Preventing Partner Fossilization in ESL Speaking Classes

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Fossilized Conversation Partners

In the ESL/EFL world, fossilization is what happens when an error that a language learner makes becomes permanent, and cannot be fixed, no matter what further forms of input or error correction that learner is exposed to.

I use this term to apply to ESL Speaking classes and what happens when students sit with the same person every single day and talk to only that one person. They basically become fossils, unable to move, or break away to find a new partner.

Sticking with the Same Partner Every Single Class is Bad! Here’s Why

Fossilization of language learning partners is bad for a lot of reasons including:

  1. That poor person who gets stuck with the worst student in the class. The burden should be spread among everyone.
  2. It gets boring to talk to the same person everyday.
  3. It doesn’t train students for life. I want my students to be able to converse with almost anyone, in English.
  4. Mistakes get fossilized among partners. Maybe someone makes a mistake that impedes meaning. Their partner asks for clarification once and the person gives it and then continues to make that same mistake over and over and never gets any more feedback that that mistake is impeding meaning.
  5. There’s no chance for many students to encounter a partner at a slightly higher level of language development (the zone of proximal development), which can be extremely helpful.

How to Mix it Up

It’s really easy to mix it up and make the students change partners. I usually do it randomly by just assigning numbers or letters or whatever, but there are plenty more scientific ways to do it too, including phone apps or websites.

For example, if I want to make groups of threes, I’ll count the number of students in the class (24). Then, I’ll number the students from 1-8. There are should be 3 “1’s,” 3 “2’s” etc. All the 1’s go together, all the 2’s etc.

Here’s one website you can use to do this: Random Team Generator. Just keep all your class lists in an easy to access place so that you can cut and paste them into this at the start of each class.

You might want to do this before students arrive (and have it showing on the PPT) so they can just sit with their partner from the beginning. This can save a few minutes of class time that is usually lost to what I call the “shuffle.”

For Twice a Week Classes

I often teach the same class twice a week, so I’ll generally let students sit with their friend for one class and then assign a random partner for the next one. For example, Mondays are with a friend and Wednesdays are with a random person.

More Ideas about Making Groups or Teams Here

Do you want even more ways to divide a larger group up into a smaller one? Check out this short video below:

Have your Say!

Do you make students switch partners throughout your course? Why or why not? leave a comment below and let us know what you think.


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