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ESL Teaching Strategies: 5 Change Partner Activities

Updated on July 8, 2012

Why Change Partners?

As ESL instructors, we want to establish a good relationship (otherwise known as a 'good rapport') in the classroom. The best way to get students to trust each other and feel comfortable with each other. If students only talk with the same person everyday, how will you build a sense of trust and community in the classroom? That's the first reason for having students change partners so they can meet everyone else in the class and feel comfortable speaking with them.

The second reason is to prevent boredom. If we talk to different people with different ideas, there is a newness to it. It's exciting to learn new things from different people. Also it changes things up. Students have to move and that will 'wake up' their bodies and minds. Students have a short attention span so changing partners give them someone new to talk to.

It's not difficult and below are 5 ways you can change partners or form groups in the ESL classroom.

1. Student's Choice

I'll start with an easy one. Decide on how many students you want in a group or pair and have students choose. Here are some variations.

*Choose your partner but it cannot be the person you are sitting beside.

*Choose your partner but it has to be someone you have not worked with today.

*Get into groups of 3 or 4. You have 2 minutes.

Advantage: Student choice and autonomy.

Disadvantage: A student may get left behind if they don't have a partner. Could become a popularity contest.

Note: It is better to use this one once the class already knows each other and is familiar with your class routine and knows that there will be several pairings or groupings in a day.

2. Instructor's Choice

Here's a teacher led way to change partners.  The instructor decides on who the partners or groups will be.

*Person beside you is your partner

*Person across from you is your partner

*Write the names of the groups or partners on the board/ Call out partner names.

When you are deciding the pairs or groups, there are several factors that you may wish to consider such as age, gender, culture, personality and ability.

Advantage:  Fast and decisive.  Students listen and follow.  You can diversity the pairing or groups.

Disadvantage:  Students have no control. 

4. Birthday Lineup Activity

You can make a 5-10 minute icebreaker turn into a way to have students change partners.  Students have to line up by communicating with each other with only gestures or body language.  They cannot talk.  As a class they must stand in line in order of their birthday (month and day).  Forget about year. January at one side and December at the other.

After the lineup is formed.  Students can say their birthday out loud to see if they were correct or not.  It's funny to see how different cultures communicate numbers without talking. 

Students new partner is the person beside them. 

Advantage:  Fun, interactive, get students moving.

Disadvantage:  Students could still be partners with same person, or same culture.  No instructor control of partners.

3. Number Students

This way is led by the instructor but is a great way to get students out of their seats.  You have 12 students in your class and you want them in pairs.  Have the students start to number from 1-6.  I have the students say the number out loud and tell them to remember the number.  Then have the students find the partner with the same numbers.  If you want groups do the same but have student number from 1-4 for small groups of four.  Then tell all of the ones to go to one area or corner of room, all of the 2s go to another area etc. 

Advantage:  Get students moving. Even though the instructor is leading, the partners and groups are more by chance.  Students are involved in the process by being responsible to say and remember their numbers.

Disadvantage:  Takes a bit of time for students to get used to what you are doing especially if they are not familiar with this way of changing partners.  Needs more guidance from the instructor.

5. Categories Activity

Another fun icebreaker activity to get students into groups is this Categories Activity Mingler.  Write down different things in different categories on separate scrap pieces of paper.  For example:  Food (rice, apple, spaghetti, eggs), Clothing (shirt, pants, jacket, sweater), Seasons (fall, spring, summer, winter). 

Give students one piece of paper each.  They have to mingle and find the other students with the same category.  (Bonus would be if the vocabulary was a review of what they learned previously in class OR related to a topic that will be discussed in class). 

By changing categories, you can make it harder or easier depending on the level of your students. 

Advantage:  Students mingle and talk with everyone else in the class to find their partners.  Fun, interactive, and get students moving.

Disadvantage:  Takes a little prep work by the instructor. 


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    • whaturmissing profile image

      whaturmissing 6 years ago from Canada

      That's a great idea that wouldn't take much prep. I'm also thinking you could do it with postcards or pictures from travel magazines and that could springboard into a lesson on travel.

    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 6 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      Good ideas. Another one is to have different photographs cut into 2, 3, 4 etc pieces according to the group size you want. They are mixed up and each student takes one piece and has to match it to complete the photograph. That is then their group.