1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Student Collaboration in the ESL / EFL Classroom

Is Working Together Worthwhile?


Educators agree: Student collaboration is a valuable exercise in the EFL classroom.

However, while most of us agree that this is a very popular method, many EFL teachers who work in areas of the world where teacher centered classrooms are the norm may be the ones to first introduce it. And, they may encounter some resistance: Employers who are used to teacher centered models may object. "Various pedagogical difficulties arise from a mismatch between the host country's and the guest teacher's pedagogical views." (Alptkien, 1984). While not all problems can be solved with communication, many can. A guest EFL teacher can attempt to begin a dialogue with his/her employer. Being prepared for questions that may arise during the dialogue can help.

First, is working together worthwhile?

Yes, not only does "pair and group work immediately increase the amount of student talking time" (Harmer 1998), it provides the students with the opportunity to communicate with each other to share "suggestions, hypothesis, insights, feedback, successes, and failures" (Nielson, 1989).

Second, does collaborative work reduce individual thought?

Some argue that it does just the opposite: "interaction is essential to the development of individual thought" Vygotsky (1962; 1978). Collaborative effort allows students to change roles: They act both as students and teachers by "exhibiting a degree of self reliance that simply is not possible" (Harmer) in teacher centered environments.

Third, will students adapt to a new style of learning?

Students who have never experienced a student centered environment may be apprehensive, but they can adapt with some help. They will need to be introduced to pair and group work gradually. "It is a good idea to familiarize students with pair work at the beginning of the course by giving them this kind of very short task to perform. As students get used to the idea of working in pair and groups, the teacher can extend the range of activities being offered (Harmer). Bassanao and Christison (1984) offer a six step sequencing program: "restructuring, unified group, dyads, small group, and large group" to further this goal.

Fourth, how should the groups be formed?

There are no set rules, but many have offered some basic guidelines. Kippel (1989) suggests several basic seating designs (circle, half circle, block), and Harmer offers several procedural setups (pair, buzz groups, consensuses, debates) and even basic size guidelines, "no more than seven." There seems, however, to be "no firm research to give an ideal answer to the ideal combination of students of mixed levels. Teachers have to decide whether they will put strong students with weak students or whether they will vary the combination of the pairs from class to class" to fit their needs. (Harmer).

Fifth, what should be done about aggressive and shy students?

Turn taking activities can help students become aware of their behavior. Kippel (1984) offers activities that help students learn to take turns by having the speaker hold a ball and change it with each speaker or transferring a ball of string to one another so that the person who controls the conversation is identified by several lines of strings leading to and from him/her.

EFL teachers overseas wishing to incorporate collaborative methods often face difficulties when working in environments where teacher centered classrooms are the norm. Hopefully this information can help during dialogues with administrators who have questions.


Alptkien, C. and M. Alptkien. (1984). The Question of Culture: EFL teaching in Non-English Cultures Countries. ELT Journal 38/1: 14-20.

Bassanao S. and Christison M (1984). Developing Successful Conversation Groups. In Long, M. and Richards, J. (1987). Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Readings.

Harmer, J. (1989). The Practice of Language Teaching. New York: Longman Publishers.

Kippel, F. (1984). Keep Talking. New York: Cambridge University Press

Nielson, A. (1989). Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act. Illinois: The National Council of Teachers of English.

Vygotsky, Lev S. Thought and Language. In Nielson, A. (1962). Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act. Illinois: The National Council of Teachers of English.

Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society. In Nielson, A. (1978). Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act. Illinois: The National Council of Teachers of English.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. English as 2nd Language

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.