How to make group work work

November 2, 2015


Lesson stages

Beginning of the lesson | Discussing homework | Instruct students | Individual work | Group work | Lesson Reflection

CLIL is all about simulating language output (among other things of course) and the best way to simulate output is by motivate students to talk.

Sounds simple enough right?

As discussed before, individual work should have a place in your lesson, but motivating students to talk and providing feedback on their use of language is also vital.

But how can you make group work work?

The importance of group work

In a CLIL lesson the focus is not primarily on the subject. It is also important to stimulate language output and develop higher order thinking skills. According to Sonia Casal (2008), cooperative learning does just that. ” Cooperative learning may help enhance CLIL contexts, catering not only for the development of comprehension skills and better reasoning, but also for interaction and communication.”

The advantages of group work are plenty. Already in 1977, Long did some research on this and he founf five advantages (and I quote)

  1. group work increases opportunities for practicing the target language;
  2. it improves the quality of conversations among students, since face-to-face communication in a small group is a natural communicative situation
  3. it is the first step towards individualization in education
  4. it promotes a positive affective atmosphere
  5. it is a source for student motivation.

Need I say more?

Collaborative vs. Cooperative

For those of you who are a keen read, you might have noticed I use a couple of terms for group work. To make sure we talk about the same thing, I should clarify something first.

Group work essentially means students work in groups. Period.

Collaborative learning is a method of teaching in which students team together to explore a question or topic.

Cooperative learning is a specific kind of collaborative learning. In cooperative learning, students work together in small groups on a structured activity. Both individual and group results are assessed and groups have to work as a team.

In other words, group work might be a bit too broad a term. Cooperative learning is the scaffolded version of group work. With not just content posing a challenge for our students but also the language all integrated in the same task suggest a clear structure.

Creating groups

Okay, enough research. Let’s get practical and think about how to implement this in our lessons.

The very first thing to do is to create group.

This can be a challenge in itself. Do you allow students to create the groups? Do you make the on your own? What do you take into account?

From my experience, creating groups of 3 to 4 students is the ‘ideal’ group size. Any more will result in too much talking about other things and less will not be group work. Obviously.

As for the one responsible for creating the groups, 9 out of 10 times that would be me.

I select which students should be in a group. This can be done every lesson, every chapter or every period of time. Also, I do mention that if they want to change groups they can come and talk to me, but first have to discuss this with the person they want to swap with.

This has never happened, no matter how strong the initial response to my rearrangement was.

Activities for cooperative learning

So, what can you do in the groups? Placing them like this should not be a variation on pair work but make full use of the size of the group and variety of students.

A couple of things that I do with my groups:

  • I number the different people in a group from 1 to 4 and a different number is the group leader every lesson. The group leader is the only one who can ask me questions, so he or she should relay the question to me or explain it themselves. Because the responsbibility changes every lesson, every student will have to fullfull this role at some point.
  • Using the same numbered students, you can say you want ‘number 3’ to answer in each group. If you allow some time before this students have to discuss the assignment because they can be randomly chosen.
  • Think pair share. A classic. You first ask for silence when you provide a task, then students discuss it in there groups after which the task is discussed with everyone.
  • Expert groups. This activity requires a bit more preparation time but is quite worth it. At the end of a topic I ask the groups to discuss different parts of the topic, after which I rearrange the groups to allow one ‘expert’ per group and make them do a set of activities that require all the different aspects of the topic.

Different roles

What I do NOT do, is use a lot of different roles. Yes, I do use a group leader, but that’s the only one.

With a lot of different roles and responsibilities students are not quite sure what to do, and the teacher has to micro manage who does what. I don’t like micro managing…


Quite a read, but I hope you learned something here! Let me know your thoughts on working in groups, activities that work for you or your opinion on different roles. Looking forward to it!

Mentioned websites/articles:

On cooperative and collaborative learning (updated link!):

Sonia Casal (2010) Cooperative learning in CLIL contexts.

Experiment with cooperative learning

More info on Kagan’s Cooperative learning

Long, M.H. (1977) Group work in the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language. Problems and potential, ELT Journal

Interesting follow-up read: The Benefits of Technology in the Classrom

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