Teaching English in Large Classrooms: Issues and Strategies
* Binod Singh Dhami
English teachers face many problems while teaching in large classes. They often have problems of student involvement, classroom management, and material preparation and so on. The phrase ‘large class’ is relative term because the large class differs from place to place or context to context. In some contexts or countries, large class may contain 50 to 100 students or more and in other contexts, the large class may contain 40 or less students but this may not be the case in all the contexts. If the teacher cannot manage the teaching and learning activities, materials properly, he/she may have to face many challenges to achieve the goals of teaching. I, therefore, in this paper discuss the issues and strategies of teaching in large classes which, in some extent may help English teachers prepare their plan and materials.
Setting the Scene
To set the scene, I present a case of the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) trainee who took TESOL certificate course under my guidance in Kathmandu center, Nepal.
I teach in secondary level, where students are 13- 18 years old. I have 50 students in my class. I always want the class to have been silent when I teach but I find my students doing opposite than I expect them to do. When I start teaching, I explain the content from the prescribed book clearly. Though I explain and illustrate everything clearly, students do not pay an attention and have side talk with their friends. I do not find them active and responsive in the class that makes me upset. I finish my class and come out from the class and think about my teaching activities, methods, students’ work and their participation during the class. I do not find my activities have been effective for the students. I have them read the lessons and do the activities given in their textbooks also support if they commit mistakes. I cannot go to each and every student because I am given 45 minutes for a class. If I go to each student and diagnose individually, I will not be able to conduct a single activity in the class because I have 50 students and am given 45 minutes to teach. I have attended some teachers’ trainings in which facilitators of the training keep saying; individual attention, facilitation, individual monitoring are very essential elements that teachers have to keep in mind while teaching the students. It means teachers have to give individual attention, facilitation, and monitoring to the students which is impossible in my case. I am reading some of the books on handling large multilevel classes. I hope I will get some of the techniques to handle the class. I (as a trainer) stopped him in the middle and asked, “What are the activities that you mainly conduct in the classroom?” in response to this question he says, I generally explain the content given in the book. This response reveals that he usually uses lecture method in the class.
As this anecdote explains, there are many English teachers around the world, who are facing similar problems in large classes. Most of the teachers face the problems because they cannot develop the activities and tasks so that students can get involved in the activities and tasks in the class. Language teacher should be creative so that he /she can create the materials for the class. In above mentioned anecdote, a teacher seems to use lecture method throughout the lesson which is not very much appropriate for the students of 13 to 18 year age. He could apply different other techniques so that students can take responsibility of their learning. There are different types of students in the class. They do not learn in the same way. Students come with varied intelligences and one cannot claim that a single method applied by a teacher is suitable and appropriate for all the students in the class. The next case that can be studied from the anecdote is, the teacher does not seem to motivate the students before he starts the lesson. The motivation plays a vital role in teaching and learning process.
In a teacher’s mind, motivated students are usually those who participate actively in class, express interest in the subject matter, and study a great deal (Lightbown & Spada, 2011). There is a saying ‘well begin is half done.’ To motivate the students the teacher can conduct different short activities of his or her choice. They energize and make the students ready for the lesson and they make the class well begin. The lecture method allows TTT (Teacher Talking Time) more and STT (Student Talking Time) less in the class. In language class, students should get chance to speak not the teacher. The teacher provides the clear instructions for the activity and the task and it is the students who talk and get involved in different activities themselves. In this respect, Harmer (2008) says, “The classes are sometimes criticized because there is too much TTT and not enough STT. Overuse of TTT is inappropriate because the more a teacher talks, the less chance there is for the students to practice their own speaking. If a teacher talks and talks, the students will have less time for other things, too, such as reading and writing. For these reasons, a good teacher maximizes STT and minimizes TTT.” The teacher designs the materials for the tasks and the activity. Though lecture method has become useful for graduate and post-graduate students, it is not very useful for adolescent and adult learners. It is very important to make students take responsibility of the learning that is possible if teachers mention the goals of learning a particular content/aspect of language.
According to Ur (2010), what a large class is will vary from place to place. In some private schools a group of twenty students may be considered large. She further says, in my own situation, 40-50; in some places numbers go up to the hundreds. Coleman (1989) cited in Shamim et. al. (2007) concludes that, teachers share no universal conception of the size of the ideal, large and small classes. Similarly, Shamim et. al. (2007) say “Large is a relative word and large classes have been variously defined by practitioners from different teaching-learning contexts. A large class in western context such as the US or the UK may be considered small by both teachers and learners in most teaching learning contexts in Africa. A large can vary from 22 in US elementary school to up to 150 in an African classroom. They further note that teachers’ perception of large class size varies from country to country and at different levels and educational contexts within the same country”(pp. 11-12). The large class size differs from place to place; therefore, it is relative term. The exact number of the students does not matter. What really matters is how the teacher sees the class size in his/her own specific context.
Issues in Large Classes
A class cannot be homogeneous. This indicates that the students in a class are different from one another. They are different in the sense that, they learn differently, they are from different socio-economic background, they have different learning strategies, some of them are slow learners and others are fast and so on. These differences make the class multilevel which is one of the problems in large class. A heterogeneous class is one that has different kinds of learners in it, as opposed to a homogeneous class, where the learners are similar. Most of the teachers understand the terms mixed-ability and heterogeneity of the class in the same way but they are not the same. Ur (2010) mentions, “What most of the teachers understand by mixed-ability in practice is classes of learners among whom there are marked differences in level of performance in the foreign language. However, the term ‘ability’ includes not just the immediate observable ability to perform of the learners, but also their potential learning ability. Learners’ present proficiency may have been influenced by various other factors such as different previous opportunities for learning, better or worst previous teaching, higher or lower motivation.”
Therefore, the term mixed-ability does not cover all aspects of heterogeneity as applied to a class of language learners. Learners are different from one another that affect how they learn and need to be taught.
Problems with Large Classes in Nepali Classroom
While it is hard to draw definitive conclusions about student achievement based on class size alone, since other variables such as the quality of teachers, students’ degree of motivation and the role of the parents may come into play. I asked twenty English teachers in Kathmandu district, who taught in secondary level (9-10). I asked a question. The question was about the problems/difficulties that they face while teaching in their classes. According to the teachers, the large classes yield the following common difficulties:
- One of the main difficulties that a teacher experience while teaching a large class is the tremendous effort that she or he will have to make. With an outnumbered class there is always something to be done.
- With a large class, it is difficult to get a satisfactory knowledge of student’s needs. Intimacy with students and remembering names is a problem.
- As a consequence of the large number of students, the noise level is inevitably high which adds stress in the teachers.
- Organizing, planning and presenting lessons constitute another challenge for teachers in such classes as students abilities differ considerably.
- There is another difficulty related to the learning process. In fact, engaging learners actively in the learning process is not easy in a crowded class.
- It is hard to imagine how a large class would benefit from school resources such as computers, books, references…
- With a crowded classroom, teachers might find it difficulties to measure effectiveness.
- The large classes give reluctant students a place to hide.
Useful Strategies in Large Classes
It is undoubtedly very difficult for a teacher to deal with large classes. Anything done to remedy the problem would be fruitless unless students are really motivated to learn. Nevertheless, the following tips may be useful to deal with the problems mentioned in previous section in large classes.
- First, it would be a great idea to train students to work in small groups of five to seven students. In addition, when working in groups, it would be beneficial for students to sit around in a circle so that everyone could have a chance to participate.
- Groups should include fewer members to avoid any of the students coasting. It is important to find active roles for students to avoid them being lazy.
- Pair work may be also a good alternative to practice conversations, exercises and other language activities.
- Pairing weaker students with stronger ones might be an option unless you fear the weaker students feel intimidated.
- Seating arrangement should be taken into consideration the large number of students is a good idea. Finding out the right arrangement is up to the teachers’ creativity and classroom size. Anyway, desk placements should make cooperative work easier.
- To reduce stress and noise level, set simple rules for class management.
Teacher can maintain simple rules of acceptable behavior for everybody to observe when working in groups, in pairs or individually. Teachers in large classes may also want to delegate some of the work to more able students. These can play the role of teachers’ assistants.
- Another measure that might be effective for some teachers is to split the class into slow learners and fast learners. This would make it possible for the teacher to concentrate on the slow learners. However, this should be done with a lot of caution so as not to affect slower students’ self-esteem.
- Why not use technology? Technology ensures that everyone has time to connect with the teacher. For instance, teachers may plan to do the following:
A large class will be better off with a blog or a wiki where students and the teacher could meet at home.
2. Using students’ emails would make it easier for teachers to connect with students off class.
It is true that teaching a large class is challenging as it is pedagogically unacceptable and psychologically irrelevant. These classes involve, most of the times, mixed abilities, language levels, motivation, needs, interests, and goals. Nevertheless, teaching and managing such classes is possible if steps such as those described above are taken.
According to Ur (2010) some of the strategies that can be used in large classes are as follows:
-Vary Your Topics, Methods, and Texts.
-Make Activities Interesting
-Use Compulsory Plus Optional Instructions
-Use Open-Ended Cues
Besides above mentioned techniques, classroom management techniques, creativity of a teacher, and good lesson planning play a vital role in large multilevel classes. How to manage the class depends on the teacher. The grouping strategies are very effective management tools in multilevel classrooms. If teacher can group the students in an effective way, s/he should not be always there with the students. Students can assist each other. The students can be assigned pair work (two students work together), group work (three to ten students work together), whole-class work (whole class participates in the activity), team work (different teams of the students work in the task or activity and compete with other teams). After assigning the group, pair, team or whole class work, teacher’s role is a most. S/he monitors, facilitates, and helps the students. Valentic (2005) explains that “In a multilevel class we can establish work climate which encourages students to help one another. Better students will help their peers, and shy students will ask for help. Peer teaching can develop a climate of cooperation”(p. 2). Students can be paired and grouped as either like-ability or cross-ability. Like-ability is where students of the same proficiency level work together. The benefit of like-ability matching is that similar needs of the students can be addressed. Cross-ability is where students of different proficiency levels work together. The benefit of cross-ability matching is that the higher-level students can help the lower- level students.
Under the heading, multilevel instructional strategies, Roberts (2007) points out the following teaching strategies that can be used in multilevel classes.
-Begin the Lesson with the Whole Class Together
-Assign Leveled Tasks Using a Variety of Groupings
-End the Lesson with the Whole Class Together:
Moreover, it is important to consider learners’ various ability levels while planning your lesson and to adapt the activities to appropriate level of difficulty. The best way to approach this is to use the same basic material as a source and adapt the related activities to several levels so that each student is doing an assignment appropriate to his or her level. This practice is known as differentiated instruction (Shank &Terrill, 1995). Increasing student involvement, the large classes can be handled. Engagement of the students in the class is fundamental to the teaching learning process. According to Shamim et. al. (2007), students can get engaged in class by involving them in decision-making, enlarging the action zone, improving question-answer technique, and using pair and group work (p.24). In most of the classes teachers are the decision making of teaching and learning process. They do not involve the students and students do not even know what they are going to learn in particular class and how they are going to learn. If students are involved in teaching and learning decision making, they feel responsibility of their learning. Next strategy of increasing students’ involvement in class is to enlarge the action zone. In whole class teaching, the front of the class where the two major resources, the teacher and the blackboard, are located becomes the action zone for the students. In this zone the teacher can see the students clearly and tends to interact frequently with the selected students in the front seats. As s result some students, those who are highly motivated, prefer to sit in the front of the class. Some students prefer to sit in the back rows to be away from the direct gaze or monitoring of the teacher. In this situation, students in the middle and back rows are in danger of being out of the action zone. This may be because they cannot hear the teacher well or see the blackboard clearly. To enlarge the action zone, the teacher has to apply student-centered method of teaching and use less lecture method, get students to change their seats so that all students have a chance to sit in the action zone, move around the class or each row and conduct whole class activities from different places (front, back, middle of the class). By improving question-answer techniques a teacher can increase student involvement. Asking question allows students to clarify uncertainty and also indicates the extent to which they are able to use new knowledge and ideas. Similarly, when students respond to the question, they need to recall a new fact and concept. As students respond to question students get feedback on their own learning and then the teacher gets feedback on students’ understanding. Using pair work and group work, student involvement can be increased in large classes. They are invaluable for increasing student involvement in large classes but to be effective they must be well-planned and carefully managed.
Group works seem to have very effective strategies to teach in large multilevel classes. How to instruct and assign the tasks and activities to the students is also very important. Shank &Terrill (1995) point out that, having the learners work as a whole class will be useful for warm ups, wrap-ups, and large projects. It is also an effective strategy to present new material to entire class before breaking them into smaller groups to follow-on assignments. Small groups may be the most useful configuration in working with mixed-ability classes. Similarly, having pairs of learners work together is advantageous in that it gives each learner the maximum opportunity to practice using his or her English in a communicative way.
Teaching large classes is one of the challenges for English teachers. But the challenge can be transformed into advantage if the teacher is creative, planned, and hard-working. The main problem in large classes occurs because of weak planning or no planning. The creative teacher has an ability to develop methods and techniques out of methods and techniques. This means the methods and techniques that we (teachers) find from different books, the internet, journals and other resource, may not be useful as they are for a particular context (classroom). The creative teachers do not adopt them but adapt. Here adapt refers to make necessary changes and use. The method or technique that best works in one part of the world may not equally work in another part of the world. The weak planning refers to the development of teaching techniques and materials without considering the learners’ level, interests, and needs. If teacher plans a lesson with lots of varied activities according to students’ level in which they can get involved by their own, he/she can effectively teach large multilevel classes. Similarly, group work, pair work, whole class work, team work as well as collaborative work are very important in large multilevel classes. Assigning team work to the class, a teacher can create community of learning which again helps develop collaboration among learners. They are of different levels i. e., below level, at level and above level. Below level learners are struggling to understand the classroom instructions and are at risk. At risk in the sense that they might lose their confidence because they have to ask the colleagues to understand what is teacher saying. They think that they do not know anything which humiliates them. Feeling of humiliation in the students is not good sign of learning. They need extra time to complete work along with support. And at level students seem to be progressing and doing well. Similarly, above level students are proficient than at level students. They follow classroom activities quickly. They can also be at risk because they get frustrated with the teacher for not getting challenging tasks. Therefore, it is an important task for teacher to do contextual planning. Reflective practice helps teachers grow professionally. Planning shows professionalism and that is the result of hard-working.
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Lightbown, M. P. & Spada, N. (2011). How languages are learned. China: OUP.
Roberts, M. (2007). Teaching in the multilevel classroom. New York: Pearson Education.
Shamim, F., Negash, N., Chuku, C. & Demewoz, N. (2007). Maximizing learning in large classes. British Council, Ethiopia: Master Printing Press.
Shank, C. C. & Terrill, L. R. (1995). Teaching multilevel adults ESL classes. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. Retrieved from http://www.ericdigests.org/1996-1/adult.htm
Ur, P. (2010). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Valentic, D. (2005). ELT in multilevel classes. Hupe Newsletter, 23.
(Binod Singh Dhami is an M. Phil. scholar at Kathmandu University, Nepal. He is also a faculty member at Gramin Adrash Multiple Campus, Kathmandu, Nepal where he facilitates applied linguistics in M. Ed. second year. Being a TESOL trainer, he facilitates TESOL certification in Nepal. Besides, he is a text book writer. He has co-authored English language teaching methods and English for communication, the courses designed for B. Ed. second year.)