Avoid Randomness: Three Other Ways of Grouping Students.

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 taskcaptura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-15

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.

2. Corners

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.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-12

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.

captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-02

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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Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom

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Three Content-Based Teaching Strategies

Content-based strategies


Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom

I admit I sometimes feel jealous when I read other language teaching blogs I follow (most of them, actually): one-to-one settings, diligent adult students who choose to be in the classroom, or small groups at language schools where grouping students for a variety of tasks does not seem to be a problem and language appears to flow naturally and simultaneously. Yes, I know – those teachers have many years of teaching under their belt and with a good repertoire of classroom management strategies! I don’t even know if I could succeed in any of those settings, to be honest.

I belong to the large mixed-ability classroom, where a group of 26 students is considered a luxury one gets to see once in a blue moon and 30 is the norm. I belong to compulsory education and the teenage years, motivating the all too often unmotivated, transforming the infectious energy into meaningful learning, teaching after a tough Maths exam or a long passive lecture. And when it comes to language teaching, beyond basic classroom management, it is the type and quality of interactions and contributions in my classes that I’m most concerned about.

One of the challenges in mixed-ability and/or multi-level groups, for example, is that some students sometimes become over-dominant at the expense of quieter or weaker students who are only occasionally given the chance to participate equally and at their own performance level. Adopting a cooperative learning framework can help to respond to some of these problems by structuring the teaching-learning process through flexible groupings with the aim of boosting language learning through well-defined dynamic classroom interactions.

The first step consists of designing effective cooperative teams. Based on the students’ proficiency level, heterogeneous groups of four are formed at the beginning of the school year including, to the extent possible, high, middle and low achievers, both sexes, and students with different interests and motivations. Once the teams are set up, both the cooperative setting and the specific strategies we use will be characterised by all or most of the following:

1. Everybody working at the same time!

When working cooperatively, every single student in the class is working at the same time, which means more on-task time for them and more interaction going on. There is no one student doing most of the talking, or no quieter student struggling with participation. Take, for instance, a popular cooperative learning strategy such as Numbered Heads Together:


Numbered Heads Together

  • Students count off 4s (or they may be assigned a number for the whole term or year.)
  • Teams discuss a teacher-generated question or work on an activity until all members can answer it.
  • The teacher calls a number 1-4: only those students with the number called can answer.

Because the students do not know who is going to be called, they all need to make sure they can all answer the question or activity, and that they have listened to each other.

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2. Less teacher talk, more student talk.

Who has not struggled to some extent with limiting teacher talk or allowing for sufficient thinking time at some point in their career? Cooperative learning strategies put the students at the very centre of the learning process and provide opportunities for quality thinking time while practising the target language.

3. Individual accountability.

Unlike informally assigned groups, where very often some students do all the work while others do little or even none for various reasons, the strategies used in the cooperative classroom are structured so that no student can coast on the efforts of others. Every student in a cooperative team is responsible for his/her own contributions to the group and learning gains. The students engaged in Think-Pair-Share, for example, need to rely on each other to carry out the task:


Think-Pair-Share

  • The students work individually on a question or activity before pairing up.
  • Pair shares responses and reaches a consensus.
  • Pairs share with the class.
    (Think-Pair-Square is an alternative strategy in which pairs check with the group of 4 before reporting back to the rest of the class.)

4. Equal participation.

All the students become involved in the learning process no matter their language level. Indeed, each student is encouraged to make unique contributions based on their interests and motivations, which will at the same time assist in developing interpersonal skills that can benefit communication with others. In Roundtable, it is the addition of the students’ contributions that will be reported to the whole class:


Roundtable

  • The teacher poses a question/activity.
  • The students take turns to write answers down.
  • It may be sequential, with one paper being passed over, or simultaneous, with four papers going around at the same time.
  • Teacher calls a number 1-4.

5. Sink or swim!

In cooperative teams the success of each member of the group depends on the success of the whole team. Apart from making sure each student does well, this positive interdependence also requires that the students make sure they can understand each other during the task, so communication strategies that allow them to speak and listen for understanding become the most relevant.

Of course, our ultimate goal is to improve the linguistic competence of each and every one of our students, who should be able to read, write, listen and speak independently in a variety of contexts and for multiple purposes. Devoting classroom time to cooperative work, though, will certainly help to promote a rich, communicative and interactive environment based on differentiation and equal participation, an environment in which the students are assessed both individually and as a team as they work together towards the same goal.

It takes time to set up a cooperative classroom that works, and strategies should be introduced little by little, but in my experience it’s not only worth it but a much better way to respond to so many of the challenges we face in the language classroom on a daily basis.


JOHNSON, D.W., JOHNSON, R.T. & HOLUBEC, E.J. (1994): Cooperative Learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

KAGAN, S. & KAGAN, M. (1994): The Structural Approach: Six keys to cooperative. In S. Sashran (Ed.) Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, pp. 115-133. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

SLAVIN, R.E. (1992): When and why does Cooperative Learning increase achievement? Theoretical and empirical perspective. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz and N. Miller (Eds.). Interaction in cooperative groups. The theoretical anatomy of group learning, pp. 145-173. New York: Cambridge University Press

individual -v- group by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr

individual -v- group” (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee


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Bringing closure to a lesson

Bringing closure to a lesson connects what has just been learnt with both previous and future learning experiences, encourages student reflection on their work and progress, and provides invaluable information for formative assessment. The amount of time spent on lesson lead-ins and the variety of activities and strategies used to this end has often little to do with the time devoted to wrapping up a lesson, missing a meaningful learning opportunity altogether – and one that is notably crucial.

At its very simplest, asking the students a variety of questions on different aspects of the lesson or project, having them predict what the following lesson might be about, or just eliciting one-word responses from them, are all quick effective ways of closing a lesson. When time allows, cooperative strategies such as Think-Pair-Share or Numbered Heads Together will result in far richer responses by having students compare and analyse their thoughts while keeping each of them accountable for their contributions. Stand and Share, for instance, is one strategy I’m particularly fond of for lesson closures:

1. On a slip of paper students write down something they have learnt, or a short personal response to some reading or speaking activity. Focusing on different aspects of a lesson each time you use the strategy will make it the most meaningful.
2. Students stand up and take turns reading their reflections. If a student has something similar, he/she may sit down.
3. Continue until all the students are sitting down.
4. Collect the slips of paper at the end to keep the students accountable during the whole process.

There are times, however, when an activity will take much longer than we had expected, extra support might be needed at some point in the lesson, or you may feel that some impromptu interest raised by the students should be dealt with at that moment. (Your lesson may even be interrupted by institutional announcements, unplanned assemblies, and for a myriad of other reasons – but that rant belongs somewhere else!) Providing a choice of short closure activities that students can complete on their own, even at home, can be a good way to guarantee that some type of closure is done when we run out of time, but it’s also a good resource that allows the students to reflect on different aspects of each lesson using a wider variety of different tasks.

The students choose one of the tasks in the worksheet below that they think best suits one particular lesson and keep a record of the dates. The teacher can then collect these every now and then to check their responses and use that information for future planning, or as the case may be. In addition, the taboo cards and the multiple choice questions written by the students can be collected and be the basis for a great revision session, while the thank-you notes can be distributed perhaps every other week, hopefully contributing to enhancing rapport among classroom members and, ultimately, meaningful learning.ClosureClosure.pdf

Three content-based teaching strategies

Whether you’re teaching content in a CLIL setting, carrying out an inquiry or problem-based project or simply want to check understanding of an expository text such as an article or a news report, these are three of my favourite content-based teaching strategies both due to their simplicity and the effectiveness with which they help structure the learning process. The three strategies share a number of inbuilt characteristics that make them ideal for our purposes:

  • They all tap into the students’ prior knowledge.
  • They set a purpose for learning: by comparing what students know and what they don’t, interest will arise and challenges responded to.
  • A final self-assessment of the task is included, contributing to an effective closure at the end of the lesson or project.
  • They provide students and teachers with a clear framework: everyone knows where they have started and where they are heading at any stage in the lesson or project.
  • They are easy to implement!

Anticipation guide

Writing ten statements about the content to be read and/or discussed and having students guess whether the information is true or false will not only introduce the topic to the students but also check their prior knowledge and create the need to fill an information gap. For it to work well, a few sentences should be about things we know our students will already know.

In its simplest form, anticipation guides can be used with short texts as in the following example: AnticipationGuide
Anticipation Guide.doc

Anticipation guides, however, work even better with longer units of study, adding both a starting point and a series of guidelines that should reflect key content that we want our students to focus on. In addition, because the statements offer a meaningful context where a need for clarification is created, anticipation guides are also a great tool to pre-teach key vocabulary that the students will need along the project.

Here’s the Answer. What’s the Question?

A more guided version of the above, in this strategy students choose the right answers about the text(s) they are going to work on. Students are first introduced to the topic by having them think of possible questions for each of the answers and use their own knowledge – and their own guesses – to get them involved in the task in a meaningful way. As with anticipation guides, both questions and answers are checked at the end of the reading or listening task for self-assessment purposes.

In the example below, students were introduced to a few extracts from “The Great Gatsby” using this activity:Here'stheAnswer.What'stheQuestion.Here’s the Answer. What’s the Question?.pdf

K-W-L

A K-W-L is a simple three-column graphic organiser: students complete the first one with what they already KNOW about the topic, the second with what they WANT to know about it, and at the end of the task, the third column should reflect what the students have actually LEARNT about it. KWLKWL.pdf

The K-W-L chart is, therefore, a much more flexible alternative that will adapt to all kinds of tasks and will promote student-centred instruction. Indeed, even though teachers may guide the W step to focus on specific information, the K-W-L chart works best when it is used as a tool to answer the students’ specific needs related to the content being covered. Yes, it will require some extra planning as the project evolves (sometimes even on the spot!) but, after all, responding to the students’ real needs, interests and motivations is what true teaching is all about, isn’t it?

Double-Entry Journals: a flexible reading comprehension tool

Most of my students are required to read at least one unabridged book every year as part of the curriculum. These students are at least at a B1 level, but differences in language and comprehension skills within the same group of students are not uncommon. As a complement to small-group guided reading sessions or literature circles, I have found double-entry journals especially useful as a flexible tool that adapts to each student’s performance level in a very efficient way, working just as well with short stories or other types of text.

Double-entry journals are typically made up of two columns: students select a quote they find relevant from the text and write it down on the left column, and then they write their personal response to it on the right one. Students are given a number of options to guide their reactions and make them as varied as possible. For example:

  • Personal reaction (How do you feel?)
  • Personal connection (“This reminds me of…”)
  • Is there a good idea in it?
  • Any questions about one of the characters? Or the narrator? Perhaps the plot?
  • Make a prediction about what is going to happen later in the book.
  • Explain any previous reference to something that has already happened in the book. Does it clarify things?
  • Is there any word you have learnt in the passage that you particularly like? What about the style?

Double-Entry Journal

In all of these cases, students are encouraged to interact with the text at different levels, making reference to other passages in the text itself, or setting up connections between the text and the world or between the text and the students themselves. And perhaps most important for us here, students can complete the task successfully at their own language level. The following are examples of journals that students from the same group are currently working on as they read “King of Shadows” by Susan Cooper:

Flexibility is, therefore, what makes double-entry journals ideal for EFL students:

  1. Students are allowed to interact with the text in a way that is relevant to the reader.
  2. Several comprehension skills which are usually transferred from L1 can be demonstrated at various levels despite proficiency limitations. Even fairly complex ideas can be explained in a communicatively efficient way in fairly simple English.
  3. The fact that students can work at their own performance level encourages student motivation and a sense of accomplishment. It also promotes writing fluency.
  4. Apart from personalised feedback from the teacher, double-entry journals can be the starting point for reading circles and shared orally with other students.

I have also noticed that students writing a double-entry journal tend to be more careful with their reading, going back and forward more often or looking up certain words to clarify something that has particularly caught their attention. They also make use of context clues more often, which results in a reading experience that is far more precise and enriching. Finally, if you want to implement double-entry journals, I recommend starting with short texts first and modelling the process until students are familiar with the procedure.

Double-Entry Journal