Teach Abroad

Tips for Teaching English in Small Groups in Your ESL Classroom

Teaching English in small groups can be both tricky and rewarding. Check out these top tips to make the most of small groups in your ESL classroom.

Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in groups can be extremely challenging, but can be one of the most rewarding experiences. The thought of walking into a classroom, full of unknown faces, may fill you with terror but don’t forget the students themselves will be nervous and will be looking to you for guidance. Patience, enthusiasm and good preparation can make working with groups one of the most enjoyable and satisfying aspects of ESL teaching.

Benefits from small-group learning in a collaborative environment include celebration of diversity, acknowledgment of individual differences, interpersonal development, actively involving students in learning and more opportunities for personal feedback.

The Pros and Cons of Teaching English in Small Groups

One of the major advantages of teaching groups is that the teacher can easily vary the types of activities used. For example teachers may choose to lead an activity, then split the class into pairs or smaller groups. Teamwork can also be successful since many students like to be competitive. The focus of lessons can easily be placed on the students rather than the teacher, which is obviously more difficult with individual lessons. Working in a group will motivate many students, as they share their ideas and doubts and help one another to learn while creating new relationships and, hopefully, friendships. Healthy competition can be a motivating factor and students can encourage each other to learn.

However, discipline can be a problem in groups and each teacher needs to find their own way of dealing with such problems. Setting down ground rules can be helpful and students should know what kind of behaviour is acceptable in the classroom. Classroom management and monitoring are essential skills, which will certainly improve with experience.

It is inevitable that some students will be more talkative, or even domineering, in a group. Shy students may struggle to express themselves and feel embarrassed or looked over at times. The teacher needs to take control of such situations, for example, by asking shy students to work together. A student should never be put on the spot or made to feel embarrassed in front of the class.

Cultural differences can also cause problems in the classroom. You need to be aware of the classroom norms in your country.

For example, Asian students are used to being lectured to and may be surprised or shocked if you ask them to play games. Other cultures may not be used to expressing themselves in front of others, or have difficulty working in small groups or pairs. Make sure you are sensitive to such issues.

One of the biggest problems a teacher can face with a group is having a class where the students are at mixed levels. This makes it difficult to organize activities for the class as a whole and may mean dividing students into splinter groups according to their pace, level and ability. While this can be extremely frustrating for a teacher, some extra preparation will greatly help.

The Different Types of English Learning Groups

Young Learners

The idea of teaching young learners may fill some teachers with dread, but children are extremely receptive and although you need bundles of energy to deal with children, the rewards are incredible. Young learners need plenty of repetition and revision but are usually extremely quick to learn. Learning should be made fun and children respond well to games, songs, role-plays and interactive activities. You may have some problems with discipline so it is vital to establish rules and stick to them. Be sure to have extra teaching materials on hand (or at least the essentials).


Although getting through to teenagers is not one of the easiest tasks, it can be incredibly rewarding. Teenagers need encouragement and to feel involved in their learning. It is important to find topics that they will find stimulating and to recognize their insecurities and how much they have to offer you as a teacher. Know that teens require a very unique approach to learning ESL, and your lesson plans should reflect this.


It is worth bearing in mind that many adults who choose to study English will be coming to classes when they have finished work, or over a lunch break. It is therefore essential to ensure that lessons are challenging but that you are not too demanding. Adults often have a specific purpose for wanting to study and like to take charge of their learning. Many adults will have had a very traditional style of education so may need to adjust to more contemporary methods of language teaching. Be prepared to potentially work with more advanced ESL students if they have studied the language for quite some time.

Conversation Courses

Groups who require conversation only can be one of the most stimulating situations a teacher can face. Depending on the level of the group, a teacher has the advantage of being able to introduce authentic materials such as newspapers, films and songs to encourage conversation.

In high-level classes it can be fun to organize debates, discussion on current issues or even just small talk. It is important to find the right balance when correcting students’ pronunciation and grammar while speaking. Over-correction will make students feel inhibited and lead to reluctance to communicate.

Business Classes

Business courses require a different approach. Adults who need to learn English for work are usually highly motivated and have specific requirements such as formal writing, telephone English and vocabulary in sectors such as marketing, sales and product descriptions. These students may be under pressure to learn quickly and will need plenty of encouragement, support, conversation practice and practical exercises.

Examination Classes

Groups of students who are studying for specific exams such as TOEFL, IELTS or Cambridge exams need motivating and stimulating constantly. It is vital that students understand their goal from the beginning and the teacher helps them to keep up with their work and cover all the required topics within the allocated time. Students in these courses tend to be hyper-focused and motivated, but also very demanding of their teachers. They're not messing around!

Well-designed small group teaching has clear benefits for student learning in terms of retention of information, critical thinking and consolidation of learning from different parts of a program.

Popular Destinations for Becoming an English Teacher Abroad

In Europe, the majority of teachers will be expected to work with groups of children, teenagers or students requiring conversation or business classes. Italy, Spain, France and Greece are some of the most popular locations.

East Asia attracts thousands of teachers, partly due to the relatively high salaries on offer. South Korea, Japan and China all have a huge demand for English language skills. Students in these countries tend to be used to lessons that focus on the teacher, books, grammar, translation and memorizing information. Teachers working in Asian countries need to be aware of these cultural differences before entering the classroom.

Teaching groups in the USA or other countries, where English is the native language, will differ since students will probably share the same mother tongue. This means that English is essential for communication in all situations. Popular destinations include New York, Chicago, Boston, Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Final Tips for Teaching in Small Groups

First and foremost, make sure you learn your students’ names. It may seem obvious, but many teachers don’t bother! If you know the names of all your students, you will make your life much easier.

Apart from helping to create a more personal relationship with students, you will also be able to root our discipline problems more easily. With this, it is essential to try to create good rapport in a group.

People tend to work together much better when they get to know each other. Use icebreakers to help students to find out about each other.It is a good idea to move students around so they don’t always work with the same partner or same small groups. Of course, there may be time when you want to divide the splinter groups by ability or, in the case of conversation classes, how talkative or quiet they are. In this case, pre-plan how you want to divide your class and split them up accordingly.

Timing is fundamental when working with a group.Make sure that you have enough time to complete main activities such as listening or conversations, which can not easily be stretched into a follow-up lesson or finished at home. It is handy to have a few 5-10 minute activities prepared in case you find you have time to fill in. Games such as Hangman, Twenty Questions, Word Association and Bingo can be used in various forms with most levels and types of students. Make sure the speed of your delivery is suitable to the level of your group. You will need to speak more slowly with many groups and avoid using slang or difficult phrases. However, it is important not to speak too slowly because this will sound unnatural and students will struggle when listening to other native speakers. Make sure you give plenty of relevant examples before asking students to perform tasks.

Because there are more exchanges among students in small groups, your students receive more personal feedback about their ideas and responses. This feedback is often not possible in large-group instruction, in which one or two students exchange ideas and the rest of the class listens.

A group of enthusiastic, motivated students provides a teacher with an incredible sense of personal satisfaction and it is a joy to watch the progress and transformation of your group. Students can have an extremely stimulating effect on each other and the interaction between students helps carry group work forward. Encouraging support between students is both rewarding and stimulating for the teacher and the group members.

You will inevitably find a mixture of personalities, backgrounds and interests within a group, which is always fascinating to discover. Thus, teaching groups will keep you on your toes and provide you with endless opportunities for communication and creativity; you may just find that after a while you can’t wait to get into the classroom!