The Power of Pairs

Consolidating and extending learning opportunities with peer partner work in the classroom

Thanks to Ruth Duckworth, Year 6 teacher and Writing Lead, and Kate Sanghera, Year 6 teacher and Science lead, from Christchurch CE Primary School for the following article.

Some assessments focusing on pupils’ ability to ‘speak and listen’ effectively have diminished recently – especially with the reduction in teacher assessments required to be reported at the end of key stage two.  This should not mean, however, that we begin to lose sight of the valuable contribution which paired oral language opportunities, work tasks and challenges, as well as peer assessments can make in both consolidating and moving on children’s learning.  The benefits of mixed-ability paired groupings can be particularly effective for all learners.

Paired oral tasks

Providing pupils with plenty of opportunities to boost vocabulary and oral language is key to their progress in understanding new concepts (in context) across the curriculum.  The need to boost the teaching of new vocabulary in the classroom has been brought into the spotlight recently, largely as a result of the increase in challenging and ambitious language used in the text and questions in the end of key stage two SATs tests.  Question-by-question analysis (such as in Rising Stars Implications for Teaching and Learning 2018 – reading and grammar) points to a large percentage of questions focusing on the language and meaning of – often ambitious – words in context.  In fact, 20% of questions in the 2018 reading paper were from content domain 2a.  In the grammar paper, vocabulary is also tested – with 5 questions specifically in 2018.


Mixed ability pair work in English lessons

Although new, more challenging words can be pre-taught, explored in different contexts and put under the spotlight in a ‘language laboratory’ type word games and exercises, mixed-ability pair work is really effective too.  More articulate and/ or well-read pupils can discuss their ideas orally, prompting a partner to join-in the conversation.  Finer points of word meaning can be explained, with time given to develop examples together - to then share further.  For example, in ‘think - pair - share’ type scenarios. Here, pairs of children can be given time to consider their own thoughts first, then work with a partner to discuss ideas (sometimes also jotting down ideas too) before reflecting further with a group or whole class.

The ‘setting’ of pupils into ability groups within English lessons in Key Stage Two is now reducing in popularity – with mixed-ability groupings and pairs being more evident (certainly in the West Midlands authorities where we have close school contacts.)  When learning to read, pronounce and use new words in context, peer buddies can really help – they can offer patience and a safe arena for any ability child to ‘have a go’ without being judged.  The oral rehearsal of sentences is also especially enriching for EAL learners or those who struggle putting sentences together for writing tasks. When working with class texts, which can be challenging for some pupils, working with a partner can really boost children’s confidence, for example when following the reading of the text in the lesson and referencing back to skim and scan for key details in order to answer comprehension tasks.


Mixed ability pair work in Maths lessons

Paired working can easily be built into the classroom routine for mathematics when, for example towards the end of the session, children can self-assess what they have learnt with the support of a well-trained learning partner.  This process can be further extended by asking the children to write a similar type of question as a ‘gap task’ for a peer, with whom they have worked collaboratively. Our Year Six pupils set tasks for each other to solve at the beginning of the next lesson – and in this way new concepts are reinforced and the learning continues, as a journey.  Stronger mathematicians can assume the role of ‘classroom coaches’ and talk through calculation methods, check working, provide further examples and give immediate 1-1 feedback to move others’ learning on.  When children who are stronger mathematically work with a partner at a different stage of learning, they can too become teachers – explaining what they know themselves to help move on their partners’ understanding, as well as also providing opportunities to develop their own ‘maths mastery’.


Paired work in Science lessons

The power of paired working is not to be underestimated in other curriculum areas too.  In Science, the opportunity to explore and develop ideas with a partner with a different perspective and background knowledge is vital to allow our future scientists to flourish.  The strongest scientists in many classrooms may often be those who would typically be classed as ‘lower ability’ as although they may lack the fluency to record effectively, these learners have excellent understanding of concepts and the practical skills needed to investigate in depth.  When working in mixed-ability pairings these children can share their knowledge in a pressure-free context - which in turn can drive confidence across the curriculum.  By working together cooperatively, children will naturally talk about their learning and this incidental exploration provides excellent opportunity to develop the use of scientific vocabulary.

When recording data in Science, more confident writers can be challenged by supporting their partner to record collective findings using formal recording methods; those pupils who are more visual learners may present recording ideas that fall outside of the norm – exploring more ‘out of the box’ ways of recording.  Regular opportunities for a natural, peer dialogue also provide excellent opportunities for children to push each other to improve - by collaboratively improving science work outcomes, reflecting using peer assessments and by writing each other gap tasks to further develop pupils’ understanding.

In conclusion, it is easy to see the wide array of benefits (across the curriculum) for pupils when sharing ideas, consolidating their own understanding and knowledge, as well as when helping to push on learning for all.  Therefore, it is imperative to offer enough, regular opportunities for these types of paired experiences in the classroom. Every teaching day can provide children with the time to talk, reflect, discuss and embed their learning together – why not try the all-powerful mixed-ability route a bit more yourself?


english, key stage 1, key stage 2, mathematics, science

Added to your basket: