My preference is the large class.
Much has been written in recent years about the value of small class for learning, and in general that may be true, that they are better learning environments because the teacher is able to give each student individual attention and cater to his or her learning needs.
However, my preference as an adult ESL educator is still the large classroom. Students can work in a variety of different groups if there are 50 students in class as opposed to 5, where the choice is severely limited. There is an energy in a large class that a small class lacks: imagine the response to your successful joke in a large class as opposed to a small.
However, sometimes even a strong advocate for the large class has to acknowledge its drawbacks, as I did recently in my class of 50 adult ESL students where I had been trying unsuccessfully for five minutes to get everyone’s attention. Everyone, however, was too busy chatting in their discussion groups—the activity that should have ended five minutes ago. Students were getting up and leaving and returning at will, to go to the restroom or make phone calls. Too busy, however, until someone sneezed loudly, which drew uproarious laughter, for some reason. Wild? Yes, a little like a zoo, in fact.
So what are some of the ways to avoid these obvious drawbacks while still capitalizing on the benefits of a large class?
How to Manage the Very Large Class
In the large class, simple “traffic control” is an issue the first days - ways of getting students in the class, into their seats, and out at the end with minimum disruption. It is important to assign seating these first days and establish ways students may exit the class as necessary during it and at the end. Also important is to establish when students may talk—after raising a hand, for example. These rules are necessary to avoid a stampede at the end of class or taking up the entire class period getting settled in seats or the deafening roar of too many students talking at once.
Norms and Procedures
What would a class be like if all 40 or 50 students’ cell phones went off simultaneously? If you want to find out, don’t establish any norms or procedures with your large class! Otherwise, after the simple traffic management rules have been set up, you will want to establish some class norms. This is largely up to the individual teacher and her class. I am particularly bothered by electronic use during class but have no particular concern about student use of dictionaries, which other teachers object to, finding them an impediment rather than aid to learning. It’s also possible to negotiate the class norms with your students, deciding together what reasonable policies are for the overall good of your class.
Use of small groups can really be helpful in a large ESL class. In a large class not put into groups but rather utilizing whole-group instruction, the teaching becomes largely teacher-fronted, with the teacher doing most of the talking, sometimes calling on a student to answer a question. In such a class, the individual student gets a chance to speaking once or twice during a session, if that. If students are put into small groups and given a task - even something as simple as to describe a picture, for example - everyone will get a chance to engage in meaningful language use, while the teacher, now freed from the role of standing at the front of the class talking, can move from group to group, note students’ performance, and make comments as necessary.
Know Thy Students
In this process of going from group to group, the teacher is also able to learn more about her students and their language ability because they are actually using language - they are not just a sea of faces. She might even make notes next to student’s names on her roll sheet about their language use. And if she notices the majority of students have trouble with sentence stress, for example, she’ll know what to focus on in coming lessons. And while the teacher might not get to know each student individually as she would in a small class, she certainly knows more about them as learners than the teacher who stands at the podium and will know within a few weeks where each student’s strengths and weaknesses are.
Mix and Match
Knowing students’ individual strengths, weaknesses, their level within your class (there are always more advanced and less advanced learners in any given class) and their native languages presents interesting grouping opportunities for the teacher. It’s usually best to arrange groups of different language backgrounds and mixed ability levels so that students must speak in English to communicate and so that the stronger students can help the weaker ones.
Keep Them Busy
Most classroom problems happen, I am convinced, due to not enough to do - and this true for adults as well as children. If students are kept engaged in meaningful uses of language-- interpreting a road map, reading a job advertisement, discussing summer plans, and listening to a radio report on crime, for example--they will have less time and motive for interruptions, such as taking that cell phone call, going to the restroom, and making jokes with their buddies in their first languages.
Managing a large class is definitely a challenge but one well worth it because of the energy that can be produced in a classroom full of students excited about learning.
Although the potential of disruption is higher than in a small class, with planning and engaging students in meaningful learning, disruption can be minimized and a well-run classroom achieved.
What are your methods of managing large classes?