Tag Archives: group processes in the classroom

How identifying the different roles we play can help groups work better together

Who are you?

This may seem an obvious question, but now try getting a pencil and writing down ten different responses to that question before you read on….

…If you look at your list, you might have listed your gender or ethnicity, and there may be some adjectives such as kind or artistic. You’re likely to see a set of roles that you play: teacher, manager, parent, son or daughter.

We all play different roles in different groups, and the classroom is no exception.

You are likely to take on different roles within your role of being a teacher: facilitator, critic, guide… But what about the roles your students take within the group?

Group theory (see, for example, Communicating in small groups: Beebe and Masterson) divides roles into three different types:

Task roles: roles that help a group carry out a task

Some examples

Initiator- contributor: proposes new or different ideas or approaches

Information seeker: asks for facts or clarification

Opinion seeker: Asks for values and opinions

Elaborator: provides examples

Orienter: attempts to summarise and keeps the group focused on the task

Maintenance roles: roles that help the group work smoothly together

Some examples

Encourager: Offers praise and acceptance

Harmoniser: mediates disagreements

Compromiser: attempts to resolve conflicts

Individual roles: these tend to be counter-productive to the group as a whole

Some examples

Aggressor: puts other people down

Blocker: negative, stubborn and difficult

Dominator: tries to take over the group

It is tempting to use these roles to start labelling your favourite (or least favourite students), but in fact, roles change all the time, and people can play many different roles. The point of exploring different roles is not to stereotype people or make them feel they should be carrying out a particular role, but to help the members of a group or class be aware of how they are all working together, and how that interaction could be improved.

Activities to raise awareness of group roles

The first two ideas are both ways for students to track interaction within a small group. This can be very useful for getting an overview of how the group is working.

  1. Put the students into groups of five or six. One person observes while the others carry out a speaking task. The observer draws circles on a piece of paper to represent each member of the group. They then listen and draw arrows each time someone speaks.  If one person speaks directly to another, draw an arrow between them. If someone speaks to the group as a whole draw an arrow away from the group. If someone is speaking for more than a few sentences at a time more than one arrow can be drawn.

At the end of the task, the observer should feedback to the group on what they observed, and the whole group can discuss the findings:

–          What do you notice about the lines of communication?

–          Were the lines of communication an effective way of carrying out the task? Why/why not?

–          Was everyone happy with the way they participated?

–          What things could the group change in the future?

This task is taken from Conversation: Nolasco and Arthur.

2 A similar, but perhaps more entertaining idea, comes from Classroom Dynamics: Jill Hadfield. Rather than having an observer, the group has a ball of wool or string. The person starting the speaking task holds the end, and then passes the ball to the next person to speak. This continues until the task has finished (I’d suggest quite a short task!). The pattern of interaction will be very clear at the end, demonstrated by the web of wool or string. Or possibly the students will actually start to change the pattern of interaction as they see that they are either taking over a bit too much, or not contributing very much.

After this kind of activity, you could go a step further and actually start to look at the different kind of roles students are taking. This needs to be done carefully though, to avoid singling people out for criticism.

Jill Hadfield suggests two activities which could both be handled sensitively:

1 Using a self-evaluation questionnaire. There is a photocopiable one in Classroom Dynamics, which includes questions such as:

–          Did you contribute any ideas?

–          Did you encourage anyone else to contribute any ideas?

–          Is there any way you could help the discussion to go better….by making a suggestion etc.

She suggests carrying out a speaking task, then asking students to complete the questionnaire individually and privately, then carrying out a second speaking task and finally discussing if and how the second speaking task was an improvement on the first one. (From personal experience I can tell you that this process can be completely transformational.)

2 Observing group roles. In this activity, students carry out a speaking task and are observed. The observer ticks how many times various things (such as contributing an idea, interrupting, evaluating someone else’s idea, not talking in English) happen- but does not note down who did these things.  The group then looks at the results and decides which things are happening too often, and which not often enough. There isn’t necessarily a value judgement to these things. Contributing ideas is something we want to see happen, but if that’s ALL that’s happening, the group will not be working very smoothly! They then choose three things they should do more often and three things they should do less often.

Incidentally, although the observer in these tasks is not taking part, this can be a useful role for certain students. Students who tend to be very dominant can benefit from having to sit back and listen, and students who struggle to get a word in can benefit from having a clear role and being asked to feedback on what they observed.


Filed under Differentiation, Speaking, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

A new class: building a learning environment together

Many of us are starting new terms and working with new groups. We probably already know what the learners are expected to achieve in their time with us, and the pressure is on.

It’s tempting to dive straight in, but any new group will need to work through interpersonal issues before they can function effectively as a group (and as individuals within the group). We can ignore these issues, but that won’t make them go away; we’re just more likely to get our feet tangled in them, like weeds under the surface of the water.

In a central work on group dynamics in the classroom, Schmuck and Schmuck [no, it isn’t just you that finds their names amusing  :)], observe:

‘ Our research has shown that classroom groups with supportive friendship patterns enhance academic learning, while more hostile classroom environments reduce learning…informal group processes in the classroom can, and do, make a difference in the accomplishment of the formal goals of the school.’

So, what can we do to encourage more supportive patterns?

Getting to know you activities

First of all, pay more than lip-service to the ‘getting to know you’ activities. Language learning is a high risk activity in terms of losing face and the student surrounded by unfamiliar faces is likely to either withdraw or ‘act-out’ as a way of controlling the environment.


It seems obvious, but make sure that everyone knows everyone else’s names. Rather than putting pressure on them to learn them, try a discussion activity about names. Some possible questions:

–          How did you get your name? Were you named for someone else? Who/why?

–          Does your name have a meaning?

–          Do you have a nickname (you are willing to share)? How did you get it? Who uses it?

–          Do you or other people shorten your name in any way? How do you feel about either the shortened name or the full name? (Many people feel they are going to be told off when someone uses their full name)

–          Do you like your name? Why/why not?

–          What would you like to be called in class?

This can be done in small groups, which either swap around, or feedback to the main group.

It goes without saying that you need to learn your student’ names as quickly as possible. A few tips:

–          Write down the names in the same layout as the students are seated (i.e. in a horseshoe) and refer to it often in the first class or so.

–          Use their names as much as possible to begin with.

–          When students are working on something mentally go round and test yourself on the names. Ask anyone you can’t remember to remind you (better now than in a month’s time)

–          Make a note next to each name of a distinguishing feature (e.g. curly hair).But be careful with this one….don’t write anything you wouldn’t want the student to see!

Find someone who…

This is a very well-known activity in some circles, so apologies if it’s too obvious, but it does work brilliantly. This is a variation which doesn’t require you to know anything about the students prior to the class, and ensures that students are comfortable about what is revealed (which can sometimes be a problem when this activity is done on CELTA courses, based on application forms!)

Put students into small groups (3-4) and ask them to think of three things to tell the other group members about themselves, which they are pretty sure will be new information.  They should take it in turns to give a piece of information, and the others should comment on it. Model this if necessary. While they are carrying out the activity, monitor and note down one fact about each student that you overhear.

Then dictate the facts to the class. E.g. Find someone who…

…has just been to Sweden on holiday.

…used to live in another country

Students will already know some of these from their small group work, but they can then mingle and ask others in the class, ‘Have you just been to Sweden?’ etc.  (no pointing at the sheet allowed)

Guess who?

This works better with groups which have worked together a little before. Each group member writes 2-3 sentences about themselves (anything they want to share). These are collected in and read aloud (by you or the students) and everyone writes down who they think each one refers to before the answers are revealed at the end.

An alternative is for 1 of 3 pieces of information to be a lie. In this version, we don’t have to guess who, but guess which piece of information is untrue.

Creating a sense of group identity

As well as getting to know each other better, we can also focus on creating a positive group identity.

Class Yearbook or Photo Album

Over the course of the year, a scrapbook (or the digital equivalent) is gradually built up by members of the class. You could begin with photos and a short bio about each member, then add updates as often as you and the class wish. This could cover what has been learnt, any social activities or trips, creative writing or articles, whatever seems appropriate.

At the end of the year, contact details could be added for those that wish to keep in touch if the group is breaking up, and maybe include a letter from the teacher about the experience of teaching the group.

Class history

(this idea comes from the wonderful Classroom Dynamics- Jill Hadfield)

Exactly how you do this will depend on the age range of your students. The idea is for each student to research a different year or other short period of time in the past and find out what everyone in the class did or was doing at that time.

After a mingle activity where they interview each other, the information can be put together on a time–line.  This is a great activity for working together and getting to know each other (not to mention using past tenses)

In my next post I plan to look at some activities for developing the class’s awareness of how groups work together and how they, individually, are contributing to the group. Feel free to sign up to be sent this post by email- button on the right.



Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology