Making room for improvement
By Beci Green and Luisa Cecchinato
IHTwo, one of the premises of International House in Torres Vedras, is used both as an Examinations Centre and for teaching exam classes to teenagers and young adults, so it is a particularly large space. There are two large classrooms both equipped with projectors and whiteboards and a recreational garden area at the back. Teaching groups in a large space can be a challenge, but it can also be an enriching experience: an opportunity to rethink lesson planning and experiment as a teacher.
Last year we both had teenage B1 groups at the same time, and in this article, we shall show how such a large space can be used, make suggestions regarding teaching and types of activities and consider the impact on students’ learning.
Large rooms can be intimidating both for learners as well as teachers, so it’s important to create a welcoming, intimate environment that everyone can come to own as quickly as possible. As Krashen points out, maintaining low anxiety is crucial for learning and aids second language acquisition (Krashen 1982), so getting off on the right foot is essential. One way to achieve this is by designating an area with sofas, chairs and tables where students can relax and socialise with each other before the start of class and during breaks. Learners also appreciate having paper, colouring pens, puzzles, word cards to review and reading material such as articles and books at their disposal. Playing background music is another strategy we have used to drown out any uncomfortable silences and of course different styles of music can be used to calm or energise. Moreover, teaching two groups of the same level at the same time can be a golden opportunity for them to make new friends and chat in English. Of course, an added bonus is having ample wall space to display lots of work in different sections (for example written work, vocabulary charts, class rules, project work, notice boards) which can instil a feeling of pride in the work created by the groups.
Scrivener suggests that “changing seating arrangements can help students interact with different people, change the focus from you when appropriate and allow a range of different situations to be created within the classroom” (Scrivener, 2011:61). With this in mind, in a large classroom various table/seating configurations are possible. We often used the horseshoe plan, such as the one in fig.1 (double horseshoe when team teaching), and clusters as in fig.2 (3 or 4 tables put together for group and project work).
As long as there are sufficient tables available, this means the learners can easily transition from one work space to another without the disruption of having to reorganise tables. When a particular activity demands change, tables can be repositioned, for example into rows, circles or railway carriage layouts. Having a larger classroom space means the teacher has greater flexibility when making decisions about seating. This is also an excellent way of changing the pairing of students when planning the seating configuration so students have a wider variety of interaction. Using separate zones allows for the creation of distinct areas when doing more controlled work, mingling activities and group work. As a result, students feel reenergised and motivated moving from one area to another while at the same time a sense of purpose, community and collaboration is developed.
Does having a bigger space mean a teacher can use a wider range of activities? Perhaps not, but it can be a positive factor to take into consideration when planning your lessons. Here are some ideas that lend themselves to larger rooms.
Photo Stories and Role-Plays
These can be set up and planned in small groups as normal, but in the follow-up stage students can be allocated a section of the room to practise and then act out to the rest of the class. This means that noise levels are less intrusive and distracting and the teacher can also hear while monitoring, whereas in smaller rooms close proximity can result in a wave of inaudible babble making it hard to give helpful feedback!
Surveys and Questionnaires
These activities lend themselves perfectly to large rooms as the extra space allows for movement and, once more, room to listen clearly. It’s also easier for the teachers to monitor as there is less noise.
Theatre – Acting Out a Play
The teacher can choose a play, write one themselves or better still, have the students write one and act it out on a designated stage area. Most students really enjoy doing this and shy students can be assigned roles behind the scenes. We’ve found it a great way for learners to use English in a different context, grow in confidence and have fun.
You can use the cluster layout of desks for speed revision - each work station has a revision task that students have to complete within a time limit. Having a larger space gives the students space to work without distractions and really benefit from the lesson.
Running dictations come into their own in larger spaces - where students can actually run (within reason!)
If you are lucky enough to have an outdoor space, you can take the class outside. It’s a wonderful way to dynamize the learners. You can play vocabulary games, do brain breaks in the fresh air, yoga to stretch or quick simple exercises to energise. Students can also lead sessions if they feel confident. The outdoors provides situations where they can learn new vocabulary and show there are other learning opportunities outside the course book.
Using a garden can enable students to focus on nature to work on language and vocabulary. Students can also take photos to describe (useful exam training) and work on projects that involve specific target language, such as comparing plants, designing an ideal garden, creating a story using objects from outside as well as making scavenger hunts.
Because of room size and table availability, we were both able to use this experience to peer and team teach on several occasions during the year. When we did any team-teaching, we had to factor in the logistics of joining the classes together for tasks or activities. We found that joining the classes after a break is often the best way to achieve this or at a pre-planned time. Often the task would be set up in the individual class with the students having full knowledge that they would be collaborating with another class. This enabled us to work on personal aims which consequently helped us to develop our own teaching. It was also insightful to get a second opinion on students who were having issues on the course or simply to evaluate a learner in the other class. From the students’ perspective, they also had access to two teachers with different personalities, teaching styles and accents teaching, monitoring and helping in the same room which was beneficial.
At the end of the course we carried out a reflection questionnaire to gauge students’ opinions on their experience having lessons in this spacious building. We asked them to give their opinion on the space they had to use, the seating arrangements, the type of activities they enjoyed the most and least and the effects of having joint classes. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. For them it did not feel like a school but a place they had made their own over time. It was wonderful for us to witness their growth in confidence and how they learnt to take full advantage of the space available, improving not only their English but also their social and negotiating skills through activities carried out in the class. What started out as an empty shell became a joyous, vibrant, creative school space which students made their own and undeniably left their mark.
Author's Bio: Beci has been working at International House in Torres Vedras since 2015. In that time, she has had the opportunity to team teach two Cambridge Exam classes and really valued the experience and challenges that this entailed. It was a fantastic opportunity that enriched her teaching development. In 2016 she took the IH CYLT and is enjoying putting her experiences into practice. She is enjoying life in Portugal, experiencing all that it has to offer.
Author's Bio: Luisa has been teaching English for over 15 years and has worked in language schools in the UK and Switzerland. She is now based in Portugal where she teaches English to young learners and adults at IH Torres Vedras. She is currently working on her Delta. Her interests include teaching exam classes as well as the development of and changes in language.
Scrivener, J. (2011) Learning Teaching (3rd Edition), London: Macmillan
Krashen, S. (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall