Most language classrooms around the world are not ideal for effective communication with the students. Classrooms typically contain rows of desks facing the teacher, students sitting individually or in pairs, with up to 50 students in the room for a lesson and in Bangladesh it crosses hundred in many institutions. This situation hardly allows communicative activities in the classroom. Teachers describe such classes as problematic because large classes generate lots of stress, increase work overload and make it practically impossible to give equal opportunity to all learners. Most teachers agree that teaching a small group of students is easier, more enjoyable, and less time-consuming than teaching a large group. However, due to budget constraints, space or lack of teachers, most institutions have to hold large classes. Though the large classes may look more like a university lecture hall, teachers’ job is not to lecture. Just like teaching a small class, teachers must come up with engaging activities that will keep all of their students interested and participating with the goal of improving their communication skills.
Challenges of Teaching Large Classes: Students in large classes might take full advantage of large classes to do other things rather than learning. They can sit at the back of the class where they will not be seen and may spend some time there doing homework, chatting with peers, drawing pictures, disrupting the class. They might not get involved in classes because they haven’t heard the instructions clearly since large classes make listening instruction almost impossible. Students feel like the teacher is not focused on them and that he is only interested in those students who are seated in the front row.
Addressing the problems of large classes: Class should be started by giving the rules of participation so that the teacher can keep an atmosphere of respect regardless of the tasks students are going to complete during his/her lesson. The tasks should be tailored as per the level of the students. A teacher has to use a variety of activities to motivate and engage all learners and focus should be more on activities that students can do in pairs or in small groups. Questions are the simplest form of interactive teaching tool, particularly in large classes. They can help promote active learning and gauge students’ level of interest and comprehension. In communicative classes, have students switch places so they can go and interact with other classmates that will give a teacher the opportunities to move around the classroom and listen to other group works. Feel good with communicative noise in the classroom, it is not very likely that large classes will keep quiet during the lesson.
Introduce innovation to your classes, students might feel more engaged in your class if they can incorporate mobile phones into their learning. Last but not least, make classes meaningful and fun, prepare some games to make the class more entertaining, you can’t approach a large class as you would normally approach a small class. Activity-based learning has several advantages. It allows all learners in mixed-ability classes to study effectively and progress meaningfully. Within activity-based learning, each child learns at their own speed through units of a syllabus, completing specific activities and then a self-assessment task at the end of each unit. The teacher may spend time each lesson working with individual students, or working with small groups while others are busy working on activities. With training, learners can achieve impressive levels of autonomy, which reduces classroom management challenges for the teacher.
‘Think, pair, share’ strategy can be applied in large classes. It can be useful when checking comprehension of reading and listening texts, and also when checking understanding of new vocabulary or grammatical concepts. The teacher asks an important question, but rather than accepting the first answer which often comes from a strong student, the teacher says ‘think, pair, and share’. Students think silently for a few seconds, then they discuss answers to the question in pairs. The teacher then selects a student to share their answer with the whole class. This strategy allows more ‘wait time’, letting students think and then compare their ideas before responding. It can motivate weaker learners to answer, increase the likelihood of successful answers, and if students are encouraged to discuss in English, it can also afford useful speaking practice.
‘Back translation’ or ‘reverse translation’, can be practiced in the large class. It does have four stages. First, learners study the features of a model text in English. The text can be as short or as long as the teacher likes. Then, they translate it into their mother tongue. Then, the original English text is hidden, and learners must translate their mother tongue text back to English. Finally, they compare this text with the original English text and can note differences, self- or peer-correct errors and even award marks if criteria are simple and clear.
Establish a fun and competitive atmosphere within the class, by dividing the class into teams. You may change the teams once in a while or leave them the same throughout a term or semester. Teams can win points for certain accomplishments. Learn unique ways to remember names and do your best to get to know something about each of your students. Create a seating chart on the first day and ask students to stick with it for a while. Tell your students at least one or two things about yourself beyond your role of teaching. Establish a signal that you want your class to stop what they are doing and listen. This should be done from the first day, so that students become accustomed to it right away. Be careful not to use gestures or sounds that would offend anyone.
Teaching English to a large number of students can be daunting, but it needs to be considered a challenge rather than an obstacle. Learning a language is very similar to learning how to ride a bicycle or how to swim. It cannot be done by just watching someone else do it. If a person is going to learn the language, they must practice it as often as possible. Make sure all the students get a chance to participate in the language class. Very often, the shy or quiet students can be ‘forgotten’ or can become invisible in large class settings because the more outspoken students are ready to volunteer their answers or ready to read out loud. Finally, you should take your time to be creative and develop effective lesson plans using Communicative Language Teaching (CLT)!
The writer is Country Director, Voluntary Association for Bangladesh (VAB) and President, English Teachers’ Association of Bangladesh (ETAB)