Adapting pair work exercises for use with lower-level or less motivated students

Susan Jackson, Himeji Dokkyo University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Pair work, natural conversation, pre-discussion writing
  • Learner English level:Low to intermediate
  • Learner maturity:Junior high to adult
  • Preparation time:About 10 minutes
  • Activity time:10 to 15 minutes
  • Material:Board



In recent years, it has become common for textbooks to include pair work activities, often in the form of a list of questions for student A to ask student B. Such activities may work well with highly motivated learners, but far too often the activity consists of both students looking down at the list, while one reads the questions in order and the other gives short answers. At times they don’t even listen to each other, so that if B mistakenly answers a different question than A read, neither notices the discrepancy. In other cases, learners might quickly change to Japanese because B fails to understand or is interested by something A has said. Even if all goes smoothly, the question-answer nature of the practice results in something that sounds more like an interrogation than a natural conversation.


There are many reasons for these problems. Students may be self-conscious about speaking English or nervous about making mistakes in front of their friends. They might find the questions boring. They might simply not know the words they need to answer.


To some extent these problems can be overcome simply by giving the students enough preparation time to find the language they need and have more control over the contents of the interaction (the freedom to make their own questions). This can be done using nothing more than the board and a few extra minutes of class time.



Step 1: Write directions and examples for a pre-discussion writing exercise on the board. To discuss events in the past, for example, the following could be written.


Saturday: Stayed home, did laundry, watched a DVD

Last night:

On my last birthday:

During the last vacation: Went to outer space, fell in love with ET, got married


Step 2: Write directions for a more natural three-part conversation, adding some key language and examples, as in the following:


A:  (ASK IF YOUR PARTNER DID SOMETHING ON YOUR LIST) What did you do on Saturday?  Did you (stay home)?

B:  (ANSWER. ADD ONE OR TWO THINGS FROM YOUR LIST) Yes, I stayed home, did laundry, and watched a DVD,

A:  (COMMENT) That sounds like fun. / That sounds boring. / Really? So did I. / You must be joking!

Or (ASK FOR MORE INFORMATION) What DVD did you watch?

Or (ASK FOR A TRANSLATION) How do you say (did laundry) in Japanese?




Step 1: Draw students’ attention to your example answers on the board. Point out that it is okay to use their imaginations, as in the examples for “last vacation.”

Step 2: Have the students write three or more answers for each time on the list. While they are working, walk around reading their lists and offering help. Encourage them to use dictionaries. (When students are new to pair work, this step may take a long time, but the time needed gradually lessens as students become accustomed to pair work.)

Step 3: Draw the students’ attention to the key language. Model the conversation several times to show various types of response. When modeling “ask for a translation,” stress that, except for the translation, no other Japanese should be spoken.

Step 4: Have the students do pair work. Setting a time limit and encouraging students to continue talking, in English, for the entire time is helpful. Allowing the students to choose their own partners can also be of help, especially with the shyer students.



Although this method does not overcome all the problems related to pair work, it can result in more natural conversations in which students use English to communicate information they themselves have chosen to share. The highly structured directions and key language examples on the board become less and less necessary as students gain confidence and begin to converse more naturally over the course of the semester.