What to consider when teaching English in large classes

By Jason Anderson

10 November 2016 - 08:05

How many students do you teach? Do you feel that your classes are too big? Author and education consultant Jason Anderson looks at the issues and offers some potential solutions.

For many of us, our classes are larger than we would like them to be. They can present a number of challenges that teachers of smaller classes are less likely to face. But what exactly do we mean by large classes? What challenges do they bring, and how can we develop our own solutions for teaching English in large classes (TELC)?

Definitions of a large class

What we label a ‘large class’ depends mostly on context and expectations. Teachers working in private language schools in Europe may expect classes of ten to 15; for them 20 is often seen as too large. Yet for many primary and secondary teachers around the world who teach 30 or 40 pupils, a class of 20 would be a welcome relief. Not surprisingly, therefore, different writers have different opinions about how large is large, although recent definitions range from about 30 to about 50 students.

In this article, we will take the midpoint between these two figures. It is generally recognised that classes of 40 or more ‘can pose a number of challenges for effective teaching and learning’.

Where teachers work in large classes today

Perhaps the two continents where teachers most commonly work in large classes are Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) and Asia (especially the Indian sub-continent and China). As a result, we often associate large classes with developing countries, where governments have often struggled to meet the millennium goals of 100 per cent school enrolment, and may not have the money or the time to build new schools or train teachers.

This is not a uniform picture. In many developing countries, there are also teachers working in smaller classes of fewer than 40 students, both in rural classrooms (e.g., Rwanda) or in towns and cities (e.g., in Bangladesh). Several countries in Africa today have average class sizes well below 40 students in both primary and secondary schools (e.g., Botswana).

Large classes are not unique to low-income countries. They can be found in almost any country in the world, from free English lessons for immigrants in the USA, to classes for children in refugee camps in the Middle East. And in most countries, students in university lectures can find themselves learning with many more than 40 classmates.

The challenges of working in large classes

We can divide the challenges into two general areas:

1. The challenges of Teaching Large Classes in general (TLC challenges)

2. The challenges specific to (English) language teaching in large classes (TELC challenges)

TLC challenges include the following:

1. Classroom management: This includes the general challenges of organising the learning and the learners. Giving instructions, maintaining control and discipline, and organising group work can all take more time and energy in a large class.

2. Whole-class teaching: This refers to when you are addressing the whole class together, for example when you are explaining a new concept, asking for answers to reading comprehension questions, or drilling new vocabulary. In a large class, it can be difficult to make sure that all learners can hear you, read your board work and feel involved.

3. Working with mixed abilities: We often find a wide range of abilities in large classes, from learners who learn quickly to those who need more help. This brings challenges, for example when one or two of the faster learners dominate group work, or get bored when we explain something they already know. Conversely, weaker learners may sometimes feel humiliated if they can’t answer a question, and sometimes misbehave out of frustration.

4. Exam time: Most teachers find preparing learners for exams, and conducting and marking the exams, hard work. But carrying out these tasks is even more work when classes are large – especially in terms of ensuring every student is ready, and marking all the exam papers.

5. (Often) limited resources: Because large classes are often found in low-income countries, many teachers of large classes also face this additional challenge. For example, they may not have enough textbooks, or other materials to make lessons more interesting.

While TLC challenges are shared with teachers of all subjects (including English language), TELC challenges relate specifically to teaching and learning languages. They can be divided into two groups:

1. Practising language skills: We all know that to learn a language, we need to use it. However, in large classes, it can be a real challenge just getting learners to speak English. Some may feel unwilling to talk together in a foreign language, others may need help deciding what to say, and once we get them started it can often be a challenge to manage the noise levels. Aside from speaking, we may also need lots more storybooks for reading practice and audio equipment (e.g., CD players, and extra speakers) to practise listening skills.

2. Providing feedback to learners: To improve and learn from their mistakes, language learners need feedback, and this becomes more challenging in large classes. The obvious example of this is marking written work, but we also need to give feedback on speaking skills (both praise and correction) and help each individual learner.

We can see that, of these seven challenges English teachers working in large classes face, five are likely to be shared with the other teachers in their school, so it makes a lot of sense to work together as a team towards possible solutions.

Working toward solutions to classroom problems

Because there has been so little research on teaching English in large classes, the next section of this article does not try to prescribe solutions. Instead, it offers ideas to help you work towards your own solutions for the particular problems you face. Large classes can pose very different challenges in different contexts.

In their webinar for the British Council on English teaching in difficult circumstances, Richard Smith and Amol Padwad show how we can turn challenges into questions. They give the following example:

Problem:  My students aren’t motivated to speak in English.

Question: What can I do to encourage my students to speak in English?

Once we have a question, we can begin a process of action research in our classrooms. By trying out different ideas and reflecting on how well they went, we can find solutions or ‘work-arounds’ (temporary ways of dealing with a problem). If we do this with our colleagues in a local context, it becomes a shared investigation that we can approach from different points of view to find solutions that are appropriate to our culture and practical in our classrooms.

By searching for our own solutions, we also become independent, critical practitioners, no longer dependent on ‘imported’ methodologies that may have been developed in other contexts. It is important that we do not limit ourselves only to ideas coming from ELT (English language teaching) in the UK or the USA, where classrooms are very different. As part of a community of teachers who teach large classes, we can take ideas from both present and past language-teaching approaches, and also ideas from mainstream teaching. We can look to our own culture and history, or even classes in other countries around the world, via the internet, where challenges may be similar.

Examples of possible solutions for teaching English in large classes

What follows are a few ideas from different fields that may help you teach English in large classes effectively. They are given as examples to inspire your creativity rather than offer definitive solutions. They include an approach, a strategy and an activity.

A local solution: activity-based learning

Activity-based learning (ABL) was first developed in large classes in India, where it continues to be used in some states today, making it a context-specific solution to the challenge of working with large classes. Within activity-based learning, each child learns at their own speed through units of a syllabus, completing specific activities and then a self-assessment task (supported by the teacher) at the end of each unit. The teacher may spend time each lesson working with individual students, or working with small groups while others are busy working on activities. Whole-class teaching is possible, but not central to the approach.

Activity-based learning has several advantages. It allows all learners in mixed-ability classes to study effectively and progress meaningfully. With training, learners can achieve impressive levels of autonomy, which reduces classroom management challenges for the teacher. They can work on skills practice independently (especially reading and writing to improve literacy skills), and even self-assess their own work, reducing the burden that the teacher faces in marking students’ work. The potential advantages are impressive, although ABL does require more resources than are typical in large classes, and becomes increasingly challenging as classes get bigger.

A strategy for whole-class teaching: think, pair, share

While learner-centred approaches  such as ABL have dominated attempts to improve learning in large classes over the last 30 years, we should also remember that carefully structured, teacher-fronted lessons can also be effective, both in mainstream education, and language teaching, where research into large classes emphasises the importance of students being ‘mentally engaged’.

One whole-class teaching strategy often used by effective mainstream teachers, but not so well known in ELT is called ‘think, pair, share’. It can be useful when checking comprehension of reading and listening texts, and also when checking understanding of new vocabulary or grammatical concepts. The teacher asks an important question, but rather than accepting the first answer (which often comes from a strong student), the teacher says ‘think, pair, share’. Students think silently for a few seconds, then they discuss answers to the question in pairs. The teacher then selects a student to share their answer with the whole class. This strategy allows more ‘wait time’, letting students think and then compare their ideas before responding. It can motivate weaker learners to answer, increase the likelihood of successful answers, and if students are encouraged to discuss in English, it can also afford useful speaking practice.

An activity for writing practice: back translation

Although translation activities were ignored in Western teaching methodology for much of the 20th century, they have often been used in large classes in many parts of the world. Today they are once more enjoying a revival in popularity in the West.

Many teachers of large classes often speak their learners’ first language. This means they can use translation not only for checking understanding, but also for language practice, writing and even speaking. However, for many teachers of large classes, given the importance of exams and writing skills, translation is perhaps most useful to help learners develop their writing skills without the need for correction from the teacher. This can be done using a technique called ‘back translation’ or ‘reverse translation’, which comes from translation studies. It has four stages. First, learners study the features of a model text in English. The text can be as short or as long as you like. Then, they translate it into the mother tongue. Then, the original English text is hidden, and learners must translate their mother tongue text back to English. Finally, they compare this text with the original English text and can note differences, self- or peer-correct errors and even award marks if criteria are simple and clear.

Further resources for teaching English in large classes

Hopefully, the examples given here have inspired you to search widely for ideas to help you teach your large classes effectively. By developing your own solutions, you are also developing your critical thinking skills and creativity, crucial resources for any teacher.

There are a number of useful publications and online resources to support teachers working in large classes. These include the invaluable TELC research network, maintained by the University of Warwick, which includes an updated bibliography and a Facebook group. For practical ideas, the British Council’s resource book, Maximising learning in large classes, is free to download. Teaching Large Multilevel Classes includes lots of ideas for activities that may work in your classes. Books written specifically for contexts where large classes are the norm include my own Teaching English in Africa and The English Language Teacher’s Handbook. For English teachers interested in the challenges of large-class teaching with teachers of other subjects, I have also adapted and made available a free resource booklet for action research in large classes, originally created for Malawian teachers of all subjects. For recent academic discussions of this topic, see relevant chapters in handbooks by Shamim & Kuchah and Shamim.

Several useful British Council webinars relevant to the topic of teaching large classes include: How to manage the correction of writing in large classesEnglish teaching in difficult circumstances; and Using multilingual approaches.

Teachers, sign up for Jason's webinar on teaching English in large classes, taking place on 19 November 2016.

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