Maximizing student interaction in class
An important responsibility of an ESL teacher is to create an effective learning environment for learning to take place. This involves both actions and the decisions of the teacher. The actions are those things that are done in the classroom, such as rearranging the chairs and desks. The decisions relate to how and when these actions are implemented. It is important how the ESL classrooms are laid out. Seating arrangements and various classroom options allow students to interact with different people in the class as well as allowing a range of different situations to be recreated within the classroom. Try to avoid arranging chairs and tables in the classical classroom format of neat rows. The horseshoe shape or circle arrangement is deemed to be more effective for ESL classes. In this configuration, learners are able to make eye contact with all the students in the class and are therefore able to interact more naturally. This setup creates a greater sense of equality within the classroom. It is more difficult for the weaker students to hide away and for the stronger students to dominate. Students also find it easier to hear one another, which does away with the temptation of the teacher to echo the answers of the students.
Giving instructions in the ESL classroom is often problematic because of the quantity and the complexity of the language used. Complex instructions are very difficult for students to follow and may lead to the students being unable to complete a task simply because they could not understand what was expected of them.
• It is a good idea to plan your instructions when you first start teaching. This will ensure that you select simple and concise language and omit any unnecessary information. Provide the students only with the instructions that they need for the immediate task at hand. Giving instructions for all the steps in a sequence will only lead to confusion.
• Ensure that you have the full attention of the class before you give instruction so that everyone is aware what is expected of them. This will also save you from having to repeat yourself.
• Wherever possible, demonstrate by example rather than attempting a lengthy explanation. Developing gestures may be a good way of saving yourself from repeating instructions.
• Always check for understanding. An easy way of doing this is by asking some of the students to explain to you what they are going to do.
Students often know a lot more than teachers give them credit for. Instead of simply conveying information to the class, it is a good idea for teachers to involve students in the learning process. Teachers can do this by a process of questions and answers in order to move forward. This is done by eliciting or extracting from the students what they already know. With student involvement in the actual outcomes of the lesson, teachers can work at the pace of the students, thereby discovering areas of difficulty.
→ For Example: A teacher is working on prepositions. The teacher shows the students a book and places it on the table in front of the classroom. The teacher then writes the sentence, ‘The book is ______ the table.’
Correcting Errors and Feedback:
Students should be encouraged to take risks. Errors provide evidence that a student is in fact making an attempt to experiment with the use of language. How a teacher goes about correcting errors is determined to a large degree by the aims of the activity in question. If the main aim of the lesson is to improve the accurate use of the English Language, then immediate correction would be appropriate. If, on the other hand, the main objective of the lesson is fluency, then immediate corrections would interrupt the normal flow of ideas. There are various ideas available to the teacher in order to correct errors in the classroom.
It is essential for the teacher to get feedback from the students after each task set. This will provide the teacher with a clear idea as to whether the students have understood the language item and whether further explanation and practice is required. The teacher may simply select different students to answer questions from the set task or write the answers on the white board. It is important for the teacher to explain difficult items and ensure that the students have an adequate understanding before moving on to the next task. Students should be encouraged to correct their own work, making notes if necessary.
Drills and Checking Understanding
Drills are a form of controlled oral practice of certain language items presented by the teacher. Drills are usually highly controlled by the teacher but there may be variations presented with more communicative activities. These may be less controlled, allowing for more student creativity. The philosophy of drills derives directly from the behaviourist theory of learning: habits are formed by a process of stimulation → response → reinforcement. This is done over and over again and is often referred to as the audiolingual method.
The drill is simple repetition:
We can’t simply assume that all learners have understood all things all the time no matter how clear the language focus stage was. It is important to check that students understand
the instructions or the task that has been given to them. Do not ask students “Do you understand?” Perhaps you could ask, “Is everyone clear?” Most students will say that they understand even if they do not. Students do not want to appear ‘stupid’ in front of the class nor do they want to appear to ‘loose face’ (particular to Asian cultures). If you do not check understanding, students will often work through an exercise or task unaware that they are doing it incorrectly. During the feedback stage of the lesson, students will realize that they have misunderstood, leading to a loss of confidence. Those students who don’t understand are usually convinced that they are the only ones who do not and will not want to openly admit it.
Pair and Group Work
In English Language Teaching, we are usually involved in whole class, individual or pair/ group work. Pair and group work, when planned and well organized, is an excellent vehicle for the promotion of learning. Minimal intervention during pair and group work activities is known as an interactive approach to language learning. Mingling is an activity where the whole class gets up and walks around, as at a party, meeting each other and talking with different people, moving on when they need to. There are many ways of organizing pair and group work in the classroom.
Monitoring Classroom Activities
Monitoring is not only important but vital in order to assess how the students are coping with a particular activity. It also gives you an opportunity to take some notes on any areas
of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar which may be causing difficulties. The teacher is seen merely as a supervisor, facilitator and listener. While monitoring a classroom activity, you can walk slowly around the classroom and listen to the students’ conversations. Alternatively, you can sit near a pair or group taking care to remain in the background so that the students do not direct their conversations to you. Try not intervene, but be ready to add some vigor to conversations which seem to petering-out thus adding some new life. You may want to ensure that certain students are not monopolizing the conversation. You may offer some praise and encouragement where appropriate. You can write any pronunciation difficulties, vocabulary and grammar points on the white board for explanation and discussion at the end of the activity.
Managing a Class
The teacher’s job is to create a productive learning atmosphere and to know their subject matter. Vital in doing a good job are:
1. Planning i.e. thinking out how you will manage the class as well as researching what you are teaching.
2. Sensitivity to what is happening in the classroom. Managing a class successfully involves consideration of the physical environment, rapport with the students and the student’s individual sense of belonging to a group and their sense of progress. Asking oneself pertinent questions at the planning stage will enable a teacher to create a learning environment.
Potential Problems in the classroom
There are various ways in which English Language Teachers unintentionally restrict or prevent the learning process. We are all guilty of a number of these and it is only with a conscious effort and over a period of time that we are able to avoid these common pitfalls.
• Teacher Talking Time (TTT). Teachers often talk far too much which allows for fewer opportunities for the students. When faced with a question in class, a student requires time to process what is required of them and to prepare an answer. Give students ample time to prepare a response and don’t feel awkward by long periods of silence.
• The Echo Effect. Teachers often repeat what a student says in class – the echo effect. This may have a negative impact on class interaction. Students, in many
cases, become accustomed to the teacher repeating everything in class and therefore stop listening to the other students in the class.
• Teacher completing sentences. Often, because students may require more time in order to respond to a question, teachers may become impatient when a student pauses in mid-sentence. A teacher must resist the temptation to predict what a student is trying to say and thereby complete the sentence for the student. Sentence completion is extremely counter productive and students should be allowed to complete their own sentences, using their own words where possible and expressing their own ideas.
• Instructions that are complicated and unclear. Complex instructions are very difficult for students to follow and may lead to the students being unable to complete a task simply because they could not understand what was expected of them. Teachers should plan their instructions.
• Not checking understanding of instructions. Always check for understanding. An easy way of doing this is by asking some of the students to explain to you what they are going to do.
• Asking ‘Do you understand?’ If you ask a student if they understand, they will in most cases respond ‘Yes.’ This may be because they don’t want to appear to be stupid in front of the rest of the class. Students should demonstrate their understanding by repeating the instructions or by giving their interpretation of a certain idea.
• Flying with the fastest. Often the stronger students dominate and are the first people to speak or answer a question. In such a situation, it is easy to assume that everyone in the class has an equal understanding. It is essential to get responses from many different students which will provide you with a better impression of overall understanding.
• A Weak Rapport. Encourage a friendly, relaxed learning environment. If there is a trusting, positive rapport amongst learners and teachers, then there is a much better chance of students wanting to take risks.
• A Lack of confidence in the learners or the materials used. Students may become bored in class if the materials being utilized are far too easy and are thus not challenging the students. Teachers should maintain high expectations of their students in order to get the best from their students.