Teaching Small Classes

Most teachers would agree that teaching a small class comes with many benefits. Teachers can offer one-on-one assistance at times and are more likely to meet the individual needs of their students. Some teachers, however, find it quite challenging to keep their students interested and excited about learning in a small class. Depending on the […]

Most teachers would agree that teaching a small class comes with many benefits. Teachers can offer one-on-one assistance at times and are more likely to meet the individual needs of their students. Some teachers, however, find it quite challenging to keep their students interested and excited about learning in a small class. Depending on the location you are teaching in, small classes range from about three to seven students. In countries where large classes are the norm, classes of twenty may still be considered small. There are numerous coping strategies and activities that teachers can use to deal with the challenges of timing and student engagement.

Advantages of Teaching Small Classes

  • Comfort: Teachers and students often feel more comfortable when the class size is smaller. Students generally feel more comfortable voicing their questions and opinions.
  • Students’ needs met: Teachers can design customized lessons to meet the needs and interests of all of the class members.
  • Student centred: Teaching is student centred and often more communicative than is possible in large classes. Students also have more opportunity to speak.
  • Space: Students have plenty of space to move around in the classroom. Teachers can also arrange excursions (or suggest spontaneous ones) outside of the classroom where students can be exposed to real world English.
  • Attendance: Class attendance is usually high because students know they will be missed if they are absent. They also feel like they belong to the group.
  • Tasks Completed: Assignments and homework are more likely to be completed because the teacher is more likely to check.
  • Preparation time: Less preparation time is required for photocopying. There are generally enough textbooks to go around so photocopying is limited to extra activities.
  • Detailed Feedback: Teachers have time to provide detailed feedback when marking assignments and tests, so students get a better sense of how they are improving and where they need to work harder. Teachers also have more time to answer questions before, during, and after class

Challenges of Teaching Small Classes

  • Timing: Activities finish quickly, so teachers may need to prepare more lessons and games.
  • Distractions: Pairs can get distracted easily since they can hear what each other are saying.
  • Attendance: If a few students do miss a class, planned lessons can occasionally flop. For example, you may plan a lesson that requires pair work, and then find that only three of your six students come to class.
  • Fillers: Teachers must always have plenty of fillers on hand for times when lessons or activities get completed quickly.
  • Boredom: Students may become bored working with the same pairs or groupings all of the time. There may also be less energy in the room in a small class.
  • Anxiety: While you will likely feel more comfortable teaching in a small class, shy students who are used to blending into a large class may be uncomfortable participating. You will have to take special measures to help them gain confidence.
  • Activities not always suitable: Some activities in textbooks, such as debates or role-playing, may not be possible if a class is very small. You will have to spend some preparation time adapting textbook activities.

Strategies for Coping with Small Classes

  • Fillers: Always have plenty of fillers (such as puzzles and games) ready in case activities finish quickly. Keep a list of games or warm ups on hand to use when energy gets low. Some may need to be adapted slightly if the class is very small.
  • Review often: Take the time to make sure that your students understand the lessons and material.
  • Encourage confidence: Help shy students to feel more comfortable by trying not to put them on the spot. Let them get comfortable with you and their classmates before you start calling on them to speak up more. Remember to praise them often and save criticism for private interviews.
  • Change the dynamics: Invite students from other classes in once in a while. Prearrange pair group and getting to know you activities with other teachers who have small classes. If you have high level students pair them with lower level students and give them the opportunity to teach.
  • Ask for feedback: Take time to find out whether or not students are happy with the class. Ask for suggestions regarding activities they want to do or skills they would like to improve. Put a question box or envelope out so that students can remain anonymous if they want to.

Activities to use in Small Classes

  • Use English newspapers: Ask students to bring in a daily paper. Assign one story to each student to read and present. See the Guide for Teachers on how to use EnglishClub.com’s Monthly News Digest in the classroom.
  • Use music in the classroom: Have students listen to English songs. Use cloze exercises and teach vocabulary and idioms.
  • Storytelling: Have students tell stories from their own cultures or childhoods. It is fun to take students to a new location to do this, such as a park or a coffee shop.
  • Chain writing: Each student writes one sentence on a piece of paper and then passes it on until each story is complete.
  • Role-playing: Give students lots of opportunity to use the language they are learning in mock-style everyday settings.
  • Board games: Small groups are great for playing board games such as Word Up. Card games are a great way for students to practice asking questions. Make sure that they speak in English rather than speaking with gestures or in their own native language.
  • Online lessons: Besides their own Learning Center, EnglishClub.com offers many links to other online sites. Small classes can make use of computer labs easily. If your class does not have a computer lab, take students to the local library regularly to introduce them to the online learning sites.
  • Films: There are numerous lessons online for incorporating film into your class lessons. This can be done at all levels with great success, especially in a small class. Stop the film often in order to check comprehension and keep students focused.
  • Class Excursions: Take advantage of the class size, by getting out of the school as often as possible. Exposing your students to real English outside of the classroom is one of the most important things you can do if they are visiting from foreign countries.
  • Guest speakers: Invite people into your classroom to speak or participate in a lesson. This can be other students who have a special interest or understanding about a topic you are working with, or other people from the community who would be willing to come into your class. Your students will appreciate a new face from time to time in a class that has limited numbers.
Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net March 2008
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.

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