A wellbalanced use of pairwork
Although students and teachers can need some selling on the benefits of students working together in pairs, once they are convinced by the argument of the positive effects of students speaking more (lots of STT) and better classroom dynamics everyone can quickly get into the habit of working in pairs through most of the class. This, however, is a sure sign that things have gone too far the other way and that pairwork is being used as a reflex reaction or comfortable habit without thinking about the reasons why is was originally adopted. Below are some ways of spotting if you have been able to draw the fine line between too much pairwork and not enough, and ways of planning lessons that include whatever you decide is the perfect amount.
Possible signs that you are using pairwork too much

Your students have complained about too much use of pairwork

Students have complained about working with people with much lower language levels

You use lots of pairwork games and students have complained about too many games

Student complaints (including ones that are not obviously tied to pairwork) have not changed your use of pairwork

Working with students who are not used to pairwork does not change how much you use it or how slowly you introduce it

Having a mixed level class does not change your use of pairwork

You use pairwork in small classes as often as you use it in larger classes

There is sometimes nothing for you to do when the students are doing pairwork

Your lesson plan doesn’t even say “pairwork” because you know that it will be used at every stage

You spend a lot of classroom time organising people into pairs

You spend a lot of classroom time explaining the rules of pairwork games

Students usually do most things twice – once as a pairwork stage and once as a whole class stage

You add lots of pairwork stages such as checking answers in pairs to the teacher’s book lesson plan without thinking too carefully about why you are doing so

Your use of pairwork means it takes you a lot longer to get through the textbook than the teacher’s book suggests or other teachers take

You have done the pairwork variations of most TEFL activities (dictation, error correction etc) but never the teacherled version

You use pairwork at every stage you possibly can

You use pairwork when it would be quicker to do it as a whole class

You use pairwork when it extends an activity that would actually be better finished off quickly so you can move onto something else

Your students start doing everything in pairs without being asked because they know that is what you always ask them to do

You ask students to check their answers in pairs even when you know they all have the right answers

You ask students to check their answers in pairs even when you know that they have all made the same mistakes

When you count up the number of stages using pairwork, groupwork, team games, students working alone and whole class activities the number of pairwork stages is much bigger than that of any of the others, or even much bigger than all the others combined

You couldn’t answer if someone asked you why you made students work in pairs at each stage in your lesson

You get students working in pairs every time the textbook or teacher’s book suggests it, without thinking about alternatives

They always write in pairs (a somewhat unnatural activity!)

Students never have a minute or two just to try and get their head around the language
Possible signs that you aren’t using pairwork enough

You often go through a whole lesson without using any pairwork

Students speak for fewer than 10 minutes per class

There are many more stages where students work alone or as a whole class than there are pairwork stages

The amount of (useful) student talking time could be easily raised by adding pairwork

You don’t have an opportunity to stand back and monitor student errors

You are losing your voice by the end of the class or the end of the day

The students could have used another chance to look at their answers with the help of someone else before they got help from the teacher or checked their answers as a class

The students know everything about the teacher’s life but very little about each other

Most students in the class have never worked with each other

One student always shouts out the answers in whole class activities before other students have had a chance to think about it

Some students are too shy to speak out in front of the whole class

You have never asked students to check their answers in pairs

You have never used/ don’t know how to use textbook pairwork tasks like jigsaw readings

You have never used/ don’t know how to use photocopiable pairwork tasks like pairwork picture differences

You don’t know any pairwork variations on dictation, using videos etc.

You usually skip the parts of the textbook or the lesson plan in the teachers’ book that suggests students working in pairs

If students don’t respond well to pairwork when you first try it, you give up

If pairwork doesn’t work well with a class or students complain about it, you always stop using it rather than using it in different ways or explaining its uses to your students

The only reason you don’t use pairwork is because you don’t feel confident that you know how to
Ways of making sure you use the right amount of pairwork

Check your lesson plan for a good mix of pairwork, group work, students working on their own, team games, whole class studentled activities and whole class teacherled activities. You can do this by number of activities or by percentage of class time.

Calculate an estimated average student talking time (STT) for your lesson plan, and see if you can raise the figure by using more or less pairwork, making sure you include realistic estimates for how long it will take to explain activities and rearrange the class

Have a space at the top of your lesson plan to list the pairwork stages, groupwork stages etc so that how many there are of each one becomes obvious

Find out about how much pairwork has been used in classes your students have been in before (e.g. classes with a different teacher in your school) and what kind of things they are used to doing in pairs, so that you know whether you should introduce it to them slowly or not

Find out how much pairwork is used in the school system your students went through

Find out if there are any cultural factors that could make pairwork popular or unpopular

Ask the school manager what the student reaction to pairwork has been in end of course feedback questionnaires

Ask for your school’s student feedback questionnaires to be changed to get more information on what they think about how pairwork is being used

At each pairwork stage, tell your students “Now I want you to work in pairs so that…”, so also making the reasons clear to yourself

Write the reasons for each stage on your lesson plan

Go through your lesson plan one more time to see if you could usefully add pairwork

Go through your lesson plan one more time to see if you could miss out any of the pairwork stages or usefully change them to groupwork, individual work or whole class activities