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Teaching Oral Communication to Large Classes

Writer(s): 
Tiernan L. Tensai

Dear TLT,

I’m currently struggling with an oral communication class at my university in that there are 53 students! They are from the Engineering Faculty, and most are there because they have to take English, not because they want to. I have never taught such a large group before, and I’m really struggling with it. It’s overwhelming. I can get some of the students to talk, but since there are so many of them, I just can’t keep tabs on everyone. This means that many are not really practicing very well. The ones that really hate English just sort of hide at the back and chat in Japanese during class, and I feel powerless to do anything about it. I’ve gotten mad at them a few times, but this hasn’t really helped. I’m really at a loss; please help!

 At wits end in Wakayama

Dear Wits,

Thanks a lot for your message. You bring up a very common problem that a lot of us face when teaching our Japanese students how to speak English. It’s hard enough when classes are small, but when they get really, really big–wow, that is one tough challenge. How best to teach oral communication in large classes is quite a big topic, and while we cannot offer up a comprehensive solution, we hope some of our ideas can help get you started on the right track. 

Size Is Relative

First, before we get into some specific suggestions, it’s worth reflecting on what exactly a large class is. You mention 53 students, which is big for sure, but we know some teachers who regularly teach groups of 80 or so. Perhaps to them 53 would feel like a bit of a break! On the other hand, some of our friends teaching classes of two or three might feel overwhelmed with 15 students, a number many would consider small or of reasonable size. So when we talk about “large classes,” it’s important to realize that size is relative and a matter of perception that varies from teacher to teacher (Shamin et al., 2007). In addition, other factors may contribute to the feeling of largeness such as room size, how it is furnished, and if there are any windows or not.

Speaking Classes Are Skill-Building Time

Another thing to keep in mind is that speaking classes are all about building skills where students have to practice a lot in order to DO something. It’s not a matter of simply attending a lecture and memorizing information for a test. Like art or P.E., students are learning a new skill they can hopefully use to make their lives better. As a result, it’s very important to make sure everyone is active and engaged. When groups are small and manageable, it’s not that hard to stay on top of things and ensure that everyone is getting a good workout. When numbers get too big, however, it spreads you thin, and you can no longer keep tabs on everyone. This lack of control is a common source of much stress. Add to that low student motivation, and you have a recipe for an unappetising meal! 

Make Groups!

One of the best ways we know of to ensure that all of your students are productive is to make liberal use of group work activities. We swear by them, and as a result, we have come to actually enjoy teaching large classes, if you can believe it! Once you get the hang of it there is so much more that you can do. You can get a lot of satisfaction from big groups because if you do a good job, you will be impacting that many more people.

Pay Attention to Classroom Layout

Group activities begin by giving some attention to managing your physical classroom space. How you arrange the desks or tables can make a big difference in how your students interact and learn. It is therefore not a waste of valuable class time to use some of it at the start for rearranging the furniture. You can experiment with various configurations such as groups of four, six, eight, horseshoes, and V-shapes. If the desks are stuck to the floor, then it will be tricker, but you can still have rows of students rotate between activities in that case. Once you settle on a configuration that works well, have your students set up the room before class starts. You’ll find that working in groups will make your class cognitively easier to manage. Instead of 53 individuals, you now are dealing with 9 groups (or so). Yeah, you still have the same number of students, but somehow 9 feels a lot easier than 53, doesn’t it?

Don’t Let Students Sit Wherever They Want

Next, it’s worthwhile considering how and where your students sit within their groups. There are different ways to go about this. One idea is to have each student make a name card, which you spread out randomly prior to the start of each class. If you use one color card for the men and another for the women, you can ensure a male-female balance within each group. The cards also double as an attendance check—just collect the cards of students who don’t show up. Another idea is to make sure that each group has a mix of higher and lower level learners. Each team can have one of the top students as well as one of the students who struggles. This way the lower students have an extra helper. 

Naturally, to arrange students in this manner, you’ll need to have a good idea of their ability levels. If you’re new to a class, one way to suss this out is to administer a simple test, such as a TOEIC-style one that you can get from nearly any TOEIC preparation book. While this type of test doesn’t deal with speaking skills, it can give you a useful place to start for arranging students from the 2nd class. You can also sort by personality by putting confident students with shy, quiet ones. In the end, whatever method you choose, consciously grouping your students will be more effective than just letting them sit wherever and with whomever they want.

Hold Students Accountable Via Tasks

Now that you have your ideal classroom arrangement, the next thing to consider is what your students will do within their groups. Since you can’t monitor everyone, a great way to go about it is to engage in task-based activities or project work. In other words, you need a way of holding each student accountable for the effort they put into the class. If they want to slope off, that is up to them, but then their lack of effort will come back to haunt them when their group has to make a presentation or perform their dialogs. Naturally, the list of possible activities is more than we can cover in this short column, but here are a few ideas to get you started. 

Stand to Complete Basic Tasks

This first idea is not really an activity but rather a way of managing typical tasks. Most books have dialogs or exercises that students need to complete together, but in a large class it is very difficult for you to monitor progress. In this case, simply have everyone stand up when doing a task, then sit down when they are done. In our experience, something about standing seems to help students focus, and when they all sit, you have a clear signal of when to move on to the next activity. This technique will enable you to avoid cutting students off who need more time. 

Move the Students Around

Doing several rounds of timed-conversations is another good way to get students to stay involved in your lesson. The “5-4-3” approach is one common way to go, where students attempt the same conversation three times within successively shorter amounts of time. Obviously, you can adjust the number of minutes per round based on student level and time available. After each round, students can rotate within their group so that they can practice talking with different classmates. This movement technique is commonly known as “speed dating” and proven quite effective for many teachers. After a while, you can mix up the groups which often has a way of refreshing the energy in the room. 

Do Presentation or Performance-Based Activities

Another performance-based idea is to do mini-debates, with groups competing against each other. Debates help build research and language skills as well as encouraging them to take responsibility for managing their roles. 

If you’re not into debate, then another idea is to have students prepare short speeches on allocated topics. The website itselj.org is a great resource for coming up with things to talk about. Short skits are another group-based activity we’ve had success with, as they can be fun ways to build confidence and creative use of language. 

Record Classroom Interaction

Making use of video or audio recordings can also help. Since many students now have smartphones, it is very easy for them to record their group conversations or monologs and save them to a shared class folder, such as one you set up using a free, cross-platform service such as Dropbox. Another option is to create a private account on YouTube, to which students can upload their videos. The peer-pressure aspect of others watching their videos can push the students to do a good job and care more about their final product. 

Conduct Regular Speaking Tests

Finally, another idea for getting students to produce language is to conduct speaking tests. While this can be challenging to manage in a large class, there are test formats that could be used for large groups as long as the output is not too long. For example, if you interview students in pairs or threes, you can get through a fairly large group within a reasonable amount of time. If students record their tests, you can mark them on your own time. In our experience, Japanese students respond well to being tested, as it gives them a clear and immediate purpose to practice. Regular speaking tests, if well constructed can increase the amount of positive washback by encouraging students to work on the skills they’ll need to get a good score. 

Accept the Challenge of Large Classes

So there you go, Wits–a bunch of ideas on how to make the most of teaching speaking skills in large classes. As you can see, we’re big on group work and various cooperative learning strategies. We’re not promising silver bullets here, but the ideas, techniques, and activities we’ve covered have been very successful for us, so we hope they will be for you, too. We encourage you to try some of them out and see what works for you. Eventually you’ll come upon something that works, and your mood and attitude towards your large classes will change for the better. 

As you try things out, you should also start reading up on the subject. Just Google “cooperative learning strategies” and you’ll surely find something useful. One big name in this field is Spencer Kagan, who has written many books on the subject. Another good book is “Maximizing Learning in Large Classes,” which was put out by the British Council in 2007. This resource contains a lot of great advice and classroom activities that work well with large groups. We’ll end with a poem from that book, which points at the challenges and potential opportunities of working with big classes. Good luck!

Large class

Complex, challenging, enjoyable

It is like a puzzle

Handle

Seriously, daringly, carefully

I feel like climbing a mountain

A work of art

(Anonymous)

Reference

Shamin, F., Negash, N., Chuku, C., & Demewoz, N. (2007). Maximizing learning in large classes: Issues and options. Addis Abbaba: British Council. 

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