Strategies for large classes – Chiew Pang

Managing the large classroom

First of all, how large is a large classroom? 30 students? 50? 3,269? It’s all somewhat relative, isn’t it? For someone who’s used to a 100-student classroom, having 30 students will have him gleaming with joy! So, the real difficulty may not be the number itself but rather the consequences of having such numbers.

One of the most nagging complaints you hear from teachers is the number of students in their classroom. But, what is the real problem? Not enough air? Not enough chairs? Unlikely. Too noisy? Too impersonal? Perhaps.

The most common practice in the large classroom is, undoubtedly, group work. Set a task and the groups get to work while the teacher moves around, monitoring. Any emergent language issues can be dealt with the whole classroom later. To avoid valuable class time in forming into groups, pre-arrange them. Set a fortnightly or monthly group list and ensure that everyone knows to which group they belong. Stick it up on the classroom wall.

There are various criteria you can follow for forming groups and they all have their own advantages and disadvantages. You can form groups of similar levels so they can work at the same pace, or you can mix stronger and weaker students together so that the former can help the latter.

An extension of group work is to set up work stations where each station caters for specific skills and tasks. Students decide on the stations they wish to work on and when they complete the task, they move on to another on a different station.

If you are fortunate enough to have a computer lab, this is a great environment to use for large classes, too. I like setups, such as a horseshoe formation, where the teacher can see at a glance what the students are doing and can dart in and out to help and direct whoever needs it. I have created interactive quizzes, games, etc, on my personal blog, which I have used to great effect in the past. I’ve created activities where I can receive the results of the students’ attempts so I can check their progress. Have several links pre-prepared, or you can use a Google Doc and put the links there. Students do the tasks at their own pace, and repeat as many times as necessary.

Discipline is often an issue in big classes. Set up rules from the first day and abide by them. Better still, have the students themselves decide on the rules! They’re more likely to follow them. Elect a few “assistants” to help you with management. Know the school rules regarding disciplinary action. Know what you’re allowed or not allowed to do. Can you reflect good/bad behaviour in the grades, for example?

Noise is often an important issue in these classes. How do you get the students’ attention? Shouting isn’t the solution, nor is banging the table. Perhaps you’d need a microphone if your class is that big! Perhaps a whistle – I have been told that the sound of whistles affects teenagers more than adults. Have a sign – again, establish this in the first class – for example, raising of the arm (or the sign of the llama) means that the whole class has to repeat the sign themselves and become silent.  You wait for silence to be restored before putting your arm down and speaking again.

(I’d like to thank @michaelegriffin, @phil3wade, @Roselink, @kevchanwow and @cherrymp for their contribution to my crowd-sourcing document. – Chiew )

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Chiew Pang currently works for Atribord Associates, a company specialising in training business & professional people to communicate more efficiently in a language that is not their own. He’s based in The Canary Islands. The Internet has opened up a world of infinite possibilities, and this motivates him tremendously, instigating his continual search for new ways of bringing fun into education. He believes one learns more when one’s having fun! Chiew's blog: A cLiL to cLiMB Chiew's Twitter: @ClilToClimb

28 thoughts on “Strategies for large classes – Chiew Pang”

  1. Chiew, thank you very much indeed for your thorough coverage of the topic! You touched upon the most important aspects of working with large groups ranging from classroom setting and management to using computer labs and discipline and noise – all the problems that always accompany teaching not only large groups but quite everage ones as well.

    Personally, I’ve never taught classes larger than 14 students which is a rather big number for me. But I should admit that all the tips you’ve given are fully applicable to groups like this especially if it’s a long-term course.

    Thank you once again!

  2. Dear Chiew Pang!

    Thank you for such a good post. You suggest many helpful strategies for the large classes, but what about the discipline in the small classes? Generally, it seems that the big classes are somehow more problematic than the small classes and when the case is “discipline”, surely, the first stop on which you are going to get off is the first one, namely the big classes. So far, I’ve read many articles about this issue and still not encounter the opposite of that issue. Why? Maybe, because of that: “The bigger you have …, the bigger you have ..” This is just my opinion and curiosity! Thanks…

    1. Hello Hulya,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right, of course, that you can have discipline problems in classes of any size. The same tactics I mentioned in the post apply. Discipline is very much tied up with motivation, and I believe motivation is one of our future topics, so stay tuned for that!

      To be able to motivate students, we have to be motivated ourselves and, with any luck, it will rub off on the students! It’s important to know what they want and what they need. Setting goals not too far from their reach is important. As most classes are of mixed level, we can use technology or the idea of work stations to help us with defining different goals for different students.

      What about yourself? Have you got any experience or advice to share with us as regards to discipline in the classroom, be it small or big?


      1. All right, first let me tell about myself a bit :) For six months, I work as a Comenius Assistant in the Southern Italy, in fact this is not a simple assistantship, because I’m wholly involved in teaching English to the Italian students at the secondary school and have 19 different classes comprising of at least 25 students at various levels- mostly elementary- in English.

        Generally, there is a discipline problem substantially at the school, but in my opinion, the big problem is that the greater part of the students do not have any interest in the school, lessons including English and even the worst they’ve no dream, no goal and no idea about their future! When I ask them the common but significant Q, “what do you want to do in the future?”, almost 80% say “I do not know or nothing”. Some prefer to do jobs like grocer, greengrocer, mechanic, hairdresser, horse rider, farmer, etc..because as far as I observe, most of their parents deal with these kinds of jobs and evidently the social, financial and cultural cases affect their opinion too much. However, surely, the case is not about their choice of jobs, but their attitudes towards their own future and so far, I do not consider any children having no dreams in the life. This is my first experience as a teacher, but I’m highly motivated to teach sth to my students though they are not so interested.

        Into my lesson, I insert some fun with some games via visual/audio materials as well as other teaching objectives, and use technology as possible as I can under the limited condition. Furthermore, I try to make cooperation with the other teachers, for example, teaching a song in company with the instruments provided by the music teacher.

        I do not know how much they learn English so far, but I learn much from them, such as Italian language. Although I’ve not so advanced level of Italian, I do not encounter any problems related to that. Lastly, I would like to say, I’m so contented with working here and having such students in my life and really, I’d like to learn what they want! Maybe, I need some more advice rather than giving an advice. That’s not all, but I’ve just summarized the case.

        Thank you for the question which is a good opportunity for me to share my experience with you and the other teachers.
        Looking forward to your next post now! (I’m also one of your twitter followers)

        1. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Hulya. It may be a good idea to use your Twitter handle together with your name, e.g. Hulya @HulyaAvci.

          It is quite a common problem with a lot of students in a lot of schools here in Spain, too. There isn’t an easy solution; we’ll just have to keep on trying. We have to remain motivated and have to try to motivate them, much in the way as I said in my reply to Kevin below.

          I like to get close to the students, to try to win their trust, for them to reveal their problems, their aspirations… In this sense, it’s easier for you, being a woman. When male teachers get too close to students, there is always a greater risk of misunderstanding.

          Once again, thanks for sharing, and hang on in there!

  3. Hi Chiew

    Wanted to say thank you for the great post and introducing me to using Google docs as a crowd-sourcing tool. And to roll form there, I think Google Docs, Twitter, and a host of applications are really useful for large classes. If you are lucky enough to work at a school that allows smart-phone use in class, or if class is held in a computer room, assigning a communicative task and letting the students complete it via a proper hashtag on twitter can not only keep the noise level down, it can also help the shyer students participate in tasks that might be a little too much for them other wise.

    And this is not for the faint of heart, but if you really trust your students to stay on task, and you have a projector, you can hashtag your class and project it up on part of the white board. Students can then tweet comments or questions they have in real time as the class is moving along. This can make for a much more interactive feeling class, but it also allows the teacher to address student questions without breaking the class rhythm. And the giddy feeling of not knowing what might pop-up on the Twitter feed is bound to keep even the largest class paying attention.


    1. Thanks for the visit and for participating in the crowd-sourcing, Kevin. I like the idea of using smart phones, Twitter, etc. I favour getting closer to the students, knowing who they are, what makes them tick. Using what matters to them as class materials motivates them, but, sometimes (or is it all the time?) society (or the people who make the rules) are a few steps behind, if you know what I mean.

  4. Congratulations! You’ve somehow managed to summarize all the possible scenarios at classroom level. My experience tells me that you are right.

    This is a really important issue especially when/if teaching in the public system. As teachers we must (and most of us want to and try really hard) to ensure that all students reach their full individual, social, intellectual, cultural and emotional potential. That is a truly ambitious educational goal, a challenge we face everyday dealing with mixed ability classes. Because we (proudly) work in the public sector we must guarantee equal opportunities and offer the necessary support to the students, adapting our teaching practice to their needs, whether special or not and capacities, great or poor too.

    Fortunately, over the last few years the Spanish governments, regional and national, have given priority to the study of English and have taken a number of measures to bring forward the teaching of the first foreign language such as the progressive doubling of groups.
    Split sessions undoubtedly help us provide an educational response to the diversity of the student body and the increased number of EFL classrooms with 15 (stmes more) Internet connected computers. On the part of educational authorities homework’s done and costly investment involved with the provision of technological equipment to digitalize schools, (specialized language classrooms, wiring of the school, etc, so now the ball is in EFL teachers’ court.

    What strategies using technology appeal to students in English classes? That’s another story to be dealt with some other day.

    Thanks for sharing here my little contribution, it’s been a pleasure.

    PS: I’ve got a few blogs and wikis running but which one to choose? I’m not an ICT teacher, just a self taught blogger. I’m also a proud member and supporter of EFL classroom since 2005.
    I’ve also got a few nicks around the web, a proof that I’m a woman of great personality

    Warm greetings from Madrid.


    1. Thank you, Rose, for participating in both the crowd-sourcing document and the ongoing discussion here. The introduction of split sessions can only be applauded, but are they being taken advantage of? Of course, it’s easier for all 15 students to participate in any given task, especially when oral activities are involved, than all 30 students, but are they given the chance? What do the split-class teachers do? The same coursebook-based teaching x 2 or do they try innovative ideas? Do they encourage all students to participate actively?

      I remember my stint at a few secondary schools, and the computer lab was hardly ever used by any of the English language teachers but me. Interactive homework, painstakingly designed by myself, was often not done unless their teacher insisted that they would be graded.

      What I’m trying to say is that, sure, reducing classroom size is phenomenal, but equally important, if not more so, is teacher training, and this doesn’t necessarily mean costly hours and hours of courses. What we need is more motivated teachers, such as yourself, teachers who realise the importance of personal and professional development and not be content to remain in their “job-for-life” comfort zone, teachers who realise that there are other teachers like themselves in all corners of the globe, teachers who are aware of the value of being involved in the world of PLN and who are willing to dedicate time of their own to learning what others have to offer.

      What is your opinion regarding this, Rosa? What are your colleagues like? Do they strive to keep up to date with what’s happening in other parts of the world?

      1. Thank you for being so inquisitive! You’re a true researcher. To be honest, teaching anything has become a real pain in Spain. In the name of the crisis public education has suffered cuts on staff, training courses. In short, we have to work more & longer hours in worse conditions for less money. Our salary has been cut twice over the past two years. You can imagine the picture.
        I’m going to try to be brief and answer all your questions.

        – Are split sessions being taken advantage of? Yes, definitely. This school year most primary and secondary schools have native assistant teachers in charge of developing oral practice, role plays, presentations, small talk. So, sometimes we split and other times we just stay both adults together to make sts work in groups or in pairs. It depends on the group and the level.

        – Are sts given the chance to participate in oral tasks? Not only are they given the chance, they have to participate because the oral tasks count for 30% of the final mark awarded in some groups, 20% for secondary students.

        – What do the split-class teachers do? The same coursebook-based teaching x 2 or do they try innovative ideas? Do they encourage all students to participate actively?

        We try to program in advance the type of oral tasks for the split sessions. Usually, they are devoted to the type of oral activities in the book or if too boring one of our own. In some occasions the assistants prepare engaging activities too. We do encourage all sts to participate actively, at the beginning of the school year is not easy, they feel uncomfortable but that part of our job, tell sts that mistakes are part of the learning process.
        To spice my classes I frequently use classroom, among many other strategies, webtools such as countdown timers and random name pickers from, instant classroom at especially with secondary students, 14-17 year-olds.

        I have come to adopt an eclectic approach over the years. At first because I didn’t know what type of activities would work well for my students, now because I know there’s no magical formula for making sts learn the different skills. I always try to adopt the most attractive and engaging approach to make students enjoy learning, and that is always dependent on the group, young adults, teenagers.. Besides, not holding a permanent position in a particular school I have to work in a different one each year. That means having to face completely different groups, levels, textbooks (if any) in secondary schools or vocational training schools or both together.

        – What are my colleagues like? Are they aware of the benefits of being involved in a PLN? Do they strive to keep up to date with what’s happening in other parts of the world?

        There are EFL Spanish teachers out there, but not many. In general terms, most times, just as Shelley Terrell writes here , I come across “teachers who don’t twitter and have never used a blog or a wiki in class. They don’t visit nor follow blogs regularly, have never joined a ning and will not join Twitter”.

        To say in Ken Wilson’s words:
        “For teachers who spend time there, blog-tweet world is like King Solomon’s Mines, full of riches and constantly replenished with new ideas and links. But most teachers don’t live there. This is sad perhaps, but it’s the truth.”


          1. I wish you could apply, or someone like you (Adele’s). See if you can apply

            There are two different ways to become an assisstant teacher:
            1. through the Spanish Ministry of Education
            2. through the regional ministry of education
            Though apparently the same, they are not. As far as I know, the regional ministry of Madrid hires people from UK whereas the Spanish ministry hires from US, mostly.

            You might find these links interesting perhaps:


   (private sector)

            Hope this helps!

            Good luck!


  5. Hello Chiew,
    Thank you for your post. So many great things in it. Large or small really is relative isn’t it. On Barb Sakamoto’s blog Teaching Village I’ve shared some of on what I’ve learned from Bangladeshi teachers about large classes.
    I also agree with what you say about rules. I negotiate rules with my classes every year. I’ll start again on Monday! I’ve been doing this for a few years now and you can see some of the rules my students have come up with on title=”my blog“. These posts are some of my most popular posts with teachers. Actually, based on the stats, if I were interested in driving more traffic to my blog, I’d post on nothing but class rules! I basically do the same tasks every year. The students come up with rules for themselves, and they come up with rules for me too. Some of them are very very funny. Laughter is really important in a classroom. Over the years I’ve added a few things to keep it interesting such as posting a cartoon showing a classroom with out rules using a web 2.0 application called ToonDoo, which was introduced to me by a great teacher in Australia called Edna on her fantastic blog . I created an album of blackboard snaps I’ve taken of the rules my students have written using Flickr, and I’ve had students post comments about class rules on my blog. I’m looking forward to doing this again. It’s always fun!
    One last thing, I use the arm raising technique too. In fact, I use it in teacher training workshops I lead too. The students catch on faster than the teachers! I saw a presenter at IATEFL use it too.
    Thanks again for writing such an interesting post.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks very much for you comment. Much appreciated. I do like the setting rules for the teacher bit! So, do you find yourself negotiating? Mr Stout, you didn’t get into shape! Mr Stout, you didn’t tell a joke today! So, we can talk all we want now!

      Does a scenario like that ever happen? It could lead to a fun lesson… or it could lead to mayhem! Haha.

      Using the cartoon to elicit class rules is brilliant; it starts the class on the right foot, doesn’t it? I like Toon Doo, too and I use it for creating dialogues, for example. A couple of others are included in my resource page.

      What’s your average class size now, Mike? Do you have discipline problems? Have you ever taught “Western” students? If so, do you find them different to Oriental students, especially with regards to discipline?



  6. Hi Chiew,
    Thanks for your response.
    Indeed, I’ve failed to get in shape! I forgot to mention that this task is also a language learning task where the students practice using “must”, “should” and so on. We discuss the differences and we discuss which is most appropriate. Most of the time “should” and “shouldn’t” are most appropriate. For example, I ask them if “We must speak only English in this class” is good rule. At first they agree that it is, but eventually they agree with me that it’s a stupid rule, because it’s impossible. A better rule is “We should try to speak English as much as possible in this class”. In the end, the rules that are negotiated are reasonable and appropriate, so I don’t have much trouble enforcing them. I do have some rules that are nonnegotiable. Those are the ones usually set by the university administration. The administration’s biggest concern is attendance. In my class, you are late if you arrive after the chime. If you arrive 30 minutes after the chime, you are marked absent on the attendance sheet, but you are most welcome (encouraged actually) to stay for the rest of the class. If you have a verifiable and legitimate reason for being late or absent, then you are marked present on the attendance sheet.
    My average class size now is about 20 students. I have some rather small classes too. My favourite class sizes are 12 and 16. i like groups of 2 and 4. I don’t like groups of three. The third students always seems to be left out. I have very few discipline problems, and I have some great colleagues to assist me when I do. At Toyo Gakuen, students belong to a “home room” in 1st and 2nd years, which helps the transition from high school to university for them. They have a homeroom teacher and I’ve consulted with the homeroom teacher when necessary. I haven’t had to do this much. I have a pretty good relationship with my students. A few love me, a few hate me, most just accept me.
    Aside from Japan, I’ve taught 6 lessons in the Philippines, so my experience is limited I guess. In Japan each class is different, and each student will behave differently depending on the class dynamic. For example, I had a student in compulsory 1st year speaking class that was extraordinarily gregarious. He would volunteer to answer questions and he helped manage the class too! That same student took an elective class I taught that included students from 2nd year. There was only one student in the class that he knew, and he always sat with her. In that class he was very quiet – a totally different person. Even in so-called collective societies we need to look at the individual. I can’t think in terms of “Western” and “Oriental”. The Japanese students I’ve taught were different from the children I taught on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, but the differences went well beyond geography. All of my Japanese students are well fed and they live in safe and comfortable homes. They all have new clothes. On MIndoro, even the chief wore mismatched and ragged hand-me-downs. You can learn more about my experience in the Philippines here:
    Thanks again for starting this interesting discussion.

    1. Somehow, I wasn’t alerted to this reply of yours, so, sorry for the late acknowledgement. Thanks for the detailed answer. Yes, all of us are more similar than some would like to think and yet each of us is an island, as they say.
      Thanks once again and I look forward to more of your comments in future posts!

  7. Hi Chiew!

    Phew – spring break means I can catch up with all god posts I ahve missed : )

    I love all of your ideas. The idea of a horseshoe to monitor what the students are doing on the computers is amazing! I can imagine it – one glance and you can see them all, who needs help and so on. I also like your idea of the students coming up with the rules. It makes them feel as a real part of the classroom and you are right – they are more likely to keep to them, if they have thought of them!

    Good stuff!


    1. Better late then never, as they always say, Vicky! When does your spring break end?
      Yes, when we let students loose on computers, there’s always the risk that they sneak into their mail, chat, or whatever. So, it’s useful to be able to look around at a glance and be able to tell which screen isn’t where it’s supposed to be!

      1. Hi Chiew!

        Spring break ends in two weeks. I will still be teaching during these two weeks, but not so many classes : ) A good chance to catch up on blogging and reading and commenting!

        Yes – even adult students tend to get sidetracked once we wander off and leave them to their own devices…literally!

  8. I am a grade one teacher in a public school here in the Philippines. I have 52 pupils and I teach 6 subjects everyday…every time got home I feel so tired and exhausted..

    1. Thanks for the comment, Vincent. I’m not surprised you finish “tired & exhausted”! 6 subjects to 52 kids! This is what I meant by comparatively. I’m sure you’d be pleased to get a class of 30! So, tell me, Vincent, how do you cope? How do you remain motivated? Do you use any of the methods I suggested? We would love to hear your stories!

  9. I’m going to teach combined classes of more that 60 students at least for a month. My teaching subject is geography. My only aids are the powerpoint and handouts and of course the microphone. Now I’m looking for techniques to get the students’ attention and support.

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