Steven Herder

Strategies for large classes – Steven Herder

The largest class I have ever taught was about 15 years ago. It was an Oral Communication high school class of 52 students held in the Language Lab (LL), which incidentally only had 48 desks with headsets. Now that was an interesting challenge. I usually had 4 students sitting near the front of the room huddled around a cassette tape player while others listened through the sound system on their headsets. I had to substitute students into the main area like players in a football match. The biggest problem in super-size classes is that I couldn’t connect with all of the students, and I began to lose the students who needed personal attention but didn’t get any or didn’t get nearly enough.

Teaching next to a furry poster

My other “large” Oral Communication classes were university classes of 35 students. In these classes, I tried many strategies from the standard to the sometimes silly in order to connect with more students:

  1. Use a bigger voice, greater intonation, more gestures and animated expressions to reach students in the back of the class.
  2. Keep a class seating/name chart in front of me at all times. It looks like a big BINGO sheet with student names and any unique tidbits of information I pick up about students from their homework or conversations in class. I might write, “dog- “Puffy” or PT job – Starbucks. Whenever I worked little bits of their real lives into my examples or explanations, everyone would notice, and I could feel the energy pick up in class.
  3. Move around a lot more throughout the room. I would cruise around a lot, or plant myself at the back of the room or near the “low concentration zones” (chatty students) in order to try to keep a connection with the outliers.
  4. Warn them at the beginning of the year (when they are most open to new ideas) that they will be moving around in my class. This meant keeping aisles and desks somewhat free of clutter (“leave your coats or big bags in the back or on the side of the room”). I have 90 minutes classes and so beyond the regular check with a partner next to you or behind you, I also try to make 2 or 3 “Stand up and move” changes per lesson to give them new partners to work with.
  5. Take advantage of large groups by doing group surveys, group discussions and group reports. Having students put their heads down and hands up to vote always resulted in honest answers. Having groups choose a leader, a secretary and a reporter created motivational expectations.
  6. Play team games. Three groups of 12 was fun for most people if I could inspire their teams’ competitive nature, and even more fun if I could (secretly) make the teams somewhat even.

In a nutshell, with bigger classes, I try to make everything bigger, while at the same time trying to connect with as many individuals as possible. What strategies work for you?

Published by

Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.

6 thoughts on “Strategies for large classes – Steven Herder”

  1. Hi Steven,

    A post full of great ideas. Thanks. John Fanselow was doing an in-service for the teachers at my high school a few months ago and he suggested that any one class activity should be limited to about 5-7 minutes. The important thing was to mine one small piece of meaning-based input for all it is worth. This requires helping students come at it from as many different angles as possible. If the students feel constantly challenged (but not overwhelmed) they will participate throughout an entire class, whether it be 45 minutes or 90 minutes or a full day intensive class and if the level is pitched just right, student management becomes much less of an issue regardless if there are 10, 30, or 50 students. He had a bag full of activities as well. In one set of activities he presented a short piece of material to the students without any spaces between words, had the students read it and mark where spaces should be. Students read the piece again searching for verbs. Then students did a quick 4-3-2 activity summarizing the materials with three different partners. And the activities just kept rolling from there. The key point was that none of the activities took more than a minute to explain and all of them could be explained in very simple English so students could jump in immediately and start working and keep working from the start of class to the ending chime. I’ve run a bunch of classes like this and it works especially well for beginning students. The quick pace, focused material use, and ease of explanations all helped keep 35 beginning high school students focused for a full 50 minutes.

    iTDi is a crucial part of my continuing development as an English teacher. I and my students (I hope) thank you.

    Kevin Stein

    1. Hi Kevin,

      I’ve been on the road for the past few days and even though I wanted to reply sooner, but I’m learning that time flies whether you’re having fun or not (I was having fun working)

      I liked your post better than mine – thanks.

      John is a very important part of our iTDi team and the more I get to know him, the more I like what I learn from him. He is a real class act!

      I’m glad that you are committed to your own continuing development as a teacher. I believe that 80% of improving is simply making the commitment to do it – the rest is just the hours it takes to get where you want to go.

      I so wish that there were the opportunities that exist today like iTDi 23 years ago when I began to teach.

      I hope you’ll come back and continue to share your thoughts and experiences. There may even be an opportunity for you to get your students involved in the next set of posts. Stay tuned!


  2. Hello Steven,
    Thanks for sharing your experience teaching large classes. I think for the most part Native English Speaking teachers in Japan are spared teaching large classes. I haven’t taught a large class for about 10 years now. The largest class I ever taught was a class of 50 boys, and it wasn’t that hard to manage. Actually the mixed classes of 40 were much harder to manage. I taught Oral Communication B, a listening class, to 4 classes of 40 – 50 students at Nihon University’s high school near the Kokugikan. The classroom was traditional: blackboard, lecturn on a slightly elevated platform, which made me tower over the students even more than I already did, and rows of desks. I taught most of the classes with the same teacher and things were pretty much routine. The class went like this:
    1. All stand, do the greeting
    2. Sit down, listen to the cassette, fill in the blanks or answer a comprehension question.
    3. Stand and answer
    4. Japanese teacher explains a grammar point and some key vocabulary
    5. Repeat from #2

    Very monotonous. The Japanese teacher I was working with wanted it that way. She wouldn’t allow any warm-ups, or any speaking practice – and for good reason. The test was mostly a test of grammar with a listening section that required filling in blanks.
    This teacher wouldn’t even allow any tasks for learning and practicing “classroom language”. I tried to sneak a bit of classroom language in by making classroom language signs ie: “I don’t know”, “Could you turn up the volume please?” I don’t understand” and so on – one sign for each row of students. I designated each row a team, and the “Team name” was the classroom language question or phrase, so we had Team I don’t know, Team Could you turn up the volume please and so on. If a student answered a question their team got a point. I’d often give the point to the wrong team, or pretend to forget which team the student belonged to and I’d ask the student, to tell me what their team’s name was, so we had a lot of repeated exposure and use of classroom language – except of course it was decontextualised. A few students did actually use the questions and phrases in the usual way, but for the most part this just served to make the lessons a bit more fun. Also, like you, I’d walk around the class while the students were listening to the cassette. I’d try to crouch down and get level with the students as much as possible at these times in order to make me less scary, more human. I taught these kids just once a week and I didn’t have the class list so I never learned their names, which was a real handicap. Having a voice that carries was a real advantage. The Japanese teacher didn’t have such a loud voice and most of her grammar explanations were drowned out by the chatter, until she’d scream at the students to be quiet, which they would be for a few seconds and then it’d go back to the same steady din of chatter. She wrote everything on the blackboard, so the students that were interested could get her explanation, even if they couldn’t hear it.
    So, in summary, these weren’t the most interesting or enjoyable classes I’ve ever taught, but they were manageable because there was a routine every student knew and understood, and there was a bit of fun too, which kept the routine from getting a bit boring.

    1. Hi Michael,

      It’s so good to see you back sharing your experiences. I love hearing from fellow veterans!

      I’ve heard many stories like your team-teaching journey from years ago. I have wondered over the years what it takes for team teaching to succeed. I sense that the success rate may be rather low.

      I’m about to start a unique team teaching adventure with a Japanese colleague at my old high school. We are doing a pilot course for the new TOEFL Junior AND we have been given 100% freedom to do whatever we want. It is pretty exciting…

      I hope to be able to document the successes and the ways that we address the challenges or failures we encounter.

      So, does anyone have a stunning success story with either team teaching or large classes to share?

  3. Hello Steven!

    Thank you for your post!
    The bullet form of your post makes it so easy to use! 🙂

    I particularly like the idea of having a Bibgo Sheet with students’ names on it gradually filled with some bits of information about each student. This is a really powerful tool to help a teacher not only to remember students’ names but also to relate to them on a more personal level.

    Thank you, Steven!

    1. Yes, the Bingo sheet format is wonderful. A friend showed me a new app that is UNFORTUNATELY only available on the iPad or the iPhone called Teacherpal

      He used it last year for all of his classes. It looks absolutely amazing and can hold all the information that he could ever need about each class he taught.

      For all those with an iPad, check it out and let us know what you think.

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