Advantages of Group-Centered Learning in Large Classes Rao Zhenhui, M.A. ...
Advantages of Group-Centered
Learning in Large Classes
Rao Zhenhui, M.A.
How to create group-centered learning in large ESL classes and
why it’s worthwhile.
For native English-speaking teachers trained in teaching
Benefits of Group-Centered Learning in
English as a second language (TESL) in native-speaking
Large Classes
countries, their first experience in teaching English as a
foreign language (TEFL) is likely to be a jarring one.
With the recent, gradual shift from teacher-centered
Instead of facing a small number of highly motivated stu-
classroom teaching to student-centered classroom
dents who must learn English in order to get along in
teaching in TESOL worldwide, group work has become
society, they see before them fifty or more students
a key feature in language study. Classroom experience
whose attitudes toward learning English may be ambiva-
and empirical research have demonstrated many
lent at best. And instead of dealing with students who
educational benefits of frequent use of group work in
are constantly being stimulated to communicate by the
large classes.
learning environment, they face students who may have
never had to communicate anything in English during
Group Work Helps a Majority of Language
their long, and often tedious, history of instruction. If
they use English with their students, even if limiting
themselves as much as possible to the English which
For a number of reasons, teacher-centered class-
their students have been taught in classes, these teach-
rooms tend to produce a small number of successful
ers are likely to receive only blank stares in return.
learners and a relatively large number of failures in a
To make things worse, many teachers are stymied by
large class. As central communicators, this minority of
the physical constraints imposed by large numbers in
successful learners speaks relatively frequently with the
confined classrooms. They feel unable to promote stu-
teacher. Spurred on by high expectations of success,
dent interaction, since there is no room to move about.
they apply themselves more diligently to the difficult
Meanwhile, teachers are also worried by the discipline
process of learning a language, and as a result they
aspects of large classes. They feel unable to control what
come out on top. Their success, however, is achieved at
is happening, and that classes often become too noisy.
the cost of failure for the majority. The average student
In addition, large classes make them unable to give indi-
has relatively few chances to interact with the teacher.
vidual attention to their students and to check all stu-
Group-centered classrooms, on the other hand,
dents’ work. Since they do not know who is learning
offer at least the potential for avoiding some of the built-
what, they are understandably concerned.
in disadvantages of a teacher-centered classroom. As
These are legitimate problems, but the fact is that in
the teacher gradually relinquishes his position as the
many locations in Asia class sizes are unlikely to be
focal point for classroom communication, opportunities
reduced in the foreseeable future. Given that fact, teach-
for active, meaningful, and varied use of the target
ers need to be helped to come to terms with these prob-
language increase substantially for the average student
lems. My purpose in this article is, therefore, to argue for
(Long). Also, as many have pointed out (for example,
a gradual, broad-based approach to innovation in the
Long; La Forge), a small learning group, once it has
English classroom. In particular, I plan to argue that
grown to maturity, can provide a more supportive
small-group learning experiences in large language class-
environment than a large, teacher-dominated class, and
es tend to be more successful when viewed as part of a
one in which all students are therefore more likely to
carefully orchestrated shift in the direction of a truly stu-
take the kinds of risks necessary for successful
dent-centered system of learning management.
language acquisition.
Teacher’s Edition
— 8 —
September 2001

Group Work Creates More Opportunities for
serve as a forum for planning and evaluation. Because a
large amount of class time is already being devoted to
small group communication activities, it could become
Carefully designed interactions between students
logical and natural for some of these activities to focus
provide a classroom forum for extended, meaningful
on a discussion of group aims or purposes, and of ways
exploration of ideas, which promotes communicative
to best achieve these aims. Also, because learning is a
language competence (Christison; Long and Porter; Pica,
group experience, the participants themselves are in a
Young, and Doughty) as well as literacy development
good position to evaluate the success of the activities.
(Enright and McCloskey).
Working with peers to
Experience also tells us that students working together
explore an issue or solve a problem requires students to
in groups can be given a role in evaluating one another’s
articulate and justify their own points of view, as well as
performances. This may also lead to the possibility of
exposing them to new ideas, perspectives, and specific
making the reward structure partially cooperative, with
approaches. This process of discussing, questioning,
individual students being rewarded and held account-
organizing, and applying course material facilitates com-
able for the success of group activities.
prehension and retention of critical lesson concepts and
academic language (Bejarano; McGroarty). In addition to
Organizing Group Work
promoting cognitive learning and interactional skills,
group work affects students’ attitudes and interpersonal
We should note that a group, under the direction of
a group leader who coordinates activities and serves as
a link with the teacher, is a largely autonomous practice
Group Work Facilitates Cooperation Among
unit. Activities which students are asked to undertake in
groups are defined by the teacher and discussed first
with the class as a whole, but once this has been done,
Another benefit in group-centered classrooms is
students should be allowed to work to a large extent on
that new linguistic input need not be channeled solely
their own. Divided into groups, students are now able
through the teacher. Packages of learning materials can
to sit together, facing one another in a small, intimate cir-
be provided which are designed to feed new input
cle (like a club meeting) and to talk freely. The teacher
directly into a peer learning group. It might also encour-
is still present and has an important and often demand-
age more helping behavior, thus spreading the burden of
ing role to play in helping and advising students, but she
teaching more evenly around the classroom. As the peer
has abdicated her previous role and become something
learning group eventually becomes the focus of class-
like a guide or a consultant.
room management, students will come to have a greater
Here are some key points in organizing group work:
stake in the success of the learning experience, and
many will therefore try harder to make it work. For
Group Logistics
example, jigsaw listening exercises and other communi-
cation games which require sharing of information in
The size of the groups must be worked out in rela-
order to accomplish a group task can introduce new lan-
tion to the number of students in the class, but as a gen-
guage; build on language that has already been learned;
eral rule there should be between five and eight stu-
require individual learners to share what they have
dents in each group and if possible not more than five or
already learned with one another; and introduce
six groups in the class. Groups should be formed by the
a pattern of language use which is spontaneous,
teacher and should include students of mixed abilities,
unpredictable, and involves relatively long stretches
on the principle that they will help one another in vari-
of discourse.
ous ways. Later on, students might be allowed to change
groups. Each group should have an identifying label (a
Group Work Enables Students to Plan and
name or a number) and a set position or workspace in
Evaluate Their Learning
the classroom so that, when students are asked to do
group work, they can begin with a minimum of fuss and
As the peer learning group gradually becomes the
delay. Usually, where possible, group work involves
central focus of classroom learning, it can also come to
some rearrangement of classroom furniture.
Teacher’s Edition
— 9 —
September 2001

Group Leader
Longer sessions may sometimes be needed—for exam-
ple, to complete a project in which the students are
Each group should have its own leader or coordina-
especially involved. In general, it is inadvisable to inter-
tor. Initially, he may have to be appointed by the teacher,
rupt an activity which is going well.
but since this role should change from student to stu-
dent, they can later be allowed to choose their own lead-
Difficulties With Changing Systems
ers. The function of a group leader is not to dominate
the group but to coordinate activities and to serve as a
Having discussed the potential benefits of group-
link with the teacher.
centered learning and illustrated how to organize group
work in large classes, it should now be possible to dis-
Role of the Teacher
cuss some of the difficulties that are likely to arise when
a teacher suddenly
The teacher’s main
©2001 Hayden Sewall
attempts to alter the cus-
task is to prepare students
tomary classroom system
(perhaps simply by brief-
without making accompa-
ing group leaders) for the
nying changes in other
activities they must under-
components of classroom
take. Having done this, she
The first
should to a large extent
point to make is that stu-
leave them to get on with
dents who have become
their work. However, this
accustomed to a teacher-
does not mean that she can
centered system of learn-
sit back and relax.
ing management will find
Students should be encour-
it difficult to involve them-
aged to consult her as the
selves in group work.
need arises and, depending
Teacher-centered classes,
on the type of activity and
in other words, breed
on the level of the stu-
teacher-centered learners
dents, she should visit the
who may be more prone to
groups and observe and lis-
compete than to cooper-
ten to what is going on. If
ate, who are more accus-
she participates in an activ-
tomed to answering ques-
ity, she should try to do so
tions and obeying instruc-
as if she were a member of
tions than to asking ques-
the group. Her job is no
tions and giving instruc-
longer to control or correct them. Instead, she should
tions of their own, and who look primarily to the
observe difficulties and mistakes, noting both individual
teacher for correction and guidance.
and general problems. In light of this, she will be able
Another problem with attempting to start group
to shape both her teaching and group activities for
learning with students who have acquired the target lan-
future lessons.
guage within the context of a teacher-centered interac-
tion network, is that such students are unlikely to have
Duration and Frequency
developed meaningful language and communication
skills. In group-centered learning in large classes, stu-
Many factors are involved in determining duration
dents need to be able to get a discussion going, break
and frequency—including the number of lessons per
silence, interrupt, steer other participants toward con-
week and the level of the class—but once students have
sensus, get a sidetracked discussion back on track, and
enough language for communicative activities, on how-
elicit responses from silent members without alienating
ever limited a scale, some group work should be carried
them. Where these skills are lacking, as they almost cer-
out about once a week for perhaps half a class period.
tainly are in a class with a history of teacher domination,
Teacher’s Edition
— 10 —
September 2001

group discussion is likely to be an unsettling and unsat-
Teaching Journal 31 (4), pp. 285-292, 1977.
isfactory experience.
Long, M., and P. Porter. “Group Work, Interlanguage Talk,
Finally, we may consider the consequences of main-
and Second Language Acquisition.” TESOL Quarterly 19,
taining a competitive goal structure and teacher-cen-
pp. 207-228, 1985.
tered system of evaluation in a class where a large
amount of group learning is envisaged. Here, the prob-
McGroarty, M. “Cooperative Learning: The Benefits for
lem is again one of incompatibility. If students perceive
Content-Area Teaching.” In P.A. Richard-Amato and M.A.
that in the final analysis they will be judged by the
Snow, ed. The Multicultural Classroom. Longman,
teacher, and that they will be rewarded on the basis of
their own individual performance rather than coopera-
Pica, T., R. Young, and C. Doughty. “The Impact of
tive group work, they will have no interest in the suc-
Interaction on Comprehension.” TESOL Quarterly 21,
cess of group experiences. Group work is likely to be
pp. 737-758, 1987.
much more successful when a cooperative goal and
grading structure give students a personal interest in the
successful performance of the group as a whole.
Rao Zhenhui (M.A.,TESOL, Flinders University) has been
teaching at the Foreign Languages College of Jiangxi
Normal University in China since 1996.
Teaching an oversized class will never be as easy as
teaching a small class, nor will students in such large
Resource Bulletin Board
classes ever progress as rapidly as those in smaller class-
es. However, this does not mean we can do nothing to
improve teaching in large classes. In this article, I have
TESOL Convention 2002
justified the use of group work in organizing classroom
teaching and attempted to make some suggestions as to
Dates: April 9-13, 2002
how to organize group activity in EFL teaching. It
should be emphasized that the teacher’s skill in class-
Organizer: Teachers of English to Speakers of
room management is a primary ingredient for success
Other Languages, Inc.
with group work in large classes, and that students
should be fully aware of what is expected of them and
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
be ready to work to achieve objectives set by the
teacher. Only in this way can more students obtain more
TESOL 2002
benefits from group work.
Theme: Language and the Human Spirit
Bejarano,Y. “A Cooperative Small-Group Methodology in
This annual conference includes pre- and post-
the Language Classroom.” TESOL Quarterly 21, pp. 483-
convention institutes, and publisher and soft-
504, 1987.
ware exhibitions. Some travel grants are avail-
able for international participants.
Christison, M.A.
“Cooperative Learning in the ESL
Classroom.” English Teaching Forum 28, pp. 6-9, 1990.
Contact TESOL, Inc., 700 South Washington St.,
Enright, D., and M. McCloskey. Integrating English.
Suite 200, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, USA.
Addison Wesley, 1988.
Telephone: (1) (703) 836-0774. Fax: (1) (703)
La Forge, P.
“Community Language Learning: An
Experiment in Japan.”
English Language Teaching
Journal 15 (1), pp. 8-11, 1977.
Please refer to the Editor’s Keyboard column
Long, M.B. “Group Work in the Teaching and Learning of
on page 2 for comments on a visit to the
English as a Foreign Language.”
English Language
TESOL 2001 convention.
Teacher’s Edition
— 11 —
September 2001