Peer learning: Is it Useful in an ESL Classroom?
What is peer learning and is it useful in an ESL classroom? Let’s first define what is peer learning. “Peer learning essentially refers to students learning with and from each other as fellow learners without any implied authority to any individual, based on the tenet that ‘Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers’ (Boud, 2001)” (Gwee, 2003).
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Soo Parra C. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
ESL classrooms are generally divided by a proficiency test to categorize the students by their English ability - i.e. beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Other places have students divided into five levels, in finer measure to meet student ability. However, even if the students are in the same “intermediate” level, students vary within their range of abilities. Hence, in an ESL class, students with varying levels can be paired or grouped for a positive learning experience.
Grouping within the class
All the students in your class can be divided into pairs or small groups (less than 5) for activities that pertain to the whole class. Or, perhaps, students can be grouped or paired based on age so that younger student(s) are paired with an older student(s). Often the older students model good behavioral skills and embrace younger students better (than vice versa). Or, students can be paired with students around the same ability level but they change roles as they come to a particular skill. For instance, one student may help his/her partner with grammar but when it comes to pronunciation, they may change roles. This dynamic role change can enhance their self-esteem while increasing their appreciation of one another.
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Communication between students
The concern, sometimes, stems from those who are concerned for the students with higher English ability as they tutor the student of the lower ability. The student of the lower English level may benefit from this pairing/grouping but what about the student of the higher English level? Could they be wasting their time while they are teaching or re-hashing what they already know? Albert Einstein once said, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” For the student of higher ability, teaching or explaining to others is an opportunity for them to see if they understand the matter at hand. If they can, that’s a reinforcement of what they understood but if they cannot, it should challenge them to learn it again and see where they erred.
As much as a teacher’s role is appreciated, it cannot be matched with a sense of openness students may feel with each other compared to what they experience with a teacher. They are more likely and willing to ask their peers a question in a small setting than in front of the whole class while risking the embarrassment. Overall, peer learning promotes active learning by direct interaction with one another; thereby receiving more one-on-one time per student. This engagement of students affords time for the teacher to take the role of a facilitator to circulate the room to give additional time to assess and assist those students who need more help (rather than to be occupied indirect teaching in a teacher-centered classroom).
Possible disadvantages of peer learning can come from behavioral problems in groups if students do not get along within the group due to personality clashes or even run into bullying incidents (often with younger students). To mediate for this, teachers must state clear expectations and model behavior that is appropriate for group learning as well as to delineate the consequences of inappropriate behavior. If it happens, regardless of the proactive measure, it has been my experience to deal with it immediately first with the parties involved and then with their parents. If it escalates to the counselor and/or the administration, actions should be taken to discourage all bullying right from the start. Providing a safe and encouraging environment is a vital key for any class or group learning.
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