Beneficial Grouping Arrangements |
for Oral English
Vo Thi Kim Thuy, M.A.
Classroom research into student preferences and the effects of
different grouping arrangements on speaking practice.
Over the past few years, pair and group work have
are pointed out in Davies and Pearse, including (p. 125):
received more emphasis at the Foreign Language Centre
• Variety and dynamism.
of Ho Chi Minh City University of Education, Branch No.
• An enormous increase in individual practice.
2. More time has been devoted to pair and group work
• Low-stress private practice.
activities, particularly in encouraging students’ oral prac-
• Opportunity to develop learner autonomy.
Different grouping configurations have been
• Interaction with peers.
employed and the issue of how best to set up pairs and
For teachers the use of pair and group work can
groups has been explored. This has encouraged me to
enhance the gradual shift from teacher-centered class-
develop criteria for grouping students in our context,
rooms to student-centered classrooms.
especially in terms of the optimum size of the groups.
The development of grouping criteria to improve stu-
Building Up Grouping Criteria
dents’ oral practice of English in the classroom is the
focus of this article.
A major issue in the management of group work is
“deciding on a policy for assigning students to groups”
Group Work in the Vietnamese Context
(Nunan and Lamb, p. 145). It is common practice that
the setting up of pairs or groups is often based on what
Group work is any classroom activity in which stu-
teachers think they should be, without taking into
dents perform collaborative tasks with one or more part-
account what students prefer or expect. My research,
ners. It has been considered “one of the major changes
by contrast, put great emphasis on students’ preferences
to the dynamics of classroom interaction wrought by
and expectations as to what their favored partners and
student-centred teaching. Pair and group work can
groups would be. The project aimed to explore these
greatly increase the amount of active speaking and lis-
tening undertaken by all the students in the language
class”(Nunan and Lamb, p. 142). The emphasis on group
On what criteria should grouping arrangements be
work is particularly significant in the Vietnamese con-
made in order to enhance students’ oral practice of
text, in which English is used as a foreign language and
English in the classroom ?
students have little opportunity for using English in daily
What are the optimum sizes for a group?
life. Evening English classes are one of the few places
where English learners can have opportunities to prac-
Grouping students is the initial stage in managing
tice speaking English.
In such a context, the
pair and group work in a class. Grouping arrangements
mismatch between opportunities for speaking Engish
deal with the methods and techniques that teachers use
inside and outside the classroom calls for more effective
to organize students into pairs or groups. Grouping
activities creating even more speaking and listening
arrangements get students ready to carry out tasks or
activities given by the teacher. In the context of this
One key answer to this challenge is pair and group
study, to enhance students’ practice means to develop
work. A variety of interesting and useful activities done
their speaking ability. This aim can be achieved through
in pairs and groups enables students to apply the lan-
a variety of speaking activities which help create more
guage they learn. The benefits of pair and group work
opportunities for student practice in class.
— 16 —
So that the classroom observations would be carried
out systematically and consistently, I made use of an
The grouping criteria I present later in this article
adaptation of the Communicative Orientation of
were developed on the basis of empirical data gathered
Language Teaching (COLT) observation scheme recom-
via a questionnaire, student interviews, and classroom
mended in Nunan (p. 97), with modifications for my
own context. (An example of the adapted observation
The questionnaire aimed to investigate participants’
scheme is found in Figure 1.)
learning styles, as well as their attitudes and preferences
Observers were informed in advance of the arrange-
for pair and group work and grouping arrangements
ment techniques for each session, for example, grouping
(see pp. 20-21). It was administered to a sample upper-
students on the basis of common interests or mixed pro-
intermediate class of 30 students, after having been
ficiency levels. This made it easier for the observers to
piloted with another class of the same level. It was com-
focus their attention. They combined completing obser-
pleted at home, not in class, and was originally in
vation forms with more open-ended note-taking on such
Vietnamese. Answers were anonymous to ensure priva-
features as class atmosphere, students’ attitudes and
cy, so that students might feel more comfortable in com-
interactions, and the dynamics of particular groups.
The interviews helped capture the complexities of
students’ perceptions and experiences. They added
information about how students viewed different group-
ing techniques. Immediate feedback, opinions, or com-
ments on a particular grouping technique could be
Students’ responses to the questionnaire provided
elicited through them. The choice of which students to
useful information about their learning styles, experi-
interview was not made randomly, but on the basis of
ences and preferences for pair and group work and
their English proficiency, sex, and personality. To facili-
grouping arrangements. Having difficulty in entering dis-
tate the interview process, 15 of 25 interviewees were
cussions was a problem encountered by one-third of the
chosen from the sample class, while the rest were from
sample students, even though they were at an upper-
three other upper-intermediate English classes of which
intermediate level of English (item 1). Likewise, finding
I was in charge. There were 14 males and 11 females of
the best way to understand their partners and express
high, average, and low English proficiencies and of dif-
themselves in English was what students felt they most
ferent personality types. To maintain the the focus and
needed to improve in their oral practice in class.
consistency of the interviews, an interview guide had
Answering the question on their preferred learning
been prepared in advance (see p. 21). Interviews were
styles, 36.7% responded that they liked to learn best by
done with individual participants or with groups, in
studying in pairs (item 2). Studying in groups was pre-
Vietnamese or English, depending on each situation. I
wrote down what was learned from the interviews
ferred by another 30%, and the remaining one-third liked
best to study with the whole class or independently.
The effectiveness of a grouping technique was
A variety of reasons were given to explain their
measured in terms of students’ attitudes, interactions,
preference for pair and group work (items 3 and 4),
contributions, and group dynamics during different oral
among which having more opportunities to speak
practice sessions in class. The suitability and effective-
English was mentioned by 60%, followed by feeling
ness of grouping techniques were evaluated through the
more confident to speak English with partners (46.7%)
observations. The first series of classroom observations
and learning more from partners (36.7%). The inquiry
took place in three different classrooms, with the sec-
into the usefulness of pair and group work also received
ond series done in the sample class. They focused on:
positive responses from the respondents (item 5). Thirty
• Teacher’s grouping techniques, that is, the methods
percent believed that pair and group activities were
teachers used to assign students to groups.
“very useful”and 40% found them “useful.” Speaking was
• Students’ attitudes, interactions, group dynamics, turn-
ranked first in response to item 6, meaning that it was
taking, and amount of student talking time in each
considered the skill for which pair and group work are
— 17 —
Figure 1. Observation scheme.
NUMBER OF NUMBER OF
STUDENTS PER GROUP
STUDENTS SEX OR
AMOUNT OF TALKING
PROFICIENCY LEVEL TALKING TURNS
TIME (in minutes)
It was essential to collect information about the
The final item in the questionnaire sought to gain
types of partners whom students preferred.
information on students’ personality types through their
Understanding the composition of the expected groups
self-assessments. Forty percent of students thought they
would enable the teacher to prepare for assigning stu-
were extroverted or to some degree extroverted, 36.7%
dents to well-matched groups. Thus, one of the key
neutral, and the remaining 23.3% introverted or to some
items on the questionnaire sought to explore students’
degree introverted. It could be argued that that it was
partner preferences in which their English proficiency,
not sufficient to investigate this issue through just a sin-
common interests, and gender were under considera-
gle question, however, our intention was to study it
tion. (Figure 2 overviews the results.)
mostly in combination with the other factors.
Students’ proficiency was an important factor.
Questionnaire respondents favored partners of the same
or better English proficiency levels. To be grouped with
partners with worse English was, by contrast, the choice
The first interview question received many positive
of a minority of students. This is not surprising, but what
answers. One student said,“I feel more comfortable and
to do about it? How can we organize pairs or groups
confident to speak English with my partners.” One
which provide more opportunities for less able students
female added,“Facing the class makes me feel uneasy. I
prefer talking to my partners.” Students felt that what
As regards common interests, the data showed that
they could learn most when working with their peers
having partners with common interests was the choice
were “improving my English speaking ability,” “sharing
of 46.7% of the sample students. This figure indicated
my opinions and ideas in English,” and “getting more
that this factor was not a key preference. It was, how-
knowledge of the topic being discussed.” Regarding
ever, worth further investigation in combination with
group size, the interviewees said they liked to work in
other factors. Students’ responses also provided an ini-
groups of 3-4, but they felt at their best working in pairs.
tial reflection of the influence of gender on grouping
A typical reason for this choice was given by a universi-
arrangements. This was later elaborated on through the
ty student: “We are given the maximum amount of time
student interviews and classroom observations.
to practice speaking English with our single partner.”
Students’ preferences for group size were discov-
There was, however, a conflicting opinion to be noticed:
ered in their responses to item 8. More than half (53.3%)
“I prefer working in large groups where there are more
preferred working in groups of four, compared to 46.7%
members and more fun.”
for all other group sizes. The reasons for this became
Inquiry into students’ favorite grouping techniques
more clear during the interviews and the effectiveness
revealed that they preferred to work in proficiency-
of each group size was proved through the classroom
based groups. They explained that their purpose in com-
ing to an evening English class was to learn and practice
— 18 —
English; the improvement of their English was, therefore,
Figure 2. Student partner preferences.
of utmost importance to them. Students tended to pre-
fer working in mixed-level groups. A group of less able
Of 30 students surveyed, those who preferred:
students expressed their expectation to learn more from
more able partners, but a problem was that they did not
Partners of the same English level
seem to feel at ease in their company. A group of five
Partners of better English level
able students said that they expected to work with their
Partners of worse English level
peers, but added that they did not mind working with
Partners with the same interests
partners of worse levels. This was not in contrast to stu-
Partners of the same sex
dents’ individual preferences of having partners with a
Partners of the opposite sex
similar or better level of English. One able student com-
mented that groups would run well as long as the mem-
bers worked with a cooperative attitude.
above, that is, those in the sample class with three col-
As regards the factor of common interests in group-
leagues as observers. Grouping arrangements based on
ing arrangements, half the interviewees said they would
random selection, students’ proficiency levels, common
like such partners. The opinion of the rest was that it
interests, sex, and personality were under observation in
was good to have partners of the same interests, but it
different oral practice sessions. When I used random
did not greatly matter if they were grouped with some-
selection, the observers commented that the practice
one with different interests. They explained that it was
went on in a neutral atmosphere—this grouping did not
the difference of interests that might make their oral
create dynamics for increasing interactions among
practice more interesting.
group members. The follow-up interviews also showed
Students expected to work with friendly partners in
that students did not derive much satisfaction from
a relaxed atmosphere. One extroverted student said he
being randomly grouped. From my personal reflections,
was willing to be grouped with any class member but
preferred to work with lively, cheerful partners. One shy
this type of grouping is often used at the beginning of
female said she did not feel comfortable in company
a course, when a teacher has little or no knowledge of
with partners who talked too much. When grouped
with partners they did not like, students said they had a
To consider the effects of students’ English levels on
feeling of discomfort and boredom. Their reactions
grouping arrangements, both same and mixed-level
were either to join another group (73.3%) or to remain
groups were set up and monitored in different oral prac-
in the same group but keep silent (26.7%).
tice sessions. A group of four able students seemed to
The interviews also found that the gender factor
run by itself with active participation by all group mem-
was of more interest to male students than to females.
bers. In another group of three less able students, group
Ten out of 14 males preferred to work in groups with
members managed to interact in a relaxed manner but
members of the opposite sex, while two-thirds of the
they often asked the teacher for assistance to communi-
females responded that whether their partners were
cate with one another more easily. In a mixed-level
males or females was not of much importance to them.
group, the more able student contributed more to the
In order to measure students’ satisfaction with dif-
discussion but he did not seem aware of his dominance.
ferent grouping techniques, additional follow-up inter-
I interrupted the group work to offer more talking turns
views were conducted after the series of classroom
to the other two less able students. From observation it
observations had been carried out in the sample class.
was also noticed one average student participated in the
Responses showed that the grouping techniques with
oral task although her contribution was not as high as
which students felt most satisfied were arrangements
that of the other members. She said in the follow-up
based on their levels of English, personality, common
interview that she enjoyed talking to more able partners
interests, and gender, respectively.
but felt less confident when working with partners of
much higher English proficiency. In terms of turn-taking
and amount of talking time, three of the five mixed-level
groups under observation proved to be dynamic, with
The classroom observations presented in this article
contributions from all members.
were from the second series of observations described
— 19 —
(1) How often does the following happen to you in class? (Please circle.)
1 = Always 2 = Often 3 = Sometimes 4 = Never
Not know the way to say something in English
1 2 3 4
Have trouble working with other students in groups 1 2 3 4
Find it hard to enter discussions 1 2 3 4
Have trouble understanding your partners
1 2 3 4
(2) Rank the following from 1 to 4 in order of your preference. I like to learn best by studying:
With the whole class
In groups ________
In pairs ________
(3) Do you like working in pairs? (Please tick.) Yes No
Please state your reason(s) briefly:
(4) Do you enjoy working in groups? (Please tick.) Yes No
Please state your reason(s) briefly:
(5) How useful do you find pair and group work activities? (Please circle.)
a. Very useful b. Useful c. A little useful d. No use at all
(6) For what skills do you think pair and group work are most appropriate ? Please rank the following from 1 to 4 in
order of appropriateness:
— 20 —
(7) When working in groups or pairs, with whom who would you like to be grouped? (Please circle.)
Someone of the same English proficiency.
Not at all A little Some A lot Totally
Someone of better English proficiency.
Not at all A little Some A lot Totally
Someone of worse English proficiency.
Not at all A little Some A lot Totally
Someone with common interests.
Not at all A little Some A lot Totally
Someone of the same sex.
Not at all A little Some A lot Totally
Someone of the opposite sex.
Not at all A little Some A lot Totally
(8) How many students do you prefer to have in your group? (Please tick.) 3 4 5 6
(9) What kind of personality are you? (Please tick one.)
To some degree extroverted. ________
To some degree introverted. ________
Thank you for your cooperation.
Do you find it useful to work in pairs or groups? If yes, in what ways? If no, why not?
What do you think you can learn most when working with your peers?
Do you prefer working in pairs, small groups (3-4 students) or large groups (5-6 students )? Explain your reason(s).
Which grouping technique do you think is most beneficial to you? Why?
What is your favorite grouping technique? What makes you like it? How do you feel about this technique?
Were you satisfied with a particular grouping technique? Why or why not?
How satisfied were you with this grouping technique?
Do you ever feel dissatisfied with a particular grouping technique? If yes, why?
How do you like it when you are grouped with partners whom you do not like?
Have you ever asked your teacher to change to another group? If yes, what was the reason?
Have you ever selected your partners by yourself? If yes, in what situations?
Would you like to select your partners by yourself? Explain your reason(s).
If you could choose your partners, with whom would you like to be grouped? Why? With whom would you not
like to be grouped? Why not?
— 21 —
Interest-based groups were found to be effective in
groups with members of the opposite sex, and that pair
another oral practice session when groups were
and group work would be less enjoyable for him when
assigned to perform role-plays simulating TV talk shows
working in all-male groups. In all-female groups, an
in which different aspects of youth culture were dis-
increase in group interaction was noticed in 2 of 5
cussed. This type of task was also found suitable for pro-
groups with the arrival of new male members. On
ficiency-based groups in which less able students were
observing that two mixed-sex groups did not seem to
interviewers with set interview questions, and more
cooperate with one another during an oral practice ses-
able students were interviewees who could exercise
sion, I changed half the group members—the result was
more freedom in their answers. This example illustrates
a more relaxed atmosphere, showing the role of the
matching the suitability of tasks with appropriate group-
teacher as an organizer. Prompt adjustments were often
made, for example, to move a student in or out of a
Groupings based on proficiency or common inter-
group or to interrupt a group work to offer more talking
ests seemed to be less effective, however, when stu-
turns to quieter students. These necessary actions kept
dents’ personalities were in conflict. It was observed in
the group work going.
one lesson that two shy students in two different mixed-
Regarding group size, small groups of 3-4 members
level groups made little contribution to the task. They
were used most often in the sample class and these
felt unwilling to speak because they did not like their
group sizes proved to be suitable for discussions, role-
overly talkative partners. The opposite situation was
plays, and information-sharing activities. Small groups
seen in another group in which an outgoing students
were less effective, however, in game-like activities; in
seemed to be less excited when he was grouped with
these cases I made use of larger groups of 5-6 members
two reserved partners. Group dynamics changed posi-
to help create more excitement and dynamism in the
tively or negatively at the moving in or out of a single
group member. It was not easy for me to assign students
to well-matched groups in terms of their personalities,
Grouping Criteria or Recommendations
but I tried to encourage students toward more willing-
ness to work together despite personality differences.
Given the research findings, my goal of developing
Another focus of our classroom observations was on
grouping criteria to enhance students’ oral practice
the effects of gender on group dynamics. Students were
of English in the classroom was reached. The following
assigned to work in either single-sex groups or groups
six grouping criteria or recommendations are the
with both men and women. A random group was mon-
conclusions of my study.
itored throughout an oral practice session. At first it was
an all-male group of three members whose interactions
(1) The crucial basis in grouping students is the consid-
were normal in the first part of the session.
eration of the ease with which members are able to:
Subsequently, a new member, an active female student,
• Practice speaking English with each other.
joined the group, and the group interactions changed
• Feel relaxed and comfortable. This creates a friendly
considerably. The allocation of turn-taking and the
amount of talking time increased by 1.5 times in the
• Be included as equal members. This results in equal
new configuration in comparison with the old one. In
opportunities for speaking.
another session, a single-sex group of three females was
The student interviews and classroom observations
also monitored. This group was not the most dynamic in
found that the effectiveness of a grouping configuration
the class, but they performed their task in a gentle man-
is due largely to the ease with which group members
ner, without close supervision by the teacher. The
can participate in an activity. A friendly group atmos-
observers commented that they could sense a certain
phere relieves pressure on shy students—feeling at ease
warmth in this group’s atmosphere. One member said
with their peers, they find it easier to express them-
that they felt compatible with one another and enjoyed
selves in English. This relates to the idea of providing
working together. Generally, the observations found that
“low-stress practice”for students through pair and group
the dynamics of 5 of 9 all-male groups changed positive-
work, suggested in Davies and Pearse. In this sense
ly when female members were introduced. A typical
group work helps to increase students’ motivation (Ur;
explanation given by a male student was that he felt
Long and Porter) and this motivation in turn has positive
more motivated to speak English when working in
effects on students’ practice. It should be pointed out
— 22 —
that motivation is even more important in the context of
Grouping arrangements should try to avoid personality
a foreign language center where students have only a
conflicts. According to Ur, the grouping technique
short-term commitment to learning English. Crookes
needs to ensure that there are no serious personality
and Schmidt also suggest that pair and group activities
clashes. We found that when grouped with partners
help satisfy the human need for affiliation. When learn-
they do not like, students have a feeling of discomfort
ing in pairs or groups, students have more opportunities
Whether group work can run well
to receive praise and support from peers, not only from
depends in part upon group members’ willingness
to cooperate. This complicated aspect of student
psychology needs more study so as to get more insights
(2) Grouping configurations should be flexible and suit-
into the impact of student personality on grouping
able to the various oral tasks that students are expected
to perform, for example, discussions, role-plays, or game-
like activities. Flexibility is considered in terms of the
(6) Group sizes can vary depending on the task, but the
grouping technique, group sizes, and the number of
optimum size for a group is 3-4 members. The smaller
group changes. Suitability is considered in terms of the
the group, the more time there is for each member to
tasks, grouping technique, and group sizes.
talk. Honeyfield argues that the quantity of talk (which
changes help make the activities less monotonous and
can be thought of as “input” or “output”) is important for
bring variety and freshness to the classroom atmos-
learning (cited in Nunan and Lamb, p. 146). This argu-
phere. However, the number of group changes may
ment supports the idea of smaller groups, especially
need to be limited, depending on the amount of oral
pairs. Smaller groups are easier to set up and manage
practice scheduled in a class meeting of 90 minutes.
and fit well the small class size of 20-30 students at my
For game-like activities, however, larger
(3) In the context of a foreign language center, English
groups of 5-6 members tend to be more effective in pro-
proficiency level is a key factor that differentiates stu-
viding more excitement and dynamism to a task.
dents. Mixed-level groups have more challenges and
advantages, especially for the benefit of less able stu-
dents. It is through negotiation that students have more
opportunities for peer teaching (Ur). They become
more able to learn from each other, whether conscious-
It often takes a teacher 3-5 minutes to assign stu-
ly or unconsciously. Less able students have to work to
dents to groups, but it would seem that it actually takes
keep up with their more fluent partners. One problem
much longer to prepare so as to make the grouping
with mixed-level groups might be an unequal share
arrangements effective. Teachers need to be classroom
of contributions among group members or even a
organizers and managers. Organizing group work is by
monopoly by stronger members. The teacher must
no means an easy job. It requires her to be more
intervene skillfully in order to keep group work on
perceptive of and understanding toward students’ learn-
course and not offend students. The need for reasonably
ing styles, English proficiency levels, partner
balanced participation of all group members may need
preferences, and other factors relating to their interests
to be taught gradually.
The grouping criteria listed above demonstrate a
(4) Gender is a factor that helps to boost group dynam-
causal relationship between grouping arrangements and
ics. It was found from our observations that mixed-sex
success in students’ oral practice. These criteria, though,
groups and all-female groups work more effectively than
should be used in flexible ways in given contexts to cre-
all-male groups. This evaluation is based on a compari-
ate variety, dynamism, and freshness in the classroom
son of the allocation of student talking turns and amount
atmosphere, and most importantly to enhance students’
of talking time. The arrival of a new member of the
oral practice of English.
opposite sex might increase the interactions among
group members, especially in all-male groups. The gen-
der factor should be considered in relation to students’
English levels and related psychological factors.
Crookes, G., and R.W. Schmidt. “Motivation: Reopening
the Research Agenda.” Language Learning 41, pp. 469-
(5) Students’ common interests and personalities are
also factors that affect grouping arrangements.
— 23 —
Davies, P., and E. Pearse. Success in English Teaching.
Ur, P. Discussions That Work: Task-Centred Fluency
Oxford University Press, 1997.
Practice. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Long, M.H., and P.A. Porter. “Group Work, Interlanguage
Talk and Second Language Acquisition.”
Vo Thi Kim Thuy (M.A., TESOL, Victoria University) has
Quarterly 19, pp. 207-228, 1985.
been teaching at the Foreign Language Centre of Ho Chi
Nunan, D. Research Methods in Language Learning.
Minh City University of Education, Branch No. 2, since
Cambridge University Press, 1992.
She is interested in teaching methodology,
classroom management, and teachers’ professional
Nunan, D., and C. Lamb. “Instructional Groups.” In The
Self-Directed Teacher. Cambridge University Press, pp.
Only one who bursts with eagerness do I instruct; only one who bubbles
with excitement do I enlighten. If I hold up one corner, and a man cannot
come back to me with the other three, I do not continue the lesson.
Photo by Brad Baurain
Discuss with a partner:
Would you like to be the
captain of a ship? Why
or why not?
This ship belongs to the
Canadian Coast Guard.
If possible, interview a
member of the
Guard, then translate the
interview into English.
use it in
belongs to the field of
or collect it
ESP. If you wish, study a
textbook from this
specialized field in
— 24 —