What are Patterns of Interaction?

Patterns of interaction, or interaction patterns, as the name says, are the different possibilities in which students can interact with each other and with the teacher in the classroom. In this post, we’ll talk about why planning and thinking about interaction patterns is important and the different types of patterns of interaction that you can use in class.

Why planning interaction patterns?

Varying interaction patterns in a lesson can serve a number of purposes. First, selecting the most appropriate patterns might help learners achieve the lesson aims / stage aims more effectively. Another reason for giving interaction patterns some thought when planning lessons is that they might contribute to the learners’ sense of belonging in a group and overall group cohesiveness – the more opportunities they have to interact with their peers, the more likely they are to bond and help each other in their learning process. In addition to all this, varying patterns of interaction adequately can help the teacher set an appropriate pace to the lesson and make it more dynamic.

Different types of interaction patterns

Teacher – Whole Group

In this pattern, the teacher interacts with all students at the same time. This can be used to collect feedback from activities, elicit information from students, give instructions, amongst other things. Although it is often said that Teacher – Whole Group should be avoided because it raises TTT, this pattern is an excellent way of providing students with quality input. Rather than avoiding Teacher – Whole Group moments, this is an opportunity to expose students to language and call their attention to useful language items.

Pairs and small groups

This is probably the most common interaction pattern used by teachers who adopt communicative approaches to teaching. Some advantages of getting students to work together are to enable them to help and learn from each other and to let them work collaborative and feel more confident when contributing in the whole group. It is common and advisable, for example, to pair students up to check answers together after they perform reading and listening activities.

When pairing students up, it is important to consider the aim of the activity to decide whether it is more profitable to have learners with similar or different levels of ability working together. In some cases, it might also be advantageous to allow learners to decide who they’d like to work with – this can foster their confidence and maximise the feeling of being in a safe environment.


When students mingle, you allow them to speak to as many partners as they can. Mingling can be very noisy and “disorganised”, but it is often engaging and it allows learners who do not feel very confident in whole-group or pair work to loosen up and interact.

Mingling can be as simple as asking students to stand up and talk to different peers. However, if you want a more organised mingling activity, there are certain techniques that you can use. Here are some ideas:


Stations allow learners to interact with different peers in a more organised way. You can group students and get some of them to move to different groups, while others stay at the “station”, as shown in the image below:

Choo-choo train:

Also known as train station, the choo-choo train will enable students to work in pairs with different partners at a pace set by the teacher. As shown in the image below, one of the lines stands still while the other moves.

Inner-outer circle:

Inner-outer circles, or onion rings, will allow learners to interact in pairs with different partners at the pace set by the teacher, in a similar fashion as the choo-choo train. Bear in mind that you’ll need more physical space in order to organise an inner-outer circle:

Students can be either sitting or standing in stations, choo-choo trains and inner-outer circles. If you are teaching students with mobility difficulties or disabilities, it is a good idea to have all learners sitting rather than standing. As an anticipated problem, remember to think about how long it may take for leaners to organise desks/chairs – if it is too long, or longer than the activity itself, it is worth thinking about a different and more effective pattern of interaction.

Individual work

Students need time to work on their own. Some “alone” time gives them the chance to think, assess how much they are learning and process what is taking place in class. The rise in communicative approaches to teaching tends to make teachers always pair students up and require learners to be communicating all the time – this might overload students and prevent them from some very beneficial time working on their own.

Apart from receptive skills (listening and reading) activities and coursebook activities, students can be given some minutes on their own before more communicative activities to think and plan what they are going to say, consider linguistic items they might use and brainstorm information on their own. During this time, teachers can monitor and provide support – this might even help shyer and less confident learners to perform better during speaking activities.

Setting group work

Interaction patterns are more likely to work effectively if instructions are clear, if learners know what to do and if they are not overly complicated. When setting up pair work and group work, remember to check your instructions (you might want to see this post on ICQs) and make sure everyone knows who they are supposed to work with. Some teachers use classroom management techniques such as distributing cards, rods or assigning names, colours or numbers to learners to simplify this procedure.

In more complex pattern types, such as the choo-choo train and inner-outer circle, it might be useful to “rehearse” once or twice before learners start performing the activity to make sure everyone knows what to do and the activity does not need to be interrupted for clarification. Remember: the aim of the activity should not be the interaction pattern, so it should never be too complex or complicated – this ends up distracting learners from the real aim of the activity.

Going beyond interaction patterns

Depending on the activity aim, varying patterns of interaction can help you give learners different roles in the classroom. For example: in a speaking activity, if students are working in trios, one member of the group can be responsible for collecting samples of language and giving feedback when the activity is over. Giving leaners roles adds variety to the lesson, contributes to more active learner participation in tasks and activities and allows the teacher to offer differentiated learning opportunities to students.

I hope this post was helpful! Remember to leave a comment and give us feedback and suggestions for future posts!





Andreia Zakime is an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, a CELTA tutor and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?

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