Classroom Management Hack

Making Pairs with an Odd Number of Students

This year I started teaching a new version of a course: a second-year extensive reading-based class. The class is an elective compulsory class (so the students have to take it, but they can choose which teacher to take it with, and the teachers have free rein to determine the content of the class).

The new version consists of 35 minutes of silent reading (students can also work on their preparation sheet for speaking during this time) followed by about 35 minutes of speaking and ten minutes of writing.

During the speaking part students talk to each other about a book they read this week. They have a preparation sheet where they have already written about their book which they can use to help them.

My colleague Dan E. suggested I try the ‘speed dating’ format for this, and we ended up with students working in pairs for five minutes, then changing partner and repeating. We usually manage about five iterations. Students can use their preparation sheets the first couple of times, but should try not to after that.

The key to this is to spend as little time as possible making pairs and moving, in order to maximise student talking time. The easiest way I know to do this is to create a map of the classroom on the board (see picture above). The white squares are desks. The yellow rectangles are two desks pushed together.

I number the students, then they move to their initial pair and do the first iteration of speaking. Then I ask the students facing the window to stand up and move 2-3 spaces up to a new partner. Repeat as many times as you want to (although be aware of when students are going to cycle back to the initial point).

This works very well for pairs, but I had 31 students today. Thankfully I found an easy solution. I made a group of three with the extra person, but (this is the key) all three of them were ‘facing the window’. This, combined with having students move up three spaces each time they changed, meant that no one student was stuck in the 3-group more than once.

In fact, the students seemed to enjoy the 3-group for the novelty, so it worked out really well.

This seems like a small, unimportant tweak, but it solved a problem that had been bothering me for a while 🙂

5 simple tips for English classes

There are a number of really simple techniques that I tend to use in almost all my classes, so I thought it might be interesting to put some of them down here.

The questionnaire


1. Use name signs for attendance, to learn student names, and for classroom management

I first wrote about this in 2006! Still using it now though, with the addition of the technique below that I got from my partner in crime, Daniel E. This tip is best for teachers that teach a lot of students, who basically are not able to learn names under normal circumstances.

2. Assign students class numbers to help with classroom management and paperwork

For medium-sized classes and larger, it can be really useful to assign students a class number, to be used in addition to their existing student numbers, etc. Basically give each student a number, starting from one. Have them put it on everything that they hand in (notebooks, worksheets, exam papers, etc.). You can collect them in order or just put them into order quickly after you collect them.

Then, when you come to mark them, you can work through them quickly making a note of grades in your excel sheet or markbook.

Returning the papers is also easier as they are in order. You can pass them out if students are in assigned seats, or leave them at the front in piles (easy for the students to find theirs as they are in order).

3. Dictate questions instead of giving students handouts

I used to think dictation was horribly old-fashioned, but have come to realise that the reason it’s been used for centuries is that it works 🙂

Recently I’ve been dictating questions to students instead of printing them on handouts, and dictating homework assignments. It takes a bit more time than just handing out pre-printed versions, but this way the students get to work on their listening and writing, and end up thinking about the content more.

A really easy change to make.

4. Put students in groups of 3 for group work

I used to do group work with groups of four or even (gasp!) six. The inevitable consequence of this is that some students end up doing nothing for long stretches of time. However, working in pairs means that some students can be stuck with an unskilled or unmotivated partner.

Groups of three seems to be the sweet spot, and ensures that no-one can hide from the activity, and students are less likely to be stuck with an uncooperative partner. Threes also minimize the chances of two friends bypassing the activity to continue a previous conversation!

5. Use a visible timer for activities

I have started using a countdown on my computer for short speaking activities, and find that it frees me from having to ‘guesstimate’ when to wrap things up. Also, students know how long they have to keep talking for, which makes it easier to give that one last push.

I like the online stopwatch in full-screen mode, either showing the computer screen to students or using a projector to do so for larger classes.

How about you? Do you have any good tips for other teachers?

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