Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


3 Comments

Too many to talk! Helping students interact in large classes

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.


5 Comments

How to get students writing: an insight into writing

Young woman writingZarina Subhan-Brewer is a freelance teacher trainer and has been working in the field of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 20 years. Here she previews the upcoming webinar How to get students writing which takes place on Wednesday 18th June and Friday 20th June.

Do you see more and more people whip out their smartphones to take a note of something instead of a notebook and pen?

With the advent of technology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the act of writing is dying out. I don’t know about you, but I still like to scribble ideas down on paper. I think better with a pen in my hand, and even while using technology, that circumnavigates the need to write, I have a pen and paper to hand, or even a pen in my mouth!

In ELT, writing is a skill that tends to be developed later, once students become confident in listening, speaking and reading skills. This makes absolute pedagogical sense of course – immediate communication skills are strengthened in order to give students the ability to react and respond in real time to each other. These skills also lend themselves well to more fun-filled activities in the classroom, which can keep the learner engaged and motivated. As language teachers, however, we are also obliged to facilitate the learning of writing skills.

Writing in English is no longer simply something students have to demonstrate in order to pass exams. It is a skill which affects employment opportunities and is actually put to practical use in the global village we now occupy. It is a skill that can open many doors and can be the deciding factor between one person being promoted and the next. Therefore we need to ensure that even though writing may be a skill that is taught and developed last of all of the four skills, it is not one that is ‘half-heartedly’ taught.

So how can we get our students to spend time on writing activities that can make lessons less fun and more ‘serious’? In the webinar How to get students writing, we’re going to look at what constitutes writing, the difficulties students have with writing and the subsequent problems that arise for teachers and what can be done to overcome them.


11 Comments

My students say the absolute minimum

Solutions Speaking ChallengeZarina Subhan, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, tackles the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: “My students say the absolute minimum”.

I find myself in the classroom in an unfamiliar position. It’s not the fact that I’ve given up teaching that makes this a new experience for me. It is the fact that I’m a student again. I’m learning Spanish and am sitting behind the desk, no longer the decision-maker who tells the learners what to do, but the student awaiting instructions and wondering if I understood them.

I’m rediscovering how uncertain, vulnerable and anxious it can feel to be a language student. Most of the reading, writing, listening, speaking and (most importantly) thinking in the target language (TL) happens in the classroom. I know I am there to improve my language; my motivation as an adult learner is high, yet I have to admit I could speak more in Spanish. So why don’t I?

The PPP Model

When you think you’ve grasped the structure of the language that has been presented, it is quite demoralising when you ‘practise’ it and get it all confused, or if you get the grammar focus right you somehow lose all previously-learned knowledge of the language.

When it is my turn to speak I keep babbling on about whatever it is that I’m attempting to say. The natural thing for the teacher to do is to correct me. However, as soon as s/he corrects me it interrupts me. I’m trying so hard to concentrate on what I have to say that this correction stops my thinking, when I need every single brain cell to be able to speak. It has taken me a great deal of focused thinking, recalling, structuring and motivation to construct and actually produce that language. Instead of feeling pleased about having actually communicated in the TL, I focus on what I failed to say correctly.

So, what if I could write a letter advising my teacher what would I say?

Letter to my teacher

Dear Teacher,

  1. Please wait until I’ve completed what it is I want to say, then focus on the idea I communicated and show me you’ve understood.
    That would really give me a feeling of success rather than failure. If at the end you could praise me and only correct me in terms of the structure/language/topic that is the focus for the lesson, it would help me turn your extrinsic motivation into my intrinsic motivation, and help me feel better about opening my mouth again in future.
  2. Could you also not insist on us taking turns one after the other to speak?
    I stop listening to my classmates until it’s just before my turn, when I tune back into the lesson. Perhaps if you asked for volunteers – the ones who actually have something interesting/fun to say – it would be more interesting for the rest of us and it wouldn’t be as painful as ALL of us reading out our boring, unimaginative offerings.
  3. If you gave us more than 2 seconds to come up with a response to your questions it would give me more thinking time.
    Please count to 10, or say the same thing a slightly different way. Whatever you do, don’t translate it, don’t ask several questions all at once, and don’t give us the answer before anyone has attempted to offer a response! Instead try writing up the key words of your question, show me a visual cue, and remind me when I last used this word/phrase. This all boosts my confidence and gives me more time to figure out my response rather than spending half my thinking time trying to be sure I’ve understood you correctly.
  4. I’ve noticed that when we have a laugh, I can forget about my anxiety and about being wrong/not being understood.
    So how about if we have points/smiley stickers/competitive games between teams – so that every time we give you a response in the TL we gain an advantage for our team? It may seem childish to you, but actually my wish to win/gain points/stickers overcomes the anxiety I sometimes feel and motivates me to speak.
  5. Talking of anxiety, not everyone likes speaking in front of the whole class.
    If you moved around the class and came to individual groups/pairs, we would feel happier speaking to each other with you listening in. Then you can correct us individually in a more intimate situation and not with everyone listening.

My lack of speaking is nothing personal. My lack of speaking is simply because I don’t like looking a fool in front of others. So I’d really appreciate it if you could eliminate the thinking that making mistakes is foolish and encourage the attitude that having a go is courageous. I think, then, I would be a better speaker in your classes.