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Teaching Big Classes

    Teaching large classes is a problem facing many teachers in many countries and this is even worse in the case of a foreign teacher having to cope across cultural and language barriers, as English Second Language (ESL) teachers sometimes face. What can be done to cope with the situation of having a classroom with too many students and still be successful at reaching learning objectives? The following article looks at seven major problems and seven suggestions or ideas that may help educators in such cases.

    The issue of class control

    Recently a viewer of my Sunday live broadcast asked for help and made the following comment: “I’m going to teach in a rural public school in XXX, which means 50 pupils with poor English, zero motivation, and poor discipline. No matter their poor results there is an unspoken rule to give them good grades. – That is the XXX way. “

    One feels for this teacher! The name of the country is being withheld, but this is a common problem for teachers in many countries, including English Foreign Language (EFL) and English Second Language (ESL) teachers.

    So here are really a number of important factors to consider – Student motivation, discipline, pressure from the administration, poor performance, and cultural attitudes towards foreign teachers. Those are important topics and I would like to delve into each one, but for this video, I will focus on only one aspect – Teaching large classes.

    One of the issues many teachers struggle with when teaching large classes is class control. Large classes could mean anything from 30 to 70 students in one classroom. And just imagine how some of us struggle with only a handful of students in our classes! So, if you manage to control and effectively teach a large group like 50 students, anything else is a piece of cake. That said, teaching large classes in for example China with its disciplined culture and with the help of an assistant or co-teacher is sometimes easier than teaching fourteen unruly kids in a culture where no respect and ill-discipline is the norm.

    Let’s first look at the seven major problems we have when teaching large classes, followed by seven ideas for solving those issues.

    I did some research and I found a great article by Irish educator and blogger – Aoife McLoughlin.

    Seven Difficulties with Large Classes:

    In this article, she explains the difficulties of teaching large classes. Even though I think she does a great job at explaining the problems, I don’t think her advice on solving them was good enough. So I’m going to give my thoughts on how to solve it.

    1. Discipline

    The majority of large classes consist of school children/teenagers where teachers are bound to have behavioral issues. How do you get students to pay attention and NOT throw that eraser at their classmate’s head? According to Lewis (2001) punitive strategies appear to be of limited usefulness in promoting responsible student behavior and should be replaced by proactive and interactive discipline practices (Pane, 2010). Whatever that means… (Shrug and smile)

    2. Common L1

    Standing in front of 70+ teenagers trying to encourage them to ‘speak English’. Most learners have a different mother tongue so it’s difficult to motivate them to use English in the classroom. They might be shy, or not interested.

    3. Physically draining

    Teachers will have to speak louder than usual, causing strain to the throat, walk more to check in on all the students (so wear comfortable shoes) and constantly pay attention to all areas of the room. Addressing the needs of so many students can be exhausting.

    4. Classroom management

    Teachers are limited on what they can do within such a confined space. Most of the time, teachers have very little space to conduct kinaesthetic activities such as running dictations or wall tasks. You will need to think of other ways to keep them occupied. As Hayes (1997) stated, teachers are ‘unable to promote student interaction since there is no room to move about.’

    5. Giving Feedback

    With larger class numbers there comes an even more diverse range of learning styles and individual need for feedback, requiring more one-to-one attention. Teachers feel they are neglecting learners individual needs as this isn’t physically possible.

    6. Resources

    Schools don’t have adequate resources to cater for classes of this size and so much of their time is required to design their own paperless lessons.

    7. Introverted Students

    Quieter students don’t like to speak out in front of a large group of people and so teachers have the added difficulty of ensuring these students do not ‘get lost’ in a large class.

    Seven ideas on control a big class

    Now, let’s look at some ideas to solve these issues:

    1. Discipline

    Teach learners the class procedures from the very start. For the first couple of weeks you will practice it every day to reinforce that behavior. What procedures do that include? I made a video on 20 procedures in the classroom that you can see here….

    The main ones however is to have an entrance and exit routine. Rules for class conduct. No speaking while the teacher is instructing. That means no interruptions, asking your friend a question or bothering others. Let them practice asking their friend questions. Have a way to get their attention, be it with a chime or raising your hand… I did a video on how to get the class quiet over here…

    Some teachers like to print out the rules and procedures and let the students sign it. Then, they take it home to show their parents so that everyone exactly knows what is expected of them.

    Students need that clarity – If there is one difference between a good class and a bad class is that there is clarity on classroom rules and students know what they have to do. Bad classes in turn have unclear rules that allow students to cause trouble and act out.

    2. L1 Common

    With very young learners you can use basic expressions for instructions. With all your students your job as an English teacher is to instill a passion for the language. Use flashcards and activities that get students to interact with the language.

    With large classes it is impossible to use flashcards however so you will have to make do with a projector (which most schools will have) and the whiteboard. Use that to show your students colorful pictures and do activities that include multimedia like videos and sound.

    One of the oldest techniques for teaching ESL is the use of chants. Let students stand up at the start of the lesson and do a chant with them related to the vocabulary or topic they will learn that day.

    With older students, you should do more pair work and activities where they can use their own experiences and knowledge such as surveys and questionnaires. Actually, the majority of teachers that worry about big classes are those that teach kindergarten up to middle school. Once learners reach high school in most cases they have already learned how to behave in class and quite frankly most of them are quite relaxed. If they are utterly out of control at any age there is a major problem with ethos and classroom management that should be fixed immediately. Restart the class and get those procedures down.

    The fact is you want students to use the language as much as possible so use the techniques from above and also heap praise on them when they excel in class. You have to show them that you appreciate it when they use English in the classroom.

    3. Physically Draining

    Nothing is as bad as a teacher that has to speak loudly to be heard the whole day. The truth is that the only time a class is draining is when the teacher doesn’t have 100% control over it. They feel like they have to speak loudly to keep their students’ attention and therefore tend to use too much Teacher Talking Time.

    My advice:

    Keep teacher talking time to a minimum. Explain to the class that you will not shout. If you must use a microphone connected to speakers or an amplifier.

    Make students distribute papers as class helpers and make use of the class captain for menial tasks.

    The point remains this: Have procedures in your class to make your life easier, use activities where students interact more with each other to limit TTT and use a microphone if available. I’ll also note writing instructions on the board or projector so that all the students can read it so you don’t have to repeat yourself.

    4. Classroom management

    In the article they say that you have to arrange the desks in a suitable position, unfortunately with a large class space is limited. Do chants and poses with the students standing behind their desks.

    Let students work with elbow buddies or do short peer activities with the student behind them. In large classes students can’t move around so only do that if you have a special activity planned.

    Practice activities with students and drill new activities so they know what is expected of them. Make sure your class is neat and clean. A neat class cultivates neat minds. (This is from my own experience.)

    5. Giving Feedback

    I would hate to mark hundreds of tests but that is what teachers have to do on a weekly basis.

    Do short surveys at the end of the class to check understanding and reinforce what they have learned. Let the students write exit tickets about what they’ve learned and read some out loud in the following class.

    Systematically work through the class so that you reach all students at some point. Take care not to neglect certain students or call on the same ones over and over again. You can do it alphabetically or from side to side. Don’t let anyone fall through the cracks.

    It is vitally important to check the understanding of your learners during the lesson to so do in-class feedback, ask students to show thumbs up/down if they understand. They can also put fingers up in front of their chests, 3 means “I’ve got this!”

    6. Resources

    Integrate the learners’ backgrounds and experiences as content for your lessons

    Resources and books may be limited. Try and use books with online components for teaching. Get your school to invest in book series that have chants, games and activities that are all on the computer so you can project it to the class. That would make for a paperless class.

    7. Introverted Students

    Here is the advice some teachers suggest.

    Don’t call on quieter students to speak up in front of seventy of their classmates.

    … This is wrong. Many people disagree with me, but I don’t believe in students being introvert or extrovert. I have conditioned myself not to believe it. Why? Eric, you’re going against what every other sane person in the world believes…. Doesn’t matter. If you believe this you are giving your students an excuse. “I can’t speak because I am an introvert. “

    I might be wrong, sure. But I make it a rule in my classroom that no one is allowed to be shy in my class. That is the new rule, everyone is an “extrovert”.

    What would you rather have? A classroom where you allow students to be quiet, where the outspoken few take all the attention in class?

    No. Be consistent in that you ask random students questions throughout your class. It keeps them on their toes. If a student is hesitant to answer, give them about 10 seconds, then ask their friend.

    What happens to that student?

    If you give them 10 seconds and they don’t answer they will feel 2 things. 1. The teacher gave me enough time to answer but I failed. 2. Because of that I will try harder in the future because they didn’t rush me.

    Remember not to punish the students but encourage them to do better. Be sure to walk around and question learners while they are busy with pair or group activities.

    In summary

    Teaching Big classes is difficult for many teachers, but if you create a welcome atmosphere with strict rules and procedures that students agree to, your time teaching will be much easier than you fear.

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