9 ways to improve group work

1. Any more than four students is less effective. With five or more students there is often a student or two who has a tendency to not contribute. In a smaller group there is more peer pressure to contribute.

2. You will find that more advanced students will more readily work together in English. Beginners and low-level students will have a much greater tendency to speak in L1. So you should adjust the tasks accordingly. Low-level students may need more modeling, more scaffolding.

3. Make sure the instructions are very clear and do a demonstration if necessary. If there is some Continue reading “9 ways to improve group work”


Flipping the classroom

Currently there are some ideas amongst teachers about “flipping the classroom”. The idea is for students to have lessons at home and do homework in class.

This idea is being attached to Kahn Academy. Salman Kahn has produced a couple thousand videoed math lessons which are freely available and have been downloaded about a million times. Since Kahn has done such a good job of explaining mathematical concepts in a concise and clear way, teachers are letting Kahn teach their students. The students watch the videos at home and then when they come to class they will practice the mathematical concepts with the teacher there to help the ones who need help.

I am currently experimenting with flipping the classroom with my college students. I am using material from ESL Pod. Each lesson consists of the transcript of a short dialog and a 15-minute long MP3. The MP3 begins with the dialog spoken slowly, then an in depth explanation of the new vocabulary followed by the dialog again at normal speed. I would like to talk more about the merits of ESL Pod in another message but right now let’s focus on flipping the classroom.

Each Thursday I assign four of these ESL Pod lessons on a business English theme and recommend that the students do one a day. On the following Tuesday, I will give them a very short quiz on one of the lessons. The purpose of this quiz is just to put a little pressure on the students to make sure that they do the assignment or to find out who didn’t do it.

Then in the classroom, we will do some games or activities based around the theme of the assignments and the new vocabulary we learned. (Photo: Working in pairs, students use the new vocabulary from the lesson they studied at home to prepare and act out a role play with other pairs of students.)

I am currently engaged in a project to visit 100 classrooms to see how teachers teach and how students learn. I am seeing a lot of teaching going on that is identical to the type of teaching that ESL Pod or other resources do. I think that we as teachers should embrace these resources and use them to their full potential but then in our classrooms we should focus on doing what can only be done in person, that is, things like massive role plays and games and highly personal interaction activities.

Engineering an experience!

Call the New York Hilton Hotel and get this information...
Can we engineer an English-learning experience so impressive and even so intensive that we need to remind students to breathe?

A teacher asked me to address the question about what the teacher should do in the classroom. If extensive comprehensible input is doing the heavy lifting of language learning, if the teacher does not need to teach, drill and test students on he/she pronouns of gender grammar, what should the teacher do in the classroom?

Over the years I have mixed together the things I have learned from dozens of TEFL books (many written by Jack Richards and David Nunan, both of whom I interviewed when they came to China) with things I have learned from late-night TV comedians like David Letterman, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, best-selling business book author Joseph Pine, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Much of this was driven by problems I was having in my teaching. During my teaching career I have received so many complaints about my teaching that it is almost embarrassing. One adult student told me that I was the “worst teacher” he had ever had. Although I have received much in the way of praise for being the “best teacher” many of my students have ever had, I treasure the complaints. I sincerely believe any accurate criticism is worth more than 100 praises and anything really good about my teaching skills came as a result of such complaints.

This set me on a quest to really understand the dynamics of learning, the psychology of managing student motivation and classroom management.

Now what I am doing in my classroom is engineering experiences. By this I mean to create some degree of mental and emotional experience mediated by English.

One simple example of this I have already described. You know how English coursebooks always have some dialog for students to imitate in order to book a hotel room? To create a better experience, many teachers ask students to sit back-to-back. I think this is very good and causes students to focus their listening more and even their speaking to be more understandable. It is a rather odd thing to do in the classroom and its uniqueness also wakes students up from the boring routine of sitting facing the teacher.

But can we do better than that?

How about booking a real room in a real hotel with a real phone call to a real American? And what hotel? I had once shown the movie, “Regarding Henry”, to my students. When it came time for us to have a lesson about how to book a hotel room, rather than do some boring unrealistic coursebook dialog, we called the Ritz Hotel which was featured in the movie. My students were actually calling a real hotel that they saw in a movie. (We also ate a box of “Ritz Crackers” which were also featured in the movie.)

The students were excited and nervous about the idea. All of them were not going to make the call. We’d choose a student. But I let the tension fill the room and hang there, permeating my students’ minds as every student thought it might be him or her doing the calling. As I played back recordings of students from other classes making these calls (which are completely different than any kind of coursebook sample) my students desperately clung to every word in anticipation and some degree of fear that in a couple minutes it might be them talking to a hotel clerk on the other side of the world. Eyes were widened. Hearts were pounding.

For my “volunteer” I always choose one of my most outgoing self-confident students, sometimes the class clown. His English may not be the best but he is least likely to have a heart attack and die in the classroom due to the excitement and stress. Sometimes I tell them that I will choose another student to make the call after him. This keeps them on edge.

All the other students breathe a sigh of relief that they “missed the bullet” this time, but now they are intensely interested in how this phone call is going to go. After all, they might be next. Again they cling to every word to listen to the negotiation of meaning between the clerk and the student. I record the call and play it back so we can talk about what happened. The mp3 is available so students can review it further if they want.

Contrast the intensity of such an experience with the relative boredom of repeating a coursebook phone call dialog. I’m sure that you have done more exciting things with your students and that you have many more ideas. Please share them with us.

I think we can quit apologizing to our students for the boring coursebook and “think outside the book” or make the book exciting. Some teachers dodge their responsibility of providing students with engaged learning saying they have to “follow the book”, that they and the students are destined to some kind of Dante-ish classroom experience, like it or not.

Don’t you think we can do better?


Do not book a room unless you are going to use it. But you can call for information about rooms and facilities. Although it may be afternoon in my classroom and late night in New York, these hotels have 24-hour staff to manage inquiries. To develop skills in understanding different English accents we have called hotels in Switzerland, India and the Philippines. With today’s calling cards these long distance phone calls are quite cheap. I set the phone on speaker mode and put a microphone next to it so the class can hear. Calls to USA 800 numbers can also be made for free by using Skype.

Engineering an Experience! The coursebook

There are many reasons we cannot meet our students “on location” outside the classroom, as movie people say. Due to large class size or other restrictions, we are often confined to the classroom.

Much of the coursebook is tedious but there are ways to spice things up. I already explained how we change the routine boring role play of booking a hotel room into an actual phone call to a five-star hotel in New York. That really gets students stirred up, scared to death, tuned in and awake.[1]

Every time we have to teach from the book, we look for some exercise that we can really activate. One book had an exercise on speaking about charts and graphs from a survey. The survey was about types of cars people liked and there was some information about some rather old cars and unknown in our country but there were some good examples of language for discussing a survey and preferences.

To activate it, we skipped the car stuff and we asked the students to make their own survey. Work together with a partner. Choose a topic. Make a list of questions. Go around the room and survey at least ten other students. The room became full of activity. Everyone was talking. Everyone was smiling. They were completely engaged. Afterward they compiled the results of their surveys and prepared presentations with charts and graphs to explain their findings to the class. They did surveys on popular mobile phones, sports shoes, music stars, fast food restaurants.

One unit was very passively talking about environmental problems. To activate it students worked in pairs to choose one problem and decide on a solution. They prepared posters on a normal A4 size paper. They then took positions around the room something like at a trade fair or exhibition and tried to attract other classmates acting as “visitors” or “passersby” to ask for their support and a donation. These “visitor” classmates had an imaginary $100 to give out to the causes that appealed to them the most. Students looked to the coursebook for language to help them present their causes. The classroom was lively and the English speaking was at a roar level.

Activate any pairwork or groupwork activity in a coursebook by having the students work together with people they are not sitting with. Students always sit with their “buddies” but are often very passive with these friends. Get students out of their seats and working together with others that they are not so passive with. Make sure the boys don’t always bunch up.

Try to flip the topic on its head to grab the students’ minds and not let go. One teacher was going to explain how to do a résumé. We suggested he have the students also make a basic résumé and practice applying for a job from other students who act as employers but with a catch. They should make the résumé as a superhero; ie: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, etc. There was tremendous interest in the activity. The basic English is the same whether you are Superman or John Doe but the interest was tremendous and the students highly activated.

The class does not need to consist of only exercises that are so engaging. If you have just one exercise like this each class the students will then be much more alert with active minds and even ready to tackle something more routine or normally boring.

[1] When we call New York, we don’t book a room but we do ask for information working from a list of predetermined questions. For example, what kind of restaurants does the hotel have, what is the price of a room, do they provide airport pick-up, is there a beauty salon, can we bring our little Pekinese Shou-Shou?

>Tapping the power of commercials

>The following is a post of mine to the TESL-L teacher list in May 2006:

A teacher asks, “What makes a commercial more or less useful for classroom use? If you had to choose between two commercials to use in your class, how would you make the choice?”

I think commercials are becoming increasingly sophisticated as advertisers rely more and more on the soft sell approach. No longer can the housewife hold a box of Tide and say, “Cleans clothes whiter!” Now in 60 minutes you often have a drama played out by movie stars where a setting is created, characters introduced, a story develops, tension is added and then the plot twist with some ironic or funny ending. They are actually a mini-movie and sometimes more enjoyable than the TV show or movie that we intended to watch.


In one Budweiser commercial called “Girlfriend” three girls are sitting at a sidewalk café when one nudges the other, points and says something that we don’t hear as the audio is off. As they look on they see the back of the convertible at the stop light with a handsome guy and a girl with long blond hair. Then he reaches over and begins stroking her hair. We can see one of the girls is very upset. The guy answers his mobile phone ring and is saying something.


As the guy is talking on his phone the camera pans over to his passenger, an Afghan dog with beautiful long blonde fur and he pats it on the head.


Watch this commercial here. As you watch it, think about the affect it will have on your students if they have seen half of the commercial and tried to talk with their partners about the other half.

I look for commercials with a plot twist that will at first perplex the students when they try to piece the story together and then surprise them when they see (and hear) it all together.


Directors put a lot of effort in creating a powerful sense of mystery, suspense, curiosity in their commercials. To simply show a commercial straight through crashes through all of that in 30-60 seconds. But you can stretch out the affect, a driving force of their tremendous desire to satisfy that curiosity.

Then this desire powers the students into the English. They search all of their English resources for a way to communicate with their partner to resolve this mystery. Students get fully engaged in these exercises. They even forget it is an English “lesson” yet they are using English.

After partners have tried to figure out the story of the commercial, I have one partner “B” tell the class what “A” told him. Then another partner “A” tells us what “B” told him. This offers the students a chance to tell a story and use reported speech. All students listen intently as they are very curious about the story as well.

To extend the exercise, while the students are telling what their partner told them, you can write it up for all to see. Write it the way they say it with bad grammar and all. Get suggestions on how to improve the grammar, vocabulary or even the story’s facts. Students’ curiosity is still powering their interest into the story writing activity and it won’t be lost over mentioning some grammar or vocabulary issues. The teacher can guide the students to better language but should not correct the actual events of the story at this point.

After this, the students are still not sure if they really have the full idea of the story. Then play the commercial again with the sound. Every eye will be focused intently with a smile growing on their faces.

In the glow of satisfied curiosity, the teacher can go back and finalize the story that was written, perhaps a few facts are missing or better vocabulary can be used or other language points covered.

Of all the exercises I have done with my students, this has always been the most popular and the most requested.

>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Phone messages
Chat rooms
Email spam
Voice spam
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>Grouping students for pairwork or groupwork

> Here are some practical ways to manage a classroom of students in fixed seating. These methods work quite well and I use them constantly.

First you start with a classroom of students. In this case we have 48 seats but some classes may be less. Larger class sizes do exist but are not the rule and you can adapt the methods below for larger classes. Sometimes you may have many more seats than students and the students will spread out and some will sit near the back, etc. I will sometimes assign the latecomers to fill in some of the empty seats in the front part of the class and/or when it comes time to do pair or group work I’ll have some students move to sit near others to make up the right number. When I create pairs or groups I usually walk through the class pointing at each student and showing the student his or her partner(s). Here is our classroom of students:

0000 0000 0000
0000 0000 0000
0000 0000 0000
0000 0000 0000

Obviously, when it comes time for pair work they can talk with the person next to them. This is usually a friend anyway and someone it is easy for them to speak with. Here the pairs are indicated as either “xx” or “oo”:

xxoo xxoo xxoo
ooxx ooxx ooxx
xxoo xxoo xxoo
ooxx ooxx ooxx

I used to have all kinds of sizes for group work but now I strictly limit myself to arranging 4 person groups with rare exceptions. I firmly believe this is the ideal number for group work. When there are more there is a greater tendency for students who are not talking to space out or get distracted. In the example below you can see that some students only have to turn around to create the four person group. Again, the groups are differentiated as “x” groups of four or “o” groups of four.

xxoo xxoo xxoo
xxoo xxoo xxoo
ooxx ooxx ooxx
ooxx ooxx ooxx

Sometimes you feel that the dynamics are not working so well in the pairs. Perhaps some people seem to resist talking to the person next to them. Perhaps some folks who are sitting together are too chummy. I also think it’s good to get students out of their comfort zones, out of their seats, as it gets them a bit more stirred up and although they show a bit of reluctance at first they always wind up enjoying it. Mix things up by giving each student a number or letter, counting them off up to half the students and then repeating the counting. The students then find their partner (“a” finds the other “a” and “b” find the other “b” if you use numbers). In this case students might just stand up in different places of the classroom to do the exercise.

abcd efgh ijkl
mnop qrst uvwx
abcd efgh ijkl
mnop qrst uvwx

But if they sit down it might look like this (below). All that is really important is that a & a get together and b & b, etc. They can be standing around in different places in the classroom but if they did sit down and put themselves in a nice little order they could look like this:

aabb ccdd eeff
gghh iijj kkll
mmnn oopp qqrr
sstt uuvv wwxx

You can do the same thing when making up groups. Just try to find a way to count them off so that they are not already sitting near each other. Especially when doing groups like this the students may abandon trying to sit in seats when doing the exercise. It is really helpful for the students to get out of their seats as it gets their bodies more involved in the class activities (though not in a TPR way) and when their bodies get more involved their minds get more involved.

abcd efgh ijkl
efgh ijkl abcd
ijkl abcd efgh
abcd efgh ijkl

But if they sit down it might look like this (below). All that is important is that a & a & a & a get together and b & b & b & b, etc. Note that two students will turn around to talk with their partners behind them. So the 2 a’s in front will form the group with the a’s behind them and all talk together.

aabb ccdd eeff
aabb ccdd eeff
gghh iijj kkll
gghh iijj kkll

These arrangements will work well with intermediate and advanced students and they will talk and talk. You may have problems with low level students, beginners, etc. as they have a harder time expressing themselves in English and will be more tempted to talk in Chinese. If your students need a little more help to not resort to Chinese you’ll be surprised how effective a “policeman” is. The policeman is told to make sure everyone sticks to English. In this example, groups have been made and one student, marked with a “1”, is asked to act as a policeman. Using our earlier example of groups of four seated students it could be like this:

1abb 1c1d 1e1f
aabb ccdd eeff
1g1h 1i1j 1k1l
gghh iijj kkll

These methods are tried and proven. As long as care is given in assigning good speaking tasks and students are interested in learning English these arrangements will result in a classroom of happy noisy chatting students.