Fighting problems of mini-groups. Kate’s had enough)

I’ve been having some problems with diversifying interaction patterns in mini-groups for the dominant part of my work experience. Eventually, I’ve decided to tackle the problem – the time has come!

So, we have 2 or 3 students in a classroom. How to vary the ways they interact with each other? Obviously, there are only two ways – they either talk to each other or to the teacher in turns. Thus, I see no trace of variety here. Still I’ve just had a thought that it’s the roles of students not interaction patterns that we should think about. Here is a list I’ve got, feel free to both add your ideas and criticize mine)

• All students are equal contributors, everyone has their own opinion and they are very welcome to express it straightaway to each other and to the teacher. Sounds fantastic if you have active and enthusiastic students with their own opinion on any topic possible.

• Role-plays. Yes, you clearly have roles in role-plays. I still insist on mentioning it here cause attributing roles to students helps them to speak more as they are not themselves anymore and the intimidating fear of making mistakes tends to cease due to the fact that it’s not you who makes mistakes but your character. Another benefit is the possibility to consider a problem from different points of view: HR manager, head of the logistic department and financial specialist will have different opinions on one and the same situation. Moreover, apart from attributing different roles or positions we can ask students to play people with different character (shy, bossy, enthusiastic, couch potato…) it’s funny and you get a chance to teach issues connected to building good rapport and accommodating to other people. Despite its benefits there are some drawbacks, or I’d rather say limitations – one should be careful using it not to make people do what the hate doing (like being loud and pushy).

• One student (or two of them) is an interviewer. Their task is to ask a lot of questions and jot down the answers. They can use these notes to do some writing later and you can change roles and do the same again and I’m convinced you’ll get different answers. If a student is shy to ask a lot of questions or has no idea what to ask about you can: brainstorm some ideas beforehand, provide this student with some hints like categories or key words, ask questions yourself not to place this very student in the spotlight. What’s more, a lot of students have problems with questions, here is some practice. If the students are really good at asking questions – make them ask indirect ones. The other student is an expert who might have written the article you are discussing or attended a conference on the topic. Just make sure you’ve provided enough content.

• Allocate sides. One student is for, another is against and the third one can’t make up their mind. Thus, two of them have to prove their (or not their) point of view and try to convince the third one, who has to ask questions (again) and make a decision which side to take.

• One is a secretary. If you have an unbelievably shy student or one with tremendous difficulties with writing or note-taking you can ask them to jot down everything two other students are discussing and then write minutes, or action plan, or a report, or just a diary entry.

• Mingling activity (Yep! The name is just to wake you up and attract your attention). In fact, nobody moves. It’s really close to role-play, but with an interesting distinguishing feature. Every student has three role cards. Let’s say a banker, a taxi driver, a secretary. Every student has their own different set of roles. The task is to express an opinion as if you’re one of these people (of their choice) and the task of another student is to guess whose view it is and to answer using their own cards. You may want to play it open, so that everyone knows what roles other student(s) have or you may impose on your students the challenge of guessing without any choice.

• One student is an assessor, another has to do the speaking. It’s great for ‘speak for 1 minute about something’ tasks. I am definitely in favour of such tasks. But here there is only one person speaking. Usually I ask another one to do a gist task like ‘Which of these topic does your partner speak about’ or a hidden word. There is another idea here – to ask the listening student to assess the performance of their peer. You should be careful not to make the speaker feel overworried and thus prevent them from speaking. I guess the assessing task should be easy and interesting like ‘How many times this person says the words ‘I think’ or ‘Which target structures does this person completely ignore?’

One more issue to mention here is that a teacher sometimes also participates in discussions to make it less trite at the expense of monitoring. In a group of three a teacher might complete 2 pairs and vary people in them.

I’m sure you can come up with some other students’ roles. Tell me, please, if you have any ideas.


2 thoughts on “Fighting problems of mini-groups. Kate’s had enough)

  1. Hi Kate,

    Amazing! Your list of options seems complete. What could I add? Maybe a tweak to your last interaction pattern (and it’s a version of the third option as well): the FCE exam type – one interlocutor and two examinees who speak but also need to interact. This involves careful listening and/or elaborating on what the other person said. Or, and this is the type of exam we have at our school, two teachers are listening and taking notes while the examinee is speaking. Then they compare their notes and an interesting discussion can come out of it. I hope I haven’t repeated something you’ve mentioned in your post. 🙂

    I confess that I’m not in favour of the teacher-joining-the-odd-student interaction pattern; I always ask the student to join another pair. I don’t feel comfortable when I can’t monitor the class (maybe I’m a control freak) and honestly, I can’t fully concentrate what the student is saying when there are others chatting behind our backs.

    I think it must be really challenging to teach a group of three students. Hats off. I confess I’ve never experienced such a situation. Your post is really useful because it helps those who need to handle small classes on a regular basis. It also helped me realize how varied interaction in small groups can be – even within a large class.


    • Dear Hana,
      I love your ideas so much. They are really fresh and I’ll definitely use them. It’s always compelling to see how other educators perceive information you aim at communicating through your post. Due to different working situations a seemingly narrow topic turns out to be applicable in various settings.
      As for ‘joining-the-odd-student’ I’m also far from being a supporter of this idea, but I do it from time to time when I get really bored with interaction patterns I have. It is really demanding to be able to answer one person adequately while trying to keep one ear on others at least ensuring that they are doing all right and they are actually doing what they are supposed to do. As for the roles above, I haven’t tried them yet. I’ve just brainsrotmed them. Hope, they’ll work)


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