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Teaching large classes




teenagers outside schoolAlastair Grant, a Teacher Development Manager in Buenos Aires, looks at the challenges in managing large classes of teenagers, and suggests ways to ensure successful lessons.

I shut the door behind me and realised I had made a big mistake.

No, this isn’t the starting sentence from a creative writing class that I went to when I was 12, but the feeling I got when stepping into that secondary school classroom…

Me, a first year teacher, fresh off my teaching course, and full of ideas about communicative activities, interaction patterns, etc., suddenly faced with 32 teenagers all speaking in a language which I didn’t understand, and not paying me any attention! I needed to change things fast.

Back when I started teaching (time seems to move at twice the normal speed in this profession), I found this pretty intimidating. We know that large classes can have their fair share of challenges – I’ve picked out five to get you thinking:

  1. Monitoring
    Let’s see: you have 32 students doing an activity; that means you’ll have about 12 working quietly, 6 working together, 4 talking about their weekend, and 10 calling your name in unison, demanding help. And if you’re lucky, it’ll be in that order.
  2. Environment
    There are desks in the way, bags all over the place and it can seem impossible to be able to reach your students to help with them while they’re working.
  3. Discipline
    With even the best adolescents and adults, there’s a temptation for them to speak in their native tongue, or just not to work, which is even more common in a larger class, especially as there’s less chance of you spotting it!
  4. Interaction
    Trying out a “find someone who” activity with a class THIS size can turn you into a policeman, because you have to make sure students don’t use the activity as a reason to speak in their language. It’s also hard to make sure everyone can get to speak to each other without creating chaos!
  5. Testing
    Having 32 writing, reading, listening, speaking, and grammar tests to check for only ONE of your classes, is exhausting for any teacher.

Ok, so far so bad, but strangely, six months into the job, when asked by my director which class I was enjoying the most, I found myself answering “the one at the secondary school”.

So what had changed?

Here were my recipes for success.  Five solutions to complement the five challenges!

  1. Monitoring
    Introduce a “hands-up” system, and explain your methodology to the students, so that they understand and respect this: it’s their learning environment that you want to make as productive for them as possible. After all, there is only one of you!
  2. Environment
    Right from the start of the class, make sure the students know where you want them to sit, not where they do. Your classroom – your rules. That means, where the desks go, who they face, where they put their bags… and get them to move the furniture!
  3. Discipline
    The “red card” system – the first person to speak in their language (not English!) gets the card and it is passed on. At the end of the class, the last student with the card brings in something nice for the class for the next lesson. Also, give students a grade for their involvement in the classes, so they can see that it has a tangible effect, and that it contributes to their learning.
  4. Interaction
    Ensure that speaking activities are structured, and that the students respect turn-taking, just like they would outside the classroom. Speed debating is a great activity for this: two students come to the front for one minute only, and discuss the topic. The rest of the students have to pay close attention, as you will randomly pick another student to come up once the minute is over.
  5. Testing
    Although direct tests of speaking and writing are essential, using Multiple Choice and True/False tests for reading, listening, and even grammar, can drastically reduce your workload. Pre-prepared and editable tests are great too. You can be confident that they’ll be the right language level for your class and, because you can edit them, you can quickly adapt them to suit your own students.  Perfect for saving you time and effort too.

Everything I’ve mentioned here has always helped to make a productive and well-organised lesson for me and my students.

And you? Imagine you were me, the voices of the 32 students drowning out the sound of the door as it closed behind you… What would you do?

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  1. I don’t agree with 3 of the 5 pieces of advice. Instead I’d say
    2. Their environment, their rules. They should set their own rules and seating chart. The teacher should only step in if the learners cannot manage the environment and behavior on their own.
    3. Rather than punish someone for speaking their own language, create an environment where they want to speak the second. If students prefer their L1 most of the time, it probably says something about your classroom and lessons as much as the students.
    5. Multiple Choice and True/False tests come with far more downsides than they are worth . The fact they are so easy to grade and change is probably the main reason they are so terribly overused. I’d recommend formative assessment or peer monitoring in its place.

    Large classes can definitely hard to manage, but classes where learners have a stake in their own learning and feel like the classroom is something theyv’e built goes a long way towards participation.

    • Hi Nick!

      Thanks for your comments. I certainly like your ideas on making this process more humanistic! That said, I’d like to defend my position on the points you’ve raised:

      2. Adolescents especially need to be shown how to respect their learning environment to make it as frutiful as possible. As the classroom manager, I think it’s the teacher’s responsibility to see to this. Kids don’t generally come to ANY class because they want to (I certainly never did!), so you need to make sure they are sat in the best place to ensure a productive class.

      3. Realistically, I think adolescents find it “uncool” and not natural to speak in English with their peers – I think we’ve all experienced this. I’ve always had great success with setting this ground rule and then the kids have enjoyed speaking English very much indeed. But I’d also love to know your ideas too!

      5. I think these testing techniques, while used very frequently, nonetheless help students – I think we shouldn’t dispose of something useful just because we use it a lot. I totally agree about peer / formative assessment though, and use these to complement other forms of testing.

      I don’t want to see authoritarian at all – the idea is that, especially with an adolescent class, there are some boundaries that need to be set. I think parents would agree with this for their home life as well!

  2. Of course it depends on the maturity and dynamics of a class as to how much ‘control’ to give them over seating etc. Sometimes it is best to step in and take charge over these matters or else valuable class time can be wasted while they sort these things out. One thing I’ve found I’ve had to do is to really structure instructions carefully so they follow each step before you introduce the next step. E.g. ‘stand up’ (they follow) ‘face the front of the class’ (they follow) etc. If not, you’ll have different groups asking you for clarification for much of the lesson. I’ve found that planning for a large class is more about organising how activities will be conducted – but that once in progress these activities gain a life and momentum of their own. You do get a certain energy from them so I can understand why this secondary class soon became a favourite!

    • Hi – I too have found it very useful to make sure that a clear sequence of instructions and varied activities are in place with a large class to ensure that the lesson works smoothly, and therefore the students will get as much out of the lesson as possible.

      I think that as teachers, we can’t ignore our responsibility of knowing how to make the learning environment as productive as we can. We are the professionals and we need to trust our judgement!

      Even with one adult class at the moment I have seen that I need to be careful about who sits where – we have all learnt about how students have different learning styles and we need to make sure students sit with others who will help them and complement their styles.


  3. Agree with points Nick makes on this. One thing I do with >30 students is have several mini-classes. Has to be very student-centred and instructions for activities have to be really clear, but it works well. I’ve only taught (relatively) mature sts, but my kids’ primary school teacher manages to do the same thing with young kids. Once she’s set everything up, they all get on with what they’re doing and seem to stay on-task (she’s my hero).

    • Could you give a little more detail? I’ve just started teaching a 35 strong class of 13 year olds and agree with Nick but am looking for variations within the highly structured framework.

  4. Hi! I absolutely enjoy reading about teachers experiences. Even though I work with primary children your advices have helped me in a monumental way. This is my second school year as an English teacher (and I have big classes as well) and Mr. Grants article is encouraging. With point 3 I felt so related. What I do with my private classes because I just have 2 children per group is that at the beginning of the class I give them 4 stickers, during the class if they say a Spanish word I will take of them 1 sticker, and so on; wins the one that has all the stickers. Wen they are still children this is excited!
    Thank you
    Miss Valery

    • Hi Miss Valery,

      Thanks for your comment – I love the sticker idea! I have used a mark system on the board before, where the students get a mark next to their name for speaking in their language, but I stopped because it seemed too much like an old-fashioned punishment!

      Anything that you can do to make it fun but at the same time get a serious teaching point across is very useful. Well done Miss Valery – I’m going to try this!

  5. Hello
    It’s hard to pass comment judiciously on someone else’s teaching situation; after all, how can we know the exact circumstances of another teacher’s class if we’re not there to see it.

    Alastair said: “When asked by my director which class I was enjoying the most, I found myself answering “the one at the secondary school”.

    I’m guessing that if he’s happy with the class, then so are the students. Long may that continue!

    Please keep us updated!

  6. What about teaching people who really want to learn. Getting tired of naughty and ungrateful students at this time of the year…

    • Hi Maria Emma!

      It’s hard sometimes to make the classes so that all the students like them and get involved and put in the effort we would want…

      Even at the best of times, some of my students just don’t focus and would rather do anything than the lesson plan you’ve made, even when you’ve spent ages thinking about it!

      I always try to get them back on track by showing them how much their classes can help them with their lives out in the real world – I had a student who REALLY didn’t want to study English at all until the company for whom she applied asked her for an international exam – then she studied – and a lot!

      She got the job of her dreams and I always tell my adolescents this story – I know it’s a long way off for kids to be thinking about employement but this always seems to have the desired effect – especially if students think that travelling might be involved!

      And I always have some students who’ve visited the USA and come back with examples of how their English classes have helped them and that they were the only ones in the family who could communicate properly on holiday! It makes their families so proud of them.

  7. In my opinion the best way to work with large classes is through Cooperative Learning activities. It is impossible just for one teacher monitoring, evaluate, etc each student one by one. At the begining it is a little dificult to organize the groups but soon the student and teacher feel comfortable with the system. Here, in Chile most of the classes include 45 students. The ideal group for me is no more than 30 students, but here is an imposible dream.

  8. I like it -the most important point which should be taken in consideration is the cooperative learning activities

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