Note from Barb: A few days ago, I wrote a short post for the iTDi blog about teaching large classes. I was fascinated by the Englishometer that Valentina mentioned in her comment, and asked if she’d consider sharing more of her ideas in a guest post here. Lucky for us, she agreed!
About ten years ago (when I graduated), if you had told me I would spend a significant part of my life teaching English to young people, I would have been surprised, a little shocked. To be honest, at that time teaching English was not my dream. I always loved the language, the culture and the literature, but never before had I thought I could be a teacher.
It didn’t have anything to do with the language, I was just afraid of managing thirty young boys all together, only me and them in one room. So I started working in a big international company. My role was to implement communication plans and run workshops for managers.
After two years I realised I was not getting anything back. In terms of values and human relationships, I mean. So I decided to go into teaching. Basically it was moving from an impersonal environment into a strong human-focused one.
Engaging human personalities and emotions, this is the main reason why I came into teaching.
Today I teach large teenage classes (11-14) and everyday I realise there are strategies we could use to make it simpler, and enjoy it! What demotivated me a lot at the beginning was trying to encourage students to initiate speaking. How could I make 30 younger teenagers speak English? Here are a few ideas that worked:
Just ask! – Quite often teens complain about everything (especially about lessons) so I started to involve them in the decisions by giving them a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year. I only ask a few questions: What stops you from speaking English? How do you prefer to speak (pair work, group work, etc.)? What do you talk to your friends about?
Generally, my students prefer pair work and talking about personal experiences, cinema, sports, computers, and music (like most teens around the globe).
Giving instructions – The main reason why they don’t feel comfortable with speaking English is that they often don’t understand instructions properly. I found these techniques useful:
- get some students to repeat instructions in L1. This is really motivating for them, and I always try to pick different students.
- provide them with a model on the board and on the handout. If the model is clearly visible to them, they would only need to quickly look at it during the activity instead of asking other classmates or the teacher.
- get some students to actually do the activity as a model. I always choose volunteer students for that. They enjoy it, and it is also a good ice-breaker!
Avoid boredom! Use pictures and graphics - Once I have chosen a topic that is relevant to students, I look for interesting pictures that can capture their attention. To be useful images should be real, updated and easy to look at. If you can’t print coloured pictures, just show them on the screen or simply print a big coloured one to put on the wall. To get students attention I often try to link pictures to personal anecdotes (not always a real one!). I use pictures in many activities: tell a story, make a game, create a song, imaginary interviews.
I also started to use graphic organisers. I usually draw a big ‘S’ on the board and then I put a series of images on top of it, like different stops on a track. You can use it with stories, anecdotes, films or real life. In my experience pictures and graphics work quite well with teens because they find them real and motivating. Students are curious, they show genuine interest, and they have real reasons to speak.
Feedback: So, how much English did they use? Did they use it properly? How can a teacher provide personal feedback to 30 students after a speaking activity? Well, I can’t. I have tried to do that, leaving 15 minutes at the end of the lesson to call students one by one and provide short feedback, but it didn’t work. I easily lost the rest of the class. So I started using self-assessment cards. At the end of the lesson I give students small coloured cards with 2 questions on them: how much English did you speak today? How much did you participate? They know I have been monitoring them during the task so, they are usually quite honest. We have also recently begun to use the Englishometer, a big meter where we measure the use of English in class. Surprisingly, younger students got really motivated and they started using English all the time
In the company I lacked that sense of fulfillment that gives you the motivation to move on everyday. When you love English and you think you could give your personal contribution to someone’s development then you start thinking how satisfying teaching can be.
There are many reasons why teaching large teenage classes can be challenging, but I believe that once we find our “way through”, we can have a lot of fun! So, keep looking and sharing
Valentina Morgana has been teaching English to young learners and teenagers in Italy for 7 years. She is studying for the Cambridge DELTA. She is passionate about English and young learners. She is strongly interested in web 2.0 and introducing technology in the language classroom. You can follow her on her blog, ELT traveller box, and on Twitter (@vmorgana).