What role does group work actually play in language learning?

Collaborative Dialogue

By Melissa J. Enns

Spoken language production has been a recurring theme in recent posts on oral corrective feedback and in guest contributor Jihoon Kim’s examination of off-task behaviour. Each of these posts has touched on the topic of pair or group work. Perhaps many of us have never stopped to consider why we use pair/group work or whether it’s really useful.

If you are a teacher, you are likely aware of the challenges of group work. Naughton (2006) comments on several reasons why teachers find small group communicative activities may be unsuccessful or undesirable. First, students can be noisy and distracted, over-rely on their first language, or have problems with group dynamics that hinder productivity. Similarly, groups may generate the absolute minimum amount of conversation required to complete the task, or one group member will dominate the discussion while others do not speak at all. Furthermore, even if learners engage in communication, they may not engage in the kinds of interaction needed for stimulating their linguistic development (more on that below). With all of these issues, does group work serve a valid function in language classrooms?

The answer is yes. Despite problematic aspects, there are notable potential benefits for acquisition. Swain (1995) argues that the chance to speak stimulates deeper mental processing of language than listening does. Group work also provides opportunities for learners to automaticize their use of acquired knowledge about language (Gass & Mackey, 2015). Communicative interaction allows learners to experiment with language by forming and testing “hypotheses” about language use with their peers; if the hypothesis is ungrammatical or not appropriate and peers demonstrate misunderstanding, the learner will be more likely to notice the mistake and modify her language use in the future (Naughton, 2006; Swain, 2000). Noticing gaps in L2 knowledge is a key step in adjusting language use to be more accurate.

Additionally, classroom interactions give learners opportunities to learn in a social and collaborative atmosphere, in which they can reflect on form (“grammar”) while engaging in meaningful conversation as they pool their knowledge and build new linguistic understandings together (Naughton, 2006; Swain, 2000). During group work, learners should engage in collaborative dialogue, or discussion in which they “engage… in problem solving and knowledge building” (Swain, 2000, p. 102). In doing so, they engage in meta-talk, or conversation about metalinguistic aspects of language (see my posts on metalinguistic knowledge for more on this topic), discussing appropriate language use and modifying their output accordingly (Swain, 2000).

These theoretical benefits suggest certain “dos and don’ts” for using group work in actual language classrooms. For one thing, group dynamics matter. This aspect is very contextual, so there aren’t fixed rules; however Naughton comments that learner proficiency, task type, gender, and other sociolinguistic factors affect interactions and recommends that teachers pay close attention to how they create their groups. Personally, I try to put one higher proficiency learner in every group, avoid putting friends together if they will distract each other, and try to set up groups in which I feel that members will have equal chances to speak.

Beyond social dynamics, a requisite of productive interaction is learners’ willingness to show signals of miscomprehension and discuss and correct their own and others’ utterances, despite the fact that disagreements, corrections, and miscomprehension might be considered face-threatening (Naughton, 2006). Common problems are that learners may not notice errors, discuss language use, or modify their utterances; they may communicate but fail to pay attention to linguistic forms such as verb tense; or they may feign comprehension to save face (Naughton, 2006).

To avoid these problems, it is important that teachers structure activities to create a safe atmosphere that is conducive to students’ investment in collaborative learning. Training students in using collaborative interactional strategies prior to activities is one way to do so. Naughton showed the benefits of such training in a study in which she provided it to EFL students in Spain. Their teacher instructed them in using four different cooperative interactional strategies:

  1. Asking follow-up questions to encourage continued interaction, foster active listening, and generate an appropriate social setting for communication
  2. Requesting and giving clarification to encourage comprehension (What does mean?) and learning (finding synonyms)
  3.  Repairing (or correcting) each other’s mistakes. Naughton notes that teaching this strategy creates an environment where questioning group members’ lexical and grammatical choices is a collaborative practice rather than face threatening.
  4. Requesting and giving help (one learner asks another How do you say swim in the past tense?)

Naughton found that prior to the intervention, students rarely engaged in the types of interactional behaviour that are important for acquisition; however, the training program was largely successful in fostering more effective interactional strategies. The author recommends that teachers use cooperative learning strategies in structuring of group activities, providing students with modeling and support for these strategies.

Kim and McDonough (2011) also demonstrated the role that pre-task modeling can play in a study in which Korean EFL students who were shown video models of collaborative interaction prior to an activity showed more collaboration, engaged in more meta-talk, and correctly resolved more of the form-related issues they discussed than those who were not shown the models.

Having read a little about the theoretical backing for group work and strategies for equipping students to use it effectively, what are your thoughts? In what way(s) might this information inform how you structure future group activities in your classroom?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.



Gass, S. M. & Mackey, A. (2015). Input, interaction, and output in second language acquisition. In B. VanPatten, B. & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition, 2nd ed. (pp. 180-206). New York: Routledge.

Kim, Y., & McDonough, K. (2011). Using pre–task modeling to Kim, Y., & McDonough, K. (2011). Using pre–task modeling to encourage collaborative learning opportunities. Language Teaching Research, 15(2), 169-184.

Naughton, D. (2006). Cooperative strategy training and oral interaction: Enhancing small group communication in the language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 90(2), 169– 184.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook & B. Seidlehofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics (pp. 125-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue.  J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural approaches to second language research (pp. 97-115). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

7 thoughts on “What role does group work actually play in language learning?

  1. Patrice Lalande

    It Might Get Loud, I think, was the name of that documentary with Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White. In it, the guitarists discuss their styles, creative process, and even share each other’s riffs. I think our students have the opportunity to do the same when the occasion of team work arrises. In language, as in music, the students can share their tricks and knowledge and understanding of the language they are studying. I often have srudents discuss a text they have just read individually and even share on their views of how a task should be carried out. This not only allows them to verify their comprehension but also to practise new vocabulary and expressions that they have learned in the text. It is important for students to be able to feed off each other, just like musicians do. Language is a social feature after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. rasha nasr

      Research found that the use of group work can provide the learner with an increased number of opportunities for language practice, improve the quality of learner talk, individualize instruction, create a positive affective climate in the L2 classroom and increase learners’ motivation (Long and Porter, 1985). I believe that dividing the class into smaller groups or pairs is much better than just treating the class as a whole group. The learners become more independent and autonomous when they work in smaller groups, and they get more time to express themselves within a smaller group without experiencing the anxiety of speaking in front of the whole class. Small groups also help the learners to obtain a sense of achievement when they reach their team goal and collaborate to achieve the assigned task(s). I also believe that the learners become more willing to ask questions and seek corrective feedback from their peers when they work in such smaller groups. However, the class sometimes gets noisy when the students work in smaller groups and you feel you can’t control them, but that’s normal and it could get better by practice. Thus, it is important to train students to use collaborative interactive strategies prior to activities as mentioned in the post here.
      In my class, I try to assign the right task when I put the students into groups. and I choose the group members as well. I Also observe the groups closely, note mistakes and provide help when needed. In order to ensure that all the group participants get equal chances to speak, I try to assign tasks where every group member gets to work on a separate smaller task within his/her group. For example, if they are doing a small role play in a group of three, one could be the speaker, the other one could be the respondent and the third could be the one recording or taking notes, then I ask them to switch roles. I might also ask them to create posters when they work in bigger groups and every person in the group becomes responsible for a certain task. When students take charge of things, they feel more responsible and more willing to achieve. It is important that the activities include challenging tasks and not repetitive or mundane ones, but those tasks should be in the same time reasonable and authentic. Finally, I try to put someone who has a higher proficiency in each group to help scaffold others’ learning.
      Long, M. H. and Porter, P. A. (1985). ‘Group Work, Interlanguage Talk, and Second Language Acquisition’. TESOL Quarterly. 19/2 (207-227).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, Rasha! I’ve tended to take a strong role in orchestrating who is grouped together as well, but I wonder if there are times in which it is more productive to allow groups to form organically. It would be interesting to see if any research has been done on the formation of groups


  2. Kaia

    This entry made me think about the struggle some of my students have with group work/collaborative learning on the grounds that it is an activity that they are not necessarily used to based on their classroom experiences in their home country. Working in groups and learning from one another is a “waste of time” in the eyes of some students because they believe that the teacher and only the teacher should impart knowledge within the classroom. As such they do not see the benefits that come from working together with other students. Thanks to a couple of presenters at the last TESL Canada conference I attended, I have recently become intrigued with the idea of using ESL research as core texts within the ESL classroom. The idea behind this is that when students are directly taught the pedagogical reasons behind a classroom procedure, the more they will buy into and participate in the activities the teacher has planned. I see the four cooperative interactional strategies as presented by Naughton as a prime example of research that students could read and analyze prior to participating in group activities. I am interested to see how adding this step of studying language acquisition research in combination with training students to use interactional strategies will impact the overall effectiveness of group work activities. Perhaps in time, after students are made aware of the rationale behind group work activities, they could even analyze their own performance in light of the research they read as a way of measuring the validity of the research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These ideas are very intriguing, indeed! I know that there is a good deal of literature on the pedagogical value of offering learners metalinguistic instruction that showcases strategies for effectively completing assigned activities and why. Naughton’s (2006) “Cooperative strategy training and oral interaction: Enhancing small group communication in the language classroom” is one example.


  3. Pingback: Being more “meta” : The value of explicit instruction on pedagogical approaches and language-learning strategies – Ramblings of a Linguaphile

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