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Too many to talk! Helping students interact in large classes

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As ELT teachers we aim to create purposeful communication in the classroom because for many of our students it is their only exposure to the language. Institutions may, for a variety of reasons, try to get as many students into a single classroom as possible, inevitably creating large class sizes. So how do we manage to give students in such a setting the opportunity to really interact orally in the target language (TL)?

How large is large?

Firstly, it is worth considering whether size actually matters:

“the size is relative and a matter of perception that varies from teacher to teacher.” (Shamin et al, 2007)

I went from a relatively small class size of 15 in the UK (feeling it was a large class when asked to teach 17/18), to teaching classes of 60-80 in rural Nepal, which felt truly daunting.

In order to do the teacher training required, I needed to experience and understand the difficulties of the teachers to try to help them find solutions. One such solution was to divide the class into units: 10 groups of 6 students were somehow easier to deal with mentally than 60 students. If you are going to break the class down in this way, you do not need to have them all doing the same thing at the same time.

It’s not only the what, but the how

Various studies have been carried out over the years on the effects of class size upon learning, but the conclusions are mixed. Interestingly, the disagreement is often over whether the main factor is the class size or methodology.

I would dare to suggest that the key is to adapt our methodology. If we use the same methodology that we would use with 15 students, with 60-80, then we’ll forever be fighting to keep all our students attention. The class takes on a controlling environment, for the teacher to be able to get the same message across to everyone at the same time.

When you change the methodology, you also change the role of the teacher. You may need some adjustment. I have found that it takes a lot more preparation, for example, for the different groups to be getting on with their task smoothly. Clear instructions that are written down (either on the board, a slide, or on a worksheet) allows students to double-check should they forget along the way, what it was that they were supposed to focus on. This frees up the teacher because students don’t need to keep checking with them, thus allowing some quality time to be spent with each, or a select group of students. The teacher gets regular snapshots of the students’ language abilities, as well as being able to add relevant input if required to keep students on the right track. The teacher, therefore, becomes a source of advice/suggestions and needs to think on their feet according to the task/the students in the group/the difficulties.

If the teacher knows their students well and has carefully planned the tasks around them, many of the issues can be anticipated. Which brings me on to a crucial question, how do we get to know our students if there are so many of them? I’ll be talking about this and more on encouraging oral interaction in particular in my upcoming webinar “Too many to talk!” on the 13th and 14th September! Places are limited to register today, and I’ll see you there.


Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses, presentations, spoken at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.


Reference:

Shamin. F., N. Negash, C. Chuku, N. Demewoz (2007) Maximizing learning in large classes: Issues and options. Addis Ababa, British Council.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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One thought on “Too many to talk! Helping students interact in large classes

  1. Here in Brazil, I have never had more than 22 student in class. I’m not sure if in the webinar you are going to give examples of some ways to give written direction to the students what to do. Time is precious in class and sometimes we spend too much time explaining the task to be done, but if the students do not know exactly what to do how are they going to accomplish their goal?

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