An article offering suggestions and advice on how to individualize learning within a group.
As I understand it, your dilemma is: how can I marry the need to provide group work activities, with the need to individualize learning as much as possible – to treat each learner as a unique individual with his or her own needs, interests, learning style, and so on. This is a real problem.
There is clearly an important role for group work in the language classroom. It is a way of maximizing interactive practice time, especially in large classes. It is a way of distributing the collective knowledge of the class, for example, in group work vocabulary brainstorming tasks. It is a way of devolving more responsibility onto the learners, so that they participate more in class activities and, hopefully, take more responsibility for their own learning. And, finally, it is a way of forging a good classroom dynamic, especially when groups are collaborating in the fulfillment of a task, and, preferably, in a task in which they have some “investment”, and where, at the very least, they have some collective interest in achieving the task outcome.
But of course, there are problems, one of which you mention: group work threatens to override the interests of the individuals in the class. Dominant individuals take over. Individual learners feel deprived of the attention they expect from a teacher and worry that they are making lots of uncorrected errors. Group work can deteriorate into aimless chatter, often in the learners’ own language, and the more motivated students may feel that this is all a waste of time.
Here are a few suggestions as to ways you might find a workable balance between group work and the individualization of learning:
This is so obvious it hardly needs stating – but if groups of learners are left on their own, with no conspicuous monitoring, it is more than likely that the group work will deteriorate, and that individuals will feel neglected. So, move from group to group, ensuring that (a) the groups are “on task”, (b) that all individuals are involved, and (c) that individual students are getting the attention they deserve.
Try always to include a report-back stage after group work, where one individual (group appointed or chosen by the teacher) reports on the group’s task. This might mean giving a summary of the group’s point of view (after a discussion, for example), or reading a list of words and explaining their meaning (if the activity has been some kind of brainstorming task), or reading the group’s text aloud (if the task was a group writing one). In any case, this is a good opportunity for individual students to be heard and be seen – and to get individual feedback on – for example – their pronunciation. Also – and very importantly – if the group knows that it is going to have to report on their task, it may take the task a little more seriously than if there is no report back stage.
It’s often a source of surprise (and shame) to me to discover that individual members of a group don’t know each other’s names, so that, when they are reporting back on their group’s work, they say things like “She [pointing] said that….”. So make sure that – before the group gets down to its task, they have all introduced themselves and reminded each other of their names.
Make individuals feel that, even in group work, they have an important individual function, by giving each member of the group a clear role: e.g. chairperson, timekeeper, secretary, spokesperson, dictionary consultant, etc. You should try to vary the distribution of these roles, obviously, in successive group work activities.
During whole class feedback after a group work activity, try to make explicit acknowledgement of things that individuals said and that you heard while you were monitoring (another important function of monitoring is “eavesdropping”). For example: “I heard Alicia say an interesting thing about [the topic]. Alicia, would you like to tell the class….?” . Or “Bernardo has a funny story about that. Bernardo, tell the class what happened to you in….” And so on. This is an excellent way (a) of sharing the content of group work interactions with the rest of the class, and (b) of making individuals feel valued.
Balance group work with whole class work
For all the advantages of group work, there is also a lot to be said for whole class work when students can participate in a discussion. Even in big classes, where not all students get a “turn”, it is a good idea to include whole class work, if only to vary the kinds of interaction in the class. But this is also a good way – paradoxically – of individualizing the lesson, by, for example, inviting individual students to state their opinion, relate an experience, or display their general knowledge. And, especially, if the topic of the activity is something close to their interests. Even the students who don’t volunteer to talk will probably be listening closely to everything that is said.
Balance group work with individual work
It also makes a pleasant change when students are asked simply to work on their own. This can either be as preparation for subsequent group work (e.g. Make a list of five things you would take to a desert island. Now tell the rest of the group, giving reasons…). Or it can be as an end in itself – e.g. when learners are writing a text, individually, which is then handed into the teacher for individual feedback and correction. Again, it is important that the teacher is monitoring and helping learners as they work, so that the activity doesn’t feel too much like a test.