6 Week Challenge: Week 5 – Student Interactions


April 12, 2013 by gemmalunn

This week I wanted to change the focus from me to my students. I recorded some students (after getting their permission) during group activities and considered what changes I could make to improve and increase the interactions. However, this week seemed to raise more questions than answers so maybe you can help…..

Seating arrangements

Students sit in groups of 4 (as you can see from the photos) and these are mixed ability. The range of abilities is as wide as A1 to B2 (on the Common European Framework). The main reason behind seating students in this way is so that lower level students (Ss 3&4) can get help and support from higher level students (Ss 1&2) and higher level students can play the role of mini-teachers; a role which most have embraced.

My classroom

I regularly use group work and the format of having mixed ability groups works well, however, as you would expect it is usually the two higher level students who dominate. This isn’t always the case but I worry that lower level students sometimes feel left out and struggle to contribute or feel embarrassed or unable to participate. Students’ ability is not the only consideration needed when observing interactions: “because of individual differences in learners’ personalities and their individual cognitive styles, different patterns of interactions can often be observed among learners in any one class” (1)

The activity

Students make a dialogue based on a picture using the key expressions from the lesson. With grade 2 the key expressions were for making, accepting and declining suggestions. I showed them a picture (like the one below) and they made a dialogue, for example:

Let’s go fishing.

I’d love to but I can’t, I hate the smell of fish.

Picture from @grahamstanley ELTpics

Picture from @grahamstanley ELTpics

Groups write their answers on their white boards then share them with the class, to push the students (demand high!) and encourage creativity I give 3 points if they give a unique answer and only 1 point if it’s the same as another team’s. During activities like this I let students decide who will do the writing.

The recordings

I recorded 4 groups from the first class. It was really interesting to listen to the recordings and hear how students interact on their own without me peering over their shoulders / tables! It was reassuring to hear higher level students translating for lower level students and also to hear students correcting each other. However, as predicted students 1 and 2 spoke and contributed the most.

Small changes

I could only think of one small change to make this week and this was to nominate a ‘writer’. I thought this may change the dynamic and increase involvement. So in the second class I nominated one writer (student 3) for the whole of the activity. Some students were a bit worried and I saw a few higher level students getting frustrated when their peers made spelling mistakes or took too long writing. A couple of times I saw the higher level student had taken over the writing and had to remind them who was ‘the writer’. In the recordings I noticed more diverse interactions as the higher level students needed to give ‘the writer’ a lot of input and help with spelling etc. Also, from my observations during the classes I could see the dynamics of some groups had changed with student number 3 obviously playing a central role. However, this still did not solve the problem of involving the lowest level student (number 4) so in the next class I changed the writer on each turn. This is problematic as some number 4 students struggle with writing and needed a lot of help which frustrated their peers and probably caused them to feel stressed. However, I did notice them paying more attention and getting more involved during the activity so maybe the pressure was positive.

I find it hard to strike a balance between encouraging lower level students and forcing them to get involved and thus making them stressed. I do think it’s beneficial for them to listen and learn from the other students but I want them to get involved too. Until now I have encouraged participation of lower level students in various ways: designating specific roles, highlighting the fact that Ss can share ideas in Korean first, using a variety of activities and projects to build good group relationships (see Alex Walsh’s recent post for more info on the benefits of group projects). If you have any other ideas please share them in the comments.


This was the first time I have recorded only students and I found it really beneficial to listen to what happens whist the teacher isn’t present. I would like to try this with other interactions such as pair work and also listen to the recordings with the students to see what their opinions on interactions are. Maybe some more active students do not realize how much more they speak than the more passive ones and vice versa.

This week raised a few questions which I’ve been thinking about and need to look into more deeply; these seemed to have strayed from the topic of interactions but nevermind it’s still useful! I’d love to hear your thoughts and also any similar experiences…

In a class of 30 mixed ability students is it possible and / or necessary to involve all of the students all of the time? – I don’t think so, if you do then please let me know how!

– Do some students need to contribute and actively be involved in all activities in order to learn or can they learn by watching and listening to their peers? Theories like total physical response emphasize the importance of listening (in the early stages of language learning) and teachers wait until students acquire enough language to speak spontaneously. Different personalities also need to be considered as some people are naturally more active than others.

– Is it is fair to nominate roles and force students to be more active? This causes some students a lot of stress, is this stress necessary to help students learn or will it have the opposite effect and raise their affective filters?

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

1 – Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms 1996 Richards, J & Lockhart C.

Next week is my final week of this challenge and teaching at my school. I’m going to end with a big change and try something totally different in my classes…..


6 thoughts on “6 Week Challenge: Week 5 – Student Interactions

  1. tomtesol says:

    Really rich detail and interesting observations from the front, Emma; a lot of it sounds familiar. As with everything, I haven’t much time, but I did want to ask a couple of questions. I think you’re onto something with assigning roles. Perhaps some of your students’ frustrations with being assigned a role can be relieved by coming up with roles for everyone in the group, and then rotating those roles each time, so everyone has a go at each role? Have you ever tried this kind of ‘Talking Heads’ format? Dunno if it might apply. Also – does the competition cause some of the stress? Was there stress before you began assigning roles? You could try pyramiding the presentations — have pairs of groups show each other, rather than to the whole class. Then (if you wish) pairs of pairs picking their favorites, etc. Just some thoughts on mixing it up a bit so more students could possibly do more talking…

    • gemmalunn says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Tom. I have tried assigning everyone a role a few times and I’ve had mixed success but it’s something I should try more as I feel like it would be more effective the more students get used to it.
      The competition format is the best way for me to motivate and engage students, they are used to these so I don’t think it causes stress but the assigning of roles did (not for everyone but just a few). I think the thing I need to encourage is collaboration and team work. I don’t think this is promoted much in Korean schools so working in small groups is probably quite rare here, don’t you think?
      Pyramiding is a good idea, thanks, will try that.
      Thanks for giving me lots to think about.

  2. swisssirja says:

    Dear Gemma, great reflection again! You know what, I relate to it 101%! I have exactly the same difficulties popping up in my exactly same level classes, i.e fromA 1 to B1 …. Anyway, one thing you might try fro, time to time is to create more homogenous groups, tou get lower levels work together and strong ones too. I know the importance of peer help, but sometimes, as you can see from your examples, always having strong students next to us can be stressful, demotivating and it can create a feeling of not being up to it, never. so why not reshuffle the groups every second lesson, and let lower levels puzzle over tasks on their own, suddenly a “weak” student becomes “strong” in the group and that does miracles 🙂

    • gemmalunn says:

      Thanks Sirja! Homogenous groups sounds like a good idea, I can imagine some weaker students then taking the role of a stronger and more confident student; like you say. Also, having a group of all higher level students would maybe challenge and push them more too.
      Thanks for the idea it helps me so much to reflect here and hear other people’s ideas and experiences.

  3. cmiller112 says:

    Good post Gemma, I was wondering if you put time pressure into this activity? How “intense” was it?…and what were your precise goals in this activity? Did you want students to “internalize” these functions (automaticity)…or was this practice immediately after you had exposed students to these functions through presentation?


    • gemmalunn says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for the comment.
      There was no time pressure in the activity, I waited for all of the groups to finish, I usually do have time limits but I knew this would stress ‘the writers’ out more so I took out this element.
      The goal of the activity was to practice the functions as we had just gone over them in the book, but this was not the first time students had been exposed to the expression, so some automaticity too.


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