Alex Case offers tips and suggestions for teaching (very) large classes.
For teachers, classroom problems can be many and varied (for example, classes where you spend the whole time stopping one student after another from misbehaving, spaces in which no one can hear your voice, summer days when the air conditioner breaks down, etc). However, they certainly all get worse when you have 40, 50 or more students in your class. So, is teaching large classes a bigger problem, or can some of the good things also get better the more students you have? Can you still use all the nice ideas on onestopenglish.com when you have 50, 60, or even 100 students?
Advantages and disadvantages of large classes
To see how negative or not you feel about classes with many students, look at the list below and, ideally, print it out. Write A for things that are advantages, D for disadvantages, or E for either advantages or disadvantages (depending on circumstances, etc) after each sentence. You might be surprised by how many As and Es there are!
- The space the teacher has is probably large.
- There is at least one student who has an experience of or an opinion on the topic you are covering.
- At least one student will be interested in what you do, and their enthusiasm should spread to others.
- The pressure on individual students is lower.
- There will be at least one good student you can elicit from/demonstrate activities with.
- There should be fewer personality clashes.
- If you do a vote or questionnaire, the larger numbers makes it more representative of the world outside.
- You can fill a big hall, gym or playground.
- You have enough people to perform a play, play sports, form an audience, etc.
- You can have big teams or many teams.
- If a critical number of students start laughing, clapping, etc, everyone will join in.
- The students can make a lot of noise.
- The teacher can’t hear most of the pairwork and groupwork.
- The students feel part of an anonymous mass.
- It is possible for students to ‘hide’ in the mass.
- There are many different opinions in the class.
- There are many different preferred learning styles.
- At least one person probably already knows what you are teaching.
- There is a big audience for the ‘class comedian’ student.
- Students can come in late, and so on, without distracting the whole class.
- The students don’t expect groupwork in large classes.
- Teaching large classes is generally an unpopular teaching assignment.
- The classes next door will be able to hear you having fun.
- Different teaching styles are needed to those of small classes.
- You can’t hear every individual student, e.g. during drilling.
- Student expectations of learning in a large class might be low.
- It is difficult or impossible to use photocopies.
- You might have to shout or use a microphone.
- It takes a long time to hand out worksheets, etc.
- Distractions like mobile phones going off are more likely.
- Students have shorter attention spans in large classes.
- There is lots of marking, or even so much marking that it’s impossible to mark all the written work.
- Things take longer, e.g. setting up activities, getting students’ attention, waiting for everyone to take notes, waiting for the slowest student.
- As the class gets bigger, the gap in ability between the best and worst student gets more extreme.
- The teacher can’t look everywhere at once.
For me, the first 11 points above are entirely positive (A), numbers 27–35 are negative (D), but the largest group is those that could be either (E). For example, noise might be bad when it distracts from written work, but is great when you are singing, chanting, shadow reading, etc. If the class comedian is playing up in English, it can be genuine and useful communication. The fact that students don’t expect groupwork in a large class could produce resistance or it could be a nice surprise for them. The fact that teaching large classes is unwanted could make you feel put upon by being given a larger class, but once you’ve learnt how to do it well you will be very much in demand.
Of course, all these can remain problems in the wrong circumstances, and we will deal with the disadvantages below. First of all, though, let’s look at the positives and how we can use them. If you’re not convinced that having lots of people can be an advantage, let’s look at some situations where you need a crowd and then look at using crowds in the classroom.
Situations where you need a crowd
- Spectators at a stadium
- Political rallies and demonstrations
- Religious ceremonies
- The theatre, e.g. pantomime, kabuki
- Concerts, e.g. the mosh pit
- Discos and raves
- A spiritualist (someone who speaks to the dead in front of an audience)
- A debate
- A lecture
- A (stand-up) comedy audience
- TV talk shows
- Group aerobics/Olympics opening cereremony
- A dance or aerobics class
- A symphony orchestra
- Dance and synchronised swimming routines
- A carol service and other sing-alongs
- A parade
- A sports day/marathon
- Playground games – tag, chase, British bulldog, etc
- Anything where you need a volunteer, e.g. a magic show
So, how is this relevant to teaching? Well, if we think about what it is people do in those situations and adapt them so that they have a language purpose, we should have something that is fun and suits the characteristics of large classes perfectly. To choose one of the most difficult, a symphony orchestra uses the sounds of many instruments to make a tune. You could do something similar by giving each student in the class one different word or sound from English and see if the class can make a sentence. Performing songs and plays, etc, is obviously much easier to adapt to a classroom, and it is also possible, useful and fun to have students asking a ‘TV panel’ questions, doing Mexican waves, shouting agreement, and so on, like people in other places above. Many of my top tips for using the natural advantages of large classes are adapted from tips for university lecturers dealing with anything up to 200 students.
Top tips for using the advantages of large classes
Use votes, polls, quizzes and questionnaires
In a small class, finding that two students like cats and two like dogs is not a lot of fun. In a large class, having students raise their hands, clap, cheer or shout their favourites out is just like a TV quiz show and lots of fun. Fun can even be added to grammar questions by taking the loudest shouted answer to a multiple-choice question as the class’s answer and playing ‘teacher against the whole class’. All these are also great ways of personalizing your classes.
As an extension of the ideas above, the teacher or students can make predictions about how many people in the class have more than 40 books (for example), and have a show of hands to check.
Use songs and chants
These are just so much more fun and students are less self-conscious when the class is bigger. Splitting the class into groups to sing different lines / words with different tones of voice, etc, is even more fun.
Use shadow reading
Similar to songs, reading out dialogues is louder and funnier when you have a crowd. It can turn into just noise though, so have students read along with the audio, turning the volume slowly down to nothing as the class continue speaking, and then turning it back up at the end of the dialogue. Award points for how in time with the audio they are.
Split the class into teams and groups
This is important in any class, but absolutely vital in a large class.
Use the whole teaching space
Reveal flashcards slowly at the back and sides of the classroom as well as the front. Organize rows of students for races across the classroom, as well from back to front. Divide the class into four sections for songs and stand in the middle of all the desks to ‘conduct’.
Most of the suggestions above are just standard teaching practice adapted to a large class situation. What about everything else you have got used to doing in your smaller classes? Is it still possible to get to know your students’ names, personalize, give everyone a chance to speak, analyse and cater for everyone’s preferred learning styles, make use of peer correction and correct the students’ pronunciation? The answer is usually yes, but it takes a bit more thought and effort than with small classes. Some of these are dealt with below.
Top ten tips for tackling the disadvantages of large classes
1. Use eye contact
Research has shown that students at the edges of a teacher’s field of vision – e.g. those at the edges, at the front and at the back – recall much less of the lesson than those in the centre. By moving all the way round the classroom, splitting the class into teams and focusing on them all equally, you can take this negative factor away.
2. Make sure the students get to move around, even if stuck behind desks
If you have the space for them to get up and run around, all the better – especially as running around in large numbers is the start of many great sports and games. Large classes often have less room to move around, but due to the shorter attention spans that they can have, a bit of movement to wake them up is even more important than in small classes. If they can’t move from their desks, just getting them to put their hands up, stand up and sit down, mime the vocabulary, shake hands with a partner, model the emotions of a dialogue with their faces, and so on, can help to keep them alert and show you how much they understand.
3. Use techniques for learning student names
If it seems impossible to learn 50 students’ names, I have reliable reports of lecturers learning more than 100. While it is not possible to learn them all at once, make sure you use the ones you do know. Mix with the class when they are doing things like getting stuff out of bags, chat with them and ask their names. Check the name of anyone who helps you, speaks out, acts as a volunteer, etc, and use their name when referring to what they said or did. Give back homework, for example, by calling out the names, and try to remember who it is before they arrive to collect it. Ask students to put name cards on their desks and use those names as often as you can, e.g. when arranging groups.
4. Use techniques for organizing groups quickly
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of large groups is how long everything takes. Make sure making groups is not one of them by thinking about and preparing how you are going to organize the groups. Before class, tape a piece of paper to the back of some of the students’ chairs. The people sitting in those chairs are then team captains and must get the right number of people in their group and organize what the group does. Alternatively, make them stand in a line by age, height, etc, as quickly as possible as a game, then split them into groups along the line.
5. Treat the students as individuals
This is easier said than done when you have 55 individuals, but learning some names is a start. Using questionnaires and surveys, for example, can also help, as can chatting to small groups and individuals as they are doing admin, getting into groups, etc. If you congratulate a few people individually for good work and offer help to a few of the real strugglers outside class time, news of this personal touch will soon spread goodwill in the class.
6. Use 100% of class time
This means starting straight away and keeping their attention until the very end. Have something for the students to do even before everyone is in the class, e.g. something in the class for the first students to search for or memorize on the board for the first game. Keep vital information for the last few seconds so they naturally want to listen, e.g. which team won or a little hint on what will be in the next test.
7. Vary between fixed routines (to save time and organization) and new ideas (to keep students on their toes)
Again, this is just a general teaching point for young learners that becomes even more important in large classes.
8. Give feedback all the time
When students know that you can’t hear all of them during team games and groupwork, they can soon lose interest in doing it properly. Make sure you still nominate winning teams, give the whole class a number of points, reward or punish the class with the amount of homework, etc, and make sure they know why you are doing any of these.
9. Pay attention and respond to the feedback from the class
Especially in a large class, there is little chance that a student will stand up and say that they don’t understand. You therefore have to find other ways to see what is going on in their heads. You can have a look through a few students’ notebooks as they are doing something else and try to monitor different groups with every activity. Most of all, though, you will have to rely on the biggest communicator of all – body language. This is a complex subject, but if you see things like crossed arms and students turning their bodies at an angle to the teacher they are ‘shouting’ protests and you may have to rethink. Signs of tiredness and lethargy could also mean you have to adjust the last point …
10. Keep the temperature cool and the lights bright
Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri, Dictation, Cambridge 1988
Natalie Hess, Teaching Large Multilevel Classes, Cambridge