Although the ideal for most private language centres is class sizes of below 20, with a range of ages and cultures studying together, the vast majority of English teaching that goes on in the world is done with large classes of students who all speak the same first language. ‘Large classes’ typically means groups of over 20, but in many countries the reality of large class sizes is that there can be more than 40 or even 50 students in a room.
This leads to a familiar problem: how can we ensure that all our students are able to communicate in the language we are teaching? How do we allow opportunities for practice, and how can we design effective tasks to ensure that we hear ideas from each student in the class. With 50 students and a 1-hour class, doesn’t this mean that each student can only speak for a total of 1 minute each, if that?
With some attention to classroom management, some well-established teaching routines and some well-designed tasks, it is totally possible to increase student interaction, build better communication in the classroom and get students speaking with each other more productively:
Arrange the classroom appropriately
The first step to making more interaction possible with a large group is to make sure that the room is set up appropriately. Rather than laying out chairs and tables in rows, or as lines of individual seats (not very interactive or space-friendly layouts), group tables as islands with students facing the middle. This saves a lot of space and frees up room for you to move around between the islands while students are working.
50 students all facing the front of the class does not enable much student-student interaction, as everyone is facing the same direction, and may only have one or two people on each side to speak to. Grouping them onto 7 islands, with 7 (or 8) students on each island allows multiple different partners, and the possibility to share resources, work together and interact more freely with each other.
Set clear expectations
As with any teaching plan, it is important to start as you mean to go on with large groups. In order to get away from the lecture-style classroom which is so common, make sure that students understand that they will be moving around the classroom and speaking to different people in your lessons. Once the class sees the different arrangement of chairs and tables in your room, the idea of individual student places will soon disappear, especially if you use activities which require them to get up and move around.
In the first few lessons, lead some simple ‘mingling’ activities where students have to find out information from the classmates within their groups, or between groups. Survey tasks, get to know you exercises and activities like ‘find someone who…’ (you can look this up ion you don’t know it) make for good activities which do not require too much new language.
Once students are used to the new way of using the classroom space, you can think about doing some activities which require more communication and movement around the room.
3) Group students for maximum interaction
The more groups of students you put together, the more interaction there will be in the classroom. However, more groups means more students to look after during a task, so it’s important to keep a balance between your time and the amount of student activity which is going on during activities.
If we consider a group of 60 students, there are several ways of dividing these:
Open class - 60 x 1 student: In this case, only one student can speak at a time, everyone else is listening to them, and interaction is only between you and the individual student. They will have your maximum attention, but the other 59 students will have zero attention.
Pairs - 30 x 2 students: In this case, there is 30 times more interaction happening, but can you realistically monitor each group during a 5-minute activity? This would only allow you 10 seconds with each pair. You can’t do much with that.
Groups of 20 x 3 students: This is more workable if you can move around half the class during one activity (again, say 5 minutes, which would give you 30 seconds with each group - long enough to hear what is happening. In a 10-minute activity, this gives you a much more useful minute per group for one activity, then you can monitor the other half of the class in a second activity).
Groups of 15 x 4 students: as above, the time available per group increases, and groups of four can be used to bring in more discussions, games and freer tasks where more people can get involved. With groups of more than 3 students, this also opens up different roles for different members of the group, allowing for more diverse types of activity.
4) Set clear roles within groups
In any task, the more different things that are being done by different members of a group, the more interaction about those roles is possible. In a group of 5 students, for example, having 2 students working on one half of a set of questions, and 3 working on the other half, enables discussion after they finish to discuss their responses and correct each others’ ideas in a checking session. Information gap and peer checking prompts a lot of focused discussion about tasks, and can make a task quicker and more efficient through student-centred group work (as long as everyone in the group is kept on-task through your monitoring around the room, as above.
Even more reflection on learning is possible if specific members of a group have defined roles within a task, for example:
An active listener, who listens while the other members of the group do a speaking task, and comments on accuracy or relevance of ideas. An active listener can have error tokens (or yellow and red cards, as in football) which they can hand out according to what they hear - a mistake in grammar? The listener puts a yellow card on the table and the speaker has to self-correct. A speaker cheats or disobeys the instructions? Red card, and the speaker has to start again (or rethink how they are doing the task).
A group secretary, who takes notes while other members of the group are working. In speaking activities, this could be to write down the points / issues being discussed, to feed back to the class after the task is finished. In a reading activity, the secretary could keep a note of any difficult words or ideas that the group needs to ask about.
Active listeners and secretaries can act like an extra pair of eyes or ears for you as you teach. They help the group to self-monitor and raise points after the task, meaning you still hear from that group even if you didn’t have time to get around all the groups in the room.
A judge, who settles any dispute between members of the group. If there is an argument about a specific question, the judge can stop the students and move them on to the next question, saving the question for discussion after the task ends. Disagreements can waste a lot of time, so it’s useful to have a responsible student looking out for this, and highlighting issues to ask about, or to get the answer to, after the task ends.
A runner, who can move between groups to ask questions or share information with other groups. Sometimes, no-one in the group will be able to find the answer, or there will be some language which causes problems for everyone. A runner can take this issue to a neighbouring group and ask them, then bring the answer back to their own group to continue working with. Again, this saves you the job of running from group to group answering questions, and encourages learners to take more control over their own learning in class.
Establishing these roles early on (as part of the expectation setting towards the beginning of the year or course), and reinforcing them the first few times that you use them by monitoring more closely, can save you a lot of time and energy, and increases the types of communication that go on in large groups.
Not all of these solutions will apply to all large groups, but having the confidence to adapt the classroom to suit the group size, to encourage students to move around the room, work with different partners and in different ways, can increase the amount of interaction (and therefore the amount of language practice and learning) that happens in the large group classroom. Try these techniques out, and most importantly: stick to them - it may take a while for students (and other teachers) to get used to them, but after a few weeks, the new way of working will show real effects.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.