Making The Most Of Classroom Space
Making The Most Of Classroom Space
By James Savery
It’s amazing how much the physical space of your classroom can affect the learning experience.
If you don’t believe me, cast your mind back to the last time you covered someone else’s class, and you had to use their room. You would have come in, all prepared to teach, probably five or ten minutes before the scheduled start of the lesson - and there would have been a moment of disorientation, a moment where you had to ask yourself where things were, how the students would be arranged, and how you would manage their space.
As teachers, we tend to take our classrooms at least a little bit for granted. We come to know them well, and we are aware of what we can and can’t do in them, but rather quickly this knowledge becomes unconscious, sitting at the back of our mind, informing our planning choices. In this article, I want to make those choices more conscious, because how we use the space available to us in the classroom is fundamental to the success - or otherwise - of our lessons.
Some General Principles
Before we look at any of the specifics of the classroom, let’s think of some guiding principles that will help frame our discussion of the space available.
We want the classroom to help set the tone for the lesson from the moment children enter it.
The classroom should be enticing and personal for your learners while they are there.
We need to think about space and seating to make it easy to change activities, including ones where students are moving around and working with other students in varied group sizes.
We need to create some floor space.
If possible, we would like to use the walls.
Most classrooms come with a whiteboard, although I have seen some that still use the old-fashioned blackboard. Either way, you will want a means by which to affix some different elements to the board (either magnets for whiteboards or blue-tack for blackboards). You can tack up:
- some of the student’s work
- pictures, flashcards or other visuals
- Classroom language and other useful phrases e.g. Can you help me? (or place them on the walls for every lesson, if you can - some schools have a zero tolerance policy regarding sticking things to the walls, so make sure what the situation is before you ruin the paintwork!)
- materials such as worksheets (you can show the children where to look for something)
- lines of dialogue on large strips to be put in order and then practised
name lists (to help you track such things as students’ birthdays, helpers’ tasks etc.)
- And (ESPECIALLY) a visual prompts poster to remind students about routines and helpful behaviour
A poster reminding students of the classroom rules and routines should be up ready before students enter the room, and should be close to the teacher and clearly visible. I like to put this poster next to the board, or at the top of the board. Here are two examples I made for myself. There are many more, available on Pinterest and elsewhere:
For 3-6 year olds
For 7-11 year olds
I go through the poster at the start of the term, and for younger children at the start of most lessons. I point to an image and mime, keeping my words to a minimum. As the lessons progress, I can remind the children as and when necessary. I do this by pausing the class and simply pointing to the image on the poster corresponding to the desired behaviour. In most cases, the student sees and makes the connection. What we’re doing here is reinforcing a positive habit and the picture on the poster acts as a cue or trigger. I then nod or thank the student to complete the ‘loop’ and reinforce the routine. I learned about this in the book ‘The Power of Habit’, which I heartily recommend.
When you introduce language, and especially when you want to work on pronunciation, it’s a great help if there is no physical impediment between yourself and the students, and that each student is approximately the same distance from you.
They should also be able to see, hear, and learn from each other. So, I’m a big fan of ‘Circle time’, when students leave their desks and sit with you on the floor in a semicircle. To make this routine work more smoothly, I strongly recommend acquiring a set of mats, so there is one for each child to sit on. The mats, or ‘sit pads’, can be round or rectangular . Educational suppliers have them, but I usually go to a hardware chain where they seem to have several types, which I often end up cutting in half. We need something soft, durable, and about a centimetre thick.
Establishing a circle time routine with mats
- Before the lesson/activity, place the mats on the floor in or near where you want students to sit. Place a mat for yourself too, as you don’t want to loom too large over your students.
- Ask the students to stand up, walk over, and sit on a mat. You can also decide which student sits on which mat, so this is an opportunity to vary who sits with whom.
- Remind the students what you want from them when they are working on the mats. e.g., look and listen to the teacher and each other. They should also not change the position of the mats.
Flashcards and other teaching aids can now be placed on the floor between yourself and the students. Here are a few more tips:
- In circle time, say as little as possible, concentrating instead on gesture and visual prompts. This will help to keep the children’s attention and encourage them to say things for themselves.
- Do matching activities with large word cards and pictures with the whole class, then turn this into a memory game by flipping the cards over.
- In some activities, you can encourage one of the students to ‘be the teacher’ for a while, i.e., swap mats with you and ask questions or use the prompts the way you’ve been modelling.
- Use ‘circle time’ in the first half of the lesson to focus on the language that the students will need for what follows, whether it’s a story, project, CLIL, a text or dialogue, or further language practice.
If you are lucky enough to have noticeboards or space for your students’ work, then please make use of it; if not, you can still use the walls temporarily, to bring an exercise to life. Here are a few examples.
- Place gap-fills around the room - simple sentences that recycle recent language. Then dictate the words that the students need to fill each gap-fill. For example, if you have “Can I go to the ____, please?” you could say the missing word, and the students have to find the right gap-fill.
- Place pictures around the class and give the students a written description. They then have to match the description to the picture. (They could follow up by writing a description of another picture.)
- Give students some definitions or antonyms. Students find the corresponding words which you have placed around the walls.
- Recycle the language in your students’ projects, if you’ve been able to put these up on the walls around the room. This could involve reference to specific words in the work - “Find the word ‘football’ in one of the projects” - or it could look at surface-level features of the project - “Find the project that uses the most different colours.”
If you are lucky enough to teach your lessons in the same classroom, be aware of the space of that room - where the chairs are, where the desks are, and how much floor space you have. Think about what’s on the walls and what you want to put on the board. All of this should feed into your lesson planning - and, as a side note, if you have a formal lesson where you are expected to list ‘Anticipated Problems,’ you can mention here any shortcomings that you know about in the room, such as how the students have to navigate their way from behind their desks to the front of the room for circle time.
Remember too that if you are unhappy with how your classroom is arranged, you should have some say about how things could be changed. Discuss moving the furniture - or purchasing new equipment - with your school, and if you happen to share a room with a few other teachers, always keep them in the loop. You don’t want to cause bad feelings.
Hopefully, though, this article has helped to demonstrate that the classroom we teach in is just as much of a resource as our course books, our posters, our worksheets… If we take advantage of what we have, we can make our young learner lessons better than ever.
Duhigg, Charles (2013) ‘The Power of Habit’
I started my teaching career in 1989, with International House Turin, Italy. My teaching powers grew as I moved around the network. I worked for IH in Portugal, Spain, and Poland, later assuming roles such as Director of Studies, and CELTA and DELTA trainer; and especially training teachers to teach younger learners. I write and edit for ELT publishers, teach, and train in Kraków, Poland.