Group work: a snapshot

Lately I’ve started doing a lot more group work with my teens, specifically the thirteen year olds. They’re starting to get that teenager stare that’s accompanied with a hefty dose of silence. So I’m thinking, “Okay. They won’t talk to me any more. Maybe they’ll still talk to each other.”

So I put them in groups. The first thing they do in groups is ask each other how they’re doing.

The second thing they do is check their homework. They check it together first, taking turns reading out the answers (or their writing, depending on what was assigned) and giving each other suggestions or negotiating correct answers when there are differences. They can ask me if they can’t agree.

Yesterday they worked with a listening text. They had to listen to a conversation between a boy and a girl about their weekends and fill in the answers to questions on their workbooks. To be honest, I was curious how it would go. The text included vocabulary from several units before that hadn’t really been recycled much (because how often do you find opportunities to say ‘costume’ and ‘parade’).

Most of the students started out uncertain, so I played the audio again in the class and they tried to figure it out in their groups. They compared answers and the strongest personalities won.

“Okay, group. What did Felipe do last weekend?”
“He dressed up in a car studio.”
“A car studio?”
*giggles* “Car studio!”
“Do you think you could draw that for me?”
*laughter* “Play again. It is car studio!”

So I played it again and one of the other students finally heard ‘costume’. The ‘car studio’ girl insisted I write both on the board, so I did (because teenagers). But I made sure they wrote ‘costume’ in their books.

Teaching teens can be pretty tricky, but this group of them at least is still making progress. One of the most valuable lessons I learned about teaching teens is that just because they won’t talk to me, doesn’t mean they won’t talk.

A car studio

A car studio. Image from wiki commons. 

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  • Chewie  On February 4, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    “Teaching teens can be pretty tricky, but this group of them at least is still making progress. One of the most valuable lessons I learned about teaching teens is that just because they won’t talk to me, doesn’t mean they won’t talk.”

    You bet. Teens always have SOMETHING to say to each other…though they may not always be positive things. Good on you for keeping things moving.

    • livinglearning  On February 4, 2015 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’d love to hear your strategies for keeping your teens talking. Do you have ways to keep it positive?

      • Chewie  On February 6, 2015 at 7:36 am

        Unfortunately, I find it very difficult to get my students to say much of anything to each other in English. It’s possible in a small group. A class, though? It’s difficult even with a coteacher in the room to keep the students focused on L2. They don’t get many opportunities to speak and they’re still adjusting to the idea of talking about stuff that relates to class.

        As for keeping it positive: Wait times, questions, and follow-up questions delivered in a warm tone. Mistakes are always okay. I throw in some Korean words when addressing the class and usually screw up the pronunciation in doing so. I point out my mistakes and then say, “See, I learn and you learn, too.” This helps relax the class…I hope so, anyway. I also ask a lot of “unscripted” questions because as a foreign teacher I am quite curious about the students’ lives and how they feel about things.

  • Hana Tichá  On February 5, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Hi Anne.

    Earlier today, one of my colleagues asked me, with a somewhat desperate expression in her eyes, if I could give her some useful tips on making teens talk. I tried to come up with a satisfactory answer but I realized I didn’t actually have one – at least not one that could be applicable in all situations. As you say, every group is different and what works in one doesn’t work in another – it’s simply hard to find the right ‘ingredients’. Also, teens are terribly unpredictable and one never knows what will finally push the button and make them interested in a topic. I absolutely agree that letting teens share ideas in groups is the best (known) way of making them speak; I experience it every day – I ask a question and the only answer is silence. But once I add: discuss the question in pairs first before you tell me, they all turn into chatter boxes.

    Thanks for writing this thought-provoking post.


    • livinglearning  On February 5, 2015 at 1:14 am

      Hi Hana. Thanks for reading and for sharing that story. It is good to know that other people experience the same things I do, even so far away. One of my groups was so tough to teach today that I really questioned my career choice. I hadto remind myself that they’ll grow out of it and I’ll (probably) survive it. Hopefully they’ll still like English in the end. It is sometimes hard to convince kids and teens that there’s a good reason for them to learn English when none of their role models ever use it. (Sorry for the rambling reply to your comment.)

    • Sandy Millin  On February 8, 2015 at 11:19 am

      It’s interesting to read Hana’s sentence “I ask a question and the only answer is silence. But once I add: discuss the question in pairs first before you tell me, they all turn into chatter boxes.” As a CELTA tutor, one of the things I constantly tell my trainees is to let the students discuss things in pairs/group before they have to do it in front of the whole class. It increases their talking time and their confidence, and reduces the dominance of stronger students as more people have something to say.
      I then walk into input sessions and promptly forget to do the same thing, then remember as soon as I’m greeted by a wall of silence again 😉

  • timothyhampson  On February 6, 2015 at 8:05 am

    I feel like I’m going to be saying a lot of things you already know but I thought I’d share a few of my experiences from teaching this age group last year. I was only teaching conversation so it might not all be that applicable. Also I was teaching small groups at a hakwon which might make some things possible that wouldn’t be with larger classes.

    Firstly, I was really careful about how I was in the classroom. They’re reaching the age where their teachers are getting more and more serious and they have to worry about more tests. I tried to be as open and friendly as possible and used lots of humour. I also tried to show that I wasn’t some kind of perfect being (this bit didn’t take much effort). I showed them my Korean study book and tried explaining that language learning is about making lots of mistakes. It took a while but lots of my classes opened up to me after a while.

    I found that singling out students to give answers to really easy questions worked quite well. I’ve read in several places that is an awful idea but it seemed to work quite well as long as I knew they knew the answer. We always warmed up by asking each other ‘how are you / how was your weekend / how’s the weather’ type questions. I had a stuffed angry bird that I used to throw to someone to ask, they’d then throw it to someone else to ask that person a question.

    I did lots of pair work with really short exercises (typically ‘ask this question, ask a follow up question’). Keeping it short really helped them not get too stressed or confused about things.

    Lastly some other teachers seem to think this age group aren’t into games; they are! The class I didn’t really get to warm to me only really said anything when they were playing Guess Who. I can suggest more games but I’m sure you know more than me.

    Just to finish off lots of the stuff I talked about at English Expo was tested out on this age group, so some of that might be useful. I’m sure you know most of what I’ve written but I hope something is helpful.


    • livinglearning  On February 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      Heya Tim,
      Thanks for the comment. It’s always great to hear other teachers’ experiences and perspectives. Thanks for answering my request to give your top tips for teaching teens.
      It sounds like your students really liked you in the way they responded to you. I’ll have to try more games with my teens – it so often seems like there isn’t enough time, but I know they’d love it.

      Thanks again!

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