TEFL Methodology: Pairwork and Groupwork






individual work


‘enemy corners’

opposing teams

face to face

back to back


‘public meeting’

‘buzz groups’




The most traditional teaching situation associated with a teacher-controlled session is lockstep with all the students working with the teacher at the same rhythm and pace, engaged with the same activity (Harmer 1998: 243). Whole-class grouping favours the group rather than the individual, with each student forced to do the same activity at the same time and at the same pace. Not only do individual students lack the opportunity to say anything on their own, but also the communication between particular class members is hindered as a consequence of the lack of possibility to talk quietly, less formally, to maintain eye contact, etc. What is more, working with the whole class may discourage students from participation because of the risk of public failure and consequently from taking responsibility for their own learning. The latter stems from the fact that whole- class teaching bases upon teacher-centred activities.



Although it considerably enhances students' autonomy and allows the teacher to respond to individual learning styles and pace of learning, individualised learning does not encourage cooperation or a sense of belonging. On top of that, playing the role of a resource or tutor is definitely more time consuming for the teacher than other modes of working with an EFL class (Harmer 2001: 115).



To begin with, work in pairs/groups considerably increases the amount of students’ practice. Next, this mode of learning allows the students to use the target language, to which two aspects contribute. Firstly, students can help one another to use and learn the language; secondly, a psychological factor, that is, encouraging weak or not confident students to use the language in a less stressful environment than the whole class forum plays a vital role, because ‘students feel less anxiety when they are working ‘privately’ than when they are ‘on the show’ in front of the whole class' (Doff 1990: 111).

             The use of language in pairs or groups retains the features of language use outside the classroom, i.e. students communicate directly, face one another, may use nonverbal signals, which increases the efficiency of communication. According to Brumfit (1994:87), groupwork provides a 'natural linguistic environment'.

        Moreover, the learners get an opportunity to work independently, which enhances their motivation and makes them concentrate on the task. These patterns of grouping students also increase their responsibility, with regard both to solving a particular task and to their entire learning process.

        Additionally, students' cooperation is likely to be encouraged, which is important from the point of view of the atmosphere. Students help one another and discover things together, which makes a task more likely to be completed successfully.

        On top of that, pair- and groupwork provides variety during the lesson, at the same time being relatively quick and easy to organize.

            The term 'pairwork' comprises interaction patterns differing in terms of aims and modes of grouping students (Doff 1990: 137). Open or public pairs can be defined as pairs of students speaking in turns in front of the class under teacher's control. The extent to which this pattern of interaction varies from traditional lockstep situation does not seem remarkable; the only actual difference is the decrease in teacher talking time.   Nevertheless, the students not involved in a public pair do not benefit from such an activity as far as their talking opportunities are concerned.  With regard to simultaneous pairs, where all the pairs work synchronically, they can be either fixed or flexible. The former pattern of interaction engages each pair in cooperation throughout the entire activity; the latter case involves tasks completion, which demands changing partners.

           Generally, pairwork aims at accuracy practice. The role of the teacher shifts from resource to organiser ad monitor. Typical pairwork activities are: controlled conversation, games and role-plays.

         A problematic issue concerning pairwork stems from the relationships between individual students who may prove to dislike working with a particular partner (Harmer 2001:117). The process of pairing students may be conducted in various ways, including pairing neighbours, forming pairs by chance, etc. In order to prevent the problem of students' dissatisfaction with their partners the criterion of friendship may be employed as the basis of   the pair forming process (ibid: 119-121).

Groupwork is a more dynamic interaction pattern than pairwork. As a consequence of larger number of people involved, there is a greater likelihood of varied opinions, which prompts discussion. For the same reason, there is also a greater chance of solving the task successfully, as at least one of the members will be able to complete it. The size of a group also means that personal relationships are less likely to interfere with the learning process (Harmer 2001:117).

            Most fluency activities need the environment of a group and usually last 10-15 minutes, which may enable students to forget that they are in the classroom. Groupwork allows students to perform a range of tasks for which pairwork is not appropriate or sufficient, such as discussion, writing a group story, project work, etc.  What is more, this interaction pattern involves broader negotiation and cooperation skills than working in pairs.  The teacher's role is that of a manager and consultant.

         In mixed ability groups fluency practice can be enhanced by students' help resulting from the need for co-operation and collaboration necessary to complete a task.  

             Among the problems likely to occur as a consequence of pairwork and groupwork, noise, mistakes and discipline problems, including switching to mother tongue, are the most frequently mentioned (ibid: 116).

        As far as noise is concerned, the teacher should ignore it unless it is likely to disturb other members or another class. Should this be the case, the activity ought to be interrupted and begun in a quieter way. The occurrence of mistakes in the case of tasks focused on accuracy should be rather prevented by providing students with a clear model and controlled practice before a pair activity. According to Harmer (ibid), activities aimed at fluency practice should not be intervened with by the teacher even if mistakes occur. Bartram and Walton (1991:12-13) generalise on this idea, interpreting mistakes as an evidence of learning progress with the student subconsciously forming ideas or hypotheses concerning the rules of language and putting those ideas into practice. Being exposed to more language, the student receives new information and, in turn, changes the original ideas to fit the new information.

        Coping with misbehaviour must be relevant to individual students' personalities and attitudes.      

             In summary, pairwork and groupwork prove potentially beneficial from the point of view of the English Language learning process. Unlike lockstep, they provide the students with many opportunities to use the target language, especially with regard to oral practice. What is more, pair and group activities are by definition student-centred. Those patterns of interaction may engage relating to students' experience, emotions and imagination, which considerably prompts the language learning process. Working in groups is likely to increase the students' responsibility with regard both to the completion of the task and to the entire learning process. Language tasks are generally easier to perform in a pair or, especially in a group without diminishing the sense of achievement. On the contrary, pair and groupwork increase satisfaction and self-confidence of the students, which, in turn, results in higher motivation.



Bartram, M. and Walton, R. 1991. Correction. Mistake Management. Language Teaching Publications: 1991.

Brumfit, C. 1994. Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Byrne, D. 1990. Teaching Oral Skills. Harlow: Longman.

Byrne, D. 1990b. Teaching Writing  Skills. Harlow: Longman.

Doff, A. 1990. Teach English.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Harmer, J. 2001. The Practice of English Language Teaching.  Harlow:  Longman.

Ur, P. 1996. A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


(c) Marta Fihel 2010



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