Co-operative learning activities in ESL

talkingDid you know that in many English lessons, the children get less than a minute of speaking time?  That is, if they get any time to speak at all during the lesson.  And yet, isn’t learning to communicate with others what ESL is all about?

It’s important to find ways to allow every child to speak during each and every ESL lesson, at his own level, in a safe environment.  How, might one ask, can we allow time for speaking practice without eating up valuable lesson time?  One of those ways is called the inside-outside circle, which is a more structured variant of what I call the walk-n-talk.  Here’s how it works:

Preparation: teach the children the target language and classically practice using it.  Decide on a language task for the children to practice.  When desired, you can pre-teach certain terms or write them on the board to support the children’s use of the target language.

Step one: the children form two circles, each inside the other.  Make sure there are equally many children in the inside and the outside circle.  (in case of an odd number, pair off two children in the outside circle as “one” child.  They will form part of a threesome during the exercise)

inner-outer-circleStep two: give the children a speaking assignment.  They get a few seconds to think about what they will say, and then get started.  Tell the children who starts – the inside or the outside circle.

Step three: time the conversations.  I find that keeping them short is an effective way to keep the conversations focused.  Give a signal when it’s time to take turns.  I find that 30 to 45 seconds is generally enough per turn.

Step four:  Switch speaking partners, and have the children repeat the speaking assignment. It works best if you give directions such as “the inside circle moves two people clockwise / to the right.”

Repeat steps three and four again, so that the children have had three chances to practice the speaking assignment.

This activity can be easily differentiated to meet various needs and abilities. Here are a few examples of language tasks that would work nicely:

  • what colors are you wearing?  What colors is your buddy wearing?
  • What body parts can you point to and name?
  • Talk about your family.
  • Describe your house.
  • What will the weather be like next week?
  • Take turns remembering words about (given topic).  How many can you remember?
  • What did you do last week?
  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

Clearly, this list is not exhaustive, but it gives an indication of how broadly one can implement this exercise.  Another way to differentiate is to allow more or less time for each turn.

In my experience, the first time I did this activity with any class, the first round was quite noisy.  This was mostly because the children were trying to figure out what it was they were supposed to be doing.  After each round, I gave them concrete feedback on what I heard them saying, and after the second attempt, everything went quite smoothly.

I have also found that giving children this type of task allows them to practice their language skills without being put on the spot.  After all, there is only one other person listening, and that person gives immediate feedback by providing extra words or asking questions when something is unclear.  Even the shyest of children join in gladly when it’s time for inside-outside circle.  Another side effect is that the children get the opportunity to perfect their stories within three tries, giving each child a successful experience, while taking up little lesson time.

inner-outer-circle2I wonder what co-operative learning strategies others have used in their ESL lessons?  Please send me a note and let me know!


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