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My students are not flamingos

These flamingos apparently arranged themselves into this particular shape, which may only have been noticed from an aerial shot like this one. When it comes to arranging themselves into the best groupings, my students are not flamingos. 

After my first week back into the academic year with 1st year university students, “simple” classroom management issues have proven once again to be important factors to consider.  How often do you just put students who sit next to each into pairs to work on their activities? It’s tempting apple to bite, but I try to resist. We may often think student groups before, during and after activities seem an obvious call, but being cognisant of their purpose in terms of level coordination, group dynamic variety and *cough* personality quirks *cough* will increase the productivity during activities and buy-in (from teachers, but also from the students themselves). What’s sometimes easy to forget is that we can control the groupings.  It’s not all up to where the students have sat.

First though, when I talk of “student groups”, I’m referring to individuals, pairs, groups of 3, larger groups or whole class.  Within these numbers, then it’s also a matter of student level variance and cultural mixture. It’s also a good idea to consider how to put your students into the groups you’ve decided on.  Instead of merely pointing at students and indicating who their partner is, making a purposeful activity out of it can break up the monotony this awkward movement from chair to chair.

The most obvious arrangement isn’t always the best.

Arranging groups through activity
I like to give students a task that results in the groupings.  For example, if we were learning about collocations, say noun + noun, I may have a bunch of nouns that collocate with others on small pieces of paper that I distribute randomly or with particular pairs in mind.  I’d instruct students then to match themselves up to make noun + noun collocations.  Once done, we check them and pairs are formed.  The point is to use the process of arrangement as another practice opportunity.

It’s learning at every opportunity.

Level coordination
Obviously we have more or less proficient students in class.  I often pair two stronger students with one weaker.  This gives the weaker one the opportunity to observe without feeling the pressure of holding up their half of the conversation and also prevents the stronger from feeling dragged down by limitations.  Alternatively, if you pair two weaker with one stronger occasionally, use the stronger as mediator, even translator (yes, L1 is fine with me sometimes), but an additional task, like having the student repeat the translation or take a risk by modifying words, should accompany to make the most out of the L1 availability. Either way, the stronger is recasting what the weaker students want to say to each other, showing them how and supporting them.

Everyone gets the most of their grouping instead of struggling aimlessly or breezing through pointlessly.

Pairwork is not the only option.

Group dynamic variety
Do your students figure out where their seats are on the first day of class, then never voluntarily move from that seat after that?  Mine do.  Sure it’s comfortable working with the same partner everyday–you get to know them and trust them, but how boring.  Do you regularly talk to just one person in your native language each day? I doubt it. Varying the number of and actual people in a group brings a much needed authentic variety of accents, proficiencies, personalities and opinions to the conversation.  On top of that, I always attempt to give students individual time for writing or reading.  If we’re thinking authenticity, who is never alone during the day?

: It’s like real life and less like a controlled setting.

Personality quirks
Like weaker students, I often start shy students off in groups of 3, allowing them the option to listen passively, while hopefully building confidence in their abilities to keep up with the conversation.  However, they may continue to be shy if not pushed to try.  Therefore, it can be useful to good to keep shy students in pairs, placing the onus on them to hold up their end of the conversation. It’s always a good idea to determine before long if the root of their shyness is really a language or personality issue. 

Another quirky student is the one that seems just a bit off in some way.  They’re keen, but not quite like everybody else.  Other students tend not to want to be paired with them.  Sound familiar? Another reason groups of 3 make sense, even groups of 4.  Putting them in a pair might cause their partner to clam up.

 : Well, it depends on whose point-of-view you’re looking from.  At minimum, it shows teachers have noticed these quirks and tried to accommodate them.

Groupings may seem so simple and obvious, but I’m sure there are a bunch of us who stick to the easiest: pairing up students who are already sitting together. With a little more consideration of level, personality and variety, we can affect more productivity and trust from the students.  There are so many other factors with regards to groupings that I could talk about, but not enough space in one blog post.  Instead, maybe some of them will come to you and we can chat a bit in the comments!

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Here is what I do to put the students in groups.

Say, you need 3 groups. I appoint the leader of a group. The leaders take turns naming the classmates who they want to be in their group. Obviously, the brightest ones get chosen first but they have to continue until everyone has been called out. Thus each group consists of stronger and weaker students, and they have formed groups without teacher’s intermediation.

Thanks for the idea of using collocations to pair off the students.


I agree with your evaluation. It will leave either the unpopular or the unskilled to be unpicked as well. The classroom is one area that I don’t want my students to feel unwanted. I think there is a certain security in knowing that the teacher is directing things. I LOVE the posts idea of student choice obviously, but think it must come in other forms.

Rita Carrasco

Can I just say that I love the title! and the pictures you chose to go with the article on grouping students!


You have a point there, Tyson. However, I favour the more or less equal strength of groups by this method which is essential if there is a competition. The teacher can also assign the leader roles to the weakest students thus making them feel more important and not left out.

Naomi Epstein

Can’t help it, have to start with the photo – WOW! Great photo and great way to lead directly into the topic of your post.
Regarding grouping,the beginning of the year is a tricky time, carefully feeling the way regarding who can work with whom. In special ed some of the pupils are extra sensitive, and you don’t want combinations such as two hyperactive pupils together. I relate to your emphasis on grouping based on the task. For some tasks it can work beautifully that a strong pupil is paired with a weaker one. For other types of tasks it even works better that two kids who get easily frustrated work together – in some odd way it boosts their confidence.
Thanks for the great post!

Naomi Epstein

Just a small example from this week.
Imagine two weak kids,a girl and a boy, more or less at the same level. End of the day, I could see they were kind of tired. I suggested they sit together and do one of the FUN activities in class instead of their book. The girl immediatly agreed but the boy refused to have her sit anywhere near him. They ended up doing seperate activities. The next day they had one hour with the other teacher (she works part time). I had forgotten to tell her that detail of class events. She again tried to pair the same kids. This time the boy was eager to sit next to the girl but she wouldn’t hear of it… > very relevant, especially at the beginning of the year #eltchat #edchat

My students are not flamingos > how do you group students during activities?


Can I just say this is one of the most useful posts I’ve seen. I teach adults and to talk about personality quirks, well, coughs galore. I used to like the activity you suggest with matching pieces of paper, but I would have famous pairs like Adam and Eve or Clark and Louise. When I realised they were cheating to have the partner they already had I felt a bit silly though.
Sometimes I just give people pieces of paper with numbers and they have to find their consecutive number, or give them addresses and have to find their flatmate(s). Nothing too fancy, but it makes people interact with people they would not normally speak with.
I love the photos, but my favourite is the family/obvious arrangement one. So true.
Thanks for sharing all these wonderful ideas.

“@seburnt: My students are not flamingos > how do you group students during activities?” great post!

Royan Lee

Like you, I have tried everything under the sun to creatively group students. As I get older and wiser, I find myself getting simpler in my methods. Here’s what I did this year:

I started off having students develop personal and class wide criteria for what makes an ideal working partner.

Using that criteria, students interviewed one another and took part in short cooperative activities.

Then students filled in a simple survey which let me know their preferences.

I used this information to match students into partnerships of 2 or 3.

So far it’s been a grand success.

Royan Lee

They won’t be keeping the same partners all year. in my context, however, I do need more stable partnerships because the students share iPads as digital portfolios.

[…] My students are not flamingos | 4C Source: […]

My students are not flamingos by @seburnt #eltchat

excellent post/comments on how to make "grouping" more natural in class #elt

My students are not flamingos via Review of 2011 #eltchat #classroomdynamics

Dan Ruelle

Great post, Tyson. I often use David Riley’s wonderful Triptico Desktop Resources software ( to group students and, as I tell students, “let destiny choose your partner.” You can randomly assign groups of different sizes and there’s a nice buildup as the software slowly forms groups.

There are, of course, times when groups need to be methodically chosen by the teacher (ARCs are a good example of that) to factor in stronger and weaker students, personality clashes, etc. but I find using Triptico for impromptu groups has been quite effective.

I usually let a student volunteer click the “Make my groups” button which gets a good laugh as they get the tomatoes thrown at them when groups are not what the other students had hoped for 🙂

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