What is a “pair”? The American Heritage dictionary begins its definition of this word by calling it “Two corresponding persons or items similar in form or function”.
For the purpose of language teaching or any other kind of teaching, for that matter, the “corresponding” aspect is of the greatest pertinence. A moment comes in a great many lesson plans when the teacher thinks, for example, “OK, we’ve gotten through inductively figuring out how the present perfect is different from the past tense. Check. We’ve engaged in a spate of mental gymnastics filling in blanks in a series of PPT sentences. Aha! Used a technological resource. Check. Looked at lines of prose and eliciting individually in a crisscross pattern among students sitting in a U-shape that facilitates eye contact and intelligible oral exchanges…. decided which sentences contain the present perfect tense and why that tense was used in those situations. Check. Now it must be time for pairwork. Right. So the students are given the assignment to work in pairs on exercise B on page 46 of their textbook. Right timing; ineffective strategy. If the students are naturally gregarious, they will do the exercise collaboratively, or at least verify whether their responses match. But, was there anything about the exercise which necessitated a joint exchange, mutual input, utterance and response? If the answer is “no”, then you don’t have pairwork; you have two individuals sitting side by side engaged in a similar task which can be carried out without the “correspondence” of two people who depend on each other’s contributions to achieve a requested result.
The following are a few examples of textbook-type set-ups that result in genuine pairwork.
Two students have cue cards which indicate the direction a question & answer exchange might take: Policeman vs person suspected of automobile theft.
P: for the past three hours
T: shopping mall
P: own the car you are driving
T: two years
Students receive A & B dialog cards to practice role-play situations which include the structure or vocabulary in focus and which can be sequentially shared whole-class; these varied dialogs can also be rotated from pair to pair in closely timed progression.
Two students exchange comments on the ways in which a city has changed in the past few years, the ways in which parental rules have been modified, the changes that have taken place in common domestic technology.
Students pair up to ask and answer questions which will result in the creation of an ID profile card which can then be shared with the rest of the group. Ex: Where have you lived, worked, studied, traveled – etc – in the last two years?
Variations of these possibilities are as infinite as our general inclination to communicate, and can be found by way of multiple resources, including – most probably – the textbooks you are currently using. But awareness is key in your inclusion of pairwork in your lesson plan: as regards your students, if they’re not sharing, they’re not pairing.