersion to your classroom!
Chura Bahadur Thapa & Angel M. Y. Lin *
EFL contexts like Nepal seldom provide students with opportunities for authentic communication in English. Therefore, deliberate ‘interaction in the classrooms’ is emerging as one of the leading conventions to enhance the students’ linguistic resources as well as equipping them with appropriate skills for communication. The major intent of this entry is to share a teacher’s insider experiences of developing interactions in an ESL classroom in Hong Kong while fully recognizing that the contextual differences between Hong Kong and Nepal will necessitate teachers’ own creative adaptation or re-invention of whatever tips shared from elsewhere. We shall, first of all, present the concept of interaction from sociocultural perspectives and discuss various challenges for the front-line EFL teachers to plan and implement lessons that incorporate interactions in ESL or EFL classrooms. Then, insider experiences of the first author of this entry in overcoming those challenges are shared. Assuming that the textbooks and teaching materials play a vital role to promote and facilitate the interactions in classrooms, a sample activity designed for the Secondary Two (Class 8) ESL students in Hong Kong is also included and discussed.
Interaction in language classrooms
Classroom interaction has been considered one of the most important pedagogical research topics in language classrooms in recent decades, mostly due to the influence of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotskian sociocultural theory (Hall & Walsh, 2002) views the act of language learning as a social activity in which children build their knowledge through the help and scaffolding of more knowledgeable peers or teachers. Interactions in language classrooms are important social activities for students through which they not only construct knowledge, but also build confidence and identity as competent language users (Luk & Lin, 2007). In an in-depth ethnographic study of teacher-student interactions in Hong Kong, Luk and Lin (2007) found out that students develop multiple identities through their classroom interactions with their language teachers. Although the study took place in an ESL classroom where native English language teachers are available, Luk and Lin (2007:188) present a telling story about how students negotiate identity and cultural resources, which are “translated into non-institutionally sanctioned language practices and identities”. Perhaps, the social knowledge students bring into the classrooms might be those “non-institutional language practices”, which schools and teachers are supposed to build on in order to enhance their learning.
Interaction in the classroom refers to the conversation between teachers and students, as well as among the students, in which active participation and learning of the students becomes vital. Conversations are part of the sociocultural activities through which students construct knowledge collaboratively. Conversations between and among various parties in the classroom have been referred to as educational talk (Mercer and Dawes, 2008) or “exploratory talk” and “presentational talk” (Barnes, 2008:5). Presentational talk is the one-way lecture conducted by the teachers in the classroom, mostly featured in Nepalese EFL contexts, which contributes little to encouraging and engaging students in a communicative dialogue. Exploratory talk is a purposeful conversation, often deliberately designed by teachers, which provide opportunities to students to engage in “hesitant, broken, and full of deadend” conversations enabling them to “try out new ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns” (Barnes, 2008:5). Given the limited linguistic resources the EFL students possess in their school years in EFL contexts like Nepal, these hesitant, broken and deadend conversations could be developed into spontaneous conversational skills. When students engage in interactions, they produce “symmetric dialogic context” (Mercer & Dawes, 2008:66) where everyone can participate, get respected and get the decisions made jointly. Students’ participation in interactions, therefore, can help them enrich their linguistic resources and build their confidence to communicate with others in English.
Designing interaction: challenges and ways ahead
When I started teaching English in a Hong Kong school, I noticed that students in Hong Kong like to talk a lot. These talks are often characterized as responses to the multiple stimuli such as various gadgets and social media. To realize the importance of students’ talks in their knowledge building was a paradigm shift in me, as my high school days in Nepal still remind me of the very quiet classrooms where often only the teachers talked. The process of designing lessons with meaningful interactions in my ESL classroom in Hong Kong posed several challenges such as incorporating various forms of interactions, achieving the lesson goals through such interactions, participation of students in meaningful interactions, and making sure that all the students engage in conversations and learn from the teachers as well as from themselves.
Secondly, of course students’ varying language abilities, topics that generated the conversations among them and matched their abilities presented a micro level challenges in managing interactions. Students in my class came from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and I believed that they brought with them their own unique knowledge base. Their varying English language ability might sound simple to some or unnoticeable to others, but addressing them in the classroom would very much influence how they view themselves and others (Luk & Lin, 2007) and make them feel how their cultural and linguistic knowledge base could be important in furthering their academic journey.
To overcome the underlined challenges, I took a closer look at other teachers’ practices and suggestions by researchers (Jong & Hawley, 1995). I found Jong and Hawley’s (1995) suggestions particularly setting up group roles, teacher monitoring and evaluation, peer evaluation, appropriate group size and configuration quite useful. Assigning group roles and group configurations could be thought during the planning stage. Teacher monitoring should be conducted at the while-teaching stage, and teacher and peer evaluations are elements to be incorporated at the post-teaching stage. I often incorporated three stages of interactions in my lessons.
- Interaction of the students with the teacher (Teacher Student Whole-Class Interaction): I often asked students to respond to a certain question related to a emerging topic or a topic that was already taught as part of the whole-class interactions. For the responses, students were randomly selected based on their ability, seating arrangements, gender and cultural groups to make sure that they all get represented in the interaction process.
- Pair Interaction (Interaction with their peers sitting together or next to them): This interaction often took place during the pre-teaching stage, for example to activate their schema on a topic. As part of assigning group roles, students were usually asked to interact with their partners on a topic given by the teacher and present it to the whole class.
- Group Interaction (Groups of 4-5 students): This form of interaction often took place during the while-teaching stage. After students read a text, for example in a reading lesson, they could pick up a concept for discussion. Their discussion could dwell on expanding the practical meaning of the concept, finding solution to a problem or bring up a creative issue out of the topic. Based on Jong and Hawley’s (1995) suggestions, students’ roles were often divided based on the nature of the topic such as a note taker, a facilitator, a presenter, and so on. Assigning these roles was crucial to prevent the students to digress from discussion their topics or and contribute meaningfully in the whole learning process.
The idea of teacher monitoring took place during the process of pair or group interactions. Teachers could evaluate the extent and forms of interactions students conducted during the process, and at the same time, provide feedback and support to the weaker students. I often walked around the class and monitored the students’ interactions to make sure that they are up to the tasks and are supported when in need.
Timing the interactions was another important aspect handling the students’ conversations purposefully and meaningfully. I often gave the students 5-10 minutes to interact among themselves and prepare a presentation poster or speech. The timing depended on the topic’s extent of difficulty and students’ ability as well.
Students were often asked to present the outcome of their interaction to the whole class in poster or speech forms. In order to ensure every students’ participation, they were trained and assigned with roles to make contributions individually even during group presentations. This was at this stage that the teacher and peer evaluation took place. I often adopted a range of techniques to evaluate students’ performances such as asking students to fill in an evaluation rubric or asking students about their peers’ performances and grade them on the board. Sometimes this process generated heated debates and quarreling, friendly though; among the students because they thought that some of their peers were not evaluating them fairly.
Last, but not the least, I also created teaching materials and worksheets conducive to the diversity of the students particularly in order to scaffold on their linguistic and cultural resources. Textbooks nowadays are found incorporating activities for some forms of interactions, but they often become irrelevant in the classrooms because these textbooks cannot address the range of students’ ability levels, skill levels and their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Most textbooks in Hong Kong, for example, incorporate elements of Chinese and Christian festivals and ask the students to interact on that. However, students from Nepal, Pakistan, India, or Sri-Lanka in Hong Kong would not be able to use their cultural resources and construct knowledge from the interactions. Although English language textbooks in Hong Kong are considered to be the most advanced resources for ESL students, modifications often needed to suit to my students’ needs. These changes sometimes also needed to address the students’ willingness and skills to spontaneously engage in interactions. For example, some students in my class were very poor in English and found it hard to even properly construct questions to ask their friends, while others were at a native English speaker’ level.
Taking these questions into consideration, we present an activity (Activity 1) that can potentially be used to promote pair interactions in an EFL classroom. This activity is a modified activity from a secondary two (Class 8) English language textbook in Hong Kong, which is believed to suit students with moderate English ability. The moderate language ability in this context is the students’ ability to use connectives and quantifiers in authentic situations. This activity incorporates multicultural elements in the context of Nepal as it contains pictures of various Nepali festivals as well as Western festivals such as Christmas. Students can ask their peers about their likes or dislikes and jot down their answers to present to the class. Phrases given in the boxes are meant to cater for learner diversity. For higher proficiency students, this activity can be presented in a different way to suit their levels.
1. Study the pictures in the boxes in pairs. Ask questions to your friend about items that he/she prefers or doesn’t prefer more (or less) and why. Write your friend’s responses in the checklist at the bottom.
You may begin like this: Which festivals do you like more/less/most/least? Why?
2. Write your friend’s answers below. You may need to present it to the class.
* My friend likes ___________________________ more, because ______________
* My friend likes __________________________less, because _________________
* He/She likes ___________________________ the most, because _____________
* My friend likes ___________ the least, because __________________________
This entry presented the concept of interaction from a sociocultural perspective sharing the first author’s teaching experiences in a Hong Kong school. The sharing included the challenges as well as possible strategies a teacher might adopt to devise, implement and evaluate interactions in an EFL classroom. The sharing could present a model for EFL teachers to choose from many other pedagogical options in order to enhance the students’ English language learning. The activity presented in this entry is only one example of hundreds of such possible activities. The original activity might not be suitable to adopt exactly in Nepalese EFL classes, as there are diversities in terms of language, culture, students’ abilities as well as available resources based on geography, developmental level and proximity to urban life. Teachers need to bear in mind that they understand their students the best and they need to know how students can best interact and learn the language in the classroom.
*About the Authors:
1- Mr. Chura Bahadur Thapa is a PhD Student in the Faculty of Education at The University of Hong Kong. He was an English language teacher in a local college in Hong Kong for almost 7 years before joining HKU as a postgraduate student. He is currently researching the language learning and motivation of ethnic minority students in Hong Kong. His other research interests include- education of ethnic minorities, linguistic and cultural identity, intercultural communication and citizenship education. He can be reached at email@example.com
2- Dr. Angel Lin received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, Canada. She is an Associate Professor of English Language Education at the University of Hong Kong. Well-respected for her versatile interdisciplinary scholarship in language and identity studies, bilingual education and youth cultural studies. she has published six research books and over eighty research articles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barnes, D. (2008). Exploratory talk for learning. Exploring talk in schools. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi: SAGE, 1-15.
Hall, J.K. & Walsh, M. (2002). Teacher-student interaction and language learning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 22, 186-203.
Jong, C.D. & Hawley, J. (1995). Making cooperative learning groups work. Middle School Journal, 26 (4), 45-48.
Luk, J.C.M. & Lin, A.M.Y. (2007). Classroom interactions as cross-cultural encounters. Native speakers in EFL classrooms. Mahwah, New Jersey, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Mercer, N. & Dawes, L. (2008). The value of exploratory talk. In Mercer, N. & Hodgkinson, S. (Eds.). Exploring talk in schools. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi: SAGE, 55-72.
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