Placing the Learner in the Leading Role

by Riccardo Chiappini in Blogs & Articles

Learning leadership skills is not a prerogative of adult students. Nor are business schools or universities the only places where this valuable set of skills can or should be taught. It comes as no surprise then, that the recent updates to the CEFR, the Companion Volume (2020), and the Collated representative samples of descriptors of language competences developed for young learners (2018), include fresh new scales for Leading group work. The EFL Young Learner classroom is indeed a good place for children and teenagers to develop and reinforce their sense of initiative and entrepreneurship.

A set of skills

More than a Life skill, leadership should be seen as a pivot around which different aspects of all the other Life skills turn. To lead group work successfully in fact, students/leaders need to:
-    propose, evaluate and make decisions (i.e. take initiative);
-    set goals, plan work and assign appropriate tasks and deadlines to group members (i.e. manage productivity);
-    build trust, coordinate work as well as encourage and appreciate contributions from group members (i.e. master social skills);
-    make changes to the course of action, adjust and adapt as necessary (i.e. show flexibility).

Leadership also encompasses Learning and Literacy skills:
-    Without collaboration from all the members in the group, objectives get harder, if not impossible, to reach.
-    Managing communication between team members is essential for the final project to “materialise”.
-    Finding creative solutions is a skill that is always appreciated when issues arise.
-    Critically evaluating work and identifying strengths and gaps to make decisions is what is expected from a good leader.
-    Students/Leaders need to be able to retrieve information, manipulate texts and use technology to better brief, explain and support their team members.

In the CEFR

In the CEFR, descriptors are provided for two types of Leading group work activities:
-    Managing interaction, i.e. when ‘the user/learner has a designated lead role to organise communicative activity between members of a group or several groups’ (Council of Europe, 2020:112);
-    Encouraging conceptual talk, i.e. when the leader/student enables ‘another person or persons to themselves construct a new concept, rather than passively following a lead’ (Council of Europe, 2020:112).
The descriptors are listed in the mediation macro group Mediating concepts.

Example tasks

1. Assembling Lego

  • Level: A2
  •  Age: 7-10
  • CEFR descriptors:
    • Can give very simple instructions to a cooperative group who help with formulation when necessary (Managing interaction).
    • Can ask what somebody thinks of a certain idea (Encouraging conceptual talk).
  • Task:

1.    Organise class into small groups.
2.    Assign roles: Student A: Leader; Students B, C, D: Team Members.
3.    Give Student A instruction booklet for Lego model their group will have to build (an airplane, a fire station, a house). Give Student B, C and D each a bag with their Lego pieces. Leader is not allowed to see what pieces Team Members have. Team Members are not allowed to see the instruction booklet Leader has.
Set a time limit for groups to assemble the model (25 minutes).
4.    Leader quickly briefs Team Members by describing the model to build.
5.    Team Members take turns to describe the Lego pieces they have (bricks, plates, window panels).
6.    Leader uses booklet to give instructions. Leader can ask who among her/his Team Members has the next piece to set, and Team Members can interrupt their Leader to comment or make suggestions (I think the red cylinder goes on top of the grey plate).
7.    Once the model is complete, Leader and Team Members discuss what went particularly well as well as what the team could have done better.
A plenary could follow where students share and comment on the activity.

  •  Comments:
    • The lower the level or the younger the students, the simpler the Lego or the model to build. With learners between age 7 and 10, for example, it might be a good idea to use Lego Duplo as the pieces and original models are usually simpler to describe and build.
    • The language output will obviously vary depending on the students’ level and age, expecting shorter, simpler chunks or statements from lower-level/younger learners (First, the green piece; The door is on the left. Leave two spaces right) and longer and more complex language from higher-level/older ones (The green plate is the base, so it goes first; Now, place the door on the right leaving two studs free on the right).
    • To adapt the level of difficulty, changes can be made both to the model itself, by making it bigger/smaller and more/less complicated to build, for example, but also to the way Leader and Team Members communicate with each other, by allowing or denying them to point, touch, show, etc.
    • Naming Lego pieces can be tricky for students and teachers alike. Generally, the freer the students are to describe their own pieces (i.e. without using “official” names), the higher the chances for them to use language productively (paraphrasing, expanding, explaining). However, if the students are keen on using “official” names, teachers could use the Lego Pick-A-Brick tool (https://www.lego.com/en-us/page/static/pick-a-brick) to create a list of these for students to get familiar with the names, memorise them and even use it as reference or back-up while doing the task.
    • Instead of assembling Lego, students could put together puzzles, order picture stories or comic strips.

2. Heading project work

  •  Level: B2
  •  Age: 13-16
  • CEFR descriptors:
    • Can explain the different roles of participants in the collaborative process, giving clear instructions for group work (Managing interaction).
    • Can ask people to explain how an idea fits with the main topic under discussion (Encouraging conceptual talk).
  •  Task:

1.    Organise class into groups.
2.    Assign roles: Student A: Leader; Students B, C, D: Team Members.
3.    Give Leader of each group a “Project card” (see Grid 1). This is visible only to the Leader and shows:
-    project objective/s (create a poster, write an article or prepare a short presentation illustrating the different phases of the moon);
-    project instructions (deadlines, quality and quantity of information to include).
4.    Give Team Members in each group their corresponding “Team Member card” (see Grid 2), which shows how each Team Member can contribute in the project (finding information quickly, drawing, analysing graphs). This is visible only to the corresponding Team Member.
5.    Leader uses “Project card” to brief Team Members.
6.    Team Members use their own “Team Member card” to explain what they can do for the project. Leader takes notes.
7.    Leader uses notes to assign appropriate tasks to each Team Member, making sure everyone agrees. 
8.    Team members proceed to carry out the tasks assigned to them by their Leader, and Leader supervises work, provides support and intervenes as necessary.
9.    Once the poster, article or presentation is complete, Leader and Team Members discuss what went particularly well as well as what the team could have done better.
A plenary could follow where students share and comment on the activity.

  • Comments:
    • The type of project needs to be appropriate for the students’ age and level as well as take into consideration the resources at the students’ disposal (stationary, technology, laboratory).
    • Team Members can be allowed to fill in their cards with real information.
    •  Leaders can be given more decision-making power: they could decide on the type of end product to produce (making a video or a podcast, writing an article or even an essay), how Team Members should work (individually, in pairs or smaller groups), the topic itself (of their own choice or from a given list), etc.

Grid 1. Example of “Project card”:

PROJECT: Poster for science exhibition.
TOPIC: Manned missions to Mars.
ANGLE: Something “unusual” or “funny” about the topic.

Written text: max. 200 words;

Drawings and/or pictures: max. 8;

Size: max. 45 x 60 cm.
AUDIENCE:  Open to teachers, parents and other students.

Grid 2. Example of “Team Member card”:

Looking for and finding information 4/5 *
Handwriting: 2/5
Drawing: 1/5
Finding appropriate pictures: 3/5
* 1 = not so good at; 5 = very good at


Key elements of a task:

  • Appropriacy. The task/project must be cognitively demanding, but within the students’ reach. Giving instructions to draw a picture or put a puzzle together, for example, might be more appropriate for younger, lower-level students, while building a complex Lego model or heading up project work would be more effective with older, higher-level students.
  • The shared burden of responsibility. Students should be made aware right from the start that leading is hard work. So students/Team Members should always be encouraged to do their best to support their leader, to make her/his job easier, and this can be done by collaborating, contributing and suggesting other possible courses of action. Likewise, students/Leaders must do their best to create a supportive environment in which Team Members’ collaboration, contributions and suggestions are always welcome and appreciated.
  • Authority. Some students might fear having to take on the role of Leader. Others, on the other hand, might feel they should have been picked as a Leader. In order not to fall into these traps, it is important to make students reflect on the concept of teamwork and what it means to “pursue the same goal”. One of the many possible objectives of a leadership task is, in fact, to make students realise that the most important thing about making a decision is collaborating with other team members and the leader, helping the team make the right decisions through the leader: Leaders cannot and will not be solely responsible for their team’s success or failure!
  • Trust in cooperation. For the success of the team, both Leaders and Team Members will benefit from getting involved in activities that aim at building rapport, cooperation and trust in their teammates as well as confidence in themselves and a higher level of autonomy. There is a rich repertoire of techniques, training exercises and “games”, involving both problem solving and collaboration, to choose from. Some examples might be:
    • Hula-hoop Team Building Ring, in which students stand in a circle and pass a hula-hoop all the way around the circle without anyone letting go of their teammate’s hands.
    • Minefield, where blindfolded students must walk through a minefield-covered with soft balls, plastic bottles or paper cups serving as mines-guided by the verbal directions of their leader.
    • Pretty good at it, which asks students to briefly describe to their peers something they are really good at, which could span from being punctual, for example, to cooking, dancing, etc.



Many of the young students who are studying English as a foreign language in today’s global world will inevitably be the leaders in tomorrow’s (supposedly even more) global world. They would all benefit from learning how to lead respectfully and collaboratively, to treat the issues of the many in a way that considers, respects and includes the many.­


Council of Europe, ´Collated representative samples of descriptors of language competences developed for young learners (aged 7-10 and 11-15 years) [https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/bank-of-supplementary-descriptors], 2018.

Council of Europe, ‘Common European framework of reference for languages: learning, teaching, assessment: Companion volume with new descriptors’, 2020.

About the Author

Riccardo Chiappini is a Delta-qualified EFL teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer based in Madrid. He has developed materials for publishers and institutions like the Spanish Ministry of Education. Most recently, he has been doing research on how to use mediation in the ELT classroom to help primary and secondary students develop critical thinking and leadership strategies.

by Riccardo Chiappini in Blogs & Articles