Lesson Idea:  Helping Your Students Remember to Speak English During Group Work in the ESL Classroom.

Ninety percent of our students identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino last year. The predominance of one language group can make conversing in English more difficult. Sharron Bassano, a well known presenter and author, provided the following tips for successful group work as part of her workshop, “Exemplary Language Instruction – Then and Now”.

Assuming that the primary objective of your curriculum is to learn and practice English, you must meet these criteria BEFORE expecting your learners to carry out a group task in English.

• Be sure you have given your learners a task that they can, in fact, carry out in English – they have enough vocabulary and English skills to do it.
• Be sure that you have modeled and explained very carefully and clearly and that they understand the instructions and the objective of the task you have assigned.
• Be sure they know how much time they have, who they are supposed to work with, what final product is expected, who goes first, who writes, who reports, criteria for success, etc. at the outset.
• Be sure the topic is relatively motivating – even entertaining, if possible. If the topic is not intrinsically motivating, find a way to make it relevant or meaningful in some way, or you are doomed.

If you are sure about all of the above, try any of the following ideas for helping them stay in English during the group work.

1. Use a mechanical kitchen timer. Show the students that you are turning the dial to (seven) minutes. They have (seven) minutes to carry out the task presented in English. Walk around among the groups as they work, letting them hear the timer tick and see the dial moving. It is an auditory and visual signal that reminds them it is for a short time only. It is good to start this as regular classroom practice at the beginning of the year.

2. Use a small melodic bell to signal the groups when they have slipped back to their primary language. This is a soft, unobtrusive auditory signal.

3. Appoint an “English Monitor” for each table. Rotate this responsibility often. The monitor holds up 4 x 6 card that says “Try It In English!" whenever they need to remind their group members that the objective is to carry out the task in English. Let the students decorate the cards with color pens, stickers, drawings, collages – whatever they like. Laminate the cards to last the entire school year.

4. Put a long timeline above the blackboard, divided into 24 spaces. (Three) of the spaces are brightly colored. Tell students this time line represents the 24 hours they have each day. The (three) bright colored spaces represent the ONLY three hours they have in each day to practice and get help with their English. Every once in a while, during group tasks, as needed, go over to the time line and tap on the bright colored spaces with your pointer to remind them this is their chance and not to waste it.

5. Give each table 10” tickets. (I run off sheets on the copier and cut them into ticket sized pieces that say “English practice’ on them.) Students know that as long as they practice English during the group work they can keep the tickets. You mingle among the groups taking back a ticket or two from each group whenever they get off track. Groups with the most tickets left get … well, whatever you want to give them.

6. Put (100) marbles in a jar. Tell students that if there are still (85) marbles in the jar on (March 12) they will all get to…whatever you want to promise them – music, special guest interview, field trip to the __________)

7. Write contracts at the beginning of the year. Each student decides on the first day of class whether or not they plan to speak English during group practice. No pressure. Those who plan to practice English fill out a contract and sign it. Keep the contracts on file. Every once in a while, as needed, pull someone’s contract out of the file and show it to them, as a reminder that they might be getting off track. Those who initially chose not to sign contracts that indicate they are committed or willing to practice English, do not participate in group tasks. They are given some other quiet, individual meaningful work that is not interactive – writing, reading grammar assignments, etc. Not a punishment. It is their conscious choice. They can re-decide any time during the year.

8. Set aside a certain corner of your classroom that is the consultation corner, where students are encouraged to speak their primary language with each other to clarify/tutor/explain things to each other. English is spoken when they sit at their desks with their groups. For primary language discussion, they go to the special corner so as not to disturb others.

9. Give them individual prizes at the end of the class. “Jose – for your effort in the group work today, you have won a new Mercedes Benz!” Give him a picture of a Mercedes cut from a magazine. “Mei Fong, in recognition of the huge amount of English you tried to speak today, you have won a one week vacation in Hawaii with this man!” Give Mei Fong a picture of a man under a palm tree that you have torn from a calendar. Etc. They save these prizes and go through them often to see their winnings. I promise!

10. Same as above, but give money – play money that you can buy in notepad form at local stationery stores. “Juanita – That is $50 worth of English! Nice work!”

Good Luck.