The elephants in the classroom - The realities we need to face as language educators
Part 1: Large, mixed-ability classes
As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, it seems that some old and tired elephants are still standing in the language classroom. These elephants are given voice by teachers the world over, and I have heard their voices many times in teacher development and staff training sessions at schools and language centres around the world.
I am gathering here some objections that teachers present in development sessions, which are put forward to oppose methods and teaching approaches which I have suggested as solutions to issues with teaching and learning. The first of these articles is focused on classroom management. These comments come from years of experience working in controlled classroom environments with strong educational traditions, and from years (often decades) working with learners who have strong preconceptions about the nature of the classroom, and of language education in general.
I respect these comments, and the hardworking teachers who make them, and above all I am thankful that teachers in my sessions have spoken out honestly and stood up for what they do every day. Without this honest description of the realities of teaching large, often mixed-ability classes, there would be no possibility of development, as the starting point for change could not even exist. If you have thought similar things about the setting where you teach, I hope this article will help you to make that first step towards positive action for yourself and your students.
Large, mixed-ability classes are simply not teachable using communicative methodologies
This type of learner group is by far the most common teaching setting in the world. Schools in most countries around the world are work with classes of 30+ students, sitting in rows, with one or two students at each desk, facing front and learning through repeat-after-me rote grammar and phrases which are on the end-of-term exam. If you were a student in this kind of setting yourself, think back to how deathly boring and repetitive it was, and how little it contributed to your ability to explore the language you were learning beyond rules and sentence examples. Okay, you may have aced the test, but were you ready to participate in a real-time discussion about a hobby that you loved, or an issue you felt strongly about? If your experience was anything like mine, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.
Think of it this way: A group of 35 people of the same age, sitting in the same room is a hugely diverse community of opinions, passions, loves and hates, feelings and motivations. No matter what someone’s level of proficiency in a particular subject (say, English) is, this is an interesting group of people. They may not be able to express these personal attributes clearly, but it is he job of the teacher to find a passion point in every student and bring them out of their shell and into the community of the classroom.
One good way of preventing both the stronger and the weaker members of a class from speaking out about their opinions is to teach them grammar and set phrases from a single textbook, designed to work with language at a single level of difficulty in a rigid and prescribed way. Language learning cannot be a one-size-fits-all experience because it involves personal communication. Every individual is different, so processes a given task differently. This is the essence of differentiation; the ability to flex a piece of teaching material to appeal to different individuals (or groups of individuals) in a class.
Perhaps the simplest form of differentiation is achievable through classroom management. By building a sense of community, showing interest in every member of the class (beyond simplistic ‘do you agree?’ questions) and being inclusive of both stronger and weaker language users, the learners in the class become people rather than test statistics, and they will be more ready to get involved with what the class is doing. Mix up the classroom, group students differently for different tasks, and use tasks which require learners to interact on a level that they feel comfortable with, and the strong students will stay engaged while the weaker ones will have something to grab hold of and start talking about. Better than only teaching the middle of the bell curve, right?
It is not possible to move students around a classroom - they won’t shift from their regular places
I hear this comment almost every time I suggest different kinds of group activity to get students talking to different members of the class. Teachers assume that because students have their regular seats and always sit there with their stuff in their desk, that they are incapable of moving around and working with different partners. Admittedly, this is a tough habit to break, and one which may even have been reinforced by school rules for years, but as we have seen from the points above, the ability to move around, group and regroup students opens up the classroom to different types of task, activity and interaction. Moving people around the room to talk to different partners also allows for more differentiation between students of different language levels, specific skill-sets, opinions and ways of doing things. This can only be a positive thing for the different types of activity that go into language learning.
There are other negative effects on communication skills when learners only talk to the one or two students who sit near them in the classroom. A huge range of social, interpersonal and behavioural competences underlie effective communication in any language, so restricting learners to only speaking to the same partner for every speaking activity they do will not stretch their interactive skills to become effective communicators who can speak with confidence in different situations and with different people.
To counter this stagnant situation, where everyone sits in the same places and talks to the same people, try moving the chairs and tables around into different layouts according to the type of interaction you want to happen in the lesson. A new classroom layout forces students to sit in different seats and interact with different people. If this is an issue for the school, or if other teachers don’t like different layouts, it takes a few minutes to move the chairs and tables back again, and this is something that your students can help you with. The more involvement they have in the environment where they study, the more invested they will be in changing things up when you want to.
The large class setting does not have to be as traditional and stuck in its ways as it commonly is. With some extra attention to the types of interaction, movement and task which learners perform in these settings, more can be made of the opportunities for language use, communication and application of what is being learnt.
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.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.