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August 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Breaking Through: 6 Ways to Make Breakout Rooms Work for You

Claire Smith has been a freelancer teaching ESP in Universities of Applied Science for the last 10 years. She specialises in English for healthcare, is the newsletter editor for ELTAU (English Language Teachers’ Association of Ulm) and loves developing materials which will engage young people. Contact:                  



As teachers and trainers, building relationships and getting our students talking to each other is a crucial part of what we do. Providing opportunities for social interaction is even more essential at the moment and most of us working online, with the help of platforms like Zoom and Webex, are employing break out rooms (BORs)for think-pair-share, small-group discussion and collaborative activities. But how do we make sure learners use their time in these rooms productively and how do we stop them just chatting in L1? Here is a collection of ideas I’ve found work for me along with suggestions from friends and colleagues.


Think about group make up

There are a variety of ways to organise this. One colleague said she likes to have larger groups as the students are getting to know each other, then she whittles them down to smaller groups once they feel comfortable with each other. Interestingly, another colleague does the opposite – gradually increasing the group size! Another colleague said she usually assigns learners into the rooms randomly and mixes the groups during the class so that students get to know each other and have a range of people to communicate with but she also lets them choose their partners sometimes.  She highlighted that one of the advantages of giving students choice is that mixed level students who are friends often work well together. One approach I’ve tried is to give different tasks to different groups depending on their level – if you’ve not tried any differentiation strategies before, this is a nice gentle way to dip your toe in the water. The main point here is to play around with group make-ups and find out what works best for your learners.


Give students a role

I’ve found this really helps get students focused, especially as the start of a task. Sometimes it’s simply a case of designating one person as group leader to start the discussion and keep everyone on track. But, for example, I’ll get one student to be the screen sharer and writer, one the spokesperson who will give feedback and one to act as timekeeper and ‘chivvyerupper’. I might let them self-choose and sometimes I assign roles. You could even add a mini-warmer to role assignment, something like “The oldest student will be group leader, the youngest will be …” and so on.


Give clear instructions

Several teachers highlighted this as a really important factor when using BORs. Having verbally clarified a task, learners need to have access to written instructions before they enter the BOR, as with most platforms you can’t send info to people once they’ve left the main room (although brief details can be sent using the ‘broadcast message function’). There are multiple ways to send instructions: via the chat function, via email, uploading a file via chat, via a learning platform such as Moodle or Edmodo etc.  Furthermore, make sure students know how to use the “Ask for Help” button that allows them to get your attention once they are in the BOR.


Ask students to ‘produce’ something

Although I still get students to have quick discussions in BORs where they don’t need to write anything down, I find groups are more successful if they have a response or product that they share back in the main classroom or with me or with another group. This a could simply be a word doc or a saved whiteboard they’ve worked on together or something they’ve produced using a collaborative tool like Padlet, a google or a ZUMpad doc. It could also be a recording, a screen cast or my current fave, an infographic.


Vary your monitoring approach

Just like you do in the physical classroom. When I want to check the students are on task and understand what they’re supposed to be doing, I go into the BORs, video and mic on, other times when they are doing a productive speaking activity and I’m listening for examples of nice language and errors, I go in video and mic off – often they don’t notice I’m there - but in these instances I always tell them I will be coming in, to ignore me and to be careful they’re not talking about me! This is a tip I got from the wonderful Russell Stannard. As I teach a writing course, I tried recently putting each student into their own breakout rooms so that I was able to circulate and give one-on-one feedback and advice – the SS seemed to like this, and I found it a nice change of pace.


Set a time limit

One colleague suggested keeping BOR time short, especially at first; once students gain more experience, they can build their staying power to longer lengths of time. Another colleague also suggested writing down what time you send your students into the BOR, so you remember to call them back on time! Another teacher sends a time reminder through the ‘broadcast to all’ function to remind students to keep on track.


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