Digital Age Teaching and Learning

How to Help ESL Students with Teamwork

How to Help ESL Students with Teamwork

One component of a good Project-Based Learning (PBL) project is that it involves groups of students learning and creating a project together as a team. Group projects and teamwork can be challenging at the best of times when done in the students’ first language; attempting to do it with ESL students may seem daunting and impossible at times, but it needn’t be.

Learning to work in a team is an essential life skill and one that students should not be deprived of. For ESL students, teamwork can help them to improve their self-confidence, motivate them and provide a safe environment for students to practice and develop their English-language skills among others.

The question that remains then is: How can teachers make sure that their ESL students are successful in their teamwork activities?

Group Work vs. Teamwork

Group work and teamwork are the same thing, right? It’s just semantics. Well, not quite. There’s actually a difference between the two.

Group Work

In most cases, group work results in students dividing the components of the entire task or project so that each student has a specific part on which to work. This usually means that students work in isolation on their part of the assignment with little to no input or collaboration from the other students in their group. As the due date draws closer, students meet to compile their individual work to form the whole, but the true process and benefits of collaboration have been missed.


In contrast, teamwork requires that students interact with one another throughout the project, make collective decisions and work together to achieve the final product. While individual students may still focus on specific sections within the project, they remain aware of each student’s role and focus and meet to discuss these. This helps them to create a final product that is more cohesive than the typical approach to group work, but you will likely need to guide your ESL students with structured activities to teach them how to work together effectively.

Four Stages of Teamwork

Stage 1: Forming of Teams

Most experts of teamwork recommend 3-6 students as the ideal number for a team. However, many successful teams have had as few as 2-3 students or as many as 10. The number of students per team is best determined by your pedagogical goals for the project as well as the type of project. You will also need to consider the complexity of the project and how you’ll grade the project as this will affect the number of students assigned to each team.

Once you know how many students will be in each team, it’s time to consider other factors that will contribute to the group dynamics and overall success. This is particularly important in helping ESL students to succeed in teamwork. The following questions should all be considered as part of this process:

  1. Would homogeneous or heterogeneous groups be better?
  2. Will students be grouped according to their language proficiency?
  3. What are the individual skills of the students? (prior exposure to/knowledge of the content; cognitive ability; social skills; learning style; first language; ethnicity; cultural influences)
  4. Will you assign students to groups or will they choose their own team members?
  5. Will ESL students who struggle with the language of the project be able to contribute successfully to the team in another way?

When the students have formed teams, it’s crucial that they be given time to get to know each other. For ESL students, it is particularly important for them to feel comfortable with their peers in order to work in a team as they will be communicating in their second language.

When ESL students work with native English-speakers in a team, they may feel more hesitant to participate if they feel uncomfortable with their teammates or at a disadvantage linguistically. If the groups are homogeneous, you will need to decide if they can use their first language (L1) in the project or not. It’s usually helpful to let them use the L1 in the brainstorming stage and guide them to use more English in the later stages of the project.

It’s also a good idea to introduce a team contract. The idea of teamwork is to teach students how to work collaboratively, which means that they need to see themselves as equals. This is particularly important when conflict arises within the team; the contract helps you as the teacher to step back from the conflict and point the students to the contract in which they agreed to work together to reach a mutual goal. Therefore, the contract should outline student roles and responsibilities as well as how they’ll deal with conflict.


Stage 2: Storming of Teams

Stage two of the teams is usually where most of the initial conflict arises. For ESL students, it’s particularly important to become part of the group early on. They may require more patience from other students when expressing their ideas and contributing to the brainstorming process. Support them—and other students—by reminding students to listen to and consider everyone’s suggestions before deciding the value of the ideas. No idea is a bad idea at this stage.

Encourage students to be creative in their brainstorming process. Focus on the individual strengths if possible. Similarly, if your ESL students are not confident in speaking, allow them to share ideas through pictures, post-its, mind maps or charts. This way, they will be able to contribute equally, which will help with positive group dynamics and the students’ self-confidence.

The students also need to create a project plan at this stage. This outlines the different tasks of the project as well as the team members’ responsibilities and contributions. It could also include a timeline for the tasks. This is the stage at which ESL students are most likely to shrink back from the group. It may be tempting for them to divide up tasks between the team members.  ESL students who lack linguistic confidence may feel inclined to work independently to minimize the language demands of communicating with their peers. It’s also important that ESL students not be relegated to non-language components of the project. While it’s essential that they—like other students—be able to incorporate their skills and strengths in the project, this should not be at the expense of collaboration and communication.

Encourage students to hold regular team meetings in which they discuss the progress of their project. With ESL students, consider preparing 3-5 prompt questions to ask them about their roles or questions that they can ask their peers.

Stage 3: Norming of Teams

By this stage, the students will hopefully be comfortable with their teammates. They should also have identified individual strengths and skills and be using these to the advantage of the collective. ESL students should be as involved in this stage as their teammates.

If you haven’t already done team status meetings, it is essential to conduct one of these in the norming phase. If the teams have been holding regular meetings though, it may be time to introduce a peer- and self-assessment of their progress. Allow the students to reflect on their individual and team progress. The questions should guide them to consider their own engagement as well as any support that they may feel they need. This can then be shared with their teammates or with you as the facilitator. ESL students may feel more comfortable talking with you, so be sensitive to this need.

Stage 4: Performing of Teams

If the final stage of the project involves a presentation of some sort, make sure that all team members are involved in the actual presentation. This is one of the easiest parts for ESL students to step back from as they may experience performance anxiety.

Consider letting the students produce a video presentation rather than speaking in front of the entire class. This helps to reduce anxiety as students can re-record their presentation if they’re dissatisfied with it. If your ESL students are shy when speaking, let them produce scripted conversations or present the final project to you alone. Removing the class audience can help them to feel more confident in the task at hand and lowers their stress and fear of making errors in front of everyone.

Once again, self-assessment and peer assessment within the team is a good idea in the final stage because it forces students to reflect on their own engagement, strengths and weaknesses as well as social interaction and collaborative skills. Make the peer assessments anonymous so that students can be more honest and avoid making “language” part of the assessment. Help your ESL students to recognize that they have contributed significantly in many areas despite having potentially limited language skills.


Part of the anxiety ESL students feel in PBL is the fear of affecting the grades of other students. Depending on the ethnicity of your ESL students, this can be the cause of a lot of conflict for individuals as well as the team. A student with poor language skills may feel that they have nothing to contribute to the team effort if they are the weakest English student in the group. Similarly, students may focus on the language components of the project and overlook the other skills they have to offer, which can cause resentment within the team.

Self-assessment and peer assessment—especially when assessing participation and contribution—is usually fairly effective in reducing this conflict. Students need to learn to recognize their strengths and skills as well as areas for improvement.

In regard to the team grading, you’ll need to decide if you’ll use a fixed or adjustable grading system. The former makes it easier to grade the teams, but there’s a higher possibility of students who contribute very little to the project getting a higher grade. Adjustable grading allows for students to provide feedback and assess their teammates and recognizes that not all students contribute equally. However, it also allows for students—particularly ESL students—to be affected by peer feedback based on miscommunication, misunderstandings or personal differences.

This is one of the biggest motivators for individual grading, which becomes more time consuming for you as the teacher. Again, the ethnicity of your ESL students will certainly factor into this as some cultures value grades more than others. For example, if you have a high number of Asian ESL students, the grading will play a significant role in their approach to the project and how they interact with other students. Students in these teams will need more structure and guidance in their teamwork to keep them focused on collaboration.

PBL and ESL Students

PBL provides the ideal context for students to learn and implement vocabulary. The purpose of language is to communicate. By working in a team, ESL students are forced to communicate in the target language and to use the target vocabulary. While they may need more language support from the teacher, it’s possible to structure guided writing or speaking tasks that help the students to communicate their ideas to their teammates thereby improving the efficacy of their teamwork.


Other Ways to Help ESL Students Succeed in Teamwork

  1. Help the students to take ownership of the project: Try to create a project that allows students to incorporate and share their cultural knowledge with their teammates. This will allow students to focus on other areas of the project that they may find more challenging.
  2. Create individual and competitive goals: Challenge the students to progress individually in a particular skill or area as well as collectively.
  3. Group students according to ability: Unless your project allows for multiple levels, ESL students are more likely to succeed when teamed with students of a similar level. It removes the initial comparisons students make amongst themselves and allows students to focus on working together from a similar level while competing to improve. It also makes it easier for you to support a lower-level group as a teacher, which benefits all of the students, rather than rely on higher-level students to lead the group.
  4. Team students based on common interests: ESL students who have different first languages sometimes don’t realize how much they have in common with one another because they tend to group themselves based on culture or language. Teaming students based on common interests helps the students to socialize more while working together on a project, which can have multiple benefits in the project itself.
  5. Team students who need to develop particular skills: Like the previous point, if all the students in the team need to develop or improve a certain skill, it evens the competition and helps students to collaborate and support each other. These skills could be problem solving, time management, interpersonal skills or communication. When students are equal in their need for improvement, they cannot rely on a stronger student to lead the team.
  6. Do not use teamwork as conflict resolution: When students have cultural or linguistic conflicts, teamwork is not an appropriate solution. These conflicts will interfere with their academic success, which will have negative impacts later. The purpose of teamwork is to support the students’ learning and help them to succeed—not to discourage them or place another obstacle in their path.

Wrap Up

Students have different needs based on their language proficiency, social environment and class environment among others. While this influences the type of teamwork and the process you’ll employ for the project, it needn’t hinder you from attempting teamwork entirely with your ESL students. Provided you plan carefully, evaluate the student needs and consider cultural and linguistic influences in the forming stage, there’s no reason ESL students can’t succeed in team projects and collaborate with others effectively.

So, take your time to consider all of the factors that influence teamwork and remember to offer your students support throughout the process. In the end, you may be surprised with the progress your students make and the positive effects collaboration can have on their self-confidence, interpersonal skills and overall language proficiency. The best part? The students will have worked to achieve all of these things themselves, which makes the learning that much more valuable!


Pursel, Bart. “Working with Student Teams.” Working with Student Teams. Accessed January 12, 2016.

photo credit: <a href=”″>UC Davis Steel Bridge Team</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href=”″>352</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href=”″>KAYA</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>