Strategies for large classes – Tamas Lorincz

The more the better

I believe the problems relating to large classes and mixed ability groups belong in the same category where ELT discourse is concerned. In the early days of the communicative approach, these were presented as major teaching challenges. This, in my view, is because these problems have been dealt with from a teacher-centred classroom approach, where the teacher has a hard time dealing with too many kids, or those who are very different.

I very strongly believe that every class of more than one student is mixed ability and large. It’s not the number or the difference between children that determines the challenge, but what the teacher wants to achieve. If you just deliver (favourite word: impart) material, it does not really matter if you do it for 5 people or 500. If, on the other hand, you aim at giving every single student in your class at least one meaningful moment they take away with them, even two students per class might be a tall order.

I believe that the “problem” with mixed ability and large classes ceases to exist the minute you stop looking for what you can teach to every single student, and instead start looking at ways of turning your classroom into a workshop where every student of any ability has a role.

I know this sounds far too simple and unrealistic to many teachers struggling day-to-day with thirty, forty or more students, but I strongly believe that the minute we relinquish our determination to teach our students and decide to create an environment where students learn from processes taking place in the classroom, acquire the skills of integrating into a group and defining and representing their niche (what they’ve got to offer to that particular group), the size of the class becomes an advantage.

This also allows teachers to become part of the learning process — which in turn makes their work much more fun and meaningful as well.

If the material is not a grammar structure but instead is a challenge, a project, or a task students have to complete by negotiation, discussion,  and collaboration, then even super large classes can become learning communities.

If the teacher does not deliver material but coordinates and facilitates the work done in and by groups, learning won’t depend on how many of the students the teacher can reach the ears of.

If technology is used appropriately to complete tasks, information will not exclusively derive from the teacher, and students learn independence and self-reliance.

If different forms of classroom arrangement and working solutions are applied, students will learn the immensely important skills of self-representation, negotiation and being part of a team.

All of these are essential skills to be successful not only in learning a foreign language but also in integrating into the world of work.

Using English outside of class – Steven Herder

How can we encourage students to use English outside of class?

There are three different ways to interpret this question:

  1. What are the techniques we can use to encourage students to use English outside of class?
  2. How can we encourage students rather than force them to use English outside of class?
  3. Use English does not simply mean study more, but what does it really mean?

I will address the question from a little bit of all three perspectives.

I think that anyone can force students to use English outside the classroom by assigning homework activities, but I question how much learning actually takes place. In fact, I hear students complaining all the time about having to do something in English outside of class that doesn’t make sense to them (nor to me quite often).

As for techniques that work on me, the most effective way to get me to check something out online, on TV or in a book is to be passionate or enthusiastic about it. I’m totally susceptible to clicking on things that buzz; like on Facebook – if something has many likes, you’ll go check it out as well. Humans are just programmed like that and we, as teachers, have an opportunity to promote ideas to a captive audience every single class.

So… I know the power of enthusiasm about subject matter, and I know that forcing students to do things isn’t very effective, and I don’t particularly want to pile on more homework. OK, this naturally leads me to share the things that interest me, and that I know will both touch my students and be within their reach linguistically.

Another wickedly powerful tool in being able to encourage students successfully is to become a meaningful person in their lives. One of my heroes, Curtis Kelly, first introduced me to this powerful message through the bonobo apes (watch specifically from 13:00) and the secret to their language acquisition skills, which I believe makes perfect sense for my students and me as well. I have seen that students sometimes try something just to please me but often end up pleasing themselves as well. That’s a win-win situation.

I want students to use English outside of class to reach their own goals. I try to show students that English can connect them to a great big world beyond the classroom. And so, I share music, videos, websites and ideas that teach us something about the human condition (making sure students can “get it” with a bit of effort).

Here are just a few videos I’ve shared recently with students:




Children full of life

Christian the lion

Lost Generation


Using English outside of class – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyThere were two young Catalans at my gym who would while away their time on the exercise bicycles and rowing machines speaking English to each other. It was dreadful, highly accented and very unidiomatic English – but English, hours of it.

What prompted them? And what sustained them in what was obviously harder work than the cycling or the rowing?

I have no way of knowing, but I couldn’t but admire both their initiative and their stamina.

How can we get our students to do the same or similar?  How can we encourage them – not just to read, write, and listen to English outside the class – but to speak it?

One possible route is offered by technology.

I have a friend who studied Turkish at university and keeps it ‘alive’ by doing online chats, using Skype, with Turkish speakers. There are a number of agencies that provide this service, putting people in touch with one another for a modest fee. Some of these services work on a reciprocal basis: you speak to me for half an hour in Spanish and I’ll speak to you for half an hour in English. (Just google something like ‘language exchange’).

But your students might be too young – or too shy – to engage in conversation with total strangers. An alternative might be to ‘buddy them up’ – like my friends at the gym – and encourage them to review and repeat, at home, and by means of their phones, some of the speaking activities they’ve done in class. In fact, you can design speaking activities for class work that prepare students for their cell phone chat later that evening. Good activities are role-playing interviews with sports stars or pop singers about, for example, their daily routine; role-playing a shopping encounter (e.g. where nothing is the right size or colour) or a job interview; playing guessing games (‘I’m an animal: you have to guess what sort of animal I am by asking yes/no questions), and so on.

Even five minutes of this is better than nothing and it costs them the price of a local phone call.

Using English outside of class – Vladimira Michalkova

Encouraging learners to use English outside of class is like getting students to do the sort of good homework that I described in my previous post: homework that grows naturally out of the lesson, doesn’t feel like homework, and often isn’t even called homework. The idea is to get students using English on their own in their own way and as this needs to be encouraged, the teacher should not correct or evaluate such effort — unless students ask for it.  Instead, such individual effort needs to be nurtured, encouraged, and praised.

Encouraging students to begin doing this kind of good homework starts with a positive, open and friendly class atmosphere where the teacher has true and authentic conversations with students, really listens to what they’re saying, and is not afraid to go beyond “the teaching purpose” of an activity or lesson.  From there, encouraging the students to use the language outside the class needs to be built on what they discovered in the classroom and not from the teacher’s intention to get them to practice, revise or repeat what was taught that day.

During lessons we often get into topics they really enjoy talking about and want to know more about.  I use such situations and keep them interested by suggesting some further reading, video or source of information. This often leads us to TED talks, documentaries or even intriguing commercials they watch at home. I just ask them to note their reactions and reflections and keep me posted.

Additionally, as experienced learners ourselves we know what works and thus can provide our students with situations where they can naturally use the language.  There are many things we can do very naturally ranging from giving students a simple “how about we all switch our mobile phone to English for a week” kind of challenge, to keeping the conversations we have with them outside of class and the email communications we have with them entirely in English from the beginning.  This is what I do.  After some time, they all start replying in English too, as long as I respect their individual style and pace.

So, talk to your students, listen to them, praise their efforts and do it all naturally, as if it is all just a part of everyday life – which it is – and where you respect them as individuals. Yet, be clear that the classroom is not a magical bubble where they receive knowledge but a place to meet, encourage and help each other. What matters after all is what they decide to do after that.

“Many an opportunity is lost because a man is out looking for four-leaf clovers”