Adrian Tennant gives an introduction to using pairwork for teaching speaking skills.

Photo of students working specifically in pairs in a classroom.

Source: Hero Images, Getty Images/Hero Images

In the first of this series of articles on teaching speaking skills, we’ll look at pairwork.

Don’t all teachers use pairwork?

Well, no. Sometimes teachers are worried about using pairwork because it means that lots of students are speaking at the same time and so it’s difficult for the teacher to keep control and to hear what students are saying.

An important point to make here is that being in control doesn’t necessarily mean all interaction going through the teacher. It means setting up activities that are appropriate to the needs of your students and the stage of the lesson.

When can I use pairwork?

Pairwork does not need to be limited to any one stage of the lesson and doesn’t necessarily need to be seen as purely a speaking activity. For example, you could start your class with a vocabulary pairwork activity where students take turns explaining words from the previous lesson to each other. Another opportunity to use pairwork is before a reading or listening task where students need to predict what they will read or listen to based on the title of the text. There are also plenty of opportunities for students to work together after they’ve done the reading or listening to check and discuss answers together.

So, quite clearly, pairwork doesn’t need to be limited to the final stages of a lesson but can be interspersed throughout.

Why should I use pairwork?

There are some clear advantages to using pairwork. First, in large classes it gives more students the opportunity to speak. Imagine you have 30 students and your class is an hour long. If your students took equal turns speaking and you did no speaking at all, and assuming there was no reading or listening either, your students would still only get two minutes each! So, if they have two lessons a week for thirty weeks they’d each get two hours in total, and that’s only if you don’t speak. Quite clearly, this is absurd. So, by using pairwork you can maximise the opportunities for your students in terms of time spent speaking.

Another reason is that students will learn from each other. Learning is not just a top-down activity where the teacher opens up the top of the student’s heads and pours in the information. By using pairwork you give students the opportunity to learn from each other and learn from doing.

Finally, pairwork gives students a degree of privacy and allows them to try things out that they might not attempt in the more public forum of a class discussion or a teacher-fronted activity. When students speak with a partner only one other person can hear their mistakes (and, of course, the teacher can her them if he or she is monitoring). This helps give shy and reserved students more confidence in their ability to use the language.

Are there any disadvantages to pairwork?

Yes. There is, of course, a loss of control in terms of how much the teacher can check and hear. This does mean that some students may continue to make mistakes simply because the teacher does not hear them.

There are also issues to do with how you pair the students up. Some students may tend to dominate the speaking exchange: shy students may say little or nothing. A weak student may benefit from being paired with a strong student, but will the strong student also benefit? It is no good simply putting students into pairs without also taking into consideration who they should work with. A key point is that variety is good. If students always work with the same partner, then any problems will continue (and often get worse).

How do I put students into pairs?

There are lots of different techniques. A lot depends on your seating arrangements. Where seating is flexible you may well have your students sitting in a semi-circle. Asking students to work with the person next to them and moving them around is then quite easy. However, to change pairs it is not always necessary to move all the students. Simply move one student from one end to the other and you automatically create new pairs all the way around the circle.

When students are sitting at desks it becomes slightly more complicated, but another easy technique is to ask students to work with the person behind or in front of them.

Sometimes you might want to choose the pairs and at other times you may wish it to be random. For example, ask students to stand in a line with the oldest at one end all the way down to the youngest at the other end. Then pair the oldest with the youngest, the second oldest with the second youngest, and so on down the line.

Are all pairwork activities the same?

No. We’ve already mentioned using pairwork for brainstorming, pre-reading/listening prediction activities and for checking and comparing answers, so quite clearly there are lots of different types of pairwork.

It’s also useful to remember that students should have a genuine need or a reason to speak together. Simply telling them to work in pairs does not make it a valid or useful technique. Creating a need to talk together either because they are sharing ideas and information or because they have different pieces of information or different opinions will make pairwork far more meaningful.

Some practical ideas

The information gap

Give the students two pictures that are very similar but have ten differences. Students take turns describing their picture to each other and trying to find the differences.

Another type of information gap activity is the gapped text. An example of this is activity 1 on the Shakespeare CLiL material.

The opinion gap

Read the text below:

Three young people have been entered for a competition, Young Person of the Year. Each one has done something special. You must decide who should win and what the prize should be.

  • John Kirk, 15. He rescued a dog that fell into the local river. The dog’s owner was so happy she gave John £100.
  • Amanda Stewart, 13. Amanda was in a car crash last year. She was badly injured and missed eight months of school. When she returned she passed all her exams.
  • Greg Peterson, 14. Greg became the youngest World Chess Champion earlier this year. He started playing when he was three years old and has been playing against adults since he was seven.
  1. Make your choice and think of the prize.
  2. Talk to your partner and try and agree.

An information exchange

Ask your partner these questions.

1. What’s your favourite food?
2. What did you eat last night?
3. What are your hobbies?
4. What did you do at the weekend?
5. What is/was your favourite school subject?

 Are you similar or very different?