“Classroom management” is a broad concept. It can encompass numerous topics such as:
- Classroom administration, logistics, and routines
- The EFL classroom’s physical layout
- Lesson planning
- Communication strategies
- Encouraging a positive atmosphere
- Maintaining discipline
While diverse, all of these topics relate to creating a classroom environment that fosters language learning, uses time and resources effectively, and ensures both teachers and students feel motivated and engaged.
This month in the Teacher’s Corner, we will take a closer look at classroom management topics related to establishing class routines, grouping students, and creating positive rapport with students. First, we will examine ways to involve students in classroom routines and processes to create time efficiencies and encourage student responsibility. Next, over the course of two weeks, we will explore several techniques for creating impromptu groups and pairs for collaborative activities or projects. Finally, we will think about ways to use positive language with students to create an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Most EFL teachers would agree that establishing and maintaining classroom routines is essential to good classroom management. Classroom routines can increase student confidence and comfort levels since learners know what is expected of them in different situations. Set routines are especially helpful when working with young learners and teens that need extra support in regulating their behavior. Routines are usually established at the beginning of an academic year or term and are regularly reinforced.
Routines also encourage students to take responsibility for how their classroom functions. In other words, routines ensure both the teacher and the students are accountable for creating a class environment that runs smoothly and efficiently, thereby maximizing everyone’s opportunities to learn. To equitably share responsibility for class routines, teachers can assign students long- or short-term classroom roles, or students may volunteer to take on certain jobs.
In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, you are encouraged to think about what you do to involve students in the routines and processes listed below. Take a few minutes to reflect: if you currently take on all of the responsibility for some of these routines and processes, how might you involve your students? Also, how might your students’ age and maturity levels affect whether these roles are teacher-assigned or chosen by student volunteers? Don’t forget: involving students in class routines helps them become more invested in the class community and saves time!
Can your students help with…? If so, how?
- General administrative processes: taking attendance, passing out and/or collecting papers and supplies, updating the class calendar or daily agenda
- Learning activity processes: leading discussions, recording notes during a group or whole-class activity or discussion, monitoring the noise level during group work, keeping track of participation levels during group work, keeping track of time allocated for an activity or phases of an activity, monitoring group progress towards longer-term project deadlines
- Classroom maintenance: cleaning up desks and the floor, cleaning off the board, maintaining bulletin boards (helping change out content), watering plants, opening and closing blinds or curtains when needed
- Classroom equipment maintenance and operation: making sure the pencil sharpener is emptied, turning the TV on and controlling the volume on the TV when it is used, turning off lights or computers at the end of the day, accounting for supplies that are borrowed or taken out of the classroom (e.g., from a lending library or supply cabinet); helping other students use computers or listening lab/audio equipment
- Movement processes (often for younger students): leading a line or lines of students from one place to another, holding the door when everyone leaves class, rearranging desks or chairs to support different types of interaction (pair work, group work, test taking, using a big open space for whole-class, movement-based activities)
- Developing activity materials with teacher support: creating charts, handouts, graphic organizers, game boards, or activity cards/prompts (Incorporating this routine into some activities can reduce the need to make photocopies/printouts and reduce teacher preparation time.)
Ideas: Promoting student involvement and responsibility in Class routines
- Create a classroom jobs board
Make a chart that lists the classroom job, the associated responsibilities, the frequency with which the role needs to be carried out, and the name of the current student in the role. The first three items can be written directly on the chart, and student names can be put on cards or pieces of paper that can be moved around when jobs change. Be sure to leave extra space at the bottom of the chart to add new jobs suggested by students or additional jobs that you discover are necessary during the academic term. If desired, you can use the categories above to organize jobs in the chart by function. If working with young or lower-level students you can create a simplified chart that just lists the jobs and student names.
Post the chart in the classroom in a visible place. Consider assigning jobs or seeking out volunteers at regular intervals (weekly, biweekly, monthly). Also, assign a few students to the role of “alternate” or “substitute.” People with this job can be tasked to fill any role for absent students.
A partial jobs chart might look like this:
Give all classroom plants one cup of water
1 time each week
Let group mates know if they are talking too loudly
During all group work tasks with your regular group
Group 1 – Mohammed
Turn off all classroom lights
Daily at lunchtime and at the end of the day
- Reinforcing student roles and routines
- When needed, gently remind students of routines and roles in an age- and level-appropriate way. For example, if students aren’t following the signal to return to their seats after a movement-based activity, you might say, “Some people have forgotten the signal for ‘return to your seats.’ Can anyone remind us what the signal is? Yes, it is when I hold up both hands like this (demonstrate the signal). If you see this signal, what should you do? (return to your seats) When should you do it? (right away) Also, point out the signal to your classmates if they haven’t seen it, please.”
- If a student comes to you for assistance with a matter that has been assigned to another student, redirect them to the responsible classmate (refer them to the jobs board if you use one). For example, if a student wants to return a lending library book to you before class, you might say, “Hmmm...Who is the current library monitor? Let’s check the jobs chart. It looks like Amadou will be happy help you return the book.” This approach can help build student confidence and create a sense of community as students seek assistance from each other.
Group and pair work provide students frequent opportunities to practice using English with a variety of people in a lower-stakes setting. These collaborative learning situations are an essential part of a communicative EFL classroom.
EFL teachers often pre-establish groups and pairs for either long-term or short-term purposes. Teachers usually consider several factors when assigning students to groups depending on whether they want groups to be homogenous (made up of people with similar characteristics) or heterogeneous (made up of people with different characteristics). Personality type (introverted or extroverted), language proficiency, maturity level, likes and dislikes, life experiences, cultural considerations, and learning styles are just a few of the characteristics teachers might consider when creating groups or pairs. For helpful tips on how to create assigned groups and establish group roles, see “Minimizing the Chaos through Cooperative Classroom Management” by Gena Rhodes (English Teaching Forum, 2013) and “Reconceptualizing Interactional Groups: Grouping Schemes for Maximizing Language Learning” by Judith Rance-Roney (English Teaching Forum, 2010).
In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we look at ways to make the sometimes tedious task of getting students into groups and pairs fun and language-focused. The techniques shared below offer unique ways to create impromptu (spontaneously made), randomly allocated groups for communicative activities. These approaches may take time to prepare, but their advantages include allowing students to work with different classmates (those who are not their usual neighbors or members of long-term assigned groups), enabling students to enjoy a fun “brain break” that involves language or content learning, and presenting opportunities for students to get up and move around.
Be sure to consider your students’ language level, age, and learning preferences when determining if the techniques below are a good match for your classroom.
Ideas: Getting Students into Impromptu Groups and Pairs
1. Creating groups with “counting off” variations
Most teachers have used the “counting off” method to create impromptu groups (if you want 5 groups, students each say a number aloud in turn: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2….). You can easily modify this technique to include a language or content focus:
- Sequenced vocabulary: To reinforce vocabulary at beginning levels, instead of having numbered groups, assign sequenced vocabulary items as group names. Write the sequenced words on the board for extra visual support, if needed. For example, if you want 5 groups, your sequence could be “weekdays,” and students would count off Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Monday.… (or your locally defined interpretation of “weekdays”). To create 6 groups, you could use “Spring and Summer months” with students counting off March, April, May, June, July, August, March… (or the applicable months in the Southern Hemisphere). To create groups of any size, you can use “multiples of 10” or “multiples of 100” to practice number vocabulary: for 7 groups, students would count off ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, ten, twenty…. You can also use recently studied vocabulary words in alphabetical order for your sequence. For example, for “fruits and vegetables,” students could count off with apple, banana, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, orange, apple, banana… If desired, post pictures or draw the items on the board and point at each as students count off.
- Letters and vocabulary: Instead of having numbered groups, assign each group a letter. The letters don’t always have to be sequential (e.g., A, B, C…). For instance, you could use B, C, M, S, and T to create 5 groups. Write the letters on the board and point to each one as students count off so they can stay on track. As students count off, they must say any English word that starts with the letter in the sequence on the board. For example, students could count off boy, car, map, street, time, baseball, cow….. Each student must use a different word, and the rest of the class should be on the lookout for repeated responses. Students who get stuck after a few seconds can ask a neighbor for help. This sorting technique is great for lower intermediate levels and above because these students have access to a wider range of vocabulary items. Also, teachers can make this vocabulary-focused approach more difficult by choosing both letters and a category, such as “proper names,” “types of food,” etc. For instance, if your letters are B, C, O, and P, and the category is “food,” count off responses might include banana, coconut, onion, potato, bagel, cake, orange….
- Themes: Instead of numbered groups, use themed group names, such as Animals, Sports, Jobs, and Things You Read. Write the themes on the board. As students count off, they must give an example that fits the category. For example, for the categories above, responses might be camel, football, policeman, magazine, monkey, basketball, doctor, newspaper…. The rest of the class can judge whether or not responses suit each category. You can choose themes related to content in your curriculum or, after you’ve used this technique a few times to create a routine, let students suggest the themes.
- For all variations, your group names are limited only by your imagination and the students’ language level. In all options, after the “count off” phase, you can then direct and instruct groups according to the sorting factor: Can everyone in the “Monday” group stand up, please? I need five volunteers from the “C” team to pass out these worksheets, please. I’d like all of my “Sports” group members to start working together at Station 1 now.
2. Creating pairs and groups with “Find your Match”
During pair and group work, teachers often ask students to turn and work with their neighbors. In classes with assigned seats or where students usually sit in the same places, this means working with the same partner or group mates on a regular basis. While working in a familiar pair or group can build trust and comfort, students also need opportunities to work with other classmates who may have different perspectives, language skills, and personalities.
The “find your match” technique for setting pairs or groups can be used with students of any level and can be adapted to review and recycle a variety of language and content topics in the curriculum. The premise for all of the variations described below is that students will all receive a card or small piece of paper with information in English on it, and they must move around the room and talk with others as they try to find the partner or group mates whose cards contain related information.
Prepare the cards in advance based on the learning objectives, mix the cards up, and distribute them to students. Here are a just a few of many possible language- and content-focused ways to use this technique; examples with different difficulty levels are included for some items:
Language-focused “find your match” cards
o Synonyms: big finds huge (pair); happy finds cheerful (pair); permanent finds everlasting, unchanging and immutable (group of 4)
o Antonyms: sad/happy; difficult/easy; danger/safety
o Comparatives and superlatives: expensive/more expensive; pretty/prettier; comfortable/more comfortable/most comfortable (group of 3)
o Irregular verb forms: go/went; swim/swam; sing/sang
o Associated vocabulary items: cat/kitten; baseball/bat; (theme: “things in a kitchen”) pot/stove/refrigerator/sink (group of 4); (theme: “things that fly”) duck/airplane/helicopter/pigeon/rocket (group of 5)
o Picture – word (for lower levels): vocabulary item/picture of the item; digital time/a drawing of an analog clock with the time displayed on hour and minute hands (students must say the time aloud in English when they find their match); a number in numeric form/the number spelled out (71/seventy-one)
Content-focused “find your match” cards
o Reading / literature: book title + character(s) – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn/Aunt Polly/Becky Thatcher (group of 4); The Gift of the Magi/Della (pair)
o Science: parts of a system or process – photosynthesis/sun/leaf/chlorophyll (group of 4); lifecycle of a butterfly/egg/caterpillar/pupa/butterfly (group of 5)
o Science: animal + habitat – bird/tree; shark/ocean; fox/moose/bear/ owl/forest (group of 5)
o Social studies: current event + country where it occurred or current event and person involved – 2014 Winter Olympics/Russia; international volunteers respond to recent floods/Bangladesh; promoting a nationwide campaign that encourages kids to exercise/U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama
o History: event + significance or date or person and significance – 1945/World War II ends; Emancipation Proclamation/freed slaves in the United States during the Civil War; Mahatma Gandhi/promoted non-violent approaches to social change
Tip - Managing the Volume: This type of mingling activity can generate noise. While it is great that students are actively speaking, you don’t want the noise level to become disruptive. Here is a way to create a routine that uses visual signals to encourage students to speak at a classroom-appropriate level:
- Traffic signal: The teacher holds up stoplight-colored signs or pieces of paper to indicate the noise level. Green = Good; Yellow = Becoming too noisy, lower the volume; Red = Stop – it is too noisy! Use your quiet voices or whisper. The teacher can hold up the sign at the front of the class or walk around with the sign raised while students are working. Train your students to pass along the signal to their partners or group mates when they see it and to remind others to adjust the noise level when yellow or red signs are shown.
Last week’s Teacher’s Corner focused on the importance of communicative group and pair work and looked at creative ways to form these learning partnerships. This week we will explore more ideas for creating impromptu (spontaneously made) groups for collaborative learning activities and projects.
In addition to using teacher-assigned groups, incorporating randomly allocated, impromptu groups or pairs into some activities provides students with opportunities to work with a variety of classmates who may have different perspectives, language skills, and personalities. Being able to communicate effectively with diverse types of people is an important skill for language learners to develop.
As we saw in the previous edition of the Teacher’s Corner, the process of creating such groups doesn’t have to be boring! Last week, we examined two techniques – “counting off variations” and “find your match” – to get students into groups or pairs while also including elements of language and/or content learning. Be sure to check out those tips if you missed them! The techniques described below provide even more ways to “spice up” the process of creating impromptu groups. Be sure to consider your students’ language level, age, and learning preferences when determining if the techniques are a good match for your classroom.
Ideas: getting students into Impromptu groups
- Choose your own group (theme basis)
With this approach, students select their own groups based on personal reactions to teacher-provided prompts connected to a theme. Themes can relate to recently learned vocabulary, be drawn from a content-based curriculum topic, or simply be fun or interesting topics that stimulate discussion or strong feelings. Examples include:
- Favorite sport (to play or to watch on TV)
- The job I would like to have
- Favorite endangered animal
- Most influential historical figure in the 20th century
- Favorite food or ice cream flavor
- Favorite subject in school
- The item you would take with you if you were stranded alone on a desert island
- Favorite quotation or character from a book, play, or poem being studied in class
Two variations of this approach are provided: the first gets all students up and out of their seats as they choose groups; the second is more controlled and may be well suited for larger classes or classes in which movement is restricted due to the room’s physical layout. Before using this technique, explain that not every student will get her or his first choice in choosing a group due to space considerations. Tell students that it is okay to pick their second or third most-preferred option.
- Variation A. Move to your group’s station: Post pictures or text-based signs with theme-related prompt options around the room before the activity (for example: Favorite Summer Olympic sport: boxing, football, basketball, track and field, gymnastics, swimming, other). If desired, include an “other” category for students whose preference isn’t represented with the options provided. When you are ready to form groups, ask students to get up, calmly walk around and review the options, and then stand next to the option that best matches their preference. This approach can save transition time since students physically move to their group’s work area while the groups are being formed.
If your activity requires equal numbers of students in each group, try these options:
- Post a piece of paper or have a space on a whiteboard/chalkboard for the first students who reach the station to write down their names and confirm their spot in the group.
- Create a sheet of paper with numbered strips that can be torn off. Use the desired group size to determine how many strips to make. When students arrive at the station they tear off a numbered strip to confirm their place in the group.
- If your class is small, as groups are forming, you can verbally encourage volunteers to move from a crowded group to a less populated one.
- Variation B. Sign-up sheet: Provide a sign-up sheet with the desired number of group spaces under each themed response option. As students arrive in class, verbally direct them to fill out the sheet or post written instructions on the board asking them to sign up for a group as they walk in. As an alternative, you can pass around the sign-up sheet during other parts of class such as attendance taking or extended silent reading. Again, remind students it is okay to pick their second or third most-preferred option if their first choice is not available.
After groups are formed and before starting the activity, ask groups to hold brief discussions about why the members chose that particular option. If used, students who chose the “other” category can talk about their preferred responses. If students end up in a group that wasn’t their first choice, they can explain why this group was their second or third choice. This brief discussion can “break the ice,” create rapport, and get students primed to work together on the main activity or project.
- Grab bag
This strategy doesn’t have a language or content focus, but it is a quick and efficient way to create impromptu groups:
- Before class, prepare sets of small objects according the desired number of groups and students per group. You can use any type of small object as long as the sets are visually different from each other, such as different colored marbles, buttons, game pieces, or beans; small, inexpensive plastic toys; or – many students’ favorite option – different types of individually wrapped candy or sweets. For example, to create 8 groups of 5 students, count out 8 sets of 5 types of candy.
- Put the items in a bag and shake it up. Pass the bag around the class. Students reach in the bag and choose an item to determine which group they belong to.
- To make this group-setting process faster in large classes, split your mixed-up sets of objects among 2 to 4 bags that can be passed around at the same time.
- Deck of cards
Decks of four-suit (clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds), 52-count playing cards can be a great tool for randomly grouping students. If these cards aren’t available, try to adapt the ideas below using the type of playing cards commonly found where you live. Depending on the technique you use, the desired group size, and your class size, you may need to remove some cards from the deck or use more than one deck.
- To create two large groups, have each student draw a card; those with red cards go in one group, those with black cards go in the other. Alternatively, remove the face cards (jack, queen, king) and divide the class by those who draw even-numbered cards and those who draw odd-numbered cards (ace = odd).
- To create three groups, divide the class by whether students draw face cards, even-numbered cards, or odd-numbered cards.
- To create four groups, divide the class by the suits students draw (clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds).
- To create groups of 4, divide the class by the value of the card they drew (e.g., all 7’s work together, all queens work together).
- To create custom-sized groups, use a set of value ranges to sort the students (e.g., everyone with a card between 2 and 4, between 5 and 7, etc.)
Tip – Speeding up the movement process: with the exception of the “move to your group’s station” variation of the first technique, these approaches all involve setting groups while students are in their usual seats. Now you need to get them to move to where you want them to work, which can take time. To speed this process up, try using pre-designated stations and a timer.
- Pre-designated stations: If possible, set up and label the areas where you want groups to work before class or while students are engaged in another activity. You can mark the stations with numbers, letters, colors, pictures, or words. In this way, once groups are created, you can easily direct students to a specific spot. For example, Can the team who likes chocolate ice cream please move to Station 1? I’d like my vanilla ice cream-lovers to work at station 2, please.
Timers: Challenge students to quickly get into groups by timing them. Start the timer when you say “go,” and stop the timer when the last student is positioned with his or her group and the groups are ready to start working. Encourage students to move safely and courteously. To add an element of competition, keep track of the class time records on the board and challenge students to see if they can beat their previous record each time you move into groups. Once the routine is set to move quickly into groups, you can discontinue timer use if desired. For more ideas on how to use timers and create efficient and fun student movement routines, see Kevin McCaughey’s 2012 webinar “The Moveable Class,” part of the Shaping the Way We Teach English webinar series (slides are available under the “Downloads” section of this week’s Teachers Corner).
As part of the challenging goal of helping students develop linguistic knowledge and proficiency, EFL teachers juggle many complex socio-affective* tasks:
- Correcting errors and offering suggestions
- Assessing progress and participation
- Maintaining classroom discipline and enforcing rules
- Guiding student interpersonal relationships during group work, pair work, and whole-class activities
- Nurturing students’ confidence as they learn new content and skills
- Motivating students to progress and develop autonomous learning habits
- Planning and managing learning experiences for students with diverse learning styles, personalities, maturity levels, and self-regulation abilities
Facing all of these intricate tasks, along with the pressures of time and limited resources, it is no wonder that teachers can become frustrated and exasperated at times. However, even in times of frustration we must work to maintain a positive learning environment and remember that our students’ opinions and feelings must be treated with care. Teachers can do this not only by establishing routines and rules, but also with the language, verbal and non-verbal, used to communicate with students.
Teachers’ words can have long-lasting effects on learners. Everyone, regardless of age or background, appreciates being spoken to in an encouraging and positive way. This is not to say that teachers should over-praise students – something they will surely notice and view as insincere – but that they should look for ways to reframe (rephrase or restate) negative language they might be tempted to use as positive statements.
Classroom language, even when you are enforcing rules, should encourage students to choose positive behaviors and demonstrate that teachers believe they can make such choices. For example, what difference do you see between the following statements?
- Everyone, stop talking now. Sit down! (teacher claps hands and looks angry)
- We’ll begin once everyone is seated and quiet. (teacher silently waits with a positive expression on her face and looks expectantly at students)
Students who regularly feel insecure, embarrassed, or angered by a teacher’s communication style aren’t learning effectively. This week’s Teacher’s Corner will explore a few quick ways to use voice tone, words, and body language to foster positive classroom rapport, mutual respect, and trust. For more tips related to positive language use, review Sally White’s 2014 webinar, “Reframing: The Power of Positive Language,” part of the Shaping the Way We Teach English webinar series; some examples below are adapted from that presentation. The slides are available in the “Downloads” section of this webpage.
* socio-affective: relating to emotions and relationships with others
Ideas: using positive language in the classroom
- Look for ways to reframe statements and words to focus on the positive:
Negative – deficiency focus
Positive – constructive focus
excited, enthusiastic, eager
You’re working too slowly. Hurry up.
Everyone is working carefully and being thorough, but we only have 5 minutes left to finish.
Michael, don’t be late again! You’ll be in big trouble.
Michael, be on time, please. What happens if you are late more than three times? [prompt the student to supply the consequence]
Muriel, stop interrupting John.
Muriel, please look at our classroom rules chart. Do we listen quietly while others are speaking?
No, that is wrong. The answer is ____.
Hmm...that is a tough one! Let’s look at this example together. [Guide the student(s) through the challenge with prompts to see if they can arrive at the correct answer]
- When giving correction or praise, try to focus on specific behaviors or examples.
No: Everyone, calm down…behave.
Yes: Everyone, please return to your seats, sit quietly, and put your pencils and pens down.
No: Jenny, I like the way you are behaving.
Yes: Jenny, thank you for waiting for your turn to speak. You are being very patient.
No: There is too much talking going on. Pay attention.
Yes: We’ll continue when all mouths are quiet and everyone is ready to listen to Sara.
- Body language and tone of voice: Project positivity with relaxed, open body language. Use a calm, warm, and professional tone of voice that is age-appropriate for our students. Speak in an authentic way even if you slow your speech rate down a bit for lower levels.
- Body language varies from culture to culture. Examples below reflect negative and positive American body language.
No: scowling and frowning, rolling your eyes to be dismissive, throwing your hands up in the air to show frustration, crossing your arms over your chest or tapping your foot to indicate impatience, shaking a pointed finger at someone while correcting them
Yes: smiling, maintaining a calm and neutral face while enforcing rules, relaxing your arms and shoulders, nodding to indicate agreement or encouragement
- Never use “baby talk,” “sugary” language, or a condescending tone.
No: Oh, sweetie, you are doing such a super, great, wonderful job.
Yes: Carlos, good job - you used five new vocabulary words in your homework assignment.
- Don’t be sarcastic. It is not funny and it hurts students’ feelings.
No: Marta, what part of “Stop talking” did you not understand?
Yes: Marta, it is time to listen now.
- Lower levels: EFL teachers must adjust the language used with students based on their current proficiency level. However, simple, directive language doesn’t equate to being short-tempered or rude. For classroom management purposes, students at these levels may be able to best understand shorter, imperative statements, but teachers can convey the information with a warm tone and supporting gestures. Using a positive tone and positive body language is especially important with these learners who may be extra self-conscious about making mistakes and not understanding what their teacher wants.