Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom: introduction

In my previous post I asked the question, ‘What exactly do we mean by classroom management?’

I started that post by suggesting that we have to split this particular subject right down the middle: we have the physical side (arranging furniture, placement of the whiteboard, seating plans, etc.) and we have the emotional side. That post was the first in a series of seven I’ll be writing on the emotional elements of classroom management. In what seems like an extreme case of optimism, I’ll be interspersing those posts with a focus on the other side of this symbiotic partnership: dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom.

A short while ago I posted a very brief photo post about the classrooms I would be teaching in this semester. It struck me that this deserved some expansion, as the kind of challenges these rooms have posed to me are probably the same that many of you face when adapting the physical environment in which you teach to the aims you have when planning a language class.

Deciding how to plan activities is both incredibly easy and horribly difficult. We might have a good idea of how we want our classes to unfurl over the course of a series of lessons, but we perhaps don’t always give enough consideration to the physical size and shape of the classroom as we should. While we might recognize that the shape and size of our classrooms dictates how our classrooms are arranged, we also need to understand that these factors should influence our choice of activities.

Before we get down to the business of moving desks and chairs around, we need to have a clear vision of what the room will look like and whether this will facilitate the activities we want to use. This post will act as the prologue to a series that introduce the challenges and opportunities that different physical environments present us with. I hope you’ll follow me on this journey…

Look at those happy students... how else could we describe them? (Image courtesy of @DenizAtesok)

Look at those happy students… how else could we describe them? (Image courtesy of @DenizAtesok)

The feng shui of the language classroom

Every classroom has a particular energy and flow to it. This isn’t new age mumbo jumbo; it’s common sense. Even in a place such as my school, where a number of rooms all follow a certain design, I find that there are little quirks in the shape and layout which make each unique. The little differences can make or break an activity if you haven’t factored the room into your planning. Here are a few preliminary questions that you might like to ask yourself about any given classroom.

Do you have enough seats for everyone? That sounds too simple to even bother considering, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised.

How mobile is the furniture? If you want to rearrange the tables or get students to move their chairs, to what extent is this possible? Sometimes these are in a fixed position: when this happens it definitely affects what you can do.

Where is the board? I know there might be those of you who think they are some kind of teaching wizard if they can get through a lesson without writing anything on the board, but for us mere mortals the board, be it chalk, white or electronic in nature, is still of paramount importance. So, how often are you going to use it? If you have several points of focus in the room, students need to be able to see all of them without straining their necks constantly.

How mobile are you? I run around like a madman during some lessons and hate it when I don’t have room to do so. For some activities you need a central position for demonstrating what you want to do, or just for delivering instructions effectively. Where is that space in the classroom?

How would you distribute handouts? How can you get paper to all of the people in class at approximately the same time? Of course, it’s nice to give students the responsibility of helping in distribution, but sometimes you’ll want to get this over and done with quickly. Where are the channels of distribution that will enable you to do this?

Are there windows in the room? A lack of natural light can put your students into a very strange mood sometimes and has an amazing effect on whether certain activities work or not. A general rule of thumb is this: nothing works quite as well in a room with no windows. Conversely, a room with blinding sun is terrible should you have any need to use a projector.

To what extent will the students engage with one another? At this point I imagine that the Dogme ELT fraternity will be foaming at the mouth at the suggestion that there would ever be a class in which the students weren’t engaged in speaking. Nevertheless, there are indeed times when you want the students to either listen to you speaking or to give their attention to some other interlocutor. Naturally, if eye contact is needed, such as in a class debate or in practically every type of group activity, eye contact you should allow.

If you’ve answered these questions, you’re off to a good start (if, while reading this, other questions came to mind, please feel free to make suggestions in the comments section below). Depending on the answers, you can now approach how you are going to use your room to facilitate learning. You are now faced with a classic ‘either / or’ situation.

1. Making the room work for the activity: Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.

2. Making the activity work for the room: If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you.

How do you get the room to work for you?

I find myself in a variety of rooms at present. Each presents a different challenge in terms of the questions I laid out above, but each also presents opportunities to get the room to work in your favour. I’ve given considered thought about what I can and can’t do in each of these environments, and over the course of five posts I’ll be detailing how I go about the ‘art of teaching’ in each particular setting. During these posts, I’ll be using the following four classroom layout models as points of reference, so the remainder of this post will be a look at these different models and what activities they facilitate.

1) The dance floor

As the name suggests, the dance floor is a layout that places the focus on an area visible to all. This layout can promote lots of student interaction as all the seats point toward a central focus point. The large, open space in the middle of the room is traditionally in front of where a teacher’s desk might appear and is equally great for group activities and class discussions as it is for teacher talk.

The ‘dance floor’

On the downside, that big area might be regarded as a serious waste of space, particularly if you have a large class. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to get a group talking to each other this can be a winner, because students are able to hold eye contact without constantly having to swing around in their seats. However, this seating chart requires a room with a lot of space in it.

2) The catwalk

As I mentioned, I walk around a lot during my lessons, mainly in the hope that my movement will instill motivation in my students, but also so that I can maintain eye contact with each of them and not leave anyone out when it comes to asking questions. The catwalk is effective in preventing me from wandering aimlessly. While it narrows the area in which a teacher can easily move, it’s extremely effective in rooms that have boards on opposite ends of the room. Bear in mind, however, that because you are teaching down the center of the room, you may have the unnerving feeling of being surrounded.

The ‘catwalk’

If you’re planning on holding a class discussion or some kind of two-team game, such a layout is a practical way of arranging seating, as students will always face at least half the class. Success with this layout depends entirely on the number of rows you use: the fewer the better. To maximize class interaction, make the rows of students parallel to the center lane as long as possible.

3) The independent-nation-state

Who doesn’t love a bit of group work? If, like me, you see the benefit of cooperative learning, or even if you regularly split your class into teams for games, this layout is an essential. This seating plan instantly tells students that you want them to operate independently from the rest of the class. It’s important to bear in mind that students still need to be able to see the board easily without giving themselves an injury.

The ‘independent nation state’

Using this too often will probably result in a fragmented classroom and a lack of dynamic among the class as a whole. If your room is permanently set up like this, you might even find that each group forms their own classroom culture and is unable to work with students in the other groups. This is an effective layout, but should not be a permanent one.

4) The Battleship

Like the game and, I suppose, the – bloody awful – film, the battleship layout is all about the element of surprise. Consider the picture a metaphor for the battleship, the spirit of which is just to mix things up from the everyday norm.

The ‘battleship’

This layout can be effective when trying to foster creativity, or even the polar opposite; this works when you have to administer a classroom quiz. The battle ship will almost certainly be a single lesson one-off. If you change the seating too often you’ll drive your students nuts.

Putting this into practice

I teach in five very different classrooms this semester. What’s more, they are very spread out. Before classes started, I did a tour of my prospective rooms and it took me about fifteen minutes to visit each of them. I clocked up more than a kilometer in the process. One thing became instantly clear; I wasn’t going to be able to pop back to my office in between each lesson. Consequently, I was going to have to bring everything I needed with me. Things have been interesting over the past few weeks and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how I’ve dealt with the physical constraints placed on my teaching. Please join me again over the next couple of weeks!

Posted in Classic posts, Opinion, Teaching ideas, The life of an english teacher, The teacher perspective | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Investigating the emotional side of the classroom: introducing classroom management

What exactly do we mean by classroom management? The way I see it, we have to split this particular subject right down the middle: we have the physical side (arranging furniture, placement of the whiteboard, seating plans, etc.) and we have the emotional side. The various theories I’ll be introducing and discussing over the course of several posts focus on the latter, encompassing the methods of organization, administration, teaching and enforcing discipline in our classroom.

While I’ll be interspersing these posts with a series focusing on the physical nature of classroom management, these ‘emotional posts’ shall consider how particular theories provide models for explaining how students learn, thus suggesting techniques for enhancing learning and decreasing distraction in our learning environments.

Additionally, I hope these posts will help show you how knowledge of classroom management can help you investigate how you function in a classroom, and how you might reflect on changes you’d like to make to how you manage things.

In today’s post I’ll introduce and briefly summarize some of the things I’ll be discussing throughout this blog series.

1. The notion of teacher presence

When we are managing our classrooms, the kind and amount of presence we as teachers uphold are important in establishing – and understanding – the dynamics of the learning environment. So, what’s best?

  • Domineering teachers can ruin a learner’s sense of autonomy, reinforcing the notion that they are not as important a part of the class as the teacher.
  • On the other hand, being too free with students can result in a state of anarchy in which no learning can occur.

As teachers we must achieve some kind of equilibrium; we need a noticeable physical presence in the classroom, while still focusing on getting learners to self-impose positive norms. What we are aiming for is learners developing appropriate behavior through self-discipline, rather than the danger of punishment.

2. The notion of assertive discipline

How we might best keep control in our learning environments is the central theme that many theories of classroom management attempt to address. As a teacher you might often feel the need to maintain strict discipline in your learning environment by threatening students with some form of punishment or other assertive techniques.

Such thinking is based heavily on the behaviorist notion that learning is a process of negative or positive reinforcement. While such an approach may be effective in certain situation (I will be looking at the good and the bad of behaviorism soon), a number of other techniques have shown to be more helpful in the long term.

'students 10' by @yearinthelifeof from #ELTPics

‘students 10′ by @yearinthelifeof from #ELTPics

3. The notion of learner self control

Not all theories look at the notion of discipline, however. In the ‘other camp’ are those theories that focus on learner control; these suggest that it’s better for learners to discover internal control, to learn how to take control of their behavior and take responsibility for the choices they make.

Is there a downside to this? Nurturing and facilitating self control takes considerably more time than adopting threatening behaviorist stance; nevertheless, it is unquestionably more valuable to learners in the long run.

4. The notion of teacher organization

The more organized we are as teachers, the more effective we can be in our learning environment. As a general rule of thumb, all learners are likely to respond positively to a structured environment; this is especially the case for adult learners.

Put simply, learners are more receptive when the guidance given is more focused; they behave better because they have respect for teachers, rather than because they fear negative consequences.

Summing up and looking forward

A range of theories hint at the conditions in which learning best occurs; generally, this means structured environments, through demonstration, observation, and through classroom activities that focus on doing, rather than merely memorizing rules. We will be exploring these, plus the points I’ve introduced today, in upcoming posts. Join me again soon, when I’ll be introducing the theories of Behaviorism, Choice, Student-Directed Learning and Assertive Discipline.

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Posted in Classic posts, Opinion, Theory | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Infographic: for and since with present perfect

Here is an infographic showing the different uses of for and since to express time with the present perfect tense.

This infographic was prepared using a couple of free applications. Firstly, I used the piktochart free website for the overall infographic, with the embedded cartoons created using bitstrips. Additionally, examples were taken from the English Club website.

Let me know if it’s useful. Click on the image to make it larger, or click here to download the full size image.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | 2 Comments

Infographic: British and American English spelling differences

Today’s infographic shows you a quick overview of the differences in spelling between British and American English. The differences often come about because British English has tended to keep the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages (for instance, French), while American English has adapted the spelling to reflect the way that the words actually sound when they’re spoken.

If you’re writing specifically for British or American readers, you should try to consistently use the appropriate spellings. In one or two cases, the preferred American spellings are acceptable in British English as well, especially the -ize/-ization endings. While you can use both the -ise/-isation or the -ize/ization endings in British English, it’s important to stick to one style or the other throughout the same piece of writing.

I used Piktochart to design the infographic.


If you’re interested in how the differences in spelling conventions came about, please read this guest post I wrote for Vicki Hollett’s blog on the work of Noah Webster.

You can download the original, full size image here (800×1507).

Additionally, there are a number of share and embed options available from Flickr here.

Finally, you can share the image using the QR code on the right.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Using games to teach vocabulary? 4 reasons to think again

Going through the process of acquiring new vocabulary is long, time consuming, and can therefore become boring for many learners, but developing knowledge through word games can make the task fun for both learners and teachers. Word and language games not only make class time go faster, they improve learners’ rates of learning and retention. Nevertheless, effective vocabulary teaching isn’t all fun and games. When considering language games as part of your lesson plan, we need to be careful and really think things through.

As a strong advocate of the considered use of games in language teaching, here are the four points I think you need to consider before using games.

1. Have you really thought about the planning and organization of your game?

A successful game never just happens. Indeed, choosing or designing the right game for the lesson you want to teach can often be more time-consuming than planning a traditional vocabulary lesson. Do the ends justify the means, or would it be easier to take on a more traditional teaching approach?

My advice

Obviously, when you find a game format that works, planning time is greatly reduced, but you need to take this extra workload into account when planning your lesson, especially when using a game format for the first time.

Playing a card game (Dixit)

‘Playing a card game (Dixit)’ by @sandymillin on #ELTPics

2. How complex are the rules of the game?

Another potential drawback of games in vocabulary teaching is that the game itself is too difficult to understand, therefore distracting learners from its intended pedagogical goal. If your game is structurally complex (for instance, the patterns of turn-taking aren’t easy for learners to grasp), your players may become too distracted by the mechanics of it all to learn vocabulary effectively, even if vocabulary-related tasks are part of the game.

My advice

Keep the rules easy to understand, and keep the number of rules to a minimum. Try explaining it to another teacher before using it in class; if they can’t understand it, it’s certain your learners won’t either.

3. Are you sure you’re not just creating busywork?

As I mentioned in the introduction, a good game will see class time fly by in an instant. Since games are fun and game play involves a lot of relaxed and informal interaction between learners and teachers, some teachers and even learners may view them as unproductive busywork. This is especially the case if you start using games on too regular a basis.

My advice

When used strategically, teaching vocabulary through games can be more effective than teaching through traditional methods of drill and memorization. Explain to learners exactly why you are playing and how it will benefit them. Also, don’t play games too often.

4. What resources do you need to invest in the game?

I’m lucky in that I have access to what I need, in terms of resources, in every room I teach in. For many teachers, however, availability of resources can be a factor in whether or not they use games in the classroom. Educational web-based games, for example, require computer access, and even technologically simple games such as custom-designed crossword puzzles might involve design, printing and photocopying costs.

My advice

Look for low-tech alternatives which can just as easily add to your learners’ learning experience. Classic whiteboard games such as Hangman, for instance, require very few resources or prep time, yet can still be great fun and pedagogically useful. Even if you have all the tech equipment you need, consider how you might be able to adapt if/when these tools break down.

Want more?

If you found these suggestions useful, please take a look at all the other posts I’ve written on using games in the classroom.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | 5 Comments

Infographic: prepositions of time

Today’s infographic shows you how we use the prepositions in, on and at with different time phrases. There are examples to help you clearly understand how we use these prepositions in different situations.

I used Piktochart to design the infographic and Bitstrips for the cartoons.

prepositions of timeYou can download the original, full size image here (800×2950).

Additionally, there are a number of share and embed options available from Flickr here.

Finally, you can share the image using the QR code on the right.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | 10 Comments

4 fun and motivating grammar activities for beginner classes

Grammar exercises are a fundamental ingredient of many language lessons, but can become a bit of a drag for both us and our learners if we’re not careful. However, grammar need not necessarily become a dry and tedious affair. If we can make grammar exercises as learner-focused and interactive as possible, we can keep them interesting, enjoyable and, most importantly, effective. Here are is selection of four classic, low-preparation activities that work particularly well with beginner classes.

1. A classic tic-tac-toe game

The format is simple and therefore easily recognizable to every learner… a surefire winner!

  •  On your whiteboard or blackboard draw a tic-tac-toe grid. In the spaces where you would normally put a cross or a zero, write language you wish to practice. For example, you may write, “going to,” “sleeps,” “behind, ” “makes,” “does,” and “can.”
  • Split the class into two teams. Ask one team to pick any word from the tic-tac-toe grid and to tell you a sentence of five words or more containing that word. For instance, “He is going to go to the bank later.”
  • Set a time limit of approximately fifteen seconds for each turn. If the team manages to form a grammatically correct sentence, erase the word and replace it with a cross or a zero. If the sentence is not grammatically correct, leave the word in the grid.
  • It’s now the other team’s turn to select a word and attempt to form a grammatically correct sentence. Continue until one team has a line of three zeros or crosses.
Dice & cup

‘Dice & cup’ from @aClilToClimb at ELTPics

2. Verb Tennis

A simple activity that you can decide to do on the spot, as it requires little to no preparation. All you need to know are the basic rules of tennis!

  • Divide the class into two teams and give each team some time to think of approximately ten verbs.
  • One team starts, or serves, by saying a verb, the other team must return this service by saying the past tense of this verb and the first team must now say the past participle of the same verb. Then prompt the other team to start, or serve.
  • Keep score as you would in a tennis match, so if one team gets a past tense or past participle incorrect then the score becomes 15-love to the other team, then 30-love and so on.

3. The Never Ending Sentence

Again, an activity that you can use whenever you have a few minutes of class time to spare, or when you need to spice things up with a bit of action.

  • Divide the class into groups of three or four and write the words “I like” on the blackboard or whiteboard.
  • Ask one group to add one word to this sentence that will continue it in a grammatically correct way, for example, “to,” and write this on the board. Ask the next group to add another word to this sentence that will again continue it in a grammatically correct way, for example, “go.”
  • Continue like this, with each group adding a word to the sentence. When one group cannot think of a word in approximately ten seconds or adds a grammatically incorrect word then they are out and the exercise continues without them.
  • Continue until only one group remains.

4. Present Continuous Charades

Another activity that comes from a universally known format that you can use whenever time allows or boredom necessitates. Only a little preparation is required for this one.

  • Split the class into groups of three or four and supply each group with your pre-prepared slips of paper, faced down, on which you have written prompts. For instance, you might write, “walking upstairs,” “singing a song,” “drinking hot coffee,” or “making an omelet.”
  • Each member of the group takes it in turn to choose a slip of paper and act out the prompt. The other group members attempt to guess correctly what the first learner is miming and produce a grammatically correct structure in the present continuous: for example, “You are walking upstairs.”
  • Learners may keep score if they wish, or just play for fun. Walk around the class as the learners work and give help where necessary.

Summing up

Although I’ve suggested these activities are great for beginner learners, we might use them with any class. Nevertheless, with lower levels we should keep language as simple as possible when explaining an exercise and make use of stronger learners to help demonstrate.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | 12 Comments

Reactive and proactive teaching: which should we use in the language classroom?

Imagine a classroom in which learners are working on projects together in groups, while the teacher walks around the classroom, observing, and pausing to talk quietly with each group. Imagine, then, another classroom where one learner shouts across the room to another learner in heated tones, looking to cause some kind of reaction. The teacher quickly moves to the learner’s chair and redirects their attention while the rest of the class gets back to work.

Granted, these are fairly basic examples, but they do serve to illustrate the differences between proactive and reactive approaches. In the first scenario, the teacher practices a proactive approach to classroom management, whereas in the second the teacher employs a reactive classroom management technique. Both types of management styles are useful for a teacher, but knowing when and how to use one or the other can help us a great deal in the classroom.

Proactive or reactive teaching?

As you can imagine, a proactive teaching approach means anticipating and addressing potential discipline issues before they happen. How might we go about this?
One way is to set up classroom rules and procedures for learners to follow on a daily basis, as this can really help prevent discipline problems before they occur. When a learner knows your expectations, they tend to perform to those expectations. It might feel overly autocratic to lay down rules from the start, but this really can be beneficial to your learners.

'Classroom' by Linda Pospisilova from #ELTPics

‘Classroom’ by Linda Pospisilova from #ELTPics

Nevertheless, incidents occur and we as teachers need to be prepared to take immediate action by redirecting a learner’s attention, moving the learner’s desk or even getting the learner away from the classroom setting for a short period of time. Again, these reactive approaches to student behavior may seem overly autocratic, but they will benefit all. In such cases actions need to be quickly administered, so the class can get back to work with few distractions.

Proactive teaching

As mentioned setting up routines for learners, in terms of guidelines for respectful behavior, is something I’d recommend at the very beginning of new class. What steps can you take to facilitate this? Fortunately, there are a number of easily-implemented steps. Here are a few suggestions you can put into practice:

  • Knowing learners’ names and greeting each person as they arrive to class shows them you are truly interested in them as a person. You will instantly start off on the right foot.
  • Another action that will greatly help is allowing time to discuss and practice expectations for behavior before learners move on to different activities within the classroom.
  • Try using relaxing music as a signal to move within the class or just as a calming background can make the room feel more comfortable. A good source for such music is YouTube: type in search criteria such as ‘relaxing music for study’.
  • Develop a regular routine of having objectives / assignments / homework posted in the same place each day so learners can get going immediately; gives a sense of structure to the class.

Basically, proactive teaching requires planning to make sure each series of lessons begins and ends successfully.

Reactive Teaching

Sometimes, in spite of your best-laid plans, learners will do all they can to disrupt things. More often than not this is due to some externality such as being tired, hungry, having a lot on their plate, etc.; whatever the reason, some learners will try to disrupt the flow of the class.

At such times, we need to react quickly to stop this behavior from accelerating. A system of restrictive discipline strategies can prevent behavior from escalating to the point of disrupting the entire class. Here is an example for you:

I notice a learner who won’t stop texting during class. Rather than getting perturbed, I go to the learner and give a quiet reminder about staying on task and our rule about no texting during lessons, giving them a moment of individual attention. Should the behavior continue, I might move the learner to a different part of the room or even out of the room. It is important that the learner understands why the action has been taken and that this behavior will not affect them permanently. Nevertheless, as the teacher, I should react to stop this disruptive behavior and return to the rest of the class as quickly as possible.

Employing both methods

As teachers, we need to use both approaches to discipline in tandem. Nonetheless, the more proactively we are able to structure a classroom and a lesson, the less time we will have to spend on reactive responses. When learners know exactly what a teacher expects from them, discipline problems tend to be minimized. Planning and practicing classroom routines will help prevent disruptions and maintain a positive classroom climate for learners and teachers.

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Posted in Life inside the classroom, Opinion, Teaching ideas | Tagged | 3 Comments

Ideas from teachers on how to motivate learners in the language classroom

I’m really happy to be a part of Teacher talk, a new series of videos featuring some of the British Council’sTeachingEnglish Associates speaking about important teaching issues.

In the first video in this series, the theme is student motivation. Watch myself, David Petrie, Lizzie Pinard, Chia Suan Chong, Anthony Gaughan, David Dodgson and Rachael Roberts discuss areas such as establishing learning objectives, giving activities a meaningful purpose, students’ inherent motivation, varying activities and giving students a choice.

Looks a bit shifty if you ask me...

Looks a bit shifty if you ask me…

Attempts to embed this video have so far failed, but you can watch it at the TeachingEnglish website.

Posted in Opinion, Teaching ideas, The teacher perspective, Theory | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A World Cup PowerPoint for to be and to have

Today, I’m continuing my series of World Cup PowerPoint shows with a fantastic 38-slide presentation that looks at the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’. Basically, it covers the following:

  • Yes/no question with be
  • Short answers to yes/no questions
  • Questions with be: using where
  • Using have and has
  • Using my, your, his, her, our, their

There are many examples showing how to form simple sentences, many of which are examples from the current World Cup:

A screen shot for the presentation.

A screen shot for the presentation.

You can download the PowerPoint here.

Posted in Teaching ideas | Tagged | 5 Comments