Dealing with persistent problems. Paul Seligson. Taken from Richmond handbooks.
Helping student’s to speak.
This article reflects on the main problems teachers have with pair and group work, and suggests some solutions.
“ I’ ve qot too many students to do pair or workgroup”
In a sense, this whole book is a response to just this problem.
Students can’t get to do pair or group work.” enough practice to learn
to speak English in Large classes without using pair or group work, nor
can you help them individually without it. Of course, the smaller the
class, the easier it becomes, but to continue not using small group
work means abandoning the idea of teaching students to speak
effectively. There are no easy solutions, and each particular situation
will have its own specific constraints, but many teachers resist the
… they’ve tried and failed’
… they’ve never really known how to begin
… they’re afraid of trying something different from the norm.
The aim of this book is to show you how to introduce these techniques
(already used by many teachers worldwide, even with classes of 60 who
can’t move from their seats), and to convince you that it’s worth the
It will also arm you with enough techniques and ideas to be able to
carry it through. Could you use any of these activities?
“There are too many different levels of ability in my class”
This is really an argument for rather than against the use of
pair or groupwork. Traditional methods virtually force you to teach as
if all the students were at exactly the same level, when none really
are. This is usually unfair on the weaker students. Besides, what are
you going to do about the problem otherwise? How else are you going to
be able to give them the individual help that they need? Pairwork allow
us to individualise classes more, giving:
… everybody a chance to speak
… us the chance to monitor, listen, watch, think,
breathe, and find out what students can/can’t do, so we can spend more
time with those who need the extra help.
It actually makes teaching mixed-ability classes less difficult because
we can personalise and accommodate different students’ needs much more
easily. Focusing on speaking won’t make the problem of mixed abilities
go away, but it might help some students who are weaker at reading and
writing to do better!
“As soon as I put them in groups, my students speak L1 English”
Many teachers are unsure about when/whether to use L1. There is a
check!ist on page 20 of activities where the use of Li in the classroom
can be justified as both valid and useful. L1 is a valuable
resource to be used minimally and discreetly like any other. Ideally
we’d never have to use L1 and the higher the level, the more you can
phase it out. If you’re unconvinced, imagine how much less efficient
your teaching would be if tomorrow two students arrived in your class
who didn’t share your L1 and you had to do everything in English all
the time! A general rule is to expect students to use English as much
as they feasibly can, but to allow L1 where its use promotes the smooth
running of a lesson.
“My students always make too much noise”
A certain amount of noise when teaching language is inevitable.
Students will always get overexcited, which is usually a sign of
success. Our job is to try to make this noise productive.
A key ingredient is to avoid self-inflicted chaos, e.g. via unclear
instructions or insufficient preparation. Establish routines for
activities so students know what to do without being to e.g. moving
quickly and quietly to pairs or groups. Unless they settle into their
new groupings quickly, they’ll get distracted, noise level will rise
and headaches ensue.
Noise control is really a question of getting students used to keeping
their voices down when speaking together. This requires
self-discipline, which needs training and practice. All but the most
reticent students can usually be trained to lower their voices. Remind
them that only their partner(s) needs to hear them, not the whole
class. Some students have louder voices than others anyway, so have a
quiet word with them. Noise only becomes a major problem when combined
with lack of discipline (see below). Here are two simple options.
Offer students a choice
- Try a simple pairwork activity and when students
make too much noise, say Sorry, you’re too noisy. We have to do
something e/se. Stop the activity and make them do something more
traditional, preferably as boring as possible.
After a few minutes, say this is boring, isn’t it?
Would you prefer to go back to (the other activity)? Assuming they
answer yes, insist that they do it more quietly this time. If they
can’t keep the noise level down after a few more warnings, stop the
activity again and return to the boring exercise.
I’ve found that most students can learn to keep the noise level down
for a while. Students who do want to learn to speak usually put enough
peer pressure onto those who don’t for the class to begin to discipline
itself. This obviously needs to be done several times, or at least to
be threatened whenever students get overexcited, but they do learn to
co-operate if we’re prepared to let them.
Draw up a ‘contract’ to establish clear behaviour rules.
In L1, elicit from students what they want from you
and write it up as a series of promises on the board: I‘II prepare my
lessons, choose interesting topics which you like, teach you as we as I
can, try to involve you all, be fair, mark the homework, do some songs,
Then ask the class What will you do for me? and
elicit the rules’ of the class, e.g. We’ll come on time, do our
homework, but more importantly We’ll try not to make too much noise,
We’ll speak in English when we can, etc. to focus on the specific
problems mentioned above. If you’re clever you can get them to make
just the right promises!
Help them to translate it and turn it into a ‘joint contract’. Make a big fuss
about signing it and ask them al to sign it too.
Then if they ‘break’ their agreement later in the
term, draw their attention to the contract (as they can if you break
your side). This adult approach can go down well.
“ I’d like to do more speaking, but my students just won’t co-operate”
A lot of the comments above also apply to discipline. If too many
students can’t be persuaded to co-operate, then it’s probably
best to give up for that lesson and return to more traditional ways of
teaching. As above, try to train them by choosing between ‘disciplined
fun’ or ‘disciplined boredom’. If we can get the majority on our side,
it’s often possible to use them to persuade the remaining minority to
play along’, or at least not to disrupt the class.
However, even the ‘perfect’ teacher would have problems teaching large
classes of adolescents. How students are performing in other subjects,
individual personality, mood, the time of day when they come to class
all affect behaviour. Sometimes students just want to be noticed and
will disrupt a lesson for no other reason. In a class practising
communication skills, problems will always arise. Our job is to try to
channel the energy behind this behaviour into the class.
To remove discipline problems, we have to discern the cause. Are
they caused by the student, the institution where they study or the
teacher? To find out if you might be part of the cause of your
problems, answer questions 1 to 6.
- Are both the content of your classes and your
teaching style interesting for your students or do they find them
Do your students know what is and isn’t acceptable
behaviour in your classroom or are there no clear ‘rules’? What are the
‘rules’? Could your students tell you what they are?
Are you really consistent in the way you deal with
students who misbehave, e.g. latecomers, those who don’t do homework,
make too much noise or cause trouble? Do you take the same action each
time these problems arise?
Are you seen to be fair? We all have favourite and
least favourite students but do you show excess preference to some at
the expense of others?
Do you threaten to punish students but then not carry these threats through?
Are you sometimes unpleasant e.g. not interested
in certain students, shouting at them, etc.? Do your students think you
are aware of and care about their individual performance?
If your answers feel negative, then perhaps you should try to do
something to improve things. They’re all within your control and poor
performance can cause discipline problems.
A few suggestions to help deal with more reticent or difficult students:
Use L1 to explain your methods at the start of a
course, and remind students of them from time to time so that they know
your aims and how they’re expected to behave in your classes. It’s
likely to be different from the other subjects they’re studying.
Establish clear behaviour ‘rules’ and keep to them.
Talk to individuals who are the main source of
difficulty. Their problem might be something you can help with and your
interest alone could trigger a positive reaction.
Separate troublemakers. They’re much more
disruptive together than apart. Sit them at the front of the class
where they’re less likely to misbehave.
Re-seat a troublemaker on his/her own for a while,
doing something really dull They’ll either be convinced and join in or
remain a problem forever, in which case they shouldn’t be allowed to
spoil it for the others.
If you’ve tried all you know to encourage
co-operation without success, follow the usual channel in your school
as you would with any other serious breach of discipline, e.g. discuss
it with colleagues or your superior, call for the school
Directors help, contact the child’s parents, etc. If your school has no
recognized system for dealing with problem students or even whole
classes, steps should be taken to implement one.
Ultimately, for all the problems above we have to be patient but firm,
taking quick action rather than suffering or ignoring them. Discuss the
problems openly with students. Make them take responsibility for their
own behaviour. Remember to discuss these problems with colleagues too
and look for shared solutions. You’ll never be the first teacher who’s
had these problems, nor the Last.
“But my students don’t It students think they’re never going to need to
speak English, they wont try to want to speak English.” They won’t try
to learn. But the reverse is equally true. Assuming they have to attend
Anyway, the best way to get students interested in English is to make
it relevant and to help them to speak and enjoy it as quickly as
possible, i.e. build self perpetuating’ motivation. Indeed, it’s
demotivating to study a language but not to be able to speak it, as it
were something dead like Latin.
“I don’t have time to give them enough speaking practice”.
There are rarely enough classroom hours for everything that we want to
do! Remember, pair and group work are ways of doing the existing course
book materials, not adding more activities to a lesson. We can still
reach the same goals (satisfying syllabus requirements and exams)
without having to spend the class time on written exercises. If we
define our job as that of trying to maximise learning and if speaking
is something desirable, then we should be Jooking for every opportunity
to create the conditions where it might happen.
“My students make many mistakes I can’t correct them”
Students who share the same Li tend to make the same
mistakes. Many of these are easy for us to predict, e.g. pronunciation,
prepositions, the third person s, word order or other grammatical
problems caused by Li interference. Perhaps you can try to anticipate
more of them, and give more controlled practice? For example, pre-teach
and drill more phrases so they’re more familiar before asking students
to practise together.
Similar to the way we learn to play a musical instrument or ride a
bike, we learn language by a process of trial and error Mistakes are
unavoidable, a natural part of the learning process and often evidence
that the student is experimenting and attempting to communicate. It
we’re too negative about them, students won’t say anything, so we need
to be careful how we react.
Is your aim ACCURACY or FLUENCY? This will make a big difference.
“ If it’s pure ACCURACY and they’re all making far too many mistakes,
then the activity is probably too hard, and you should find a simpler
one. But students speaking entirely accurately is unlikely at this age
or level unless they’re just practising a known dialogue without
It its pure FLUENCY, aiming for students to use what English they do
know and can say to exchange ideas and information, then making
mistakes is acceptable, indeed inevitable. Here we should aim to be
correcting only those that seriously stifle communication and prevent
them from being understood.
However, what they can’t do accurately they can often do fluently. A
more realistic goal for oral ACCURACY is to aim for the correct use of
a particular language point, e.g. question formation, polite requests,
or past tense verb forms, insisting they use these forms accurately and
correcting all the errors you hear with them, while ignoring the other
mistakes they may be making. This is the mid-point between ACCURACY and
FLUENCY which most teachers try to achieve.
Note: Teach students this distinction, making sure they’re clear about
the aim of each activity, so they do them with the right focus. This
makes it much easier for them to get the ‘right’ kind of practice.
“My own English isn’t good enough”
If you can teach an English class in the traditional manner, then
you have enough language to use these techniques. Try to work out
exactly what language students will need to use for activities and what
language you will need to explain mistakes and rules to students. Make
sure you can express this language before each class (as you probably
have to anyway). Your own English will soon improve. And don’t forget
you can use the tape as a model too.
“My students will want to say lots of things that I haven’t taught them”
It sounds as if they’re interested. Congratulations! This must be
preferable to the alternative of their not wanting to say anything.
When this happens you have a number of options.
If it’s a fun comment, either allow students to
enjoy what they want to say in L1, then get back to working in English,
or teach them to say it in English if you know how, provided of course
they ask you How do you say (X) in English? Remember being much more
interested in learning Russian at school after our teacher had agreed
to teach us a few rude words! Moments like this can release tension and
enliven a lesson.
There’s no harm in confessing you don’t know
everything. You don’t have to translate everything for them. It it’s
something they really want to say, even if you do know it, you can
always tell them that you don’t but would like to. Ask them to find out
and tell you in the next lesson.
Always take one or two small bilingual dictionaries
to class. They can save you a lot of work and encourage student
autonomy. Students can look up words while you’re doing something else,
e.g. during pairwork while you are helping another group. Again you can
pretend not to know the words, so the students can teach you. If they
really believe that they’ve taught you a new word or phrase and that
you’re grateful to them, they’re unlikely to forget it in a hurry!
“I tried but it didn’t work.I haven’t got time to keep experimenting”
Perhaps they got overexcited because it was the first time? Maybe you
hadn’t spelt out the ‘co-operative ground rules’? Perhaps the activity
was over- ambitious, they weren’t linguistically prepared, or didn’t
understand your instructions.
Once or twice isn’t really enough. Things rarely happen overnight in
language learning! Speaking together needs to become a regular feature
of your classwork before students can get used to it. Although you’ll
inevitably have problems at first, it does get easier. The amount of
linguistic preparation students need before speaking activities
generally decreases as students’ level improves too.
As with any other theory of teaching and learning, its success depends
as much as anything on the strength of your conviction. It you believe
it will work, then you can almost certainly make it work within your
Choose the problem above which causes you most difficulty and discuss
it with other teachers who work in your school. What do they do about