Teaching English as a second language in large classes

A challenge is defined as a difficulty that stimulates the person who faces it. A large classroom is more difficult to define, this could be from six to sixteen students or even more. The challenges to be faced in any EFL or ESL classroom are many; however they should serve as a stimulus to the teacher in an ongoing effort to become a better informant and educator. Some of the most common challenges faced are those involving classroom discipline, differing proficiency levels and lack of clear objectives.

Controlling the behavior of students in the classroom is probably the first task that any teacher should take into consideration. A good start is for the teacher not to be on a first name basis with the students. In many cultures there is a formal way of treating teachers that does not necessarily stand out in English. This can be overcome by asking the students to address the teacher by a title such as Mr or Miss and the teacher’s last name. This marks a distance between the expert (the teacher) and the learner.

Students need to be aware of the rules of the game in the classroom and will need to be reminded of these rules consistently. A list of simple rules should be highlighted, perhaps even posted on the wall. An example of such a list would be:

1 Students must arrive to class on time.

2 Students must bring books and study materials to each class.

3 Students must participate in all activities in the class.

4 Students must be respectful to their classmates and the teacher.

5 Students must help their classmates who have difficulty.

A “three strike you’re out” or yellow card system can be implemented when students fail to follow these rules. In collaboration with the director of the school, consequences of breaking the rules three times in any time period (class hour, week or month) can range from doing extra exercises to visiting the director’s office and explaining why the student has been flagged as troublesome. Teachers must be strict about their rules, whether they be those listed above or other, more personal rules like English is the only language used in class or Students must raise their hands to speak.

It is nearly impossible to create a class in which all of the members will have the same proficiency level. Even in beginner level classes, individual students will learn more quickly or more laboriously than their mates. This reality must not be lamented but rather taken advantage of. In the first place, common denominators must be discovered. These are usually linked to pronunciation, improvisation of conversations, impromptu and fluid sentence construction. Using these common denominators as a basis for the class work will keep all students within the framework of a particular level.

This does not mean that all classes must be pronunciation classes but rather a focus on the pronunciation of complete, well reduced and blended sentences might be the best way to get everyone using a particular grammar point or lexical theme. In the second place, the load on the teacher can be lightened by pairing up quicker students with those who have more difficulty and creating a tutor-relationship. The brighter students will feel satisfied with the confidence demonstrated by the teacher in their control of the task while the students who need more help might just understand better when the material is explained in the words of their peers.

Finally, the objectives of the class should be clearly outlined and understood by the teacher and the students. For example, “In this course we will be studying the following sentence structures and memorizing the following vocabulary and finally taking an exam to show how well the information has stuck.” Too often a teacher will simply plan classes following the text book provided by the school. Every certain time the teacher will paste up an exam that will attempt to demonstrate the material learned by each individual student. Students will either pass or fail this exam and the next unit in the book will be taught, the next exam prepared and taken and passed or failed.

Clear, obtainable objectives should be brought to light from the beginning of the course. “In this course we will study the following sentence structures and put them to use in short, improvised and prepared conversations.” Of these two objective statements, this latter is more stimulating, combining the drab work of learning structures with the more entertaining work of preparing short dialogues, perhaps in a theatrical context, perhaps recorded or video-taped for later evaluation by the students and the teacher. Evaluation of the original objectives and their evolution during the course is also important and should be included in the classroom work, making the students active participants in the development of the course.

These are, naturally, only three of the myriad stimulating difficulties that a teacher may find in the ESL or EFL classroom. Actually, they are common challenges in any classroom with any subject. Learning a new language is often considered more difficult than learning math or social sciences. This is an attitude that belongs more in a debate on education and less in the preparation of language study courses. Identifying the challenges and being creative in the solution to the problems, making the students an active part of the process, will make the course experience rich and satisfying for all participants.