A Numbers Game


There are clearly myriad factors that influence classroom dynamics. It struck me recently, however, that the simple fact of the number of students is one of the more overlooked. It led me to the following short reflection on the possible interaction patterns available to a teacher depending on how many faces they find looking up at them. We’ll start at one and finish at ten.

Text by: Matt Prior


Well, one is the key word here: one-to-one interaction is the one and only option, and as a result it entails the biggest workload for both teacher and student. In its favour, it’s the number that allows for most practice of the pattern that accounts for much of our real-life interaction. Is it the most divisive number of all? I know teachers who love it; I know teachers who hate it.


It might seem that everything has to be done in lockstep with two students, but this is not the case: much-needed variety can be added by having the students work in a pair in the same way they would in a bigger class. It has to be made clear, though, that they are to work together and not to look for you. I do this by telling them that I’ll be listening in, but I won’t be joining in.


My least favourite number: pair work isn’t available unless two students work together and you work alone with the other - which is actually a useful technique if one student is of a lower (or higher) level, but it’s very difficult to focus on two interactions at once. As with two students, a totally teacher-led lesson can be sidestepped by having the students work in a group of three. 


Ah, this is better. We can have two pairs, and three possible pairs of pairs, which is handy for task repetition. We can also do small pyramid activities; for example, the students negotiate a solution to a problem in pairs and then re-negotiate all together. Indeed, it’s an ideal number for class discussion, with scope for a range of thoughts and time for them to be explored fully.


Ugh, another odd number. We do have more options now, though: as with three students, and with the same pros and cons, you might choose to work alone with the ‘leftover’ student. Alternatively, why not try a pair and a group of three? If it’s a speaking task, I’d put the higher-level students in the three, in order to ensure that both groups finish at roughly the same time.


My favourite number: three pairs or two groups of three, with lots of possible pair or group make-ups. Indeed, it’s a good number for a ‘mingle’ activity, in which the students walk around the classroom and hold brief one-to-one exchanges. We can also do jigsaw-type activities in which the students first work in pairs (As, Bs, Cs), then split into groups of three (ABC, ABC).


It’s probably come across that I’m not keen on odd numbers - and seven is no exception! Just as five gave us more options than three, though, so does seven give us more options again: two pairs and a group of three, or a group of three and a group of four. If you opt for three pairs and a ‘leftover’ student for a particular reason, they could then lead the feedback stage.


Ah, eight: the perfect number for large pyramid activities, in which the students work in pairs on a task (a problem-solving task is one example; a ranking task is another - there are, of course, plenty), then in two groups of four and then all together. (I have to say that I prefer six students, simply because the more students we have, the less attention each individual gets.)


Finally, an odd number that divides into equal-sized groups: three groups of three (maybe I don’t completely dislike odd numbers). We can also do the same jigsaw-type activities that I described above for six students: this time the students first work in groups of three (As, Bs, Cs), then split into different groups of three (ABC, ABC, ABC), so as to share their information.


Well, our classroom is now full (I’d argue that ten is the maximum number for effective language learning*), and there are many, many interaction patterns available to us: five pairs, combinations of pairs and groups of three, and even groups of five (useful for project work). We also have an ample audience for the students to be able to hone their presentation skills.


* although I’m very aware that this is far from possible in many contexts

What’s your opinion? Do you have a favourite number or a least favourite number of students?