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Varying interaction patterns

Varying interaction patterns is an essential skill for teachers. Done well, it really brings a lesson to life. Done badly (or not at all), it’s a sure way to spoil an otherwise great lesson.

If you’ve ever been in a classroom situation yourself, you’ll know how crucial it is. For instance, one day, my Kung Fu teacher forgot to get us to switch partners as he usually does… my wife was stuck with someone half her size who didn’t really get it. Compare that to another lesson, when we rotated between partners, a one-on-one with teacher and finished with group practice. It made a world of difference.

So anyway, getting back to ELT, I recently made a training session on varying interaction patterns for colleagues at work. See what you think…

Getting started

We started off with a few quick warmer questions:

  1. What do you understand by interaction patterns?
  2. How often do you vary interaction patterns in class? Why?
  3. How do you plan interaction patterns? Before the lesson? Or do what seems best when you’re in the lesson?

Let’s see where those questions take us…

1. What?

If you ask me, interaction patterns has a narrow meaning and a broad meaning. In a narrow sense, it’s those little T-S or S-S abbreviations we put in our written lesson plans. Who’s talking to whom? Taken in a broader sense, we’re really talking about managing interaction as part of our classroom management repertoire. It involves seating arrangements, such as in rows, horseshoe or around a table, it involves timing and pacing a lesson, attending to individual learners and classroom dynamics, and lots more.

2. How often? Why?

Rule of thumb: Change interaction pattern at least 2 – 3 times an hour.

That’s the advice I’ve always stuck to. This doesn’t mean getting everyone to stand up and sit at a different table each time! Good teachers that I’ve observed are often very sensitive to pairings or groupings that are working well or not. Small variations, can be incorporated seamlessly by small tweaks. For example, you can split up a pair and ask them to report to a new partner, you can send a spy from one group to another as a task is winding down, join pairs together if they don’t have a lot to say, etc.

And as for why?… here’s some visual inspiration:

(Images credits: Young man on a job interview by Amtec and I hate you by Jonathan Rolande)


  • Add variety.
  • Attend to individual learners’ needs. Eg. matching partners according to level.
  • Keep energy levels high.
  • Allow learners to stretch their legs.
  • Learners avoid getting lumped with someone. Eg. another learner who they dislike or has weaker level.
  • You can recreate situations. Eg. interviews, sitting on a bus, etc.
  • You can change the focus. Eg. from the teacher to someone on your table to someone on another table.
  • Communication! By changing interaction patterns, you can easily create real information gaps between learners.

Why not?

  • Can be chaotic.
  • Can waste time.
  • Students can’t be bothered.

I don’t really buy any of these as reasons for not varying interaction partners. That’s not to say they aren’t important considerations, though. They are all problems that you can anticipate and solve.

Reduce chaos and wasted time by giving clear instructions, using gestures, setting time limits for moving furniture if need be, drawing a seating diagram on the board for complicated seating arrangements, and not being over-ambitious with the space and furniture you have at your disposal.

As for students can’t be bothered, I can only provide a paragon: if I sit at home all week and don’t do any exercise, I can’t be bothered to go for a run, but if I push myself to go for that run, I feel much better for it and look forward to going again.

3.1. The how? Planning

So you’ve got the basic individual, pair (open or closed), group and class interaction patterns. Then you’ve got various seating arrangements:

  • Dyadic circles / onion rings / concentric circles. An inner circle of seats facing outwards and an outer circle of seats facing inwards. Learners speak to the person opposite them, then rotate and get a new partner.
  • Two lines facing each other. Learners talk to a person from the other line. The lines can be wide apart (to encourage learners to speak up) or close together.
  • Sitting back to back. A classic for telephone role-plays.
  • Circle. Like a counselling session. Very cozy.
  • Trade fair. Students sit in pairs or threes in each corner of the room. The remaining learners can visit the ‘stalls’. Great for project work.
  • Buzz groups. Groups discuss something and a learners from each group rotates to a new group every now and then. Alternatively, groups send a spy to another group to see their answers or reignite the discussion.
  • Mingle. ‘Everyone stand up. Speak to 5 people.’

Of course, all interaction patterns and seating arrangements have their pros and cons. While I was on the DipTESOL, my observers were very good at encouraging me to reflect on some of the more subtle differences between them. Here are some of the main factors:

  • Monitoring. What interaction pattern is easiest to monitor? I’d never thought about this until my teachers pointed it out. If you’re monitoring pair work (such as tell your partner a story) in a class of 16 learners, you’ll be listening to about 8 people at a time. If you’re monitoring groupwork, it’ll be more manageable, as you only listen to 4 people at a time. Simple as that. Seating arrangements also come into their own here. For example, the typical ‘two lines facing inwards’ for a repeated role-play is very easy to monitor, as you can walk around the outside. Of course, if there’s an odd number of students, you’ll want to put them in a group of three so you can continue monitoring.
  • Timing. Take the example above. If the task requires learners to take turns to speak, then pairs will finish the task in 5 minutes, while groups will finish it in 10 minutes. This can help your timing and also help address individuals. Imagine you have some learners who always finish earlier than everyone else, put them in a group of 3 or 4 while everyone else does it in pairs. Everyone’s a winner! For more on timing, see my post How to improve your lesson timing.
  • Catering to individuals. Where will you put your weaker learners? How will you keep your stronger learners challenged? How will you make sure fast finishers aren’t sat twiddling their thumbs? These are all reasons to vary interaction patterns.
  • Authenticity? I’m not going to open the can of worms about what ‘authenticity’ means, don’t worry! But of all the interaction patterns, speaking to one other interlocutor (pairwork) is likely the most common in real life, so that is a factor.
  • Pacing. Some of the interaction patterns are high-tempo and fun, like dyadic circles for role plays. Others are more settled, like individual exercises. You’ll need to balance those, and ideally form a settle-stir pattern – even with adults!
  • Rapport. One of the worst things you can do is say ‘Right, find a partner.’ It might work alright in some classes, but sooner or later, you get into that situation like PE class at school where kids are picking their teams and one poor kid is the last one to get picked. So you’ll need to use your well-tuned understanding of your learners both before and during the lesson to match learners up.
  • Culture. This is often bit of an afterthought for us teachers if we subscribe to the idea of communicative language learning. However, it certainly isn’t for learners or institutions. When teaching in an Italian middle school, for example, I was expected to use mainly open pairs and T-Ss interaction patterns.
  • Expediency. You don’t want to be wasting time moving chairs and tables. This may affect your choice of interaction pattern, or you might just need to thing about how you set it up. You can speed things up by:
    • drawing a diagram on the board and learners arrange themselves
    • just making small tweaks to pairings and groupings
    • matching learners up using numbers, words, colours, etc.

3.2. The how? Reacting

It’s all well and good planning how to manage and vary interactions before the lesson, but it’s often very different in class. Teachers need to be responsive and problem-solve on the spot. The situations below are all problems that I’ve encountered in class. How would you react? Post your comments below!

If you like these cards, you can download them as a PDF here: what would you do if cards.

4. Finishing off

After lots of good discussion, the training session finished with a couple of reflection questions:

  • So what’s your opinion about varying interaction patterns?
  • Will you be changing anything about how you manage interaction in class?
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How to improve your lesson timing

I am mentoring a teacher who is preparing for DipTESOL at the moment. Her main concern about the observed teaching practice is timing, so this post is for her and anyone else who has identified timing something to work on in their teaching.

Actually, I think all teachers have had issues with timing at some point or another (observations in particular). People often offer suggestions like:

  • Set realistic timings in your lesson plan
  • Make sure you can see a clock or wear a watch
  • Use a timer on the IWB or your mobile phone

Don’t get me wrong, these are all useful suggestions. The problem is, they’re all pretty obvious and don’t actually get to the root cause of timing problems. So here are my top 5 tried-and-tested timing tips…

1. Plan for flexibility

If you’re haemorrhaging time in your lessons, it’s often because you’re teaching WELL! Congratulations! It could mean you’re responding to learners’ needs by doing things like:

  • showing an interest in what they have to say
  • providing opportunity for questions
  • picking up on errors
  • upgrading learners’ output
  • working with emergent language
  • opening up discussions rather than shutting them down

You don’t want to stop doing those things, because that’s what makes your lessons worth attending and where lots of the learning is taking place. So what can you do?

Plan for flexibility. Give yourself leeway in all your timings. So if you think that final speaking task is going to take 15 minutes, give yourself 20 or 25 minutes. That’ll give you time for feedback on content and form, following up the discussion together, recording any new language and so on.

Alternatively, build a ‘flexi-stage‘ into your lesson plan. Add up your estimated timings and make sure they come to 50 minutes for a 60-minute lesson. That give you a 10 minute flexi-stage to spill over into.

In summary, the key thing is to know yourself, know your learners and allow yourself leeway at the planning stage. But remember, this time is for those positive things mentioned above! What if you’re haemorrhaging time for things that aren’t beneficial? Read on…

2. Black holes

We all have our favourite teacherly time-wasting habits. Here are just a few that I’ve been guilty of over the years:

  • Making asides to ourself
  • Making all learners wait while we hand out materials, write on the board, etc.
  • Waiting for technology
  • Wasting individual learners’ time as they wait for others to finish tasks
  • Drawing out instructions
  • Giving unclear instructions and having to clarify or intervene in tasks
  • Getting carried away with CCQs and ICQs
  • Going off on teacher tangents (not to be confused with exploring something that everyone wants to talk about)
  • Letting activities run for longer than necessary
  • Doing things in open class that could be done faster in closed pairs/groups.

If that’s the case, you might want to ask someone to observe you to identify ‘black holes of time‘ in your lesson. You could ask them to look specifically for what they feel is unproductive use of time. Alternatively, they could just write down everything you do, time it all and you can discuss what was productive or unproductive use of time afterwards.

Thornbury’s post ‘T for Time’ makes for an interesting read on this subject, with data from a newspaper about the worst offending subject teachers by country!

3. Front-loading and backwards planning

Another way to address timing in your lesson plan is backwards planning. This works in any lesson plan that builds towards a final communicative task.

Imagine the final communicative task that learners will complete is a job interview role-play. Everything that you do in the rest of the lesson should prepare them for that. If there is anything that doesn’t fit the bill, then scrap it. For instance, if role-playing a job interview is the main aim of the lesson, reading advice about job interviews isn’t necessarily going to help learners’ output and might just eat up time. You’d likely be better off spending time looking at collocations about professional achievements (set up a project, get feedback, etc.).

Of course, take this with a pinch of salt – the reading advice activity above might be a nice detour towards the goal, it might add some non-linguistic aim to the lesson, or you might have plenty of time.

However, if timing is an issue, then this strategy is very good for avoiding…

  1. …the urge to plan according to materials. It focuses your mind on learners achieving an outcome, not on bits and bobs that seem to fit together from the course book.
  2. …front-loading, ie. where you pad out the start of a lesson too much, maybe to try to engage learners or out of a subconscious fear of getting through your lesson plan too quickly.

4. Integrate activities

I often see teachers using various materials for each stage of their lesson. A flipchart slide for pronunciation stage, a short writing practice activity from the book, a gap-fill from somewhere else in the book, etc. This can be very piecemeal for learners, often lacks a unifying context and most importantly, it takes up valuable learning time.

Take a materials-light approach. One excellent way to do this is to integrate several activities into one. Here is one I made earlier…

Integrating activities photo

This one piece of material is basically a whole lesson:

  1. Class chit-chat about where they are living/staying, what their houses are like, who does the chores…
  2. Conversation flows into names of chores in English, at which point learners match the verbs on the left with the collocates on the right of worksheet above.
  3. Now the same worksheet becomes a controlled speaking task in which learners ask each other 3 questions from the paper, like ‘Who does the ironing in your house?’, etc.
  4. As anticipated, they had difficulty with pronouncing the -s endings of the verbs and also with the juncture between the words (eg. makes_a mess). Now the material becomes a fun pronunciation drill.
  5. To put that back into practice, learners pick a question and ask everyone in the class their one question, then report back to a partner.

By integrating all those activities (lexis, speaking, pronunciation and implicit grammar focus on ‘subject questions’) into one piece of material, it cuts down on wasted time – handing out, instructions, learners’ processing time, pre-teaching vocabulary for different activities, etc.

5. Routines

Efficient classroom routines can save a lot of time, whether you’re teaching adults or young learners. Learners get used to them and give you a shortcut for all sorts of things that take time to explain. Here are just a few examples of time-saving routines:

  • Attention getting routine: tap the board, countdown, silent countdown on fingers, ‘hands on head’, turn off background music, IWB countdown, hand up, etc.
  • Gestures: ‘work in a pair’, ‘work in a group’, error correction on fingers, etc.
  • Distributing/Collecting materials: distribute face-down while monitoring in preparation for next task, nominate a student hander-outer, giving learners a time limit to get a pen, etc.
  • Setting clear time limits: negotiate a time limit with learners, tell learners time limit in instructions, show the time limit on IWB, reminders (one minute left), learners use their own timer on their mobile, etc.

Time and Timing

The ideas above all relate to ‘timing’ as a teaching skill. I hope you find them useful and please do leave a comment below with your own thoughts 🙂

The notion of ‘time’ in lessons is more subjective. I’ve known plenty of teachers who think that it’s a waste of time for learners to do writing in class, for example. So it’s also essential to know how students want to use the time they’ve paid for. More on that another day.

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Teaching functional language: Staging

The other day, out of the blue, I got a message from a colleague. We were talking about teaching functional language. He said:

“We have covered all the language, why can’t they do it????”

I understood exactly what he meant. I still distinctly remember one of my first functional lessons that completely bombed. I was teaching phrases for agreeing and disagreeing from a course book and when it came to learners using them, it never materialised. Since then, I’ve taught lots of functional lessons, had lots of trial and error and lots of great advice from other teachers. So what was my answer?

Staging a functional lesson

The simple answer is: you might be missing a step. Here is my favourite visualisation of the language acquisition process:

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 11.53.12

My favourite visualisation of the language acquisition process from: Tessa Woodward (2001). Planning lessons and Courses. Cambridge: CUP, p91. 

Here’s how this might translate into a (rather dull) lesson:

  1. Exposure: Learners listen to a dialogue in which someone invites their friend to come to a party, concentrating on meaning
  2. Noticing: With any luck, learners will notice useful phrases for making invitations and accepting or refusing an invitation. We will reinforce this by studying the transcript of the dialogue and highlighting the phrases used. Also, focus on and clarify the functional language, for example, for phrase ‘Do you fancy…?’
    • Meaning: Synonymous phrases like ‘Would you like to…’, highlighting the function (inviting)
    • Form: Do you fancy +ing form
    • Pronunciation: Do you –> /dʒə/, sentence stress and rising intonation
    • Use: Formality, context, etc.
  3. Remembering: Learners fix the language to memory. Eg. Show the learners a similar dialogue with the functional phrases missing. They try to remember them and add them in.
  4. Use: Learners use the language more meaningfully and personalise it. For example, you give them a blank diary page for the week and ask each learner to create two events. They then work in a group of 3 to invite each other to their events.
  5. Refinement: You give learners some feedback on their invitations, including error correction, praise, emergent language and the like. Now you set them off to invite other classmates to their events (‘Use’ again) so that they can work on the refinements you suggested.

Missing a step

Like I said, the simple answer is: if learners are having difficulty using the language, it could be because one or more of these elements is missing. For example, without Exposure, they have no model or input on which to base their own output. Without ‘Remembering’, they may understand the function, but might struggle to recall the language, especially under real operating conditions (when listening and speaking in a real conversation).

A smooth progression

The slightly less simple answer is: you might not be completely missing a stage, but there might be too much of a jump from one stage to another. In other words, one stage doesn’t provide a smooth enough transition to the next one. This can occur between any of the stages in the lesson. However, I’d say that the transition between Noticing, Remembering and Use needs to be the subtlest of all. In the example above, for instance, that one simple gap fill exercise in the Remembering stage might not be enough to prepare learners to use the language. A short controlled practice game could help them to recall the language and use it in spoken form. The more meaningful encounters learners have with the target language, the better it will stick. I’ll be exploring activities for this in my post on ‘Remembering’ in the near future.

What are all those other arrows?

Now for the not so simple answer… In the diagram above, arrows go back and forth in a cycle between Remembering, Use and Refinement and all the way back to exposure. This reminds us that these stages mutually reinforce each other. When a learner uses the target language, this helps them fix it better in their memory, as we saw above. When a learner refines the language (imagine they were saying ‘Do you fancy go cinema?), they need to go back to the Remembering stage and remember not to make this error again. They may even need to go back to Exposure, for instance listening to how to pronounce it from a model, in order to refine their own use of the target language. The implication of this for us as teachers, is that we should build in several opportunities for Use, often from less demanding controlled practice, progressing to more demanding free practice. We should also be flexible and ‘tuned in’ to learners so that we can teach responsively.

What order?

Hope you’re still with me… Those arrows that go back and forth in a cycle basically remind us of something else that’s important. Language learning doesn’t always happen in a linear progression. The order presented here is a sort of logical progression from input to output. It is reflected in lots of lesson staging paradigms, like Presentation, Practice, Performance or Engage, Study, Activate.

However, following this order assumes that learners understand how the target language is relevant to them after hearing it in a recording or some other form of Exposure. This is sometimes the case. For example, learners might have requested a lesson on how to make, accept and refuse invitations and be very receptive to it. So I’m not going to knock it. It is more likely that they need a bit more convincing of the usefulness of the target language first. They might need to see how the language they use for that function differs from the language that a proficient speaker uses. Enter Test-Teach-Test!

What we do in Test-Teach-Test lesson is just jump right in at the Use stage right at the start of the lesson. Let’s see what that might look like:

  1. Use: After a bit of banter with learners about dinner parties, you ask learners to spend 5 minutes planning a dinner party of their own – music, food, location, activities, etc. Then give learners a diary page and they invite 3 classmates to their party. You monitor super attentively to hear how they make, accept and refuse invitations.
  2. Refinement: You give some encouraging feedback on their parties and elicit how they made, accepted and refused invitations. You also tell them what you heard while monitoring (which is likely different their idealised version of what they think they said!)
  3. Exposure: Now you’re going to listen to that proficient speaker doing the same thing (inviting friends to their dinner party).
  4. Noticing: Learners had already developed a receptiveness to the new functional language by trying it themselves in stage 1, so they are likely to notice it more autonomously. Nevertheless, you can give them the transcript and focus on and clarify the language (meaning, form, pronunciation and use) as above. You can highlight the differences between learner’s output in stage 1 and this model.
  5. Remembering: Learners fix the language to memory. Eg. Show the learners a similar dialogue with the functional phrases missing. They try to remember them and add them in.
  6. Use: Now comes the challenging bit. Learners need to put the new language they learnt back into use so that it sticks. Ask them to put 3 other events in their weekly diary page (eg. drinks with friends, university open day) so that they have more reason to accept and refuse. Give them 10 minutes to invite as many people as they can. They should be making a more conscious effort to use the target language this time.

This approach is great for two main reasons. Firstly, the main emphasis is on learners communicating something meaningful from the outset, unhindered by consciously having to practise any specific target language. Secondly, learners are very aware of their improvement. They go away thinking ‘Wow, I can make invitations in English much better than before.’

So that’s the simple answer, the slightly less simple answer, the not so simple answer and the hope you’re still with meanswer.

Please do leave a comment below! Let us know…

  • Does that match your experience of staging functional lessons?
  • Can you talk through a functional lesson that has gone well for you?

Read on…

This is part of a whole series of posts on teaching functional language. More coming soon!

Further reading


The hilarity of incongruity header
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The hilarity of incongruity

It’s the start of the academic year here in Thailand and I’ve been dusting off some activities from last year for a second year. I think it’s great to revisit lessons you planned before and see things in a new light.

It dawned on me why some games always go down really well with all ages and levels. I was playing Happy Holidays from Games for Vocabulary Practice.

Happy Holidays activity

Here’s how it works:

  1. All players have an adventure holiday location. In the middle of the table you have a pile of adventure holiday items on little cards.
  2. Learners take turns to explain why the items are useful to them on their holiday, and if they manage to convince the other players, they keep it.
  3. The player with the most cards wins.

Sounds pretty dull, right? But the fun starts as soon as a card comes up that definitely doesn’t match the player’s location, like skis on a desert island, and the player has to come up with a convincing reason for taking it. I realised that most of my (and my learners’) favourite controlled practice games are based on this principle of incongruity. Here are just a few others…

Telephone Game

Telephone game

  1. Ask learners to write an activity using the -ing form, eg. ‘drinking tea’, ‘cleaning the toilet’, on little blue cards. Encourage imagination!
  2. Ask learners to write a prepositional phrase like ‘under a bridge’, ‘on the moon’, etc. on little green cards.
  3. Place all the cars face-down on the table. Demo having a telephone conversation with a learner using your mobile phone as a prop, then learners do the same:

A: Hi, where are you?
B: [picks up green card] I’m just at the dentist’s.
A: Oh, right. Are you ok?
B: [picks up blue card] Yeah, I’m fine, I’m just eating spaghetti with meatballs.
A: What?
B: Yeah, umm, my dentist is a really good cook. How about you?

A change of plan

A change of plan flipchart page

When you know that incongruity is silly, funny and more motivating than dull controlled practice activities, you can make your own. Here is on I made a while back on the DipTESOL.

I was focusing on ‘was/were going to’ and functional expressions for talking about a change of plan, eg. ‘This morning, I was going to…, but unfortunately…, so  I… instead.’.

I made 2 lots of cards: activities and hitches. Learners pick up a card to set the scene, then another for the hitch, and make up their own ending.

We had some weird changes of plan, like “This morning, I was going to have a job interview, but a dog bit me, so I went on holiday instead.”

It’s fun for 5 minutes, which is about how long it takes learners to get to grips with the form and pronunciation. To give the activity more purpose, I told learners that they will feed back to the class on their funniest sentence.

One of the learners was in hysterics and went up to tell the DipTESOL observer her sentence at the end of the lesson… I’d like to say she nailed the target language after that fantastic controlled practice… But oh well, let’s just say progress isn’t always linear in language learning.

While I was watching TV…

While I was watching TV... stage 2

An alternative to using cards is to write the prompts on the board and learners mime the sentences to each other. This works superbly for Past Simple and Past Continuous narrative tenses:

  • Brief focus on form
  • Write up a load of activities on the left of the board, eg. ‘watching TV’, ‘playing games on my mobile’, and a load of interruptions on the right, e.g. ‘heard a loud bang’, ‘monkey jumped on me’.
  • Rub out and replace all the phrases with a little doodle, eliciting what to draw from the learners.
  • Do a quick demo: mime an activity and an interruption and learners supply the phrase. Now learners do the same in small groups. Lots of fun.

Incongruity in more meaning-focused tasks?

I wondered whether incongruity is only useful for controlled practice. After a few seconds wondering, I came to the answer: no; it can be used in more meaningful tasks, too. Here’s what sprang to mind…

Estate Agents

This is my take on this classic activity.

We read a great little article about estate agents advertising a house as a ‘quaint fisherman’s cottage’, when in reality it was next to a nuclear power plant! That set the scene perfectly for some persuasive writing…

  • Give each pair a picture of a house, some should be lovely, some truly horrible.
  • Learners write a persuasive ad to try and sell the house.
  • Next learners either read their ads aloud as a pitch or just pin them up on the wall like in an estate agent’s, except without the pictures.
  • Finally, each pair must decide on one house to buy.
  • The incongruity comes when you finally reveal the pictures and learners see what they’ve bought. My learners were in stitches, as several of them were persuaded to buy a pile of sticks in the middle of the desert.

A picture tells a thousand words


The classic ‘make a story from the pictures’ can also rely heavily on incongruity, as you need to piece the story together from seemingly incongruous elements. Here in Thailand, everyone has a cockroach anecdote. I love to get learners to predict mine from pictures and do the same with their own anecdotes.

Last word

So just to recap, incongruity is a powerful driving force behind lots of simple TESOL games. When designing materials, it is well worth remembering this, as it can make a fairly repetitive controlled practice activity a memorable experience for everyone.

And it doesn’t need to stop with controlled practice. Teachers and materials designers can harness the principle of incongruity for all sorts of storytelling, prediction and persuasion/deception tasks.

Have you got any favourite activities that rely on incongruity? I’d love to hear them.

Further Reading