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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Walton Burns Interviews Patrice Palmer, Author of Successful Group Work: 13 Activities to Teach Teamwork Skills

from Alphabet Publishing

Patrice Palmer taught English for speakers of other languages for twenty years before parlaying her experience into a business. In addition to teaching college-level communication courses, Palmer has developed English-language curricula for Hong Kong secondary schools and vocational programs and an online course for Saudi Arabian students as well as courses on increasing well-being. She is the author of An A–Z Guide: How to Survive and Thrive as a New ESL Teacher and Dream Beyond the Classroom: The Essential Teacher to Teacherpreneur Toolkit. Her most recent book is Successful Group Work: 13 Activities to Teach Teamwork Skills published in 2017 by Alphabet Publishing (62 pages, IBSN: 978-0-9977628-4-6). It is available in paperback and ebook at Amazon or wherever you buy your books.

Walton Burns is the Senior Editor of Alphabet Publishing.

WB: What led you to write this book?

During my teaching career, I have seen students of all ages complain about and struggle in groupwork. In fact, I taught a group of ESL teacher trainees where I assigned a group project. An adult student was in tears because the other group members asked her to do all the work! That is when I thought that there had to be a better way to prepare students for meaningful group work.

WB: What is the biggest problem teachers usually have with group work?

The biggest problem is that teachers assume that students can work well in groups. As in the example I just gave, even adults struggle with delegating responsibility or even taking responsibility for the work. Not to mention time management and resolving conflict. That’s why in the book I really focus on developing all the various aspects of teamwork skills. Teachers can use these activities to help students get to know one another, set ground rules, resolve conflict, and delegate tasks fairly. Depending on the problems you are facing, you can use all of the activities or choose which ones would work best.

WB: What piece of advice would you give teachers who want to be better at group work, after buying your book, of course.

First, think about a time when you worked in a group. What was your experience like? What do you wish your teacher had taught your class before you got started on your group project? Most likely one or two students ended up doing all of the work while the others coasted. Being able to resolve conflict is difficult for most people, and by teaching students how to do this, we can help them solve the workload issue.

WB: What is your favorite activity from the book?

My favourite is Activity 13: Final Evaluation where students fill out a form evaluating their own work and that of their team. I still use it with college students and love reading what students have to say about their contribution, as well as the contribution of their group mates. One of the questions on the evaluation form is “Imagine you were doing this project for work and your team was paid $50,000. How would you divide the money up among your teammates, based on how much each person contributed to the project?” It is fascinating to see how honest students are in assessing their own contribution and the dollar amount that they would give themselves. This activity requires reflection and a critical look at their role as part of a team.

[You can find the evaluation form on the free resources page of the book website under “Individual Evaluation Form”–WB]

WB: There are three activities on self-reflection and evaluation. Can you talk about why it's important to teach students these skills?

Yes, I believe that self-reflection and evaluation of the groupwork experience is often overlooked but these activities are critical to improving teamwork skills and ensuring better results in the future. The reflection and evaluation activities need to be part of the overall group project and introduced at the beginning. The Journal Writing Activity is a way for students to reflect throughout the project and find ways to improve their skills or adjust what they are doing. Teachers also have to teach students how to reflect (and the benefits too) which is a skill that can be used in other areas of their lives. Finally, reflection and evaluation of group projects can aid teachers in making changes in future projects and learn how to make groupwork meaningful for students.

WB: You have a certificate in Positive Psychology. How has that affected your teaching?

Positive psychology can be applied to every aspect of our lives. I was introduced to growth mindset and grit in my studies and thought about how it applies to second language acquisition. I even presented this at a TESL conference and published an article in a TESL journal. Last summer, I had students complete a survey on their character strengths so they could use the information in mock interviews (in preparation for their co-op placements). I am also in the process of writing a book on teacher well-being using positive psychology interventions.

WB: Can you share a time when a group activity went particularly well?

One activity that always works well is Activity 4: Word Lists. The idea is that students are shown a list of words for a limited time and then have to recall as many words as possible. The second part of the activity has students working in groups. They are shown another list of words and then recall them as a group. I love to see how this experiential activity helps students see the benefits and advantages of working in a group.

[Word Lists is shared below–WB]:

Word Lists

This experiential activity is helpful in getting students thinking about the advantages and challenges of teamwork.

Time: 20 minutes

Materials: 2 word lists on PowerPoint Slides or flipchart paper. Sample word lists have been included in this activity. However, you may wish to use your own examples. You could also elicit 15 words from the class. Choose words that are appropriate to your students’ language level.

Team Building Skill: plan, design, or carry out a project or task from start to finish


Start off the lesson with a brainstorming session where students think of the benefits and the challenges of working in teams. If students have not had a chance to work in teams in an academic setting before, they may wish to think about other examples such as in sports, extra-curricular activities, or their families.

Then tell students they are going to participate in an activity that demonstrates how working in a team can be more efficient than working alone.

Procedure for the Individual List

  1. Tell students that they are going to practice working on their own and then working as part of a team. Let students know that they will have a chance to discuss this activity when it is completed.19 The Benefits of Teamwork | 2. Tell students that you will show them a list of words for one minute. When the time is up, they will have one minute to write down as many words as they can remember.
  2. After the minute is up, ask students for a count of the number of words they remembered. Do this in a way that demonstrates visually the power of teamwork.
  3. Start the count by asking students who remembered at least one word to stand up. Hopefully, the whole class will stand.
  4. Now, ask students who remembered more than two words to remain standing, while the others sit down.
  5. Then ask students who remembered more than three words to remain standing while the others sit down. Build up to higher numbers, so that at the end, the students who remembered the most words are still standing.

Procedure for the Team List

  1. Tell students that they will repeat the same exercise with a new list of words. Now they will have only 30 seconds to look at the words. However, this time they can work as a team to recall as many words as possible.
  2. Give students 2 minutes to discuss a strategy they might use to get their best results as a team.
  3. Then, follow the same procedures as for Part 1, but as a team they have only 30 seconds to make their list.
  4. Ask them to write their list on the second column on their paper and then add up how many words they remembered as a team.

Debriefing Questions

  • Which list is more complete – the list you recalled as an individual or the list you recalled as a team? (Ideally, the list compiled as part of a team should be the longer list). Why do you think that is the case?
  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of working on your own and as part of a team?
  • What strategy did they use to get their best results?

Follow up the discussion by addressing the elements of what makes a team work well together. Some examples might be more effective working as part of a team, lighter workload, and shared brainpower to name a few.

You can learn more about Successful Group Work at the publisher’s page.


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