Aoife McLoughlinI'm a blogger of all things ELT on which offers practical advice to teachers for their classrooms and a Director of Studies in ATC Language School in Ireland. I've a passion for writing along with English Language Teaching and management and so was excited when I saw this opportunity to become a guest blogger with MET and continue to bring those two things which I love together.

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How large is a ‘large class’ anyway?

Ur (1996) states that “the exact number does not really matter: what matters is how you, the teacher, see the class size in your own specific situation”.

In the majority of private language schools in Ireland and the UK, it’s fifteen - fourteen being the magic number. Teachers love even numbers; it makes pair and group work effective and efficient and nobody has to worry about who is going to be the second ‘B’ in an A/B task.

To an English teacher in China, fifteen is merely a dream! How about seventy to one hundred?

Baker and Westrup (2000) suggest that “a large class can be any number of students if the teacher feels there are too many students for them all to make progress” but is it practically possible to expect a student in a class of seventy to make significant progress or are we asking a little too much of our teachers?

Despite the disadvantages associated with large classes, the majority are also monolingual, which do have their advantages:

  • Learners hold common L1 difficulties, which makes it easier to cater for all learners needs at once.
  • They are usually of a similar age.
  • They have a shared cultural background.
  • They hold similar interests so preparing a lesson to engage and motivate them becomes a much more manageable task.
  • Despite the popular ‘L1 or not L1’ debate, the teacher can use the learners’ L1 for translation, contrastive analysis, giving instructions and concept checking understanding.

But do these advantages outweigh the numerous disadvantages?

Difficulties with Large Classes:

  • Common L1:
    Standing in front of 70+ teenagers trying to encourage them to ‘speak English’

  • Physically draining:
    Teachers will have to speak more loudly causing strain to the throat, cover more ground (wear comfortable shoes) and constantly pay attention to all areas of the room.

  • Discipline:
    The majority of large classes consist of school children/teenagers where teachers are bound to have behavioural issues. How do you get students to pay attention and NOT throw that eraser at their classmate’s head? According to Lewis (2001) punitive strategies appear to be of limited usefulness in promoting responsible student behaviour and should be replaced by proactive and interactive discipline practices (Pane, 2010).

  • Classroom management:
    Teachers are limited on what they can do within such a confined space. Most of the time, teachers have very little space to conduct kinaesthetic activities such as running dictations or wall tasks. You will need to think of other ways to keep them occupied. As Hayes (1997) stated, teachers are ‘unable to promote student interaction since there is no room to move about.’

  • Giving Feedback:
    With larger class numbers there comes an even more diverse range of learning styles and individual need for feedback, requiring more one-to-one attention. Teachers feel they are neglecting learners individual needs as this isn’t physically possible.

  • Resources:
    Schools don’t have adequate resources to cater for classes of this size and so much of the time are required to design their own paperless lessons.

  • Introverted Students:
    Quieter students don’t like to speak out in front of a large group of people and so teachers have the added difficulty of ensuring these students do not ‘get lost’ in a large class.

Lightbulb on a chalkboard

Tips & Techniques

  • Common L1:
    One of the main reasons students revert to their own language is due to disengagement, demotivation and a general lack of interest in the topic or task.

    It is fundamental to learners’ language development that they are kept ‘on task’, engaged, actively listening and using the L2 to speak productively and interactively. Choosing your topic carefully with your learners’ interests in mind, varying your tasks and providing students with a reason to remain on task should help.

  • Physically Draining:
    Delegate some ‘teacher tasks’ to your students such as distributing handouts, collecting homework and arranging groups. The more you do this, the more your students will come to expect it and the fewer instructions you’ll have to give. You won’t be able to physically get around to all the students in your class so get creative!

  • Teamwork corkboard

  • Discipline:
    As Allwright (1996) stated, ‘Some students will arrive in class with an agenda other than learning’ and this is something we should accept and expect. During your first lesson, create a disciplinary contract with your students. Give them ownership of the task of coming up with ideas such as ‘I won’t shout in class or the teacher will give me extra homework.’

    Give them responsibility for coming up with a fair consequence for each of their actions. The more invested they are in the outcome, the more they will take it seriously. Post it on the wall and refer to it when a behavioural issue arises. As Johnson & Johnson (2006) stated, we need to hand over responsibility for ensuring the appropriateness of behaviour.

  • Classroom Management:
    Rearrange your furniture into a layout that suits your room. Instead of attempting to carry out a whole class ‘Find Someone Who’ exercise, try it with smaller groups, e.g. students at desks A and B carry out a ‘Find Someone Who’ task and students at desks C and D do the same. This will prevent students from roaming around the entire room.

  • Giving Feedback:
    It’s impossible for teachers in these class sizes to get around to all their students – don’t put that pressure on yourself. Assign some of your stronger students as ‘teaching assistants’ to help you (this increases confidence levels).

    Get students familiar with the task of ‘Peer to Peer Feedback’ and ‘Self-Reflection’. It might be difficult for them in the beginning but with practice it will become the norm and students will come to expect it as part of their lesson.

  • Resources:
    Use your learners’ backgrounds and experiences as content for your lessons. Make use of authentic materials your learners have access to after their lessons such as: newspapers, magazines, photos, items of clothing and toys. Assign learners a task of taking photographs of billboards/advertisements and reporting back to the class or get groups to write a questionnaire in class and ask their families/friends the questions and report back the following day.

  • Introverted Students:
    Don’t call on quieter students to speak up in front of seventy of their classmates. Get to know your students and become aware of those who are more comfortable speaking in smaller break-out groups. Call on them when they are in a group of 5 or 6 and monitor their progress closely. They might surprise you one day in a whole-class activity but give them time.

Teaching large classes is an area that continues to receive little or no training on Cambridge CELTA, Trinity TESOL or equivalent certificate courses and until we’re thrown in at the deep end, it’s not something we are ever really prepared for but hopefully these tips and techniques will help you in your teaching….before you reach burnout!


Hayes, David (1997) ‘Helping Teachers to Cope with Large Classes’, ELT Journal Volume 51/2

Baker, J. & Westrup. H. (2000). The English language teacher’s handbook: How to teach large classes with few resources. London: Continuum.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. (2006). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Lewis, R. (2001). Classroom discipline and student responsibility: The students’ view. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17, 307-319.

Pane, D. (2010). Viewing classroom discipline as negotiable social interaction: A communities of practice perspective. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 87-97.

Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.