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Importance of Group Work in the ESL Classroom


The field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a rapidly expanding area within UK settings, in state-funded and in private educational arenas, and because of the changing nature of immigration, ESOL teachers are challenged with meeting the demands of diverse and complicated ethnic/linguistic groups (Chan, 1998). Learning English is seen as a necessity for immigrants or long term visitors to the UK, although the field is complicated by political debates and social discussions around funding, socialisation, naturalisation and the erosion of traditional cultures and languages. However, it does seem that language fluency in English is key to proper integration into British society, and is supported by the “UK Government’s policy response to refugees and asylum seekers [as] outlines in the White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration and Diversity in Modern Britain (Home Office, 2002) [which] set out proposals for a curriculum of English language, IT and citizenship classes for refugees and asylum seekers” (Morrice (2007) p 156). While the Therefore, it is essential that ESOL provision is not only provided, but is designed in ways which can encourage learners to acquire real proficiency and fluency, without disempowering people or undermining their nationality (Halliday, 2005).

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The literature on the pedagogies of ESOL teaching is diverse and outlines ways in which second language acquisition can be facilitated effectively, with teachers having their own take on pedagogy and on the ways in which students work, alone or with each other, in learning English (Dagenais et al, 2008; Burns, 2006). While linguistics studies directly address issues of grammar, syntax, construction, coherence and cohesion, the more practical aspects of developing practical fluency in English for speakers of other languages relate to classroom strategies that can support this. This essay will explore two aspects of ESOL teaching, that of group work, in which ESOL students are encouraged to work together on key tasks, with the aim of improving fluency (Haneda, 2005), and the provision of feedback, either peer feedback or tutor feedback, to enhance fluency. Both are contentious issues, because they can spell difficulties in the management of learning experiences (Holliday, 2005), and could be seen positively or negatively. This essay will look at some of the literature on this subject, and attempt to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of group or collaborative work, and of different types of feedback. The author will then draw conclusions from the literature to inform ESOL teaching practice.


Group work is a popular means of building on constructivist theories and pedagogies by supporting students to apply new knowledge in given situations. In ESOL teaching, it provides opportunities to practice new words, conversations, sentence constructions, and functional elements of communication, such as making a particular type of telephone call or initiating a conversation. However, group work in this context can be viewed negatively as well, partly because of a fear that groups with the same first language will simply lapse into their own tongue rather than always speaking English, and that as learners they will not recognise each other’s mistakes. The latter point will be dealt with in some more detail below, in the exploration of types of feedback. But in relation to group work, types of collaborative or group learning or practice have been shown to be of great benefit to students of English.

Some authors have found that pair work or small group work in this context does help improve language fluency and competence (Long, 1996; Pica et al, 1996), perhaps because these activities provide different opportunities and options for ESOL learners which are not possible during teacher-led activities. These students may find themselves able to become more confident in a setting which is not only smaller, but comprises only peers who are also ESOL students. Johnson 91995) argues that learners who interact and engage with each other in these ways feel more self-efficacy and control over their own learning. However, others argue that small group work in peer-only groups does not necessarily help with issues such as pronunciation (Morley, 1991) and proper grammar (Widodo, 2006; Widdowson, 1978). Another particular issue for group work is that of English intonation, which can be particularly difficult and may represent for some the last hurdle of English fluency and comprehension (Atoye, 2005; Morgan, 1997).

McDonough (2004) carried out a small-scale research study which “explored instructors’ and learners’ perceptions about the use of pair and small group activities in a Thai EFL context, and examined whether the learning opportunities theoretically attributed to pair and small group activities occurred in an intact classroom” (p 207). The study also looked at whether the learners showed improved outcomes (McDonough, 2004). McDonough (2004) found that “learners who had more participation during the pair and small group activities demonstrated improved production of the target forms, even though they did not perceive the activities as useful for learning language” (p 207). This would suggest that these activities might improve elements of fluency and skill, but this study does not demonstrate how this occurs, nor does it look in detail at language fluency, which is our concern here.

Li and Campbell (2008) carried out a study in New Zealand which examined “Asian students’ perceptions of the much-promulgated cooperative learning concepts in the form of group work and group assignments”, and “found that Asian students valued highly the significance of classroom group discussions where they could interact with students from other cultures and backgrounds, improve their English-language skills, enhance their cultural understanding and provide them with opportunities to make friends” (P 203). Again, this underlines social elements of group working in ESOL learning which may be important in developing true fluency, because the elements of language skills and enhancing cultural understanding can be related to development of deeper-level fluency. Not all the outcomes of this study were positive, however, and LI and Campbell (2008) also found that these Asian students “held intensely negative views about group assignments that required students to complete a project as a group with shared marks determined by the performance of the group” (p 207). This may have something to do with the learner orientations of these students, or it may have to do with other factors. Li and Campbell (2008) found that “contributing factors affecting group dynamics included members’ attitudes and willingness to cooperate and contribute as a team, the composition of the group, students’ competing demands on students’ time and attention, heterogeneity from the natural abilities of students, and the varying cultural values and beliefs held by group members” (p 207). Because Li and Campbell (2008) found that group assignments that were assessed seemed to disempower the students in their study, it would suggest that group activities which are collaborative have a different meaning than group activities which are assessed, and this should be taken into account when applying group working to ESOL classrooms. However, the study does suggest the group learning itself enhanced competency level (Li and Campbell, 2008). The negative responses to the group assessment activities may have had something to do with students’ preconceptions or expectations about their ESOL learning (Bordia et al, 2006). Expectations which are not fulfilled might negatively affect responses to and evaluations of these learning activities (Bordia et al, 2006). These expectations, of course, may originate in the background, culture and previous experiences of the learner, which would suggest that teachers need to take into account these kinds of expectations and find ways to address them.

Ewal (2004) describes a study which focuses on the student perspective on group work, in which “21 students and their teachers participated in a collaborative forum in which they explored the use of small group work in their L2 classroom.” (p 163). This study found that by engaging students, in an almost metacognitive way, in learning about how the group work affected their learning and behaviour, the students were able to discover the benefits of group work for themselves, in improving their literacy and fluency, and in supporting peer bonding, confidence and self-efficacy (Ewal, 2004). In this study, small group behaviours changed as the students became aware of these behaviours and of the functions of the group and the class as a whole (Ewal, 2004). This demonstrates that while group work is still viewed along pedagogical lines as a requisite of proper learning, through application and testing of knowledge, the dynamics of group work require some attention, and may act as militating or mediating factors in the effectiveness of group activities. Ewal (2004) concludes that “teachers should be attentive to opportunities to discuss language learning and classroom-related issues with their students” (p 175). This adds an extra dimension to the concept of group work, as functioning for students on many levels, not simply on a praxis/practice level.

Of course, the discussion of group work leads us neatly into the concept of peer feedback, which is connected to the theories on group activities and just as contentious, it seems. Rollinson (2005) shows how although peer feedback has been supported in ESL classrooms, teachers and students are less than convinced of its efficacy and usefulness.

Rollinson (2005) argues that proper training and procedures for peer feedback in ESOL classrooms is the key to making such feedback effective. Hu (2005) seems to echo this, that peer feedback can enhance learning, but does acknowledge that these activities need monitoring and that peer review situations can be problematic. Feedback and review of English language proficiency can be formalised into learning activities in the classroom context. Al-Hazmi and Scholfield (2007) describe an action research study which was aimed at improving English language writing proficiency in Saudi Arabian university students. This study involved “a regime of enforced draft revision, using a checklist” in which two groups were involved, one trained in peer revision, the other doing their own revision (Al-Hazmi and Scholfield, 2007 p 237). These authors found that “there were clear draft improvements in quality, especially in mechanics, despite only modest amounts of meaning-changing and multisentential revisions being recorded” Al-Hazmi and Scholfield, 2007 p 237). The most significant finding from this study demonstrated that the students enjoyed and responded positively to peer review (Al-Hazmi and Scholfield, 2007). This may simply underline the fact that language learning is as much a social as an individual process (Dagenais et al, 2008; Roberts and Baynham, 2006; Schellekens, 2007)

Formal tutor feedback is also an essential component of developing fluency, although again, the form that this takes can affect its value. Hyland and Hyland (2006), for example, agree that feedback is vital in terms of encouraging learning and consolidating that learning, and demonstrate that it is used in process-based classrooms and in genre-orientated learning environments. It may seem obvious to some that tutor feedback is important, but teachers and learners should be aware that feedback has different purposes, as well as different forms, and while it can be difficult for some students to assimilate feedback and correction, it is through signposting mistakes as well as successes that students can learn how much they have learned.

Feedback itself has expanded to encompass not only written comments from the teacher, but language workshops, conferences and even electronic feedback (Hyland and Hyland, 2006). Lyster and Mori (2006) examined the effects of explicit correction, recasts, and prompts on learner uptake and repair, and found that “instructional activities and interactional feedback that act as a counterbalance to a classroom’s predominant communicative orientation are likely to prove more effective than instructional activities and interactional feedback that are congruent with its predominant communicative orientation” (p 269). This suggests that feedback must be specific to the task and to the context, and also that there is a need for a deeper understanding of the pedagogical dimensions of formal tutor feedback, and the purpose that this feedback serves. This also shows that the emergence of the communicative classroom is not necessarily the final evolution of the ESOL context (Campbell and Duncan, 2007).

However, there are those who have argued strongly against written feedback, and the trends in ESOL teaching in recent years has been to avoid this (Bitchener, 2008). However, research by Bitchener (2008) shows that in some cases, written feedback enhances learning:

The study found that the accuracy of students who received written corrective feedback in the immediate post-test outperformed those in the control group and that this level of performance was retained 2 months later.

Bitchener 2008 p 102.

This would seem to suggest that there is value in providing written tutor feedback. Lochtman (2002) also shows the value of oral or verbal feedback, but underlines the need to give different kinds of feedback depending on the language learning context, the task, and the learner, suggesting that while this feedback is beneficial, it is only so if it meets the needs of the individual learner.

One of the issues with fluency is also related to currency (Taylor, 2006), and it could be that the provision of both types of feedback is central to understanding the current use of various idiomatic forms as well as of slang and vernacular. While many ESOL teaching contexts shy away from teaching ‘common’ spoken forms and focus on formal, correct English, feedback from a tutor, for example, can help to draw comparisons between the two forms and allow students to develop awareness of when it is appropriate to use the different types of English expression (Taylor, 2006; Wallace, 2006). This ability to speak fluently is much more complex than simply learning linguistic form, it is about attaining a degree of comfort and ease with using the language, and using it appropriately and ‘naturally’. All of these approaches to supporting language learning could be said to be fostering this development, but only if they are properly planned, and managed, and it seems that quality ‘teaching’ and facilitation is still required.


This essay demonstrates that there is a range of literature to support the development of language fluency in ESOL classrooms through group work and through interactive processes of learning, and through the provision of tutor feedback and peer feedback. There are issues and challenges with ESOL learning in relation to developing verbal skills, because verbal language requires real-time interaction and the ability to respond to different cues and situations. It would seem from the literature cited above that the use of group work in ESOL learning needs to be planned carefully and designed to ensure that learning is not impeded by individual differences or by the negative aspects of group work, including frustration between learners with different levels of competency, and difficulties in group work which is assessed formally.

Collaborative learning may be a strength in developing fluency, and this could be incorporated with peer feedback, but it would seem that this is only truly effective if the students are ‘trained’ and supported in giving feedback to ensure it is fair and an constructive, and given in the appropriate spirit. Similarly, it would seem that feedback may assist in developing fluency, but the literature cited does not provide strong or conclusive evidence that formal feedback is good for this, despite its value in developing written and verbal language skills. More research is required in looking at different kinds of feedback in supporting fluency. However, the literature does indicate that feedback must be individualised and meet the needs of the learner.


Al-Hazmi, S.H. and Scholfield, P. (2007) Enforced revision with checklist and peer feedback in EFL writing: the example of Saudi university students. Scientific Journal of King Faisal University (Humanities and Management Sciences 18 (2)237-267.

Atoye, R.O. (2005) Non-native perception of English intonation. Nordic Journal of African Studies14 (1) 26-42.

Bitchener, J. (2008) Evidence in support of written corrective feedback Journal of Second Language Writing 17 (2) 102-118.

Brillinger, K. (2003) From Theory to Practice: Creating Intermediate ESL Reading Materials Based on Current SLA Research and Theories, Newsletter of the Association of Teachers of English as a Second Language of Ontario, 29(3), 1-6

Burns, A. (2006) Surveying landscapes in adult ESOL research, Linguistics and Education, 17, 97–105

Campbell, C. and Duncan, G. (2007) From Theory to Practice: General Trends in Foreign Language Teaching Methodology and Their Influence on Language Assessment. Language and Linguistics Compass 1 (6) 592-611

Chan, M..M. (1998) What We Already Know about Teaching ESL Writers (Research in the Classroom). English Journal 77 (6) 84-85

Chen, R. and Hird, B. (2006) Group Work in the Efl Classroom in China: A Closer Look. RELC Journal, 37 (10) 91-103.

Dagenais, D. Beynon, J. and Mathis, N. (2008) Intersections of Social Cohesion, Education, and Identity in Teachers, Discourses, and Practices Pedagogies: An International Journal 3 (2) 85 – 108.

Ewald, J.D. (2004) A classroom forum on small group work: L2 learners see, and change, themselves. Language Awareness 13 (3) 163-179.

Ferris, D.R. (1994) Lexical and syntactic features of ESL writing by students at different levels of L2 proficiency. TESOL Quarterly 28 (2) 414-420.

Haneda,. M. (2005) Some Functions of Triadic Dialogue in the Classroom: Examples from L2 Research Canadian Modern Language Review 62 (2) 313-333

Hyland, K. and Hyland, F (2006). Feedback on second language students’ writing. Language Teaching, 39 83-101.

Holliday, A. (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language New York: Oxford University Press.

Hu, G. (2005) Using peer review with Chinese ESL student writers. Language Teaching Research 9 (3) 321-342.

Johnson,K.E. (1995) Understanding communication in second language classrooms New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lochtman, K. (2002) Oral corrective feedback in the foreign language classroom: how it affects interaction in analytic foreign language teaching International Journal of Educational Research 37 (3-4) 271-283.

Long, M. (1996) The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In Ritchie, W. and Bhatia, T. (eds) Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (413-468) San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Lyster, R. and Mori, H. (2006). Interactional Feedback And Instructional Counterbalance. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28 , 269-300

McDonough, K. (2004) Learner-learner interaction during pair and small group activities in a Thai EFL context System 32 (2) 207-224

Morgan, B. (1997) Identity and intonation: linking dynamic processes in an ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly 31 (3) 431-450.

Morley, J. (1991) The pronunciation component in teaching English to speaker sof other languages. TESOL Quarterly

Morrice, L. (2007) ‘Lifelong learning and the social integration of refugees in the UK: the significance of social capital’, International Journal of Lifelong Education26(2), 155-172

Olivo, W. (2003) Quit Talking and Learn English!”: Conflicting Language Ideologies in an ESL Classroom Anthropology & Education Quarterly 34 (1) 50-71

Pica, T., Lincoln-Porter, F., Paninos, D. and Linnell, J. (1996) Language learners’ interaction: how does it address the input, output and feedback needs of L2 learners? TESOL Quarterly 30 59-84.

Roberts, C. & Baynham, M. (2006) Introduction to the special issue: Research in adult ESOL, Linguistics and Education17, 1-5

Rollinson, P. (2005) Using peer feedback in the ESL writing class ELT Journal Volume 59/1 ELT Journal 59 (1) .

Schellekens, P. (2007) The Oxford ESOL Handbook Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seedhouse, P. (2005) Conversation Analysis and language learning. Language Teaching (2005), 38: 165-187 Cambridge University Press

Shin, H. (2006) Rethinking TESOL From a SOL’s Perspective: Indigenous Epistemology and Decolonizing Praxis in TESOL Critical Inquiry in Language Studies 3 (2&3) 147 – 167.

Taylor, L. (2006) The changing landscape of English: implications for language assessment ELT Journal 60(1):51-60

Wallace, C. (2006) The text, dead or alive: Expanding textual repertoires in the adult ESOL classroom, Linguistics and Education17, 74-90

Widdowson, H.G. (1978) Teaching language as communication Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Widodo, H.P. (2006) Approaches and procedures for teaching grammar. English Teaching: Practice and Critique. 5 (1) 122-141.

Zamel, V. and Spack, R. (2006) Teaching Multilingual Learners across the Curriculum: Beyond the ESOL Classroom and Back Again. Journal of Basic Writing (CUNY), 25 (2) 126-152.


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