The first and foremost benefit of both pair work and group work is that they increase the amount of student practice. It is known that lessons have limited time - usually only forty five minutes - and there are on average thirty students in the class, although nowadays there is a tendency to divide classes into two groups to make them smaller and easier to teach. Still, in a class of thirty students during a teacher-led activity, very seldom do even fifty per cent of students take active part in the lesson. The first thing that happens in such a class is that students get bored very quickly waiting for their classmates' answers. As a result, instead of practicing English they start doing something different - talking, doing homework or even playing cards, for example. In consequence, this leads to general chaos if the teacher is not quick enough to perceive and prevent it. Needles to say, the teacher should involve the whole class in an activity. During pair work twenty people are speaking, not just one person as it is in a teacher-led activity. That is why the more pair work activity the students have, the more often they use the language and its new items.
As far as group work is concerned, it depends on the kind of the activity how much the students practice the language. Even when the teacher divides the learners into groups of four or five, there will be at least ten or eight students speaking at the same time, providing that the class consists of forty people.
Another extremely important advantage of pair work and group work is the learner's confidence. Certain grounds exist for believing that the students feel much more comfortable to speak in a foreign language to just one or two people rather than to the whole class and the teacher. Especially timid students, or ones who are not good at manipulating the language yet, feel more relaxed and self-confident trying to put their language abilities to a test during the activity and seeing how they use them.
This encourages students to cooperate with one another. They feel that they are responsible for the group and for each of its members. This is widely seen during group competitions when the students work for the benefit of the whole group. They have to cooperate and help each other, and there is no way of escaping or avoiding the cooperation for shy and weak students. They are all involved in the activity and it is another important feature of pair work and group work.
Working in pairs or groups students can learn from one another a lot. In a class there are always weak and strong students. Arranging the class into groups the teacher should remember that there can be a mixture of different ability levels in one group. With this in mind he/she can predict which roles would be the most adequate for which students and what they could teach their classmates, and then give them the tasks. What is more, they provide an enormous number of new items and expressions for their classmates. The point the present writer is trying to make is simply that the students need to work together as often as it is possible to learn how to cooperate with other people and get used to different ways of speaking in a foreign language. Moreover, they improve their listening, speaking and understanding skills.
Pair work and group work also develop students' fluency. As it has already been stated, students really do not have too much possibility to practice the language in a traditional classroom. The teacher presents new grammatical structures and then makes the students do exercises or drills connected with the new material. In fact, the learners do it automatically, without thinking - if the drill is not meaningful - and can forget it easily after a week or a month. It goes without saying that they do not develop their speaking skills, let alone fluency in a foreign language. On the contrary, pair work and group work do influence these abilities. The students can use the language freely and express their opinions and thoughts without any restrictions. It is difficult not to get the impression that fluency can be improved only during constant speaking practice in the atmosphere of independence and in the state of relaxation.
There is another magnificent advantage of pair work and group work. It is the variety of available activities. It must be said here that a huge variety of activities influences the course of a lesson and its success. The more different the activities the teacher uses during his/her lessons, the bigger their motivation towards learning the language. It is true that in pair work and group work students' motivation increases because they are active and feel important during these activities. In keeping with this, the teacher is going to experience success in his/her work because motivated students are usually good language learners and they always make progress.
Pair work and group work have advantages not only for the learners but also for the teachers. First of all they save time. Instead of asking individual students to practice a structure or answer the questions, he/she can divide the class into pairs and make them do the exercise at the same time. As a result students are able to practice the language more during the course. When the time is saved, the teacher can take his/her students through much bigger material and many more activities. This will be for sure appreciated by the students who will not have time to get bored because of the variety of activities and their own participation in the lesson. As a result, the lesson will seem to be more interesting, the teacher will be liked by the students, and he/she will enjoy his/her work because it will bring him/her satisfaction, pleasure, and fulfillment.
Pair work and group work may be a good way of checking students' progress in learning. The teacher can do it without students' knowledge about the fact that they are observed and checked. Walking round the class and listening to the speakers, the teacher can not only make notes of the most common mistakes to discuss them later, but also discover whether they are able to communicate with each other in the foreign language or not. Such discovery helps the teacher to decide which parts of material need to be repeated or explained later. Another important advantage for the teacher is that pair work and group work give him/her time to consult the lesson plan and organize materials for the next stage of the lesson. Although the teacher can be prepared for the lesson very well, sometimes it may happen that he/she simply forgets what he/she must do next. Pair or group activities are the best for looking up the lesson plan. It is also good for organizing materials for the next activity, for example hanging pictures or pieces of a text on walls, writing something on the blackboard, etc.
Some educators can argue that pair work or group work also bring a lot of disadvantages, both for learners and teachers. One of the problems is that students often speak in their native language. This is difficult to eliminate if the class is really big and consists of forty students. The teacher cannot listen to all pairs or groups at the same time, but it does not mean that he/she is unable to do anything about it. The teacher should establish certain rules at the beginning of the school year and be very strict about them. He/she can play the role of the "English Police" and look for "offenders" - those who speak their mother language - giving them a punishment (for example extra homework). After some time the good habit of speaking only English may be established.
Another disadvantage is incorrectness. During pair work and group work the teacher usually does not disturb the students, even if he/she notices some mistakes they have made, but lets them speak freely. However after the activity, he/she should discuss the most common ones. It is tempting to suggest that the learners may learn each other's mistakes or errors, but we should not forget that errors or mistakes are an indissoluble element of the process of learning.
Besides, students try to correct each other rather than learn the mistakes. One of the main points of having learners speak to each other is to help them increase their confidence and reduce the anxiety that is often found in a purely teacher-centered classroom. Pair work and group work activities are usually geared to fluency enhancement rather than accuracy practice.
One of the main disadvantages for the learners is that shy or weak students can be eliminated from the practice, because of individuals who always tend to dominate. It is not a problem when they work in pairs, but as far as the groups are concerned, the teacher should assign roles to avoid one or two learners taking over the activity and others becoming passive observers. The assignment of roles (for example "a secretary" who notes down what the group members say; "a leader" who governs the conversation; "a presenter" who reports on the final conclusions reached by the group, etc.) is often enough to act as a catalyst to get the group speaking.
All educators should remember that in a class there is always a very specific mixture of characters - from extroverts to introverts. Usually teachers have no problems with extroverts who like taking an active part in a lesson, but with introverts and those who are independent types and prefer working alone. However, given the reality of life, there are not many professions today that allow one to work in pure isolation. Cooperation is a fact of life and students should understand it. Pair work and group work in a classroom teaches them a very important life skill - how to work with other people.
Another problem of pair work and group work is connected with noise and indiscipline, but it usually is more troublesome for the teacher than it is for the learners. Participants in a pair-work or group-work activity are normally unaware of the noise and of what other pairs or groups are doing. The only possible problem here could be if the classroom had particularly thin walls. If the activity is organized well and the learners are all actively speaking, then a teacher should let them make noise, because it is "productive" noise.
It seems that there are as many disadvantages as advantages of these classroom arrangements and one cannot unanimously state which one is better, since each teacher has his/her own likes and dislikes. It is his/her individual choice which one should be used during the process of teaching a language. One should not induce anybody to use any of these managements, since both of them may occur to be very useful, depending on situation, moment or surroundings in which we are going to teach. That is why it is very inconvenient to claim whether one of them is better or worse than the other.
- Atkinson, D. (1993) - "Teaching Monolingual Classes", Essex, Longman
- Doff, A. (1998) - "Teach English. A Training Course For Teachers", Cambridge University Press
- Harmer, J. (1991) - "The Practice of English Language Teaching", Longman