3 Innovative Ways to Use Breakout Rooms in ELT

In the age of remote and online teaching, it is more important than ever that we find ways to encourage group work in our lessons. While we can no longer rearrange desks in a circle or send groups of students into different classroom spaces, we need to find ways to create these similar collaborative and horizontal learning experiences for our English learners (ELs).

As more and more educators rely on video conferencing to host their online, synchronous courses, now is the time to think creatively and strategically about how we will encourage student discussion and small group work. One beneficial function to many video conferencing programs is the option to create a breakout room. This enables educators to divide their course into smaller groups, for example completing “get to know you” activities in small groups or discussing a chapter in a novel with guided discussion questions. More and more, the breakout room is becoming staple of the online, synchronous classroom. However, there less traditional ways that we can take advantage of this useful online teaching tool, and this blog aims to draw attention to three innovative ways that you can embed breakout rooms in your online teaching.

Idea #1: Jigsaw Skits

Jigsaw activities are great to do with students; however, with the transition to online teaching, creating a jigsaw might be the last thing on your mind. A jigsaw is when you are able to separate a text into smaller parts. Students are able to become experts in their part of the story before they hear the other parts or the text as a whole. Then, students are able to uncover the story, meaning, and order together. This activity helps to outline how you could create a jigsaw skit activity using breakout rooms.  

Step 1: Select a classroom reading that is new to the students. Divide that reading into different parts. For example, you might create four parts of a short story. Create a Google Docs for each part of the story. If you have four parts, you will create four separate Google Docs.

Step 2: Divide your class roster by the number of parts in your story. Keep in mind, you will not want your groups to be too large. You might have to adjust how you have grouped students or how you have divided the reading.

Step 3: Have students get into their breakout groups. Provide each breakout group with access to their Google Doc for their specific part of the reading/text. You can provide this to students in an email or in the chat feature within the video conferencing software.

Step 4: Give students time to read their part of the story. (Alternatively, assign the reading in advance.) They will have missing information as they will only have access to their specific part of the story. Then, students will need to create a skit to represent their part of the story.

When presenting skits, students within groups can each perform their part in front of the whole class using gallery view. Here are three ways students can share their skit with the class as part of the jigsaw activity:

Option A: Each group creates a skit based on their section of the reading. Randomly call on different groups to perform their skit to the rest of the class. Between each skit, the class can then decide what the order is of the skit in the full story. In the end, each group can do their skit again in the correct order. Option B: Each group has to create a skit that can be done individually and replicated by everyone in the group. Give the groups time to practice so that each individual feels comfortable with their part of the skit. Then, randomly group students (like speed dating) within the video conferencing software. Students would share their performance with one student at a time. Then, after everyone has rotated multiple times, everyone can come back together to discuss the correct order. Option C: Have groups create skits that are silent. Their silent performance will be shown to the rest of the class. Groups can do this live while in class or choose to record their own video performance. Then, after each performance, the class has to take note of what happened in the skit.  A shared Google Doc would be screenshared so that everyone can add their ideas to a note-chart.

Step 5: Once everyone has performed in whatever way you have decided, take the time to review (1) the content of the story, (2) the order of the story, and (3) the skit performance. Additional grammar and language components can also be tacked on to this activity.

Step 6: After the work is done, have students return to their breakout room with their group. Send each group a Google Form to complete with reflective questions about their experience in the skit. Students can screenshare the Google Form with the rest of the group and type the answers, and only one person per group would submit the group’s answers. Then, all of the answers could be viewed together as a whole class.

Idea #2: Virtual Running Dictations

A running dictation is a fun way to engage students and help them use multiple English skills at once. Information (text or audio) is broken down into smaller parts. Students work in teams to gather the information, share the information with their group, and document it correctly. 

Step 1: Find a text that you would like to use for a running dictation. Think about what is within the text and not necessarily how long the text is. Break this text into smaller parts. This might be by sentence or phrase. Decide what is best for your students. For example, you might have 10 sections of your text.

Step 2: Divide your class into small groups (three to four students each) for breakout. Make sure that each student is using a device that will allow them to easily join and leave a breakout group.

Step 3: You will be the keeper of the running dictation text. Students will bounce in and out of their breakout room. Only one person from each group can leave their breakout group at a time. You might code the students so that you can keep track of who is in which group. For example, if you have four groups, you might write a number 2 next to a student and a number 4 next to someone else. People can freely leave a breakout room. However, you might have to send them back in once they are ready.

Step 4: Have each group create a Google Doc or piece of paper numbered with as many pieces of text as you’re using. For example, if your text is broken into 10 parts, they should number their page from 1 to 10. Decide how you want to present the running dictation information. You might focus on reading and writing, speaking and listening, or a combination.

Here are two ways students can engage in this running dictation:

Option A: Create a short slideshow presentation. Each part of the text will need its own slide. As a representative from each group comes out of the breakout room, you can show them one slide. Once they have the information (without writing anything), they will go back to their breakout room, share the information with others in the team, and someone else will write the information. Then, a new member will leave the breakout room, and so on. Option B: As representatives from each breakout room come back to the larger group, you will not show them anything. Instead, you will read part of the text out loud. You can say it a few times. Then, the representative goes back to their group, repeats that information, and someone else writes it down.

Step 5: Once each group feels that they have all of the pieces of the puzzle, ask them to discuss in their small groups to verify if the order of the information is correct.

Step 6: When a group is done, check their work for both order and accuracy. Check the information from each group to determine how everyone did. Then, together, have a larger discussion about the text, the meaning within it, grammar points, and/or any other language element pertaining to your course.

Idea #3: Concentric Circle/Speed Dating

A concentric circle is when you have two groups (A and B). Group A would form a circle facing in. Group B would form a circle inside the larger circle and face out. Students would rotate so that they are able to talk to everyone from the opposite group. Concentric circles might feel like something that can only happen in a physical classroom; however, there are ways that we can do a similar activity using breakout rooms. To modify it for a synchronous experience, it takes on a similar look to speed dating.

Step 1: Create the task that you want students to complete during this activity. For example, you might use an information gap assignment, discussion questions, or give every student a single line from a paragraph. (Together, they can document the new sentences that they hear and try to decide the correct order.) Consider activities in which students need to question multiple others in order to formulate a response or solution.

Here are two activity options:

Option A: Give each student in the class a different clue about a murder mystery. Make sure that each clue is numbered. You might email the clue to students before class or send them to students individually in the chat. Have students meet one-on-one with each other in the breakout rooms to determine the solution to the crime. Option B: Provide a real-world case study for something that the students might experience, something general or, for example, a specific career path. For each round of the breakout room rotation, you can broadcast a new question (or send a chat message) to all small groups to discuss. At the end, they should have processed the case study and come up with some possible solutions and/or reflections.

Step 2: Put students in breakout rooms. Most video conferencing software allows you to group and regroup participants so that they are able to constantly meet and talk with new people for reach round. You can decide how many times they meet with people and for how long.

Step 3: At the end, you can have everyone come back to the group and share their work. Depending on the task that students were completing, this might take more or less time. It is always a good idea to ask students to reflect on their experience in the assignment as well.

Tips and Considerations

  • If you are grouping students specifically, you might have students change their name within the online video platform. For example (First & Last Name, Group A). This way, you can see who is in each group in the participant view of the meeting.
  • In video conferencing software, typically, you can choose whether you want it to automatically group students or if you want to manually do this. Take time to consider what is best for your specific task and class.
  • As students work together on a document in their groups, you might have them use a Google Doc. This way, they can all see what is being written by the scribe. This will also make it easier for them to share group work with you to be reviewed and graded. Google Docs also provides a good opportunity for students to practice using keyboard shortcuts and typing skills as they shift and move information.

Breakout rooms are one of the best tools that we have when we are teaching and facilitating learning online. These rooms can be used for smaller worksheet-type activities or larger, more interactive learning experiences. Though we may face some limitations when teaching online, we have more flexibility than we know if we are willing to think innovatively about the tools available to us for collaborative learning.

About Stephanie Marcotte

Stephanie Marcotte
Stephanie N. Marcotte, EdD, is the nursing resource coordinator and an adjunct professor of academic ESL at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts. She is passionate about supporting and advocating for credit-bearing academic ESL community college programs. In May 2020, she completed her doctoral studies at the University of New England in Maine, where she focused on transformative leadership in higher education. Stephanie is a MATSOL board member, and she has previously served as an NNETESOL board member and as president. Lastly, she has served in various union leadership capacities at the community college, including the position of union chapter president.
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2 Responses to
3 Innovative Ways to Use Breakout Rooms in ELT

  1. Thanks for sharing! Jigsaw works really great in online classes for sure! I’ve also written a post with 7 ways to use breakout rooms as feedback, rehearsal or differentiation rooms. You can read it here https://teflzoneracheltsateri.wordpress.com/2020/08/16/7-ideas-for-using-break-out-rooms/

  2. These are great ideas! I’m bookmarking this page for the teacher ed class I teach in Spring.

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