A few weeks ago I wrote this summary about what an ideal cooperative language classroom would look like and the strengths of adopting such a model. Even if you’re already working within a cooperative learning framework, however, there are times when we may want to change the types of interactions for specific tasks and offer the students more opportunities to communicate with other peers. This applies to other settings, too, where we often need to group students yet randomness does not just seem to be the most effective way to go about it if we want to make sure the students will be working in a rich, diverse environment that enhances learning. Besides, it is tasks like these that help to build rapport among students — and we all know how important this is to create a unique, positive classroom culture.
The following are three grouping strategies that work well and are mainly based on the students’ interests and motivations, but also on their level of proficiency. They can all be used at any point in the lesson to brainstorm ideas or encourage discussion about a topic, work on specific concepts that will be practised later independently, as a response to a reading passage, or even for assessment purposes at the end of a lesson or project.
1. Value Line
After presenting an issue or topic to the whole class, each student decides how they feel about it and stand up to form a rank-ordered line. You can make a scale from 0 to 10, or from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”. As they form the line, the students explain their choices and talk to their partners about their decision so that they know what the best place in the line is for them. Groups are then formed by pulling one student from each side of the line and two students from the middle of the group, who will work together on that specific task
There are several types of issues or topics that can be used to form these groups through a value line:
- A topic for debate: “School uniforms should be compulsory in public schools.”
- To complete the KNOW step of a K-W-L chart and have the students share background information.
- A reaction to some text you’ve read or a video you’ve watched. In the short story “All Summer in a Day”, for example, the students made a value line expressing their opinion about whether the main character should become friends with the rest of her schoolmates or not. The members of each of the groups formed with a value line had different opinions about the problem, which maximised the learning opportunities with highly relevant interactions.
- If you’re revising for an exam, a more personal prompt such as “I am concerned about the exam next…” is also a good option. Groups will then be made up of students with different attitudes and feelings towards it.
- Even if you want to revise the difference between, say, the present perfect and the past simple, the students can form a value line based on statements such as “I know the difference between the present perfect and the past simple and I can use these tenses with few errors.” And after revising, you may even want to use this to present some new content and practise it in the same groups.
The same types of topics, statements and activities can be used in Corners. Here the teacher plans four different corners in the classroom which could typically belong to “Strongly Agree” – “Agree” – “Disagree” – “Strongly Disagree”, but they could also be content-specific: “Which is your favourite film genre?” (thriller, comedy, drama, action), or “Which sport do you like most?” (baseball, basketball, tennis, cycling). The students go to the corner they feel most comfortable with after the teacher presents the problem, they take some time to discuss the reasons why they are there with the rest of the students that chose the same corner, and finally provide some feedback to the rest of the class as a starting point. Groups are then formed by pulling one student from each corner.
3. Inside-Outside Circles
In Inside-Outside Circles the class is split in two halves: one group makes a circle that faces outwards towards the other students, and the other group stands outside in a wider circle so that the students end up facing each other. Once a topic or issue is presented, the students are given a set amount of time to discuss it with the student facing them; when the time is up, the students rotate clockwise and continue the discussion with the rest of the classmates.
This is a much more flexible grouping strategy and can be used for short exchanges of ideas or more guided interviews or questionnaires. For instance, the students working on this project on habits and routines first gathered information using this technique before reporting the data collected back to their teams and finally writing a report based on this.
I like using Inside-Outside Circles for students to discuss ideas before writing an expository or persuasive essay so that they can collect different ideas and perspectives about a particular topic and have them ready when they get down to writing. By lowering the pressure and providing the students with sufficient tools and information to get started, both the writing process and the final product are bound to result in a far more engaging and meaningful experience!
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