Yesterday, I was on another site, and someone who is an English as a Second Language teacher sent me a question because I have spent so many years as an English as a Second Language professor. They wanted to know my opinions of the optimal class size for teaching a foreign language. I told them that from my experience, about 6 – 10 students was a really good size. If you teach only one, you can’t play games, do special exercises, or let the students converse together in the target language. If you teach too many, it is difficult for students to speak in class, difficult for you to grade all their papers adequately, etc. I even got carpel tunnel once from my school not understanding language teaching and giving me too many large classes at the same time. However, it is not impossible to teach large groups. I have developed a system that works.
The first time I encountered this problem was when I had a class of eighty students. I just kept thinking “how can I give each student the adequate attention they deserve and need?” Teaching a language doesn’t take just the teacher lecturing and the students taking notes, and then the teacher giving tests like for many subjects. It takes so much more! I came up with a plan for those eighty students that worked, and I refined my process over time.
First, I divided the students into groups. Each group had about seven to ten students in the group. I knew the students, and I chose one student from each group to be the group leaders. I chose people I knew who could speak English better than the others. For example, there was a boy who spent a lot of time in New Zealand growing up, and he spoke English like a native speaker or a girl who went to a special English school growing up and ended up having a real knack for languages on top of that, so her English abilities were off the charts. I looked through the students to figure out who had the best abilities. I made sure there was one student in each group that had better abilities than the others in English. There were actually classes that I couldn’t find enough students to help, so I found native speakers of English who would volunteer and help me or just use a student that had okay English even if it wasn’t stellar. It encouraged those students to be recognized as one of the better English speakers, and they studied to try to come up to the mark. Many of the students I chose said I began then teaching English, and they were so grateful to be chosen.
First, I would give the whole class a list of vocabulary words, and then the next class, I gave them a vocabulary quiz. I didn’t make they quiz too long or too complicated to grade because I knew I would have to grade them all, and I wanted to give them back as quickly as possible to facilitate the learning process. I always gave any quiz or homework back in the next class because students learned from those mistakes I marked. The words all came from certain pages of a book I had chosen. In the first class, I chose “Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain for them to read because American middle school students read it, and the vocabulary is easier. For subsequent classes I taught like this, I rewrote “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens in easier English, and it worked even better. The vocabulary quizzes came from a certain block of pages from the book. On the day that I gave the words out for them to study, often, I would teach them to sing a song in English, and when we were doing “The Christmas Carol,” I taught them to sing Christmas carols, and they really enjoyed that. Sometimes, I introduced it all by showing them a clip from the movie “The Christmas Carol” or something similar. There are many Christmas carols on You tube with the words written there for you to sing along, and I used them also giving the students a copy of the song, and they happily learned to sing Christmas carols in English. When we talked about ghosts, they thought I was giving them a treat because I showed them part of a Micheal Jackson clip on You tube called “ghost” where he kept saying, “Did I scare you?” or “Are you scared yet?” They learned those questions from Micheal Jackson, but they were having a good time. I got their attention because they were going to read about ghosts.
After they had taken their vocabulary quiz, I let them get into their groups. Each one had a copy of the story. They were each supposed to read out loud in English one by one. The one who spoke English best was supposed to be the group facilitator. They were supposed to make sure each person in the group read. They were supposed to correct the pronunciation as they read. If they could see the person was pausing a lot, it meant that there was a lot of new material, or if the students mispronounced a lot, it meant that the word was new to them. I taught the group facilitator how to recognize when the students didn’t understand like mispronouncing the new words, etc. I made the group facilitator responsible to make sure everyone in the group understood what they were reading. I walked around and listened as the groups were reading. I stopped and modeled for the facilitators how to help the ones who were reading, and they were grateful. I supervised the large group.
For homework on that day, they were given a list of questions in English about the text they read. They were supposed to bring the questions back the next time answered, but they didn’t have to turn them in. The questions were initially like notes to speak from. In the next class, they got in their groups again, and the group facilitator was supposed to go around and let each student answer a question one at a time. They were encouraged to all use complete sentences. If they heard something different from what they had written down and agreed with it, they could change their answers. Again, I walked around and supervised like before. At the end of the class period, we all became a large class again. I would ask the questions one by one and then ask the groups to report one by one what their group answered for particular questions. Since they had answered the questions in English in the small group first, they weren’t so shy to answer in the large group because they had practiced what they wanted to say. I gave them the option to either take the questions home and redo them and hand them in next time or hand them in that day. They were specific questions that tested their understanding of the text.
In the next class, we got into groups again. This time, they had “thought questions” to answer. These questions caused discussion because they were not for simple understanding. They were for them to give their opinions. For example, when I was walking around supervising and trying to listen in on certain groups to make sure they knew what to do and were staying on course, I heard two boys once arguing in English about the existence of ghosts. One was convinced they existed and that he had seen one, and the other though it was his imagination. They were both coming up with compelling arguments. I had given them questions related to the text that made them want to answer. Many had opinions about how to treat poverty, about the existence of God, or about how Christmas should be celebrated. They were prompted to speak English because they wanted their opinions heard. They had these thought questions with them at home before the class, so they knew what would be discussed, and if they wanted to say something, they were encouraged to find the grammar and the vocabulary to make their opinions heard before the discussion. They really enjoyed these discussions and tried to make their opinions heard and understood. People talk if they have something compelling to talk about.
At the end of the discussion, each group was supposed to report to the rest of the class what they talked about as a group. They ended up with two different groups having differing opinions and didn’t mind hashing it out in English in front of the class. No one got mad, but they did speak up. For homework that day, they were supposed to take one of the “thought questions” and write a paragraph about it. I taught them to begin by answering the question with one sentence, and then explaining what they said in detail giving reasons, examples, etc. They were learning to write paragraphs. I also gave them a new vocabulary list at the end of this class to study for next time to begin the process again.
When I graded the paragraphs, I graded them in detail. I looked for a topic sentence. I looked to make sure the verbs were conjugated correctly. I made sure they used complete sentences. I looked for words that were out of order or used wrong, etc. I make sure they actually developed their paragraph and that it wasn’t just a two or three sentence paragraph. I made sure they were using logic and not just being silly. I was taking them on to a higher level of English.
Koreans love to wear reindeer horn, Santa hats, or even reindeer noses at Christmas parties, and they wore these things not only at the party, but also when they went Christmas caroling in English.
In the next class period, they handed their paragraphs to me, took a new vocabulary quiz, sang some more Christmas carols, and we started the process again. We went through this process again and again until the end of the semester. I had to give them two portions for the big tests. One part was written, and the other portion, they had to let me interview them one on one. I had to have someone stay with them and watch them take the written portion while I took them out one at a time to see if they had learned to carry on a conversation in English which was the overall goal of that class, and they had. If the class was taught in the fall and ended just before Christmas, when I was teaching “A Christmas Carol,” we also had a Christmas party at the end of the semester, and I took them caroling for the first time in their lives, and the completely enjoyed caroling and the English they had learned. They didn’t mind showing up after the class was finished as long as it was for a party. They had fun with their English. I could accomplish helping them make progress with a large class. I used my brain, thought it out, and made a plan that worked. I had always preferred the smaller groups, but my school wasn’t going to cooperate and give me a small group, so I adapted, and the students learned and loved what I did. This is just one kind of class I taught. Perhaps I will tell you about other classes sometime.