In books on language teaching methodology, a lot has been written about teaching one-to-one and also about how to make large groups more communicative. However, little has been written specifically about teaching mini groups. We decided to talk to some experienced colleagues and learners to unpack some of the things that make mini groups both challenging for teachers and learners but also quite joyful and more authentic.

At times, your DOS will need you to work with small classes with quite varied levels of skills – especially if you are working with Elementary or Advanced learners and it is important that you have some tricks in your toolbox to draw on.

Craig: ‘Mini groups tend to be extreme – because the classroom dynamics mean there is nowhere to hide. Either they work really well together and are very cohesive or they are a real struggle.’

  

Opportunities for more responsive teaching

There was a general feeling from teachers that ‘It’s easier to address learners’ individual needs and interests’ with a mini group. This can make the lessons more interesting and relevant in terms of topic choices (and language to focus on) and there is more opportunity to give more targeted individualised feedback. In class, you can respond to learner language much more easily and your responses after class (e.g. feedback on writing) can be more detailed and specific.

Learners may believe they are luckier to be in a smaller group for this reason and have higher expectations of more focused teacher input and a more negotiated, individualised programme. In short, it requires teachers to be more flexible with their planning and classroom decision-making.  

Different dynamics and more even power in the classroom?

Smaller groups are less artificial and there is more potential for genuine, deeper, real interaction and real relationships (teacher – learner; learner – learner). In short as one of our colleagues said, ‘You don’t need to do such explicit classroom management, there is less waiting for others to finish and we can be more productive.’ Teachers reported successful mini groups as ones where learners asked lots of questions and took responsibility for the direction of the class. As one teacher said, ‘There can be a strong rapport with groups and small groups can have a very strong identity.’ She talked about how she chose to sit with small groups around one table to foster this intimacy. So, for classes, and individuals who are confident and reasonably autonomous, there are lots of benefits.

Peter: ‘One of my best mini group classes was one where we made a short travel show about things to do in Auckland. One of the learners had some good video editing skills and they were all involved in choosing locations, interviewing, presenting, etc. It really brought us together and meant that the more formal learning we did was somehow more real.’

 

Nowhere to hide

On the other hand, as a not very motivated or confident language learner, there is nowhere to hide in a mini group. It is easy for louder or stronger learners to dominate. Grievances can be more intense and if someone is having a bad day, there’s a good chance everyone suffers. On top of this, the class is socially less varied and energy levels can feel low. As one learner said, ‘I like my classmates but sometimes it is boring talking to the same people all the time.’ When things are not going well, learners can become quieter and quieter, and teachers feel pressured to fill the void. There is no place for teacher-centredness in a class of five! One teacher said, ‘I just felt I couldn’t win! They wouldn’t talk with me there so I would leave the room for a couple of minutes while they got started and then they complained to my DOS that I wasn’t focusing on them enough!’

‘Classrooms are, as learners and teachers know, emotionally charged contexts’ (Wright, 2005). When teaching, it is always important to consider the affective and emotional needs of learners but particularly so with mini groups when everyone is emotionally so exposed.                        

Katie: ‘Role plays work well with mini groups. It’s a way of introducing more people into the class and instantly switches the dynamic. It’s also important for both introvert and extrovert learners that they know where they can go to meet people and have a wilder social time – they are unlikely to get this in class!’

 

Tips for making small classes work

In short, build on the natural advantages of a small group. Put in place measures to address the challenges.

  1. Get to know your learners well. Do a proper needs analysis where learners can talk about their goals and say what they are interested in. Make sure these are shared around the group so learners know where the others are coming from. Nunan & Lamb (1996) have some great examples of needs analysis questionnaires that address learner preferences about how they like to learn.
  2. Negotiate that syllabus. Maybe you are working with a coursebook. Take it in. Look at it with the class. Decide which bits look interesting. See Graves (2000) for suggestions on planning courses taking into account learners’ emotional and affective needs.
  3. Set up a time once a week where one of the learners brings in a reading text or does a presentation and then leads a discussion. Rotate this role around the group.
  4. Work explicitly on classroom dynamics. Hadfield (1992) has lots of practical ideas that will help develop a positive classroom atmosphere. Rearrange the room so that you are sitting together with learners. At times you will need to distance yourself, step back and let them get on with it.
  5. Dörnyei & Murphy (2003) look at what helps groups work well together and also how to manage conflicts when these arise! Talk about the opportunities and issues with a small class. Come up with some negotiated ways of working together. Talk explicitly about how it is important that learners ask questions, make suggestions and are active and involved. Talk about power in the classroom, traditional roles and how your group can subvert ‘normal’ educational power roles.
  6. When you try something new (especially if it’s a bit whacky), tell students what you are doing and why. Even if it doesn’t help, at least they will know your rationale.
  7. Involve learners in classroom management. Invite them to tell you when they’ve had enough of something or want to move on. Go with the flow.
  8. Think about setting up a regular interclass rendezvous where your class joins another class, to do a mingle activity or the kind of large scale communication game that is only going to work in larger groups.
  9. You don’t need to stay in the classroom. Often heading out creates distractions and opportunities. Engineer tasks like going to the high street and interviewing shoppers or heading to a café for a different kind of class.
  10. If you can’t get out, bring voices from the outside in and encourage your learners to do so too. Our learners are online 24 hours a day and getting them to bring their videos, audio, online interactions and images into class is a great way to address your learners’ particular needs and make connections with more people.
  11. Consider project-based learning (e.g. plan a school party, launch a new product, produce a magazine, etc.) with each person in your mini group taking on a different role.
  12. Your learners will have higher expectations of your feedback so you need to deliver! Exploit in-class opportunities for error correction and on-the-spot coaching with language. And when you are correcting writing, you can give each learner more attention. Remember, you’ve only got five scripts to mark at the end of the day!
  13. Some learners can be quiet and prefer processing information alone, so you need to adjust your expectations of what ‘good dynamics’ look like in practice and work with your learners. You don’t need fireworks for an effective mini group language learning experience.
  14. Be sympathetic to quiet learners who may feel overwhelmed in a small group. Make sure you get one-to-one time with your learners so that you can reassure, encourage and support them. Ensure they have a chance to tell you (in confidence) if there are issues. And if they can’t tell you, make sure they know who they can tell.

Enjoy your mini groups and make the most of the opportunities these present. They can be some of the most intense and memorable classes you ever end up teaching.

References

Dörnyei Z & Murphy T (2003) Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Graves K (2000) Designing Language Courses: A Guide for Teachers. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.

Hadfield J (1992) Classroom Dynamics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nunan D & Lamb C (1996) The Self-Directed Teacher: Managing the Learning Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sharma P & Barett B (2007) Blended Learning. London: Macmillan.

Wright T (2005) Classroom Management in Language Education. New York, US: Palgrave Macmillan.


Nick Moore is Director of Studies at Languages International in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s a CELTA trainer and is interested in learner autonomy in language teaching and teaching in the workplace.

Stacy Kot is a teacher at Languages International in Auckland, New Zealand. She has been involved in TESOL since 2010 and is currently doing DELTA. She is interested in designing teaching materials and language assessment.