Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

What Do You To Make Sure Small Groups Work Well In Class?


“What Do You Do To Make Sure Small Groups Work Well In Class?’ is the next topic of my “What Do You Do?” series.

I hope you’ll share your experiences in dealing with this question — just leave a comment on this post, and I’ll include it in my post on the topic. The deadline for sharing your ideas will be September 15th.

You might also want to check-out previous posts in this series:

What Do You Do When You’re Having A Bad Day At School?
What Do You Do To Keep Students (And You!) Focused Near The End Of The Year?
What Do You Do On The Last Day Of Class (Part Two)?
What Do You Do When You Have A Few Minutes Left In Class? — Part Two
Answers To “What Do You Do On The First Day Of School?”

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. 1. share my experiences in plns
    2. let them pick their groups – like we pick our pln’s. that way everything is driven by like-passions.
    they can pick from kids in the class, in the school, in the city, in the world.
    3. then per will richardson, help them maintain their pln
    a) safely b) ethically c) efficiently

  2. When the students are in small groups, the will have been given a task. My job then is to facilitate. I give them some time to start first, then walk around to see what’s going on. I sit down and work with groups who (a.) aren’t making very good progress, (b.) who are making better progress than I imagined, and (c.) are doing well but with whom I have not worked in a while.

    As for the (a.) group, there are typical reasons why they aren’t progressing, and it may be important for me to know why so I can help others, so I start there. Some typical reasons would be that they don’t understand the task, that they are stuck on a way to say what they want to say, or they may be doing something totally unrelated to the task, like homework for another class or gossiping. I try to stay out of the enforcer role here. I’m just trying to help people learn English.

    If people are making better progress than I imagined, the (b.) group, I want to use whatever they are doing to help other students.

    I try to make sure that each group gets equal attention. Also the students are interesting people who express themselves in marvelous ways. I want to enjoy some interaction with all of them.

    Thanks for the great opportunity to reflect.

  3. My tricks for small group work are that the directions and the goal must be clear.

    First, I always give students written – not oral – guidelines for what they have to do. In recent years I’ve been leaning more and more toward worksheets – giving students questions to discuss was fine, but worksheets that break the questions down into components to be addressed, and give space for answers directly on the sheet, help the students focus and understand exactly what’s required of them.

    Like Dan, I walk around and interact with each group in order to make sure they’re on track.

    At the end of the class, they almost always need to hand something in – if they don’t, it’s because there’s some other specific task they need to accomplish with the work they’ve done today.

    One other thing: several times during the semester, I point out to the class that if they are dragging their behinds and expecting other group members to do the work for them, the others resent it. I tell them that on my course evaluations, I always get comments about how some students don’t carry their weight. So even if their friends say “No, it’s ok that you didn’t do the reading, I’ll answer the questions,” often their friends ARE bothered, and are just being nice. This seems to help with participation; I see less evidence of students slacking off entirely. (I also often assign groups randomly, and this helps too.)

  4. 1. What does pln stand for??

    2. When I stroll from group to group to check on their progress, I note who the quieter students are and try to see that they, too, are participating and that their group members are not excluding them. I will linger long enough to watch them participate. They might be quieter from shyness, from lack of interest, or from shaky mastery of spoken English even where their written English is competent.

    3. Students generally prefer to pick their own groups but sometimes I insist on assigning groups for various reasons:
    to disengage superchums from each other; to encourage more interaction from diverse ethnic backgrounds; to mirror real life in which we adults often do not get to pick our “groups” either.

  5. What a great idea to share our classroom practices!

    My experience comes from teaching foreign languages and training teachers of foreign languages and I hope this does not look too subject specific. It certainly is what I do while training teachers, in an effort to practise what I preach, and I hope this is of some help to someone out there!

    Good task selection a given for this post
    I will by-pass issues of task selection and will assume the right tasks have been selected for the learners taking account of their age, needs, syllabus demands, cognitive demands of the tasks themselves, topical interest and relevance (to keep this post brief).

    Reasons for problems – Task troubleshooter
    Here are some reasons which may create havoc in small (or large) group activities:
    – the activity set up was flawed and the students are confused
    – the group dynamics don’t work well; one student may dominate or be argumentative, etc.
    – no motivation to participate has been generated either by the teacher (especially when introducing tasks dictated by the syllabus one has to follow)
    – the outcome is not clear to the students
    – the teacher is not clear on the procedure of the activity itself and often interrupts to issue fresh instructions, etc.
    – teacher monitoring is loud and extremely distracting or intrusive
    – the groupings do not work well; too many weaker students together, or other such issue
    – the levels of ability in each group are not on an equal or balanced keel

    Long term suggestions
    Some of the solutions I have used in my teaching and teacher education programmes are long term and part of ongoing learner-training
    – Introduce training in collaborative learning strategies early on and continue to revise and reinforce good collaborative learning habits throughout the year
    – Introduce good group dynamics by using a series of team building activities from the beginning of a course and do regular maintenance work throughout the year (an excellent source of activities and great inspiration for such activities is Jill Hadfield’s “Classroom Dynamics”, OUP)
    – Group and regroup students frequently so that they learn to collaborate with a variety of people, not just their friends
    – Teach them the necessary communication strategies which enable us to maintain effective communication, e.g. how to initiate a point, how to disagree without making others feel offended, how to negotiate and compromise.

    Solutions on planning and implementing individual tasks
    – Micro-plan each group activity or task by having three clear stages: preparation (public), collaboration (closed group) and evaluation (public).
    – Have a strong introduction/briefing stage in which the task is introduced, instructions are made clear and double-checked in a variety of ways.
    – Make this lead in stage also the point where if any difficult concepts are necessary or background knowledge needed are introduced; if possible, involve learners in some way (each one can be a “local expert” on something!)
    – Create a reason which will motivate students strongly to participate in the activity; this may be a real reason or it may be part of a make-believe scenario which will temporarily allow them to participate in an activity using another identity or be themselves in a different context.
    – Explain the format /layout and target audience of the outcome of their work
    – Group the students carefully so that there is a variety of abilities and roles within each group. A group with five leaders is unlikely to do well. A group with five ideas people and no one to actually do some of the work is not likely to succeed either.
    – Allow each group preparation time. This may be brainstorming, taking notes, absorbing the informational input. If this informational input presents itself in textual form, do not neglect to check your learners’ comprehension through questioning.
    – Set clear time limits and monitor actively but discreetly. Allow groups to ask you for help. You can even allow groups to have liaison “officers” or “research officers” whose role is to go and check up with the teacher or a reference source.
    – At the end of time, create a motivating reason for groups to listen to each other’s presentations. Create a rewards system which is clear and has lots of different categories, even a category for “effort” and one more for the group which “collaborated best”.
    – Find a reason to offer praise as well as discuss strategies which will help groups achieve higher results next time around.
    – Create a point where groups can display their work and answer questions on how they came to do it this way rather than the other way.

    I hope this is of some interest and apologies for getting caried away!

  6. In addition to the many fine strategies outlined above I would add the importance (especially for younger children) of modelling the behaviour necessary for effective group interaction. In my experience adults modelling ‘how not to work as a group’ (perhaps in a pre-prepared video clip) and asking the pupils to suggest how their work could have been improved is a really good place to start.

  7. If students are working on a multi-session task, I begin each session with some type of group process instruction. Students read an article on cooperation, I provide direct instruction on positive group task roles, positive group social roles and disruptive roles. Students analyze their natural tendencies and sign a contract to contribute a positive task and social role. After participating in a problem-solving session, students are responsible for a personal reflection regarding their own contributions, as well as reactions to their peers’ contributions. Hopefully, the students are learning necessary components of 21st century collaboration skills AS they practice them. I also love the fact students read, speak and write – great literacy emphasis.

  8. I do small tutorial based groups. Their homework is to create 2 higher level (based on Costa) questions to bring to the group. They share and discuss the questions. The group picks a question they want to work on. Usually the questions are similar.

    In the group, there is a presenter who presents and puts all the question and discussion information on a white board for the group. Each group member is responsible for everything that goes on the board as well as asking leading questions and sharing information. In their notes, students must have one piece of information from each group member. That is part of their grade.

    At the end, they write a summary answer for the question, a reflection on the group process, and score themselves on a rubric. They turn in the rubric sheet with the reflection and their note paper.

  9. Coming from a foundation based on the Outward Bound Model, I structure my instructional strategies to occur in a social context. When give a choice to work alone or with peers, almost all of my students choose small group learning. Here are some example strategies and activities I use in my classroom

  10. I got some great ideas and confirmation of good practice reading through all of these and decided to try mixing something I usually do whole class with group work from September onwards – please see blog post small group work in class on if interested. Basically I’m going to try having a wiki page for each small group to keep a joint reflective journal – we’ll see …

  11. 1. Give clear instructions and expected outcomes BEFORE breaking kids into groups.

    2. Keep groups as small as possible while still having enough people to complete the task.

    3. Provide as many materials as possible unless that is part of the lesson.

    4. Repeat instruction while kids are in groups.

    5. Monitor groups for students who are either not working or being margialized by the group.

    6. Have a second step for the groups that finish early.

    7. Let kids know the level of work/thinking you are looking for so kids don’t “finish early” just to talk.

    8. Have kids bring only what they need into the group. Leave backpacks, extra books, etc. at their desk.

    9. Provide kids enough room so they are not distracted by other groups.

    10. Interact with groups as little as possible while they are working. Let them solve their own problems and find the own answers to their questions. Don’t let them rely on you for all answers.

  12. I use cooperative groups in class often, and due to the short 45 minute periods the assignments often take several days. Some organizational tricks I have used in group assignments that may span over a few class periods are:
    Give each group a two-pocket folder to hold all materials over the course of the project. All work stays in the folder. This way if someone is absent, the process is not disrupted due to missing materials.
    I provide written instructions outlining each task. Students divide the tasks among group members. I also include a graph with each task listed. Students identify who is completing each task(individual accountability) and at the end of each day the students color in their progress on the graph showing 25-100% completion of the tasks. This gives them a visual for monitoring what is finished and what area still needs work. This has really helped my students stay on task and re-group from day to day. It also provides a quick check for me to see who may need assistance.

  13. These are all awesome comments. I don’t want to repeat what anyone has already said, so I’ll just add a couple of things that I have tried in class. Often I’ll add an informal “jigsaw” component to the group work where students have to convey what they discussed to the rest of the class, either by presenting in front of the whole class or by switching up the groups. Sometimes for a change of pace I’ll have a member from each group draw a visual representation of the topic on the whiteboard (this works great for nonfiction articles as well as stories). Even quicker is to have each group write or say one sentence (or phrase or word) that sums up their discussion. Having a communicative goal to reach by the end of class helps them focus and it can also help them move up a level or two in Bloom’s. Another way to keep small groups on task is to bring in technology: Edmodo, a Facebook-like social network made for schools, works amazingly well with small groups; Socrative ( is another fantastic tool that allows students to use personal mobile tech (cell phones, iPads or iTouches) to answer questions collaboratively.

  14. One thing I don’t think has been covered above is that good group work should be seen by the teacher as an aim itself, alongside any content being covered. Getting better at working in collaborative groups, and becoming aware of what makes a good group is one of the most important things a child can take from an education.
    I agree with Maria above – Jill Hadfield’s “Classroom Dynamics”, OUP – is a cracking book for group dynamic strategies.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar