Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Strategies for large classes – Barbara Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoThree questions for large classes

When I first started teaching large classes, one of my biggest challenges was to keep students speaking English during activities. I liked to have students work in pairs or groups so they’d have more chances to speak. I’d move around the classroom while they were working, so I could hear which language students had mastered and which language still needed practice. No matter how much I tried to enforce an “English Only” policy in class, I still heard students using a lot of Japanese. I wondered why my students didn’t want to use English in English class.

As my Japanese improved, I finally realized that sometimes, my students were simply trying to figure out what I wanted them to do: Do you understand what she wants? How do you say this in English? What did she say? I realized that in some cases my instructions were unclear, and in other cases activities actually required students to use language that they hadn’t yet learned.

I became more careful when preparing activities. I tried to do them myself to see what language would actually be needed. I kept instructions simple, and tried to repeat activity types so that they would be familiar. I began to model activities with the class before asking students do them.

Most importantly, I asked students three questions before every activity:

Do you understand the language?

Do you know what to do?

Is there any reason you need to speak Japanese?

It worked as a kind of contract between us. I promised to take time before an activity to explain and demonstrate so that students were not responsible for being my translators. They promised to do the activity in English. After that, whenever I did hear Japanese, I simply asked the questions again. Students generally laughed and switched back to English. I even heard students “being me” and asking each other the questions as a way to monitor Japanese use in class.

These were simple changes, but they made a huge difference. I made myself responsible for being clear and fair in my expectations. Students made themselves responsible for speaking English in class.

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Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara has taught both English and ESL in the United States, and EFL in Japan for more than 25 years. She earned her BA from Western Oregon University and her Masters in TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Barbara has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the U.S. and Latin America, and is co-author of the best-selling young learners Let's Go series (Oxford University Press). She is also a founding member of the JALT Teaching Children special interest group. Her motto is "Always try new things," so these days, when she's not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you'll often find Barbara online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you'd like to explore with her, you can usually find Barbara on her award winning blog, Teaching Village.

18 thoughts on “Strategies for large classes – Barbara Sakamoto”

  1. Thanks, Barb, for a very interesting article! You have reminded me of a project that some teachers did a year ago with me. They were studying action research with me and decided to film their classes, then watch to see what it was that their students had been saying in Spanish (rather than English). The result? Exactly as you say… Students weren’t being lazy (as the teachers had assumed). Usually they were ‘lost’ because the instructions weren’t clear.
    The teachers in the action research project decided to take action from there on… Ideas they began trying out included: using concept questions to check that everyone knew what to do, modeling activities from both the front AND the back of the classroom, etc.
    But there’s one issue the teachers never really found a good solution to… what do you do when students use their L1 during oral groupwork because they don’t know the word in English? You can try to avoid the problem by not giving difficult tasks, but it will happen anyway and it can be a good thing! But should they note it down? This can be a bit clumsy and tends to interrupt the flow of conversation… Any thoughts?

    1. I remember when I first realized that students were trying to figure out what I wanted them to do! It was a humbling experience 🙂

      It can be a good thing when students become aware that they need a new English word–it creates a space for learning, doesn’t it? However, what if only one student discovers a need for that word? It won’t be nearly as motivating for the entire class as it is for that one student, and you’re right, it could really disrupt the flow of class. I’m not sure if there is a perfect answer, or if there is, I sure don’t know it! However, I’d tried a couple of things that have worked in different circumstances:

      –If the activity is going well (and it should be if I’ve done my job right), I can afford to stop and provide the language for that one student. I know that he’s unlikely to remember or be able to use it just from that encounter, but it satisfies a frustration.

      –If I hear the same word(s) from multiple students, or if I think it will enhance the lesson, I’ll stop the flow myself and we’ll have a mini-lesson to introduce vocabulary (or grammar) that students are trying to use.

      –I’ll keep a note of the words or structures as I walk around the room, and then either bring them up in our debriefing at the end of the activity (“What did you find easy? What was difficult? What else do you want to know how to say?” etc.) or if they’ll work in a future lesson I’ll save them.

      The main thing I’ve found useful is to teach students to actively ask for the language they need, in English (How do you say __ in English?) and to use explanation strategies to talk around words they don’t know the English for (e.g., It’s a kind of tool….It’s use for…It’s usually found in the…). That gives them the power to decide how important it is to know how to say something in English.

      Does this answer your question, or did I misinterpret what you were asking? What strategies did your teachers use in their situations? I’d be interested to hear.

  2. As class size increases, I use more self and peer evaluation for speaking activities, like role play, based on the focus of class. Works great.

    What is a “large class” for you. I find that anything over 15 students tends toward large class strategies. I don’t think I’d do anything different with 100 students than I would with 20.

    1. Interesting that 20 students wouldn’t feel much different than 100. I’m trying to visualize my own lessons and see if that feels true for me, too. Maybe 🙂

      How do you have students evaluate each other during role plays? Do you have a rubric for them to use? Since whatever you do seems to work well, I hope you’ll share some details about it!

      Thanks for your comment, Dan.

  3. Hello Barbara!

    Thank you for your post! It sounds like a personal story of a teacher developing and tuning her skills! 🙂 In fact, this could be the story of every teacher who’s eager to change and anxious to meet studnets’ needs.

    I’ve followed a similar path in my professional development analizing, reflecting, trying, failing, and succeeding 🙂 But even now after 7 years of teaching I find it difficult, first, to make my instructions clear enough and, second, to do the right timing and follow it.

    So there are still some areas for me to work on.

    Thank you for sharing your story and giving useful tips on how to tackle the problems with teaching.

    1. It is a very personal story, Alexandra! My first large classes provided me with some of my best learning experiences (funnier, by far, in hindsight). I wrote a post about one of the classes a couple of years ago, in case you want a few more smiles from a beginning teacher:

      I still have days when I’m not clear, even after 20 years, especially when I haven’t taken time to properly plan what I’m going to do, or think through how I’m going to explain it. The difference is now I don’t assume my students are being intentionally difficult or lazy. I know it was me 🙂

      Good luck with your own journey!

  4. Thanks Barbara for this great post!
    I teach large YL classes (about 28 teens) and I’ve often felt like I couldn’t do some speaking activities just because they were too many.Then, I started to plan more dynamic lessons, group or pair work, and students were really enthusiastic about them. The only thing was the massive use of L1. I realized they were just looking for the right words to say something, so I started adding key vocabulary, lots of examples, pictures the handouts and it worked out quite well!
    We’ve recently added a big “Englishometer” on the wall, to measure the use of L2, it started as a game, but now students are proud to reach 80% at the end of the lessons :-).
    Large YL classes can be challenging, but also great fun if we find the right way to reach students.

    1. I love your strategies, Valentina! I think that Englishometer is inspired, It really puts the responsibility in students’ hands, and is so positive. Nothing bad happens if they use their own language, but they feel accomplishment when they use English.

      Key words and examples are so helpful. I usually try to get by with modeling the activity before asking the class to do it, but it’s wonderful when you can actually include a model on the handout page!

      Would you consider sharing some of your strategies in a guest post over on Teaching Village. I think a lot of teachers would enjoy learning from you.

      Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  5. Very interesting post and comments so far. But I have one question: what’s wrong in using one’s mother tongue or another shared language with our students in class?

    Not so long ago, I used to feel very bad when my students resorted to the use of either Arabic or French in their English classes: I undoubtedly was the culprit I used to believe. My feeling of guilt doubled when MYSELF had to resort to the use of French or Arabic to clarify the meaning of a word when all other means failed. Failure! used to resonate very loudly in the back of my mind to feign not listening; it certainly did wreck my day and many other days in my unshakeable belief that good teaching implied zero use of L1 or L2 (as is the case in my country); the seed was well planted in my mind. After many years though, I finally got liberated from the erroneous belief and well since I stopped banning the use of Arabic, Amazigh or French in my classes, my teaching has taken a totally different turn. Obviously I’m minimising the use of the shared language(s) with my students as I am aware that I have to be the model for my students and the provider of the maximum exposure they need in the target language, yet I came to realise allowing myself to use the students’ language helps save a great amount of time I used to waste in my vain attempts to explain a word and my obstination to do it through English and only English or some ridiculous mime the students couldn’t figure out when a mere translation could have achieved the objective in seconds!
    So, I believe that the use of the students’ language helps in the teaching /learning of the target language and honestly since I started allowing myself to do it I’ve become less nervous, more understanding, more patient with my students’ shortcomings and more mindful in my teaching practice; it’s so liberating!

    Thanks for the post.


    1. Sorry for the belated reply, Rima!

      I agree with you, actually. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your students’ language in class, and I certainly don’t think it’s anything to feel guilty about. If your students are bilingual, then that’s a good model, too, right?

      However, I think that use of L1 should be a conscious choice on the teacher’s part. For me, the class goal is to include as much English practice in class as possible, since my 1 hour class is their only contact with English. If my using a little Japanese (for clarification or discipline) allows us to get back to using English quickly, then that’s a good thing. If I hear students using Japanese during a task I know they can do in English, then I want them to be using English for that.

      I think it’s wonderful that you’ve had such good results from allowing Arabic in your classes!

  6. Thanks for this post
    In deed it’s really a big challenge to teach large classes.First, it’s difficult to motivate them all. Second’ it’s quite imposible to make them take part in the lesson as they are not interested. Even if you succecto make them work in a given session the next session they come into class as if they haven’t seen that lesson before. overcrowded classes are mking our job very tough. I would be very grateful if you can provide me with some strategies and tipos that I can use with such classes.

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