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How can we get learner centredness working in our large classrooms?

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Learner Centredness in Large Classrooms

Adaptable to Large Classes

Learner centredness meets the various needs of learners, it transmits learning strategies and cultivates a sense of responsibility in learning (Chen 2007). We agree it’s important. If you have recently taken a CELTA course, or are about to, you’ll have heard or will hear all about learner centredness.  But learner centredness in large classes of 30-40, isn’t easy and especially if the students have only ever experienced, or have faith in, a teacher-led classroom.

Introducing learner centred approaches into the classroom takes time. We have three issues. One, we need to guide our students to reconsider their assumptions about what learning a language is all about, secondly, beliefs about the role of the teacher in the classroom mean the focus is entirely on the teacher. Thirdly, how can we work with larger classrooms? In this article we look at the how to take the focus off the teacher as the source of learning and practical wasy to arrange learner centred activities in large classes.


Two Advantages of Teaching English to Larger Classes


English Language Resources in Abundance

We know teaching English in large classes isn’t easy. But there are advantages. Meaningful interaction and comprehensible input (Krashen) aids our journey to language proficiency. The teacher, the IWB, the coursebook or the video aren’t the only sources of language in the classroom. With large classes, consider the amount of resources of language you really have – in your students.

Teacher Aids

Not only do you have resources, but also help. Stronger students, when working with slightly weaker students naturally take on roles of teacher-aid when working in pairs and groups (Hess, 2001).  Vygotsky proposed, as a result of his observations, the “Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)” that learners succeed at tasks and learning with the support of others. This doesn’t need to be a teacher, but a teacher figure. This can be a peer, an elder or family member – anyone with more world knowledge than the learner. This increases learning opportunities and learning itself. Students partnered together or in small groups have more opprotunity to absorb a new concept or to notice an aspect of language and reflect on it. Working in these groups, a learner has more chance to focus on the language according to their need at a more individual level.

But Where is the Teacher?

However, it’s not easy to convince learners about the benefits of fluency focused activities learner to learner. How can we prepare students to maximise the learning that can take place? These activities, and more so in a large class, can look unfocused and unstructured to learners who don’t understand why they are done. And I doubt your students have ever heard of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.  Isn’t this just the blind leading the blind? Where is the teacher,  our source of knowledge?


The CELTA Way Versus the Traditional Way

New Oriental, in their presentation at IATEFL in Brighton 2018, presented the results of having their students (in a Chinese context) observe a teacher-centred lesson and a learner-centred (classic CELTA) lesson with the communicative approach in action. The students believed the second approach looked more fun and engaging, but that the traditional approach was where they would “learn more” because the teacher was the focus and could explain everything

As a result, we can see clearly that if students don’t believe in a teaching approach, this will reduce it’s benefits. New Oriental argued that we need to find a combination that would help train learners to see the benefit of learner-centred approaches, while giving them the comfort zone of the traditional approach. After all, the focus is on the learning and receptiveness is a key state of mind. Therefore, communicating clear objectives and benefits of the different approaches is absolutely necessary.  This includes getting learners to recalibrate their own ideas about where learning happens  -is it in us? Or up there with the teacher next to the IWB? What are our aims?


Ways to Organise Large Classrooms

When we have our students onboard. Then we can start shaking things up! Let’s now consider some space and furniture arrangements for our learner-centred moments.

Classroom Layout Ideas for Large English Language Classes:

Small horseshoe nest groups:

nested group idea for laying out a large English language classroom

Double horseshoe:

double horseshoe classroom layout plan for large English language classes

Traditional Rows

Many schools still use traditional rows because of class sizes and space. Although this makes it difficult for communicative and learner centred teaching approaches, there are things you can do.

  1. You have for example, pairs sitting together and if some turn around, you have groups of four or six.
  2. Try to have a little more space between rows, so you can monitor and move around people.
  3. Also think about the spaces at the front of the class and the sides of the classroom. For mingle tasks make use of these. If you aren’t using this space, use it to create more space around your desks.
  4. Also, are there alternative spaces in the school for group activities, such as the corridors, the playground, the gymnasium or hall?

If you move your students between spaces, remember to consider how you are going to do it without disturbing, and, if you are teaching young learners,  how you are going to get their attention in a wider bigger space once you get them there (leaving class can be exhilarating and consequently stir children up – anticipate this).

wyas to work with traditional rows in large English language classes

A Layout for a Young Learner Classroom:

Below is a case study of a young learner classroom with children seated at tables and different learning points around the room. We talk about his further in our Young Learner Module on Classroom Management


Teaching English to Children in large clases: Young Learner Classroom layout


Key points to consider:

Where can I sit down?

There are two areas where a teacher can sit. They can move around the class a lot and have space to move between groups.


How are my learners organised? Can I see all of their faces? Can they see me and each other?

The desks or small tables are “nested” or grouped to sit 6 children. They have their names on the desk where they sit, so everyone knows where to go. Each team or table has a team name.


How do my learners enter and leave the classroom?

There is also the area for lining up before leaving the class. Children line up outside the classroom before coming in. Or, they can line up inside.


Where can we all be together?

The carpeted area is used for activities like stories, videos, and singing. If children want to stand up, move and respond with their bodies to music and language, where could they do this? Many don’t like children walking on carpet with their shoes. What other alternatives are there and how could this be organised?


Where can we move about?

If you do run and point activities in the classroom using all of the class, make sure there is space to move around and between desks.


How do I monitor and check work?

In large classes, it can be hard to get around everyone. Don’t forget that you have an enormous amount of resources and teacher aids in the classroom – your learners. Use think-pair-share as a way of getting students to check their own work, and each other’s work before you get involved.


Create a good variety of opportunities for teacher-learner(s), learner-learner interaction to happen.

  • teacher at the screen
  • teacher sitting by the mat
  • teacher sitting by her desk
  • teacher moving around the desks
  • children moving around the room
  • children sitting on the mat
  • children sitting at their desks

More Large Classroom Set Up Ideas