Partner Activities = Junk Food?

A while back on the FLTEACH list-serv there was a thread that included a discussion about partner activities.   A person on the list equated giving students large amounts of pair work to giving them “a plate filled with junk food.”  In other words, two students who do not have command of the language are conversing with eath other rather than interacting with a proficient speaker of the target language, so they are not necessarily modeling accurate language to each other.  I haven’t used much pair work in my level 1 class this year, not because I bought into the junk food idea, but I think the thought does have merit.  I think that meaningful input has been a big missing piece from my instruction for a long time.  I used to simply explain the concept and have students immediately start practicing it, usually with a partner.  This year I am trying to model language more for the students, and I think I could do an even better job than I am currently.

The person later posted more on her own blog about partner activities at

I have pretty much abandoned information gap activities where the students are doing no more than sharing with their partners what is on their papers.  For example, Student 1 asks “How much is the shirt?” and student 2 finds the shirt on the paper and says, “Ten dollars.”  What are they really communicating about?  Does either one really care how much the shirt is?

The best partner activity I’ve done all year is one I got from Helena Curtain called ESP.  The students especially enjoyed asking me the questions.

Here is the activity: U1E3 ESP partner activity

Here is a template for the ESP activity: ESP partner activity template

Another partner activity that worked well was when students were able to bring photos on their cell phones and describe the people to their partner.

Students also enjoyed drawing a person and reading the description they wrote to someone else, who drew it as they heard the description.  Then they compared the drawings.

I think these activities were successful because the students were engaged in talking about themselves, people they knew, and things they created rather than information that I created for them to tell to each other.

I observed TPRS at a school where the students were asked to retell the story they were doing to each other after they worked on it as a class.  Is this not pair work?  The teacher certainly couldn’t attend to each student and correct their mistakes.  By the way, the students I observed just chatted in English, they did not retell the story, which is another problem with pair work no matter what methodology is used.

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