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Pairing students up

October 23, 2012

  • increase student talking time (each and every student gets a chance to give their opinion, contribute with their ideas)
  • students get to know each other and feel more comfortable in class
  • shy students grow more confident
  • variety of language problems/difficulties arise simply because there are so many students using the language
  • opportunity for teacher to monitor and check students’ understanding and progress

Of course, there are activities which lend themselves to individual or group work, but I’m sure that you tell your students ‘Now, in pairs do this and that.’ more than twice in each lesson. And surely you’ve found the need to ask your students to pair up with a different partner either to avoid uncomfortable pairs or simply to renew the class vibes. How do you go about this? Allocating pairs by naming students is one way, but here are some fun ideas on how to do this (thanks to my TEFL tutors and other fellow teachers):

1. The traditional ’1, 2, 3, 4′: if you’ve got a biggish number of students in class, allocate a number to each one (up to 4). Then divide your class into 4 sections and have students sit in these according to their number. Then set the pairs.

2. ‘Change chairs if …’: Tell students to follow your instructions. Finish the sentence with something random, e.g. ‘Change chairs if you saw the football match last night.’ If students have, then they have to sit in a different seat. Continue with more ‘Change chairs if …’ sentences until most of the students have changed places – students move more than once if necessary. You can make it fun by saying silly things or challenging students, e.g. ‘Change chairs if you are reaaaaaally looking forward to our text tomorrow.’ or ‘Change chairs if you think English is a piece of cake.’ For lower-level classes, keep it simple, e.g. ‘Change chairs if you are wearing something blue.’ or ‘if you like chocolate’. You can also use this trick to check target language. If, for instance, you’re teaching the irregular verbs you could say ‘Change chairs if you agree that ‘taught’ is the past simple of teach.’

3. Target language: Write and cut up pieces of paper with language you’ve been teaching, e.g. infinitive and past simple irregular verbs, countries – nationalities, verb – noun formation, synonyms, opposites, phrasal verbs and their meanings. For instance, look after / take care of something or someone, take after / have the same behaviour or taste as someone. Hand out the pieces of paper and ask students to find the student with the ‘connecting’ piece of paper. New pairs are formed and language is revised/checked.

4. Strings: Get some pieces of string (1 for every two students), a metre or so long. Hold them all together and ask students to grab the end of one string. When you let go, students will be in new pairs.

5. Students’ names: Write students names on pieces of paper (you could laminate these and use them when checking exercises to name students or for other games) and just pair them up. Or you could have students pick names.

There should be a limit to changing pairs especially when you’ve got big classes, as it can take some time for students to pick up all their things and settle down again. Generally though the above ideas can make a nice mini-break out of it and students appreciate that! Happy pairing!


Written by Katie Foufouti

She is a highly experienced ESL teacher and ELT materials editor currently working in Spain. Her list of clients include Macmillan Education, Cambridge University Press and Signature Manuscripts.



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