There are many ways of grouping learners for pair work or small group work activities. Here are some of my favorites.

  1. Counting off (group work). How many groups do you need, 3? 4? 5? Decide that number first then have the learners count off. Learner 1: “One”, learner 2 “two”, learner 3 “three”, learner 4 “one” (if you need three groups, for example). Then tell everyone who counted “one” to come together. Everyone who counted “two” forms a group and so on.
  2. Strings (pair work). Everyone loves this. Cut long strings (at least a meter). You should have half as many strings as learners. i.e. if you have 10 learners, you will need 5 strings (for uneven number of learners, you should count yourself). Lay the strings flat on the table, then grab the center of the strings. Hold your hand up so the ends of the strings dangle. Then tell the learners to all grab one end. Then you let go and they should find their partner at the end of their string.
  3. Sentence halves/thirds (pair work or group work). Create some sentences using recently learned vocabulary (collocations are great) or grammar. Write/print them on strips and cut them in half (or thirds if you need groups of three). Example: Have you ever / ridden a camel? Did you / ride a camel on your last vacation? etc. Distribute the pieces and then tell the learners to find their partner(s).
  4. Ability (pair work or group work). Ask the stronger learners to work with the stronger learners and the weaker learners with the weaker learners. Separating by ability is effective especially when you are doing a differentiation exercise in which the level is actually different though the task may be similar. Or you can pair stronger learners with weaker learners and ask the stronger learners to CHECK the work of the weaker learners.
  5. Balloons (pair work or group work). I use this for review games. Create team names that are relevant to the topic you most recently studied. For example, Thanksgiving or Advertising. Then create team names (such as: The Animals, The Dishes, The People or The Brands, The Companies, The Slogans). Then write/type examples of the categories on strips of paper (such as: duck, seal, turkey, deer, pig. and yams, stuffing… or Fanta, MacBook Pro and Coca-Cola Company, Macintosh etc.). Then put one slip of paper into a balloon and inflate the balloon and tie it. The balloons can be scattered in the room, hanging on the walls or the chairs. When you are ready, tell the learners that they will be in teams. The Animals are in this corner, The Dishes in this corner etc. Tell them to find a balloon and pop it! They should then read their slip and try to figure out what team they belong to an collect in that corner of the room. Loud but fun!
  6. Names in a hat (pair work or group work). Half the class writes their name on a slip of paper and throws it in a hat/bag/bowl/on the table. Then one by one a person who didn’t write their name on a slip, takes a slip, and opens it. That person is their new partner/team member.
  7. Find an image of a famous couple (or super hero and sidekick). Cut the image in half, fold and throw on the table. The learners then take a slip of paper and find their partner. Alternatively: just write the names (Bill & Hillary, Batman & Robin, Patrick & Sponge Bob etc.).
  8. Deck of cards. There are many ways you can use a deck of cards to make pairs/groups. Give everyone a card. Tell them to find someone with the same (or opposite) color for pair work. For group work, select the number of cards you’ll need. For example, if you have 16 learners, take 16 cards: 4 of the same from each suit (e.g. 4 jacks, 4 threes, 4 tens and 4 kings). Distribute and tell them to find their set (so all the jacks are together). Or if you have 12 for example and you want 4 groups, just hand out 3 hearts, 3 spades, 3 clubs, 3 diamonds. Tell them to find their suit. There are many more groupings you can create with cards, your imagination is the limit!
  9. Countries. Print out (or handwrite) the names of countries on as many cards as you have learners. If you have 12 learners and want 4 groups, then you will have three cards with “Peru”, three with “Ethiopia” and three with “Iceland” (or whatever countries you want). Mix them, distribute and they form their groups/pairs by finding their partners. Note: don’t just let them show their card, but have them engage in conversation to find their partners. Are you from Iceland?/Where are you from? Alternative: by continent (give several countries from the same continent), by region/states/city etc. Lots of options here.
  10. Mini Puzzle. Similar to number 7, but if you have several people in a group (3 or more), cut the image in interesting shapes, like a puzzle. The Ls find their group when the picture is complete.
  11. Celebrity match: Similar to number 7, but instead of distributing the halves of the pictures, tape them on the learners’ backs. Then they mingle and describe the person they see on their classmates’ backs (without using the name of the famous person). When they find their “other half” they sit down together. Only for pairs (not groups).
  12. Animal sounds (young learners): Distribute cards with animals that make distinct sounds (cow, cat, dog, snake etc.). You need to think about how many people per group and use that number of cards, for example if you have 20 learners and want 5 groups then you need 4 cow cards, 4 cat cards, 4 dog cards, 4 snake cards. Tell the learners to find their partners by standing and only making the sound (this is also a good time to compare if the sound is not different in their own language, for example “ruff, ruff” for a dog “ribbit, ribbit” for a frog). Once they find their group, they sit down together.