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What are some of the challenges of teaching large groups and how to solve them?

Diary submitted by Lisa L., Barcelona, 2020

Admittedly, I have never found myself in front of a large ESL class. I reckon the largest group I have ever had consisted of 12 students, and the challenges I have witnessed during my own experience as a student or during my internship didn’t come up because they were young adults with an advanced level. However, as an aspiring language teacher, I know I could find myself in this situation, which is why for this diary I have decided to focus on some of these challenges and how to seemingly  deal with them. 

A significant aspect of teaching large classes is the difficulty to help students with their individual doubts. Even if a teacher manages to know everyone’s name and personality – a challenge in itself – being able to spend time helping each student seems unrealistic. As a student, I have seen teachers who would walk around and listen to most questions, but who would give enough clues for the student to find the answer on their own. This approach enabled most questions to be solved easily, and the teacher would only address questions that came up multiple times so that everyone had a clear answer.  I imagine another solution to that is to encourage students to help each other. Large groups imply differing levels, and I think it is the teacher’s role to insist on the importance of the mixing and pairing up of different students. 

Another challenge is preparing classes since there has to be enough material for all students. This can mean photocopying more handouts than preferable or asking everyone to bring their course book when they probably already have other items to carry with them. In my opinion, having students work in pairs or in groups is a good way to deal with this. While I was making lesson plans, I relied a lot on group activities even though they were not meant for classes with more than 15 people, so I imagine that they are even more useful for larger groups. They allow students to interact with each other – the opposite of the teacher-centred approach that larger group can require and give them more autonomy. Besides, instead of printing resources for every single student, the teacher can bring one or two copies per groups. Similarly, if students already know which group they are going to work with, they can agree on who should bring the course book. Pair/group work in a large group can cause monitoring problems, but just like with helping each other, I think mixing students with different profiles can limit this problem.

Finally, noise and distractions can hardly be avoided with large groups, especially when students are permitted to work together. I would say this is a consequence of high energy, and the best way to control noise levels and lack of attention is to create friendly competition. For example, with children and younger students this can be done in the form of gamification, like creating teams for the whole lesson and turning every activity into an opportunity for each team to earn points. During a TEFL trainer workshop, we talked about how gamification could create just enough enthusiasm and awareness within students to help and push each other to behave as not to lose points. Besides, even when their team doesn’t win, they are less likely to be negatively impacted since they are not individually put on the spot. The same idea can be used for older students, always with the idea that while correct answers are the way to earn points for their team, lack of focus and too much noise means losing some. 

All in all, the larger the group, the more diverse and challenging it will be. Despite all this, no matter how challenging teaching such classes proves to be, they are faster, can be very exciting, and it’s likely that there will be some students that are always eager to participate. 

Sources

https://www.tefl.net/elt/ideas/teaching/teaching-large-classes/

https://www.teach-this.com/ideas/teaching-large-classes

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