Something we occasionally see in new teachers here at York is the misunderstanding that great teaching is all about being at the centre of the class. Teachers fresh out of a TEFL course standing at the front of the classroom, booming instructions left, right and centre, loudly drilling the students and playing silly games which create lots of excitement and noise. The students love it. They take turns to come up to the front of the class, throw a ball and say a word. They also get to let off some steam, have fun and they’re using the language too. The teacher sees their smiling faces and comes out of the class feeling the warm glow of a job well done.
The problem with this approach is that it’s high on doing but low on thinking. In a classroom like this the students can coast through the lesson, mindlessly parroting the teacher but not having any opportunities to use the language independently or contextually. Worse, for activities where the students take turns to play, the rest of the students are forced to wait in their chairs for others to participate. This creates all kinds of attention and behaviour problems. Not only that but lessons where you’re shouting all the time and leading every activity are exhausting and leave you feeling run down or burnt out. In our orientation and training programme we try to show teacher the alternative: a classroom where everyone is having fun but they’re also thinking and doing. And honestly, it’s easy to achieve.
One of the big challenges in developing a student-centered classroom is creating opportunities for pairwork. Pairwork is fantastic in the classroom because it creates lots of student-to-student talk time and helps the students build their confidence with their language. It’s not just something for older students either. In our classes we have 5 year old students working together in pairs to practice the language. So how does that work?
The key to successful pairwork is giving the students enough of a reason to do it. If you say “OK kids, today we’re learning about food! Discuss with your partner!” you’re going to get a lot of students sat twiddling thumbs and not participating. Try to focus your pairwork more. Consider this instead: “OK guys, turn to your partner and make 3 sentences using this new language. 1 positive, 1 negative, 1 question. First pair to finish get’s points for their team.” These simple Turn and Talk activities have everyone talking at the same time too and give you opportunities to monitor pronunciation and save your own voice. Of course, 5 year olds might not be able to do something like that, so choosing something in a game-format is more accessible.. On the board, number vocabulary 1-6, give each pair a dice and a marker. They take turns to roll the dice. The first student to say the corresponding word gives themselves a point.
Even with this clear reason to do it, you will need to show the students what you expect from them. Lead by example and demonstrate the activity with a strong student or teaching assistant. This shows them how the activity works but also models what language they should be using. You may even find students asking questions to clarify.
Nothing screams “I’m the teacher! Look at me!” more than always being stood at the front of the class while a row of students look up eagerly at you. From your positioning alone you are the centre of their focus and their attention but if you always have the students in this formation they’re going to get used to waiting for your instruction and only having teacher-student interactions. Mix it up by having the students in a circle on the floor. Or in a tight horseshoe around you. Any kind of seating arrangement where the students are focused on each other as well as you.
Another way to move the emphasis away from you is to listen rather than say. Don’t tell the students the answers, but elicit them from the students. Presenting new vocabulary? Ask “Who tell me what number 1 is?” If a student can say it, excellent, an opportunity to praise them. For the second vocabulary item you might not even need to ask the question again, you can hold up 2 fingers to indicate what’s next. When presenting grammar, have the students open their books to the grammar box and give each pair a slip of paper with each word in the structure. Students must work together to rearrange their slips so that they match the grammar box. They can then change places with another pair and listen to you reading out the grammar box, checking the other pair got it right. Remember: thinking and doing.
Students as teachers
Finally, look for opportunities to let the students run activities themselves. If you start every class by taking the roll call and asking every student “how are you?” mix it up and ask a student to complete it for you. For other games that require a leader, start the activity with yourself in that role and then ask for volunteers to step in.