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Best practices and tips for effective pair work

Best practices and tips for effective pair work

Working in pairs is one of the most-loved set ups in the language classroom. However, without  proper care and attention, these moments can crumble into a mess of misunderstood instructions, blank stares, or chaos of chatter in any language but English. Been there? (We have too.) Here are a few tips for smooth, effective pair work.

Choose the right sort of activity

Before setting up, remember that not all activities lend themselves to pair work. There must always be a benefit to working with a partner, rather than individually.

As a rough guide; short activities, or longer activities with clear steps, work well. Problem-solving, comprehension questions following a listening or reading, and project-based activities are good avenues to explore. Filling in worksheets? Not so much.

PS: (Check out these ideas if you need to refill your toolbox.)

**Give clear instructions


Before you even set foot in the classroom, make sure you have a solid goal in mind for the activity, and know how to give clear instructions. (Simple, concise instructions will reduce student interruptions and fact-checking mid-activity!)

After explaining the activity, always demonstrate, using a student as your partner, and check understanding with a few quick questions.

Finally, set a clear time limit, and show students how you will signal when time is running out. (You may like to call out a certain word, or use a sound effect, alarm, or stopwatch app.)

**Choose partners creatively


There’s one thing students absolutely need for pair work: a partner. While some students will routinely—and eagerly!—pair off, their shyer or newer classmates may feel left out. To skip uncomfortable moments, have a few creative solutions up your sleeve. These are some of our favorites:

  • Hand out a quick matching activity to partner students (e.g., find the other half of your sentence, match the infinitive with the past simple, an adjective with its opposite, or a picture with the written word).

  • Ask the student to “line up in order of___________”, and have them pair off with whoever is next to them. (Try from youngest to oldest, in order of star signs, from most to least siblings, closest to farthest commute from school, etc.)

  • Ask students to pick a name out of a hat.

  • Stick colored post-its under their chairs. Students pair up with whoever has the same color (add easy designs to each post-it if you don’t have enough individual colors).

Keep control

99% of teachers have been there: All was going smoothly, until suddenly you were in the middle of a zillion decibel chatter fest—and not all of it in English. Young learners are especially talented at getting very loud, very quickly! Here are a few tips for keeping control:

  • Firstly, recognize that things will likely get noisy. To help, distribute pairs around the classroom to allow them to hear each other during the activity.

  • As when setting time limits, signal to students when the noise level has got too high (such as a call and response, hand clap, or bell).

  • Prepare something for the fast finishers to keep busy with (you know who they are!).

Pair work continues to be a great method to increase student talk time, social interactions, and switch up the energy in class. With a clear instructions, techniques for keeping volume under control, and methods to encourage students to work with new partners, there’ll be no surprises throughout. And that’s a win for everyone!

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