You are going to want students to spend a lot of their classroom time engaged in doing things in pairs, groups etc. That means we have to think about how to organise these activities effectively and efficiently. Otherwise, we may end up with more time being spent giving instruction etc. and less time for students to actually do the activities and use their English.
Let’s look at some of the basic classroom management principles you’re going to need to consider.
When we have an activity for students to do – one way of thinking about how we manage this is by comparing it to a burger! Look at the two pictures below. Which one would you rather eat? Burger A or burger B?
Most people would probably choose burger B because it’s meatier! It’s got more of the important stuff in the middle. Bread is nice, but at least part of its function is simply as a means of delivering the main event – the burger. If activities in the classroom were portrayed as a burger, we would also be aiming for burger B. The burger represents the task cycle.
The first slice of the bun is the set up. And our aim here is clarity and efficiency. If we are unclear, if we take a long time – we end up with too much bread and not enough of the most nutritious bit – the activity itself.
Look at the list below and think about which things you think would be helpful when setting up an activity or are a good example, and those you think would be unhelpful or are a bad example.
For each, think about why they are helpful / unhelpful and suggest an alternative / improvement for those you don’t think are good.
1. Instruction for a speaking activity: ‘Now what I want everyone to do is work with someone else in the group, it doesn’t matter who. And what I’d like you to do is come up with several suggestions as to why you think that it might be a good idea for the man we read about to move house. So talk together and make your decision and summarise your reasons. Now does everybody understand what I want you to do?’
2. Ask students one or two questions to check they have understood what you want them to do. Such as ‘Do you need to write anything now?’
3. Give students the handouts / materials and then tell them what to do with them.
4. Stay central and make sure everyone can see and hear you when giving instructions.
1. X – There are lots of things that we could improve about this instruction. All the teacher wants the students to do is discuss a question, but the instruction is very long and complicated and contains words or phrases which the students may not understand. A better way to word this would be;
Work together in 3’s (teacher gestures / nominates the groups)
Together agree on 5 reasons why you think he should move house.
2. Good – There is little point in asking students, Do you understand? They will usually say yes, even if they don’t. Instead, we should ask more helpful questions. These are called ICQs and are a good idea. They avoid asking if students understand and they save the teacher repeating things if they don’t need to.
3. X – If I give you a piece of paper, what is the first thing you want to do? Yes – look at it! If students are looking at the handout, they are often not listening, meaning the teacher will need to repeat instructions or students will be confused because they didn’t hear. So whenever possible, give instructions before handing out the materials.
4. Good – If you ‘zoom in’ towards students when you are setting up an activity, you will find that you lose eye contact with some of the class – they will be looking at your back. At this point, they get the impression that what you are saying is not meant for them and you may lose their attention.
Some key principles when setting up tasks
- Instructions before materials where possible.
- Short clear, graded instructions.
- Use demonstration where possible / appropriate – showing is often more effective than telling.
- Make use of instruction checking questions (ICQs) to be sure everyone knows what to do.
Students do the task / activity
Now we are into the meat! Hopefully we have set up the activity clearly and efficient, meaning students now have a good amount of time to do it. Let’s imagine that is the case, and now students are happily engaged in a meaningful activity. What are you, the teacher doing and why?
Sometimes teachers feel a bit unnerved by stages in the lesson where they are not the focus. They wander about, not quite knowing what to do with themselves. The temptation is either to sit on the side-lines thinking about what comes next in the lesson, or to get involved with the activity. Neither of these are great solutions. We have already said that we want students working on their own or with other students, so if we as teachers get involved, we will quickly find that students are deferring to us, and it’s us, rather than them doing most of the talking!
At this stage we need to get out of the way and let them get on with it. But this doesn’t mean we don’t have an important role. We need to know if students are doing what we want in the way that we want and we need to know how successfully they are doing it. Are they having any problems? If so what? Do I need to help? In order to find the answers to these questions, we need to monitor.
How the students are interacting may affect our monitoring. For example, if the students are working individually on a written exercise, we want to see how they are doing, but we don’t want to make them feel self-conscious. In this scenario, if possible, we might want to walk behind the students, or sit far enough away to be unintimidating, but close enough to see what they are doing. In the sitting position, maintaining eye-contact will make us accessible to students. They can catch our eye, rather than having to shout us over and draw attention to themselves. Similarly if students are speaking in groups, we may need to be close enough to hear, and be on-hand if they need help, but not so close as to distract or become overly involved.
While we monitor we may decide that we need to intervene. Why might this be?
- If the students are not doing the activity as we want.
Perhaps they have gone too far off topic, or we realise one or two of them are confused. Then we can set this straight.
- If we hear mistakes that we want to correct there and then.
This would not be any and all mistakes – only those that we can a) correct there and then without disrupting the activity too much, or b) those that we consider it essential we do something about. For example mistakes with a language point we have been teaching that lesson.
If neither of these criteria are met – we probably want to leave students to get on with the task and make comments and corrections after they have finished. This being the case, we need to monitor actively and carefully – perhaps with pen and paper in hand, noting down important points / mistakes, otherwise we are liable to forget exactly what we noticed when we monitored and feedback will not be very helpful.
When students have completed the activity, or the end of the time available for it is approaching, we need to conduct feedback. You might ask why. Why not let them continue the activity until the very end of the lesson? Well, imagine I ask you to do something, for say 10 minutes. Then I stop you and say, ‘OK, that’s the end of the lesson’. How do you imagine you will feel? Most probably you would wonder what the point of the activity was, and since I haven’t commented on how you did, you might imagine that I didn’t care. Or perhaps you have completed a reading task, but then we don’t do any feedback on the answers. The chances are you are going to be left frustrated and still not clear on what you got right, and what the answers are to any you didn’t get finished.
OK, so feedback is essential, but how do we go about it and is it always conducted in the same way?
Firstly if you remember, one of the principles of modern EFL is to minimise teacher-centred time and maximise student-centred time. One way we can do this, is when appropriate / possible, include a pair or group feedback / checking stage, before whole class or teacher-led checking. So, if students have read and answered questions, or worked individually on a grammar exercise they can help each other and compare. In helping each other, they are likely to get more of the task correct – this means the T-fronted feedback can be more efficient as they’ve done more of the work themselves. The paircheck also gives the teacher another opportunity to monitor and decide if anything needs further clarification.
Some useful feedback techniques
To check answers, we can call on individual students by name to answer questions or give information.
When to choose it
This technique is useful in most situations and is very useful when there is no right or wrong answer – for example when students have been doing a discussion task. By nominating, we can ensure that students contribute equally to the lesson and manage any dominant students, by making sure others get a chance to answer. We can relate our nomination to our monitoring. When we see a slightly weaker or under-confident student has an answer or idea, we can make a point of nominating them during feedback. This will build their confidence and avoid nominating people when they don’t know something, which is likely to make them feel silly or self-conscious. It isn’t normally a good idea to nominate students one by one in order, both for the reasons just mentioned, but also because students at the end of the circle or group, may lose interest while waiting. If we don’t go in order of seating, we can keep everyone more alert and on their toes!
In some situations (usually when there is no clear correct or incorrect answer), we can ask students to nominate each other. This has the advantage of helping them get to know names, and keeps everyone engaged and focusing on each other, rather than only the teacher.
Get students up to the board
Students go to the board and write or place their answers in the correct space.
When to choose it
We can use this method of feedback for activities where there are definite answers. For example, when students have completed a reading task, or a task where they had to put things into a certain order. They have previously done the task, checked in pairs and now they want confirmation of the correct answers and clarification of why they are what they are. If we choose this method, we can increase student engagement and hand more of the activity over to students. Once they have got their answers on the board, we can again involve them and give more responsibility for the answers to them, by asking the group as a whole if they agree. If they don’t agree with all the answers, we can encourage them to tell the class why. We can elicit explanation / clarification from the students, so they do it instead of us.
Note that this techniques doesn’t work well if the answers require a lot of writing, as this would mean a lot of waiting around for most of the class while answers are written up. Also, this is not time efficient if students come up one by one to the board. Try to involve as many students as possible at one time, perhaps by giving responsibility for a certain number of questions to particular groups of students. Encourage those that are not up at the board to see if they agree or disagree with the answers.
Students are given a sheet with answers, sometimes including extra information, which they use to check their answers and understanding.
When to choose it
This way of doing feedback is best left for tasks where there are definite right or wrong answers. For example,students have been completing a gap-fill where they need to add the correct form of a verb. They have then compared their answers with a partner and now it’s time for feedback. As a student, I want to know the answers, and an answer key provides an efficient way to keep this process student-centred. Note though, that the teacher must have monitored well, so that after this stage they know if any of the answers need further clarification. It isn’t enough for students to correct their answers, they need to know why they got something wrong.
Another example of when this technique might be appropriate, is if students have been working on a note taking activity with a reading or listening text. Nomination or writing on the board may be time-consuming and a little unclear as potentially there is a lot of information to check. An answer key would provide a clear way for students to check if they have got the same information as the teacher. It also involves another skill- reading to check. Again, it would be important for the teacher to clarify any problems they noticed during monitoring, after the students have read the answer key.