Number one for English language teachers

Classroom management: Team English for large classes

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Advice on teaching English to large groups of students.


Team English is a technique for teaching communicative language in large classes. We have used this technique with middle and high school students, as well as in workshops.

Conceptually, Team English can be used with any large group of students, from kindergarteners to business executives. It is particularly effective with teenagers, who are often hard to manage in crowded classes of forty, fifty, or even more students. Team English uses team and member identification through colors and numbers while at the same time incorporating principles of cooperative learning, an approach to education in which students work together to achieve a common objective. As a result, Team English provides an organization and management system that allows students to interact in communicative activities while preventing the chaos often resulting from attempts to use groups in large classes.

An important component of Team English is the ability to identify teams and individual members quickly and easily. Each team has a designated color. Each student wears the team color and a team number. When we worked with middle and high school classes, we had six colors. In a recent workshop for TESOL educators we used eight colors. Colors can be personalized further by using them in a team name. Once students are comfortable working together, they can choose names like the “yellow tigers” or “red dragons.”

To display the team color, you can have students wear a sports sash, jersey, head band, or other identifier that can easily be seen from a distance. We use sports pinnies made of very lightweight nylon. If you plan to carry these from class to class, weight is an important factor, since you will be transporting many of them. Even though it was an investment for us to purchase the pinnies, we use them repeatedly and thus look at them as tools of the trade. A less expensive solution is to take light-weight plastic folders and cut them in half at the fold. You then punch one hole in each corner of one short side of both pieces. Next you join these pieces with ribbon so that they can be worn as a bib, front and back. Students can be responsible for carrying these with their other school materials.

Numbers identify each member of the team. In teams of six students, numbers 1-6 are used; if there are nine team members, students are numbered 1-9, and so forth. On the pinnies we use, we have a large number centered near the neckline on both the front and back of the garment. This makes it easy for us to see the number, even if the students slide down in their seats or have their backs to us. You can glue or iron on numbers, or create your own by using a large-width permanent marker. The important thing to remember is that the numbers need to be large enough and high enough to be seen from a distance when students are seated at their desks.

For each activity, you form pairs or groups appropriate for that activity. With a team of nine members, there are 28 different combinations of triads alone. In effect, each team represents a small class, which allows students to develop team loyalty while still interacting with a variety of classmates. To encourage peer mentoring, you can form pairs and groups of mixed higher and lower abilities. The students with stronger leadership and English skills can be the group leaders. They then take on a mentoring role for the other students. As other team members develop these skills, they too can assume leadership roles. Within the group, you can assign each student a different responsibility, based on that student’s ability. At times, you may also want to form more homogeneous groups within the team. Each group can do a different activity, again depending on ability. You can then easily assist the group most needing individual attention within each team.

To begin implementing Team English, you need to decide on the number of teams, based on the number of students in your class, so that the class will be divided into roughly equal numbers of from six to 12 students. For example, in our classes of approximately 54 middle or high school students we created six teams of nine students. For a recent workshop of almost 100 participants, we had eight teams of 12 students. If necessary, some teams will have an additional student or be one student short. Class absences will likewise create teams of different numbers. When a team has an additional member, that member shares responsibilities with others of equal ability on the team. If the team is short one or more members, designated students of equal ability from the same team take over the responsibilities of the missing players.

Before assigning students to the teams, you should choose a captain for each team by selecting students recognized for their leadership ability as well as their English skills. You can then distribute the remaining students randomly to the teams or assign them by ability. In the latter case, after identifying the captains, you rank the remaining students from high to low in English ability. Starting at the top of the ranking, you distribute one student to each team. After the first round, you then distribute one student from the bottom of the list. You alternate rounds in this way until you have placed all students on a team. Should you anticipate conflicts among students, you can switch these students to other teams before you begin. Likewise, if you see an imbalance among the teams, you can move students until all teams seem roughly equal in ability.

Once you have designated the number of players on a team, you will need to assign each student a number. If the students are distributed by ability, it is a good idea to number the students by ability consistently across teams. For example, in teams of nine, the lower level ability students could be given numbers 2, 6, 7; the mid range 3, 5, 9; and the higher level 1 (usually the captain), 4, 8. It is better not to order students’ ability sequentially from 1-9 so as not to stigmatize any specific student. By knowing which students correspond to specific levels of ability, you can control for homogeneity or heterogeneity within pairs or groups. Using the example above, for a team of nine you could have heterogeneous triads of #1/#2/#3, #4/#5/#6, and #7/#8/#9, as well as other combinations. To form homogeneous triads, you would group #2/#6/#7, #3/#5/#9, and #1/#4/#8. While some people think of numbers as impersonal, team numbers take on a more meaningful affiliation, as they do in sports. In addition, they help you learn your students’ names because you can associate the name with the student’s team color and number.

To organize the teams within the classroom, you need to create a floor plan of the desks. You can then block off sections of the classroom so that team members are able to work with each other within their respective section. We have provided a floor plan that was used for a class of 54 middle school students [ See insert #2 ]. Students can move within that block as activities dictate. You do not need to require each student to sit at a specific desk, since you can easily identify students by their team color and number. However, when introducing Team English, you may want to assign seats for the first few days, placing the captains in a central position so they are close to all their team members.

When using Team English for the first time, you can hand out the team identifier with its number to the relevant student, ask the captains to do so, or have the students create their own identifier, as described earlier, with the color and number that you have designated. For the first time, we place the pinnie on the desk where we want the specific student to sit. We then post a list of the name and number of each team member. From then on, students pick up their pinnie from their team captain at the beginning of each class. When the teams are in place for the first time, you can begin with a Total Physical Response (TPR) activity, as we do. TPR uses commands to which the students respond, thus reinforcing their team and individual identity. First we have teams respond to commands, for instance, “Yellow stand up,” or “Blue waive your hands.” Next we use the same commands with numbers so that the appropriate member from every team responds, such as, “All fives stand up,” or All threes waive your hands.” Finally, we call on individual students, for example, “Red five stand up,” or “Green three waive your hands.”

After the warm-up activity and any other activities required to introduce concepts of team cooperation and responsibility, you form groups within the team, appropriate to the specific activity you plan to use. Pairs or groups of three work particularly well in classes where desks are packed so close together that it is physically difficult to form larger groups. Also, pairs or triads allow easy viewing of materials if each group has only one copy.

It is easy to configure the pairs or groups for the whole class because one set of numbers applies to all teams. For example, in teams of six students, you can pair #1/#2, #3/#4, and #5/#6 or just as easily change the pairing to #1/#4, #2/#5, and #3/#6, and so forth. In the same way, you can form triads #1/#2/#3 and #4/#5/#6, or #1/#3/#5 and #2/#4/#6, among several other combinations. We assign letters to the pairs and groups so that we can call on groups within teams. As in the example above, for one activity Group A may be #1/#2/#3 and Group B, #4/#5/#6 but for another activity you may wish to configure the members of the team differently. Once groups have been formed, we sometimes do TPR exercises, thereby checking that students are in the correct group and reinforcing their group cooperation.

In our most recent workshop, we grouped participants randomly, designating #1 as the team captain, responsible for checking that all groups were working together successfully. The team captain also had to collect the pinnies at the end of the session. Within each team, we formed four triads by designating them on the handout: Group A #1/#2/#3; Group B #4/#5/#6; Group C #7/#8/#9; and Group D #10/#11/#12. We also included the responsibilities of each member within the group. Team members #1, #4, #7, and #10 were to coordinate their respective group’s activities, making sure that all members of the group contributed to the effort. Team members #2, #5, #8, and #11 had to keep their group on task, helping the members to focus. Finally, team members #3, #6, #9, and #12 were responsible for encouraging their group’s members, congratulating them on their successes, assuring them that they could do the tasks, and supporting them when they were having difficulty.

For the groups in this workshop we used an activity from the Reward Elementary Resource Pack by Sue Kay. We have found that the activities in this and other resource packs in the series work particularly well for Team English. All are communicative and most are appropriate for pairs and triads. The activity we chose was “Photo Album” from Unit 6 [see insert #3 box below ]. There are nine pictures resembling photographs, to be cut from the reproducible page. We made 24 copies of the page then cut the pictures out, placing each set of nine pictures in an envelope. Within the teams, each group received one set of pictures.

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