Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways to establish a positive learning environment in the classroom.
Behind every activity in the classroom is the question of behaviour. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to think about it, as your students are motivated to learn and behave accordingly. However, as the teaching of English as a foreign language moves beyond the smaller classes of private language schools into the larger classes of mainstream education, teachers know that student behaviour becomes a key aspect of every lesson and every activity. Mixed abilities, different learning preferences, intrinsic motivation, and varying attitudes towards learning become more important considerations for the teacher, and activities that would work in smaller classes don’t in larger ones.
In this series of blog posts, I will focus on establishing a positive learning environment, taking into consideration the nature of larger classes in a mainstream environment, where English may be seen as another subject like Maths or Science. In these circumstances, many students see success as a good grade on a test rather than the ability to communicate that is implicit in communicative language teaching (CLT).
I have always found that the best way to communicate with my students is to show them what I want rather than to tell them. So, in my larger classes, where motivation to communicate was low and the difference in competencies was very high, I focussed on the first ten minutes of class.
As students entered the classroom, I wrote on the board what I expected them to do. It was a simple exercise, maybe words we had learned the previous lesson with the letters scrambled. I might simply write the page number and exercise from their workbook.
My aim was for them to have something to do when they walked into the classroom. No more aimless talking until I told them to sit down and take out their books. No initial explanations that led to using L1 to get them seated and quiet. More importantly, students who were ready to work would have something to do and could simply get on with it. They didn’t need to wait for everyone else.
I didn’t need to repeat instructions. To those who had not yet started working, I simply looked at them and then looked at the board. The message was clear. Of course, some protested that I had not told them we had already started. I patiently ignored them, not falling into the trap of explaining what we already knew.
About a minute into the exercise, when I knew some students had the first answers, I would simply say, “Number 1. Does anyone have number 1?” Before any student said the answer there would be protests from some students who had not yet started, that I was rushing them, that this was not fair. I smiled and said, “Relax, I’m only asking for number 1.” A student would say the answer to number 1 and I would wait for them to continue the exercise.
It is important for teachers to set the pace of an exercise in their classrooms. Students quickly learn that the longer they take to do something the less material they will have to do in class; in essence, taking longer means less work. By asking for the answer to number 1, I am simply setting the pace of the activity for them. I am telling them they should have started the exercise, that they should already have the answer to number 1. If they don’t someone has just given it to them. All they have to do is to listen. I wait another few seconds and ask if anyone has the answer to number 2. Again, there will be protests, but fewer this time.
Beginning my classes in this way I have communicated some very important points to my students.
First, they all have something to do when they walk into the classroom. There is no need to wait for the teacher to repeatedly tell them to sit down, take out their books, and turn to a certain page to do a certain exercise.
Second, I can focus on the students who are working and not on those who are not. By asking for the answer, I allow students who have worked to participate more in class.
Equally important, I have taken away any reason for weaker students to hold up the class with excuses and poor working habits. The exercise is simple and clear. I usually begin with scrambled words on the board based on vocabulary we have been learning. I even write the page number on the board. In this way, they can use their books to find the words in order to write them correctly. In essence, the activity is based on effort, not on knowledge. Anyone who wants to do it can, no excuses.
Also important for today’s students whose attention span is getting shorter is that I have not had to explain the exercise. It is obvious what they are expected to do. If I need to, I can even ask a student who knows the answer to come up to the board and write the word, thus demonstrating to everyone what is expected. There is no need for lengthy explanations.
Finally, I have provided students a transition from using their first language when they came into the classroom to focussing on English. The exercise acts as revision of a previous lesson, helping theme to focus on the upcoming lesson.
My initial aim is for students to finish the exercise in 5 to 10 minutes. Eventually, I will want them to finish the exercise in less than 5 minutes so that I can go on to use the language of the exercise in order to work on their speaking skills. That will be the subject of my next post. Then, we will move on to the lesson itself.
As you try this in your classes, remember to make the exercise simple, clear, quick to complete, and quick to correct. Your aim is not only the language. Your aim, at this point, is also to have the class work better so that everyone can learn better.