For many people, the best way to learn a new language is obvious – go and live in a country where that language is spoken. Unfortunately, for many people, this is also a hugely impractical solution. This is part of the reason why immersion courses, where only the second language is being spoken in class, have become so popular. Essentially, from the moment you enter the classroom, you are part of a microcosm in which the second language is the only way to communicate. The classroom is like a tiny embassy. It’s a little London, a mini-Madrid, a piece of Paris, or a bit of Berlin. And, just like if you chose to live in one of these capitals, you are often required to speak with the people around you using only the second language (thanks to the immersion method’s bedfellow – the communicative approach.)

Now, the immersion method and communicative approach are not beyond criticism, or tweaking, but their success stories from all around the world are numerous. Part of the reason for their success is that the communicative classroom encourages speaking, which is not only one of the most useful skills, it’s also the hardest to practice on your own.

So for the teacher following this approach, the question is: how do we maximise the speaking practice in our classes and exploit it to ensure our students’ speaking skills are really improving? In my experience as a teacher, and also as an observer, there is one obvious place to start:

Why should you do pairwork?

Researchers, coursebook writers and teachers consider pairwork and groupwork to have many benefits, and in my own experience, its absence can have a detrimental effect on even the most carefully planned of lessons. Pairwork and groupwork are good for:

– increasing student talking time, which, as mentioned above, is something students may not have access to outside of the class.
– allowing for individual differences in learning style
– encouraging learner independence
– taking the spotlight off of you and allowing you to monitor students or focus on particular individuals. This is especially useful with new – – teachers and new classes as it gives a chance to breathe and collect your thoughts.
– making the classroom more ‘real life’ by having a more natural form of interaction (as opposed to when the teacher is interacting with the students one at a time)
– allowing students to mix with everyone in the group. This is important when educating children, as we should be attempting to help them improve social skills by encouraging them to cooperate with each other. Adults also find it useful as it helps encourage a bit of group bonding.

I find that teachers enjoy pairwork too. And when they do complain, it’s often related to specific teaching contexts, e.g. pairwork in a large class creating a lot of noise and it being difficult to monitor students to ensure they are on task. I personally feel that there are often solutions to these problems, which, given all the advantages of pairwork, make them worth trying to overcome.

How do you go about pairwork?

Basic settings

– Pair students off with the person next to them using hand gestures and an instruction, ‘Talk to the person next to you. Ask them about three things they plan to do this weekend. You have three minutes.’
– Then, for added fun, tell them to work with a different partner and report the conversation they’ve just had: it could be the person across from them; or, students can be moved around and ‘repaired’.

This is a very simple example, but it has the key ingredients for a good speaking activity: there’s a task, students know why they are speaking and listening; there’s a time limit to add a little urgency; there’s ample opportunity for you to monitor, as there are several different conversations going on, and there’s a potential language focus (future forms, third person pronouns, reported speech, etc.) If you want to change the language focus or make it more interesting, just change the task, ‘Ask your partner about their worst habits.’ ‘Ask your partner what food they’d choose for their last meal.’ ‘Ask your partner what they would do if zombies attacked the school.’

Advanced settings

Ladder discussion – a classic, and for good reason. Imagine sitting on a subway train; the awkward silence, the lack of eye contact. Imagine how much more fun those subterranean journeys would be if we all just talked to each other. No? Well your students will love it.

– Set the students up just like they were sitting across from each other on a subway train.
– Give them a task, e.g. an interview.
– Some students (like kids) might enjoy role-playing that they are actually on subway train. This is especially fun if there is no table in the middle (you can play the conductor.)
– Your job is to walk up and down, monitoring.
– When the short task is finished, take one student from the start of one of the rows and get them to sit at the other end.
– Everyone on one side will now need to ‘budge up’ or ‘scoot over’ (essential classroom language), meaning that everyone will now have a new partner. Repeatedly doing this allows multiple interactions with multiple partners.
– When you feel you have monitored enough to give some content and/or language feedback, you can simply do some after everyone budges up and before they start talking to their new partner.

Pyramid discussion – this setup works well for a variety of speaking activities, but I’ll give an example, from one of my favourite classes, about planning a birthday party.
– I started by telling the 8 teenagers to talk to the person next to them about what type of things they would enjoy doing at a birthday party.
– Once they had some ideas, each pair joined another pair, making groups of 4.
– The 2 groups now had to plan their ideal birthday party. I monitored, helped them with unknown words and upgraded their language.
– Finally, I put the 2 groups together, making one big group of 8 and had them combine their two party ideas to make one big final party.
– To finish the lesson, the group of 8 had to present their party to me, making sure everyone had a role in the presentation.

So, to recap, the format for this pyramid was groups of 4x2, 2x4, 1x8. Although you need at least 8 students to do a pyramid discussion, it has some really nice benefits, especially for encouraging social interaction and cooperation.

Jigsaw reading (with a twist) – like all information gap activities, a jigsaw reading gives students a real reason to communicate with each other.

– The typical setup is to give one half of the class a story to read (student As), and the other half of the class a different story (student Bs).
– Students check their understanding with some questions and then Student As are paired up with student Bs.
– Student A then talks about their story while student B does another task, e.g. taking notes. After that, they swap roles.
– To finish, you can have a big group discussion and feedback on things the students had difficulty with.
– Alternatively, this activity can be done using one story, but split into two parts.
– And the twist, which I’m calling a ‘paperless jigsaw’, is to have students look up the stories on their phones/tablets by following two different tinyurl links – embracing technology and saving the environment in the process.

Executed well, this activity deals with the common criticism of pairwork: that it can’t be used with big classes. In fact, I recently demoed the paperless jigsaw at the ACEIA Malaga conference by designating entire rows of participants as student As and student Bs. The activity worked well. The texts were interesting (related to Donald Trump) and the nature of information gaps are such that people have a real reason to engage and communicate with each other

So, why not try out the activities above and getting some more pairwork into your classes. Also, for more information about research on the topic of speaking skills, pairwork and language teaching in general, have a look at the informative new blog I’ve started on the topic:

Scott Donald

Teacher and Teacher Trainer, CLIC IH Sevilla

Scott has been working in ELT since 2010. He spent four years in Hungary working for IH Budapest, where he did the DELTA and subsequently held the positions of Senior Teacher and YL-Coordinator. He left the cold winters behind and came to sunny CLIC IH Sevilla in 2014 to take on new challenges, such as examining, speaking at conferences and becoming a CELTA tutor. Always eager to learn, he puts his achievements down to a love of teaching, training and stealing other people's ideas.

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