Tips For Teaching Large Classes

Being in front of a classroom of ESL students can be intimidating under any circumstances.  But when it’s a large class, and yourself facing twenty or more students, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. 

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Classes with a lot of students pose a unique set of challenges for an ESL teacher.  However, if you handle those challenges right, these can be some of the most rewarding teaching experiences in your career.  Here are a few tips for teaching large classes to help you make the most of them.

You have to have classroom management down to a science

In a small class, you’ll have a little more leeway with rules.  It’s a lot easier to stop 7 or 8 students from getting out of hand than it is 20 students.  And once those students do get a little too rowdy, getting them calmed down and back on task can be enough to make you start pulling your hair our.

On the flip side, when you have a large class of students who know the rules, respect you as a teacher, and are engaged in learning, a large class can be incredibly fun.  The best way to do this is to set up your classroom rules and structure, and be extremely diligent about maintaining them, especially for the first few classes. If you have teaching assistants, don’t be afraid to ask them for help.

It takes a lot of energy

To keep the attention of that many students, you generally have to be a lot more energetic than you do in smaller classes.  This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping around like a maniac all the time, but it does mean talking louder, keeping your attention on all of the students, catching any behavioral problems right away and nipping them in the bud, and managing your time in the classroom very closely.  It can be draining, so make sure you find a way to take little breaks and catch your breath.

You can’t give students as much individual attention as you want to

This can be tough, especially if you’re the sort of teacher who really loves helping students one-on-one.  In a large class, you rarely have the chance to do that.  Usually, if you stop to turn your whole focus to helping one student, the rest of the class grinds to a halt, and when the students are bored, they start misbehaving.

Plan times in class when the students are sitting quietly doing a worksheet, paper, or something else that they can do independently.  Then you can walk around and spend a few minutes with students who need some extra attention.

Students work at very different speeds

Make sure you are prepared for the inevitable times when you’ve planned 15 minutes for a particular worksheet—and  about a third of the students finish it in 5 minutes.  Have a designated place where you put extra credit worksheets, word-searches, or books for those faster students, and make sure they know that when they finish the planned activity, they can get up, pick an activity, and do it quietly.

Whatever you plan, make sure that everyone knows what to do when they finish with the regular class activity, and that it will keep those students doing something productive so that you have time to help the rest of the students.

Games and activities take a really long time

You’ll never really appreciate the value of time management until you look at the clock and realize that the quick little game you decided to play with your class suddenly stretched to 45 minutes just so that everyone could have a turn.

If it’s possible, plan games that the students can play in small groups instead of as a whole class, so that everyone gets to participate and speak more.  No matter what, keep a close watch on the clock, and don’t be afraid to cut an activity short if need be.  And yes, the students will complain that everyone hasn’t had a turn yet.  And no, it’s not fair.  But you have a class to run.

Quieter students can easily fade into the background

When there are 20 or more students, it can sometimes be hard to notice if one or two aren’t really participating or speaking up.  Going around the class and having everyone take turns reading or answering questions can be a good way to give everyone a chance to speak up.  This can also cause a lot of anxiety for students who are very shy or are uncomfortable speaking in front of the group.  You might be better off planning to have them read in pairs, or in small groups.

The important thing is to know your class, figure out what works, and make sure that no one is falling through the cracks and getting lost.

Louder students can easily dominate the class

And at the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll have those students who practically tear their arms off waving them around whenever you ask a question.  Whether it’s the super smart students who always have the answers, the boisterous students who can’t keep quiet or stay in their seats, or the class clown who can even have you splitting your side sometimes, there will always be a few students who just dominate the class.  These students are fantastic—their energy and enthusiasm can add so much to any classroom.

The problem is that it’s really easy to find yourself just teaching to those more outgoing students.  It makes the class run a lot smoother and quicker when someone always has the answer.  But slow things down and make sure that the rest of the class is up to speed.  And channel those students’ energy into something useful: Make them activity leaders or game leaders; give them active jobs that let them get out of their seats, like distributing books and worksheets; or pair them up with quieter students that they can help out.

Routines and structure are essential

By that I mean the students should know exactly what they need to do and what’s expected of them in the classroom.  When they come into the class, they should know exactly where to sit, where to put their coats and backpacks, what books they will need, what they should be doing while they are waiting for the rest of the class to get there, etc.  Otherwise, it’s complete chaos.  There’s nothing wrong with mixing things up a little bit sometimes, and this doesn’t mean you should run your class like a dictator.  But having a normal classroom routine is going to make your life much, much easier.

Grading sucks

Really, there’s not a lot you can do about this except be prepared to spend a lot of time grading and reviewing the students’ work.  For simple exercises, you can have them swap papers and check each others’ answers—this might feel like cheating, but it’s actually helpful for students to review their classmates’ work and have a chance to go over the answers.  Don’t shortchange your students by only assigning them multiple choice worksheets or things that are easy for you to grade, though.  For any kind of large project or anything that involves writing, you’ll have to put in the time—it’s just something that comes with the territory.

Large classes can be really, really fun

The most important thing to remember about large classes is that, for all the challenges that they present and all the frustration that you might feel, they can be really, really fun to teach.  A large group of students—especially younger ones—has a ton of energy.  Games are a blast, songs can get totally zany, and they can come up with some really fun projects, performances, and activities.

The whole point of all the tips above is to keep the class running smoothly.  If you aren’t constantly pulling your hair out and struggling just to keep the students in their seats (or depending on the class, to keep them awake), then you can have fun, and you can let the students have fun.  And if your students are looking forward to coming to English class instead of dreading it, if they are smiling and engaged and happy, then you’ve set up the most important conditions for real learning to happen.

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