ELT Best Practices: Strategies in Teaching Large Classes

Fauzia Shamin, recipient of the 2016 TESOL Leadership Mentoring Program Award and professor at the English Language Centre at Taibah University in Madinah, Saudi Arabia shares her best practices in teaching large classes with TESOL readers.

Sherry Blok (SB): You are the recipient of the 2016 TESOL Leadership Mentoring Program award! Can you speak to the goals of this program and your learning objectives with your TESOL mentor?

Fauzia Shamin (FS): The objective of the award is for a TESOL leader to mentor an affiliate member to add perspective and encourage inclusiveness at TESOL International Association. I am working with my mentor, Yilin Sun, past president of TESOL. The first thing I want to understand is the governance structure of TESOL. It has a complex structure and is so much larger than other associations. I would also like to investigate the interconnection between TESOL and affiliates. I would like to play a role in redefining TESOL and affiliate relationships and exploring partnerships on a different level than a parent-child or an insider-outsider perspective. On a personal level, I feel like I have a lot to learn from Yilin. I met her at the TESOL convention and I feel she has a lot to offer in terms of personal development: how she became president of TESOL, how she manages time and meets commitments. All of these endeavors require a lot of time.

SB: Much of your research investigates ELT and large-sized classes. In your professional opinion, what are some of the biggest issues for teachers of large classes?

FS photo0001FS: The biggest issue with large classes is when teachers try to teach a large class like a small class. The current situation is that most teachers use ELT techniques they learned in teacher training programs in small class settings, but the reality in the classroom is quite different, so some things don’t work. With large classes, there are the usual issues—limited spaces and resources, individualization, marking and assessment and process writing. These issues are similar across different contexts and ever so present in the developing world. Teachers must decide what works and what doesn’t work. They can’t stretch something that is not conducive for their learning environment. You can’t simply transport what you do from a small class into a big class. You have to rethink pedagogy, adapt, and be flexible.

SB: Would you say large-sized classes hinder or impede language learning?

FS: There was no conclusive evidence, till recently. Doctoral research at the University of Damascus in Syria actually showed students gained in large classes. They became more independent learners because they developed strategies, such as working in groups outside of class.

Large classes are more of a problem in the early grades. Class size studies from the University of London, conducted over a period of10 years, have shown that small classes are more conducive for learning in the early years. In those early developmental stages, young learners probably need more support as they learn how to learn.

SB: What are some of your best practices in teaching large-sized classes? What tips and suggestions can you provide to TESOL readers trying to make the best out of their situations?

Planning

FS: With large classes, you need to plan very well—everything you are going to do and how you are going to do it. It doesn’t mean you do less; you do the best with what you have. If you have movable furniture in the classroom, and are teaching adult learners, then move the furniture to optimize learning in groups. I would refer teachers to the work of Adrian Holliday, particularly on context appropriate methodology (1994).

Teachers should assess strengths and constraints in their context. Then once you are aware, be realistic. For group work, think about the number of students you have. How will you organize them into groups? What are the feedback stages? How will you keep the learners engaged? For example, oral reports could be extremely boring and time consuming in a large class. Work around the numbers and your available resources; planning must be very detailed.

Training in Instructions

Giving instructions to large classes can be very complex; therefore, they should be given in stages. With a large class, the crowd can change into a mob very quickly. And with a mob mentality, no one is accountable for anything. As a teacher, you need to get them to pay attention to you. When you get them into a group, give them 1 minute to do so. Not more than 1 minute, though. Students can get distracted in large classes, so training learners to be effective and efficient to get into order is important.

In a large class you can write the instructions on the board or in a PowerPoint for those learners who miss or are distracted. Have a system of raising hands in which when you raise your hand to get their attention, it means to be quiet and listen for instructions.

Use the students as a resource. Give the students roles in groups such as timekeeper, task manager, and other responsibilities and ask the group leader to repeat the instructions for the group. If they understand classroom rules and routines in particular and work within those rules and routines, it will help avoid wasting time.

SB: In your opinion, how can technology (mobile-assisted language learning, social media, etc.) resolve some of the issues teachers might face with large classes?

FS: Teaching online to large classes is a very time-consuming process and requires a lot of planning and “teaching” time outside of the classroom. It is not that technology takes away responsibility as a teacher—it is up to the teacher to decide when to jump in or let them be. The students need to know you are there and listening to them. How we would use technology to facilitate large-class interaction is important to consider. The teachers’ responsibility is to be accountable to every learner. Technology helps in this regard but has limitations—we need to understand it is just another resource.

SB: At this current juncture, some programs with normally higher class threshold levels have seen a significant drop in student registration. How should we, as teachers, adapt to these fluctuating class sizes to continue to deliver quality instruction?

FS: As a result of the STAR [ standardized testing and reporting] and some other class size projects in the USA, massive reductions in class size took place in California and some other states. It was soon found out that teachers were teaching in the same way even after the class size was reduced and there were no differences in learning outcomes. Actually, the teacher is still the main resource in a class and if the teachers know and understand the context (large or small) they need to think about how to improve and maximize learning outcomes. It is important to raise this awareness and sensitivity in pre-service teachers in order for them to change pedagogy to suit the teaching and learning context.

In a workshop on large class sizes I gave a few weeks ago, one of the teachers reported how she creatively adapted the methodology to suit her context. It was an icebreaker/mingling activity. They were to have an open discussion, but due to large-class constraints such as limited space, the students could not leave their desks. Instead, they wrote their answers down and passed the papers around the classroom. If the teacher hadn’t thought about how to make this activity work, it would have been a disaster!

SB: What type of conversations should TESOL educators and program administrators have regarding class sizes?

FS: From the point of view of administrators, large classes are cost-effective. This is not good news for large-class teachers! The teacher burnout rate of a class of 45 students is much higher compared to a class of 25; there is obviously more stress in a large sized class—the teacher is a scarce resource.

My suggestion to teachers is: think out of the box, do not try to stretch small-class pedagogy, but most importantly, do the best with what you have. A teacher may decide to go with a teacher-centered approach because it takes more time to get students into groups. They shouldn’t be ashamed of teacher-centered learning. If planned well, even with this approach, students can have plenty of opportunities for interaction.

SB: Can you recommend any resources for teachers working with large classes for extra support?

FS: I cofounded an online platform with Richard Smith in 2008 named The Teaching English in Large Classes Research & Teacher Development Network (TELCnet). There is an extensive bibliography for researchers, teacher educators, and teachers of large-sized classes. Teachers are invited to post, add resources, and join our Facebook page. We invite all language teachers of large-sized classes to add snippets of their best practices and share their stories.

Interested in sharing your best practices? Contact me at sherryblok@videotron.ca

About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the Programs and Academic Development Coordinator in the Centre for Continuing Education at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She holds a Master’s degree in Second Language Education from McGill University and has over 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the Intensive English Program at Concordia University. She is TESOL’s 2015 recipient of the Teacher of the Year award and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to EAP, global citizenship education, assessment and teacher feedback.
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