classroom by Lead Beyond, on Flickr
"classroom" (CC BY 2.0) by  Lead Beyond 

 
Last week, langchat linked up to talk about group work in the world language classroom and participants brainstormed strategies to help make it a successful learning experience for students on a regular basis. Contributors discussed their opinions as to when/why you would decide to use group work, as well as the norms/procedures they’ve found that lead to productive (and effective) group work. Participants also went over their thoughts about how/why differentiation should be incorporated into group learning, and how you can effectively and fairly assess group work. Lastly, langchatters discussed the finer points of the challenges that group work represents and ways that teachers can overcome them.

Give a big round of applause to Amy (@alendord) and her Thursday night co-moderators, Colleen (@CoLeeSensei) and Kris (@KrisClimer). We’d also like to thank Wendy (@MmeFarab) and Laura (@SraSpanglish) for leading the #SaturdaySequel. And as always, thanks to our regular #langchat participants, it wouldn’t be the same without you.

Question 1: When/Why do you have Students work in groups?

Langchatters seemed to be in agreement that group work is essential to successful learning in the world language classroom because at it’s core, learning a language requires students to actually speak the language – and THAT requires a significant amount of partner/group work to be worked into the structure of the classroom. As @MmeCarbonneau put it, group work should be happening, “All. The. Time. They [students] need/want to talk, right? Only way [for them] to negotiate meaning and grow in TL.”

The “when” varied a lot per each langchatter’s class set up and preference – reasons included things such as for long-term projects, after input, for students to process together, to help out the weaker students, to motivate all students, to help with vocabulary and reading projects, to work on conversation and collaboration, to complete presentational projects at the end of a unit, for station work, and to keep students engaged. The “why” was more universal in that langchatters felt that group work is essential to growth since language learning is about communicating, and pairing and grouping students is a way for them to practice communicating.

Like @CoLeeSensei said, “I tell them [students]…’you’ll never talk alone’…” and that’s really the “why” of group work – it’s important in order to give your students a safe place to talk in the target language where they feel comfortable trying and using the things they are learning.

Question 2: What norms/procedures lead to effective/productive group work?

While group work is essential to students being able to speak the target language on a regular basis, langchatters also agreed that it has to be set up correctly for it to actually be an effective and productive tool in the world language classroom. Some suggestions for norms/procedures to be established for group work included setting expectations ahead of time, mixing up the groups so it’s as fair as possible, establish/assign roles for each member for each task, keep your groups small, thoughtful grouping based on purpose, and many more.

Many suggestions revolved around the thought that each group member needs to clearly understand their role and the expectations for what they need to contribute to the group work. @magisterb480 put it clearly when he said, “[Give] Specific rubrics to explain what roles each person has in the group so one person doesn’t do all the work.” Similarly, @SraWeinhold said she’s found that “Having a set purpose, direction & goal helps to keep the whole group on track”.

Overall, participants seemed to universally agree that in order for group work to be both effective and productive, it has to be clearly structured with clear expectations for each student, and for the purpose of the activity. Like @alenord said, it’s imperative to “Give purposes for each task. Why are they reading? Why are they talking? etc.” Summing up the overall feeling for this questions was @ProfeCochran, when she stated that you have to explicitly outline your, “Class expectations – [Tell students] Use what you know, participate, infer/cirumlocute, don’t be afraid to take risks/make mistakes, [aim for] 100% TL.”

Question 3: How/Why should we incorporate differentiation in group-learning experiences?

Differentiation is an important key in group-learning for several reasons – the first being that you need to make sure students don’t burn out on one aspect of learning, and the second being that students are all different so differentiation is the only way to make to make sure that you’re meeting as many of your student’s needs, as often as possible. As @SrtaScislowicz stated, “Differentiation ensures ALL students have an opportunity to gain proficiency.”

While most langchatters acknowledged the importance of differentiation, the “how” of incorporating it into group-work proved to be a harder piece of the puzzle to answer. Some hands on suggestions for “how” included using homogeneous (fast-slow, slow-slow) pacing, a reading club with a novel, new prompts for conversations, changing up expectations for activities, suing differentiated assessments, tiered reading passages, offering students a choice of project (newspaper, a comic strip, presentations, storyboard, a paper, summarize, act something out, etc.) and many more.
Popular suggestions for differentiation included @rachelcinis’ idea to “…offer different options to show comprehension: drawing a comic, summarize in TL, act it out. Groups then choose!”, as well as @ProfeCochran’s suggestion to “Let your [students] be your curriculum. Let your {group} prompts grow out of what they’re wearing, doing, liking. Tailor to them!”

Question 4: How do you assess group work tasks? (Maybe, beyond the rubric?)

Assessing group work is a sticking point for every teacher when it comes to making group work a part of the class structure, as it’s hard to assess individual students from their work in a group set up. Several participants shared how they struggle with this aspect of group work since it’s hard to really know if each student understands and/or fully contributed their role in the group.

The main thing that chatters seemed to agree on when it comes to assessment was that the real key is to never try to assess the final result, but rather make sure that you are working to access the process, as that allows for built in differentiation/expectations when it comes to each student’s role in the group. @kballestrini had a much liked tip for his peers when he shared that he “[had a] breakthrough this year; aside from collaborative Google docs (where I can see everything…) and my own analysis, I created a Google form for collaboration reports (1 member per night, rotates through the week) — analysis of each member.”

Other much-liked suggestions for ways to assess group work included not trying to assess it formally but rather circulate/give feedback as they go, have students do some self-evaluation, make sure that students are working in the target language, story re-telling as a measure of students’ understanding, orchestrating a group conversation with you (the teacher), recording conversations to listen to later, and many more.

A thought-provoking piece of the group-assessment issue that arose was whether or not you compare/assess the participants in the group against each other, or whether you assess each individual student against their own progress – most participants agreed that as much as possible, you should try and keep each individual student’s progress as a measure only for that individual student.

Question 5: What challenges does group work pose and how can we overcome them?

It was made obvious through this week’s conversation that group work is an essential piece of the learning process in the world language classroom – BUT there are some built in challenges that have to be addressed in order to make sure its effective.

Challenges to the group work process include making sure students are actually staying on task, figuring out how to structure the accountability piece, being certain that everyone is participating and learning, group dynamics (aka – enemies, friends, etc.), making time to actively monitor the group work, and more of the like. It can be hard to keep up with your groups, and it can sometimes feel a bit impossible as @natadel76 put it, “[If] You mean me standing behind every group every step of the way… #NeedClones”.

Some ideas for overcoming the challenges of group work included using small groups of 2-3 students at most, making sure to scaffold the group assignments so they have all the tools they need ahead of time, use a simple “self-assessment” form for each group so they are responsible for checking themselves, use short prompts, make sure your seating/group assignments make sense, get your students to buy in to the activity as soon as possible, constantly have them changing partners, and more. @KrisClimer had the most popular tip overcoming the challenges of group work when he reminded everyone that the “Biggest hurdle is enlisting them [students] into the process. When they buy in, its magic!”

Takeaways

Last week, langchatters were full of good suggestions and ideas for how to make group work a successful and effective part of your schedule in the world language classroom. Takeaways included the desire to work to set better expectations for group/pair work, it’s a good tool to make students provide a product to show what they accomplished, and the thought that sometimes you can have too many group projects/too much group work so it’s important to work for a balance. @christasgould really summed up the big takeaway for this conversation when she said it’s important to, “Group work with purpose, not just because I think it’s the right thing to do. Not all collaboration/group work is equal.”

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who joined in #langchat and discussed group work with us this week. We hope that you continue to join #langchat as often as you are able – if the regular chat time on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET doesn’t work for you, try joining the #SaturdaySequel, every Saturday at 10 a.m. ET instead!

Our weekly #langchats are getting busier and busier, so due to space limitations, the summaries always focus on the main themes and takeaways from each week’s conversation. Many tweets have to be omitted but to read the entire conversation from this week, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. Have a topic that you’re impatient to discuss?! Send us your ideas for future #langchats!