Small group teaching is an approach in which learners are divided into small groups of roughly 4-8 students and work together supported by a teacher. It is a highly effective way to improve learning outcomes, particularly for EAL learners.
Small-group teaching can be focused on an induction to English, gap-filling areas of challenge or need, or pre-teaching content in the curriculum.
Learners who learn in a small group often participate more than in a whole class session because there are fewer learners and more targeted support in the group. Teachers also find it easier to adapt learning for small multi-level groups or to select learners at similar levels to ensure comprehensive input occurs.
“We acquire language when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read.” (Krashen, 2003)
Working with EAL learners in focused small-group settings can also provide opportunities to enhance motivation due to increased engagement and targeted support. Learning can be pitched at a level of challenge just above the learner’s ability to learn independently, therefore increasing their progress in the focus area of learning. This can build learner confidence significantly, a quality not often measured in EAL learner progress. EAL learners can feel overwhelmed by whole class sessions where their peers are highly proficient in English and can, at times, feel excluded by being included in the mainstream classroom setting (at times when input is not comprehensible). Whereas in the small-group setting, they can feel less intimidated. This also “builds students’ responsibility for themselves and their group members through reliance upon each others’ talents and an assessment process which rewards both individuals and groups.” (Badache, 2011). When a learner is more actively involved in the learning (or will enjoy increased opportunities to speak and engage with the teacher), it can result in more opportunities to use the language collaboratively, a non-negotiable in the language learning classroom.
The small-group session also poses more opportunities for building friendships with learners of similar circumstances e.g. those with similar levels of English or from other cultures. These friendships are significant for feeling that sense of safety and belonging in the early days of learning English in their new context.
Beyond all these reasons, the small group setting also provides a chance to connect the learning to the wider world. Learning English in a formal classroom setting requires a creative approach to supporting learners with making connections to real-life contexts. Similarly, the small-group setting can build additional bridges in this area (as well as wider learning) through increased opportunities to connect with the home language, increased learner engagement and increased confidence.
Krashen, S. (2003) Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Heinemann.
Badache, L. (2011) The Benefits of Group Work, University of Batna
Scott, C. (2012) Teaching English as an Additional Language 5-11: A Whole School Resource, Routledge
Scott, C. (2019) Learning Village in Action, www.learningvillage.net