Collaborative learning – how do I group learners for the most effective learning experiences?

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Collaborative learning – how do I group learners for the most effective learning experiences?

When we attempt to facilitate effective communication or collaborative learning between pairs or groups, we must acknowledge that our pupils are not only exchanging information; they are also constructing their sense of self and how they ‘relate to the social world’ (Norton 1997). They are, in essence, negotiating their role within the group or pair.

Researchers have noted that there are certain patterns of behaviour between learners and some patterns have been proven to foster more effective learning. Storch’s study (2002) revealed four common patterns of interaction: collaborative, dominant/dominant, dominant/passive, and expert/novice. According to his research, the most successful partnership was the collaborative pattern, in which the participants were equal in position. ‘Positioning’ refers to the way learners situate themselves within the group or pair and regulate the participation of others (Davies & Harre (1990), as cited in Kayi-Aydar (2014)). The expert/novice behaviour pattern is similar to that of teacher-student interaction – it was noted that this pattern was also effective, if the learners accepted their roles.

Webb (2009) highlights the importance of preparation for collaboration, and suggests that this can be as simple as telling the students their expectations of the pair/group work, or changing ‘status relationship’ within the group, i.e. assigning roles of teacher/student (the expert/novice pattern previously discussed). Another tool is modelling, as pupils often repeat key words or phrases the teacher has used, with the teacher having the opportunity to demonstrate phrases, helping the learners to seek clarification. The resource accompanying this article helps the teacher assign roles to the partnerships, and gives the pupils clear direction through teaching/learning aims. Pupils are also supported further through the phrase bank, a simple resource that helps learners accept their roles as teacher/student – expert/novice, and sets clear tangible aims for all participants.

Download our free collaborative learning resource by clicking on the button at the top and bottom of this article.


Author: Emma Mijailovic, EAL Teacher



Baleghizadeh, S. (2010) ‘The effect of pair work on a word building task.’ ELT Journal, 64 (4): 405-413

Chen, W. (2016) ‘The effect of conversation engagement on L2 learning opportunities.’ ELT Journal, doi:10.1093/elt/ccw075

Kayi-Aydar, H. (2014) ‘Social Positioning, Participation, and Second Language Learning: Talkative Students in an Academic ESL Classroom.’ TESOL Quarterly, 48(4): 686-714

Norton, B. (1997) ‘Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English.’ TESOL Quarterly, 33(3): 409-429

Storch, N. (2002) ‘Patterns of Interaction in ESL Pair Work.’ Language Learning, 52(1): 119-158

Swain, M., Kinnear, P. and L. Steinman (Eds.) (2015 [2011]) Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: an introduction through narratives: MM Textbooks

Swain, M. & Watanabe, Y. (2013) ‘Languaging: Collaborative Dialogue as a Source of Second Language Learning.’ The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431

Webb, N. (2009) ‘The teacher’s role in promoting collaborative dialogue in the classroom.’ British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 1–28

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