ESL Classroom management

Mission Impossible?

It was quite some time ago – about 5 years, to be more exact – but I remember the class like it was yesterday: the class that really, honestly, didn’t want to co-operate.  It wasn’t the easiest class, of course: at least three of the children had ADHD, another four had Dyslexia, quite a few of them had emotional disorders, there was an autistic child, and those who remained kept their heads down, out of the melee of insults and retorts constantly thrown behind the teacher’s back.  This class had worn down three teachers already, and here I stood, again, in a mad attempt to teach these children to communicate in English.

The crisis = the turning point

Nobody listened; they were too busy paying attention to each other. “Eyes on me,” I’d try, while comforting a girl who clearly had just been teased by one of her tormentors.  “Ears this way, please, no more throwing notes.”  Nothing worked.  I even raised my voice.  “Listen here, now, it’s time for English,” while setting a smart-mouthed child in the hallway.  I was getting desperate.

That night, it came to me.  These children were too busy with each other to pay attention to me, and I wasn’t going to fight for their attention any more.  From now on, they would pay attention to each other whether they liked it or not.  It was time for some group work.  Every lesson, every day.

Making the groups

I started by asking the children to write down the names of three other children in the class with whom they would like to work.  The results were astounding.  I’d made sociograms before, and found that most classes have one child that no one else wants to work with.  We all know about these children – the stinky boy, the class reject, or the bully.  The picture that emerged of this class was harsher: there wasn’t one class reject – there were four children that no one else wanted to work with.  I  was shocked.

These four children, I decided, were going to be group captains.  I made groups of four, and in each group I placed at least one of the children that the captains wanted to work with.  Further, I balanced the groups as hetergeneously as possible, with strong and weak children in each group.  That done, I turned to the book.

The children are playing a game of Lotto together.  The orange booklet is the "group booklet".

The children are playing a game of Lotto together. The orange booklet is the “group booklet”.

Structuring the assignments

It was time to create assignments that the children could do with their group.  I looked through the book and the workbook, and searched the internet for activities that met my requirements for learning activities.  For me, real learning activities must meet at least these basic requirements:

  1. contribute towards attaining the language objectives for the unit
  2. be language- and age-appropriate
  3. can be completed independently, in pairs, or in a small group
  4. must be self-checking
  5. must be varied, appealing to the children’s intelligences

After that, I set about making checklists for the class, so we could see which groups had already done which activities, and made a “group booklet”.  This booklet contained a checklist of the assignments, plus all of the worksheets and materials they would need to complete each assignment.  In short, all of the material we would need for the next four to six weeks was ready before the new unit started.

Ready, steady, go!

I decided to start each lesson with a short, classical instruction ten to fifteen minutes long.  After that,  I briefly explained what the assignments were and noted which assignment they decided to do, and the children got into their groups.  The group was allowed to check off an assignment once they proved they had completed it successfully.  Each lesson ended with a short evaluation of how everyone worked.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes taking place.

Was it an immediate success?  Most certainly not!  The first lesson went horribly!  The children were noisy, the room was a mess, and I had serious doubts about this new manner of teaching.

The rule of three

But, as with any new process, I kept to the rule of three.

According to the rule of three:

the first time is a mess,

the second time is for fine-tuning,

and the third time is the charm.  

And so it was with this class.  After the first lesson, we discussed the problems, and I explained the process again.  After the second lesson, we remembered what went better and discussed how to improve the way we worked.  After the third lesson, the children understood the process and the groups were learning to get along, whether they liked it or not.  They were learning, and I was happy.

Success factors

Structure:  the overall structure of the lesson was simple and clear.  The children knew what to expect in terms of lesson order, even though the contents would vary.

Groups:  the children didn’t always get along well in their groups, but while the groups were busy working, we were able to take time to talk out their differences and help them to get along with each other.

Activities:  these were structured so that everyone was able to experience success.  They fit into the Dalton method of working, which they were used to in their other subject areas, and were interesting and varied.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

For the units that followed, I created new groups, and was pleased to see that the new groups got along better than the ones before, as children learned to work together in positive ways.

This means of working was born of necessity, but evolved into a way of teaching that I continued to use in the years that followed.  It allowed me to use the book freely, while pulling other, more contemporary, material into the classroom as I deemed fit.

In the end, we all began to enjoy the lessons, and the children started to focus more on their learning.  Mission Impossible?  Mission accomplished!


The happy class: keeping the boundaries clear

Children test their boundaries. It’s their job, it’s how they learn. I, on the other hand, get the inglorious task of pointing out those boundaries while keeping the lesson going at a productive clip. How do I do this in L2 (the target language), when the children are used to being taught in L1 (their mother tongue)? This is a challenge I’ve been faced with time and again. Armed with years of experience under my belt, I can now tell you how to be just as successful as I am (cough).

Let me correct myself: let me give you a few tips that work for me, and who knows? Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Tip #1: rapport with the classroom teacher

The classroom teacher is the boss. Very often, the children will work very nicely and quietly for the classroom teacher, only to prove quite disruptive the minute another teacher (like me) shows up. It’s important for the class to understand that we teachers are always on the same page, especially when it comes to the rules. So when I enter the classroom, we greet each other and have a short, simple conversation the children can follow. How are you, what a nice shirt you have on today, how are the children today, is there anything special going on, that sort of thing. At the start of the lesson, the teacher may even take one or two children aside and give them special instructions on how to behave, especially if they have proven repetitively disruptive.  At the end of the lesson, we have another short conversation:  what did we learn, how did we work, who gets a special compliment.  The classroom teacher compliments the class for a job well done and I thank the teacher for having such a clever, wonderful class.

This may sound like too much sunshine and compliments. The point is, however, what the children are taking away from these short conversations. First of all, they see that we are in agreement as to what is considered acceptable behavior. They also see that we communicate about them and expect good behavior, no matter who the teacher is at that moment.

Tip #2: keep it simple

For any of my lessons, I have three rules.  No more than that. I have found that three rules cover pretty much whatever I need the children to do.  In all other cases, I refer to the classroom rules, which are often posted somewhere in the class.  Not that I read it aloud, but I can point to it and ask someone to explain what that rule is.

For instance, for my pre-schoolers:

  1. sit and listen quietly
  2. raise your hand
  3. no copy-catting

For an older class, the rules are different:

  1. speak English
  2. raise your hand
  3. have fun!

I have these rules illustrated on laminated card, and when I find children are having a hard time following a rule, I simply hold up the card and state “we’re forgetting rule number …” No need for long discussions that disrupt the pace of the lesson. On very rare occassion, I will actually pull out three blocks and put them next to the picture.  Every time the rule is forgotten, I simply snap my fingers, point at the child, then the rule, and take away a block. I don’t say a word, there’s no need to. When there is still a block left at the end of the lesson, I praise the child for learning to remember that particular rule. A simple “I know you were having a hard time (sitting on your chair/keeping your hands to yourself/etc), but you remembered later on. Well done,” is sufficient.

Tip #3: keep it positive

Children love compliments. When an entire class is being noisy, I point to the picture of a child sitting quietly (yes, I have this on the whiteboard), and when I notice one other child sitting just like that, I give him or her a thumbs-up. And then the next child, and the next. Until entire rows or tables full of children are sitting quietly, ready for the lesson.  A simple “Wow, look at Johnny, he’s sitting nicely” works wonders among kindergarteners. They may not understand what I’m saying, but they do get the fact that I’m quite pleased with Johnny and now they all want to be just like him and get compliments.

Children like to be noticed.  When I notice a child catching himself and correcting his behavior, I say so. “I saw how you stopped laughing at your neighbor and helped him, instead. Very good.” Compliments inform them of what I want to see.

Remember, “don’t do that, darling” is not concrete. Tell children what you do want to see. “Oh, Julie is sitting quietly. Can you sit quietly, too?”

That’s enough of my soapbox for today. Do you have any methods that work for you? Let me know!



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