The Importance of Pair Work


This was originally going to be a comment on Willy Cardoso’s Blog – Authentic Teaching, but it got to be so long I decided to make it a post all its own.  As a result, it also connects to Kalinago’s dogme questions of the week, which I was going to address anyway.

A maxim we often learn (and that I push) in training courses is the importance of pair work.  Willy commented that some learners prefer to work alone and that pair work is often over-relied upon with the ESL classroom.   I would disagree.

I have had many learners that prefer working alone.  In fact, I am one of those learners myself.  But language is co-constructed; it is social.  We don’t learn language to think to ourselves in a foreign tongue.  We learn it to learn how to communicate to and with others.

This is why pair/group work is so important.  The students need to learn how to communicate with other individuals.  It’s the spontaneous nature of such communication that is of value within pair and group work.  You can learn a lot on your own, but to then access that knowledge in a split second while another person is talking is another matter entirely.

I, for one, learned a large amount of grammar and vocabulary on my own when I first started learning Turkish.  Yet, my level of conversation remained agonizingly slow and stilted.  I hadn’t acquired the skill or automaticity required to actually participate in my new linguistic world.

Pair/group work also builds community, which is a very important factor in the classroom.  It’s generally not a good idea to let the loners sit by themselves because it will create a negative space in the social fabric that we try to foster in our classrooms.  We want our students to collaborate, to support and scaffold each other, to become, if not friends, at least classmates.
Pair work also greatly increases the speaking time of the students.  As language is skill, not a subject, they need all the practice time they can get.

Whenever I have a student that prefers to work alone, I always pull them aside and ask them to help out in some way.  Perhaps, rather than preferring not to work with a student because you are better than them, help them instead.  After all, one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others.  Or they can help me out by walking around and monitoring students, offering feedback, etc.

Finally, one of the most important skills for global citizens is learning to work with others as part of a team.  Few people are learning English only for passive purposes.  The majority are learning, or being forced to learn it, with the expectation that they will use it to communicate with others in English.  Effective communication and teamwork are such important skills in their own right, that I think we have to encourage them as primary components of our classrooms.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for some individual reflection – this is important too – but I think the majority of that can be saved for outside the classroom.   If a student prefers learning on their own so much, why take a course?  If they are forced to be there, they will study on their own when they get home, so it’s not like they have to be with a partner all the time.

For all these reasons, pair/group work is essential to the ESL classroom or any classroom as far as I’m concerned.

Another point Willy makes is that there is often a problem with the “now talk to the person next to you” activity and I would agree.   This activity is often aimless and has no connection to anything the learners actually want to talk about.

What dogme points out is that this communications MUST be meaningful to the learners.  It should be something they want to discuss and which they have not already discussed before with their partner (in L1).  You can make pair work goal-oriented. – rather than talking being the goal in itself, something should be accomplished, decided, resolved, planned,or etc.

However, real communication begets itself.  Much of our conversation is just idle chatter, but we are interested in it, we have some investment there.  That interest and investment lies in the spaces between the participants in the classroom.  It’s the ties that relationships are built upon and it takes place where the language is relevant and meaningful.  This interactivity, this natural desire to communicate, is ultimately what dogme tries to tap into.

Some questions to think about with pair/group work:

Why are students working together?  Is there a social, communicative, linguistic aim or are they talking just to talk?

Do the students know why they are working together?

Do the students have a goal or end point in mind?

Do the students actually care about what they are being asked to do?  Is there personal investment?

Is it relevant to the students’ lives and learning goals?

Do the students have the language necessary to talk about the topic or complete the task?

Related Posts:

British Council on Pair Work

Using English on Pair Work

ELT News – Promoting Oral Fluency on Pair Work

Marxist TEFL – A Critique of Pair Work

Dogme Blog Challenge #1

Authentic Teaching – Response to Challenge #1

Tao T(e)aching – Response #1

Sabrina’s Weblog – Response #1

Box of Chocolates – Response #1

Idle Thoughts – Response #1


  • By Alex Case, October 9, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    Nice summary, and thanks for mentioning my UsingEnglish piece. My own experience is that the most useful thing I found to do in pairs when studying Italian was controlled speaking practice when I was expected to keep one thing, e.g. the tense, the same, but also had the freedom to add my own ideas, vocab etc.

  • By English James, December 17, 2011 @ 1:03 am

    Learning English is not difficult as long as you practice consistently.

  • By Joel Machava, September 19, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

    i liked your summary. i am writing my dissertation on the use of pair and group work in secondary schools and this information will help me so much. i am much obliged

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