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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 an analogy: 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.’
  • Pyramid discussion. Learners discuss something in pairs, then pairs join another pair to discuss as a group of 4, then discuss in groups of 8, and finally as a whole class.

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?

Featured image adapted from: Image from page 292 of “With the children on Sundays, through eye-gate, and ear-gate into the city of child-soul” (1911). For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.

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