6 Strategies to Keep the Perfect Volume Level in Your ESL Classroom

Have you ever been playing a fun game or doing an exciting activity in class, but then lost control of the rising volume?

Or how about the opposite, a time where you’ve planned an awesome activity—like a debate using the hottest current event—but nobody would talk?

Whether you teach in small groups or large, volume level is vitally important to successful implementation of any lesson plan.

Regardless of your goals or lesson ideas, if the noise level in your classroom is not what you need, your lessons will struggle and your stress levels are going to shoot through the roof.

Difficulties in ESL Classroom Volume Levels

The are two types of difficult classes in terms of noise level: too loud and too quiet. Each has its own set of difficulties, but both can destroy even the most well thought out lesson plan.

The overly loud class

Almost every teacher has encountered the overly loud class, and there are a plethora of adjectives used to describe them: rowdy, noisy, out of control and others. Sometimes, the noise level is the result of students who are speaking to each other about stuff that has nothing to do with your lesson plan. Sometimes (especially when dealing with classes of smaller children), the noise is the result of the students becoming overly excited.

Their volume level rises with their excitement, to the point that you can feel your ear drums being assaulted from all directions and you are not sure if you are in an English class or at a heavy metal concert populated by young kids. The biggest drawback of overly loud classes is making yourself understood and directions heard. Students who want or need to hear what you are saying cannot, and information is lost.

The overly quiet class

On the opposite end of the spectrum are overly quiet classes. These classes are so quiet you can hear a pin drop, and you often feel your head starting to nod, especially with afternoon classes or if you happen to have a rather stuporous heater next to you. These classes can flat out drag. When you try to elicit questions and answers, there are none. When you try to get groups speaking together or working in pairs, what results looks eerily similar to two telepaths staring at each other.

The most damaging part of these classes lies in not just falling asleep, but also in speaking skills. East Asia is notorious for its poor English speaking abilities, and this lack of spoken English also affects overall English. Overly quiet classes are usually also the poorest speakers, and working with this sort of class is difficult, especially if one of your teaching goals is to improve English speaking abilities.

Change volume with behavior

So, what can you as the teacher do? Like most corrective action, it comes down to behavior modification. While anyone’s memory of freshman Psychology 101 can give you the basics, a quick rehash as it applies to teaching is this: Engage in acts that move the students more towards your desired end state. Once there, reward the desired end state, or help the students realize the benefits of staying in such an end state. Then lather, rinse and repeat.

Let’s look at six specific strategies you can apply to your classes that will engage students in acts that move them towards the perfect volume.

6 Key Strategies to Keep the Perfect Volume in Your ESL Classroom

1. The Whisper Method

The whisper method is pretty self explanatory. When you are giving instruction or explaining something, do it in a quiet voice. Do not use a stage whisper, but a true quiet voice.

I often call this a 12-inch voice, although for very small groups you can even use a 6-inch voice. Give your instructions in this voice, without using any sort of body language or other nonverbal cues to prompt understanding. The nice part about the whisper method is that it can be used at a moment’s notice, without any adjustment of your previously developed lesson plan.

This technique is great for two different types of classes. The first is overly excited classes that get too loud not due to any sort of malicious intent, but just because they are naturally perky. The second is for overly quiet classes who just don’t recognize the results of their quietness.

With the overly bubbly groups, the whisper method takes advantage of requiring the students to quiet down in order to hear what you are trying to say. If they can’t hear you, they know they are going to miss something important, whether it be the next game goal, next activity description, or something that they know will make their experience more fun.

For an overly quiet class, the whisper method can serve as a model for why not speaking up can be detrimental. If they can’t hear you, they’ll feel frustrated because they know they are missing something. So if you counterpoint your quiet speech with normal speech, you can teach the importance of voice projection without having to harp on the subject constantly.

2. Face-to-face Communication

One of the biggest flaws that teachers make with loud classes is trying to shout over the class. Now for me, that is actually achievable. I have a very large lung capacity, and am an expert at vocal projection (not the parlor trick, but rather the ability to make my voice heard over a large distance without screaming. Thanks, U.S. Army).

But even for me, there comes a point where trying to talk over a class is impossible. Also, this is often counterproductive because it creates an environment where the sound cascades upon itself, creating more noise as other students try to speak louder to talk over the other noisy students, who then raise their volume levels accordingly.

Next time, instead of shouting the whole time (a single attention getting “Listen up!” could be okay in certain situations though), try face-to-face communication. When you see a student doing something wrong or in need of correction, don’t shout or talk over a large distance. Go right next to the student, look them in the eye and speak in a calm, normal manner. This is especially useful in classes where you might need to engage in corrective action.

Shouting at the whole group will often not bring troublemakers to heel, since they will feel safe and anonymous in the group. By directly talking to one student however, you are demonstrating that you in fact do know who is creating the problem, and that they cannot hide behind the faceless mob.

3. Soft Voiced or Silent Communication Activities

For groups that need games or other distractions, if you cannot eliminate the loud voices, you can at least cut them in half by using soft voiced or silent communication activities. Two great ones are Telephone and Charades.

Telephone (sometimes known by its non-PC name “Chinese Whispers”) is a classic kids game, where two or more teams compete to pass along a message from person to person using just whispers. The first team to accurately pass the message all the way around is the winner.

Because whispers are so soft, this requires that the other players on a team lower their volume level accordingly so that their teammates can hear. Make sure teams don’t engage in “loud whispers” where the first player “whispers” so loudly that everyone and their baby brother can hear. Penalties for inaccuracy, overly loud whispers and other things will create the proper atmosphere.

Charades is also a popular party game that can lead to a boisterous cacophony, and could be used for very silent classes. However, to quiet down a noisy class, doing pair or small group charades can be effective, as it creates more students who are forced to be silent as they act out their hint. Even if the other students are still loud, it reduces the noise level by a significant percentage.

4. TPR and Movement Activities

For overly quiet classes, you often have to determine why they are quiet. For example, I once had a class right before lunch that came to English immediately after math. They had a very old fashioned “shut up and listen while I teach” type math instructor, who left the students mostly catatonic by the time they got to me. As such, the best way to get them into class was to spend the first five to ten minutes doing various movement-based activities, whether it was a simple “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” or “Simon Says” to dancing and singing. The main thing needed to do was to wake this class up. 

TPR and movement-based activities are also a good way to assure the fears of a quiet class where the students are quiet because they are physical rather than verbal learners. You’ll often find that these students are very artistic, and may produce wonderful examples of painting, sculpture or dance, but do not present themselves verbally. Using TPR and movement to accentuate and give these students a meaningful way to demonstrate their learning can work to lift their entire English ability.

5. Use Loud Activities

This strategy is the opposite of face-to-face communication idea described above. By creating activities where loud volume is seen as important, you can foster an environment where everyone speaks as loudly as possible.

Two potential activities include singing and Dueling Chants. Songs can be great to get everyone into the mood to project, as most students also have music class where they are taught to project their voices. By taking the familiar singing and putting it into English class, you can create the same mental link to projection.

For Dueling Chants, break the class into two teams. Set up a simple chant (think high school cheer level), and have the two teams go back and forth, with the winner getting a point. Winners would be determined not just by volume but also by accuracy, so mindless screaming is discouraged.

6. Create Space

Sometimes referred to as “stand in the back of the room,” the whole concept of creating space comes from my time in the army. During training, it was drilled into us that commands must be given in a loud, clear, projecting voice if they are to be of any use on a noisy battlefield. Starting even with ceremonial marching, leaders are taught to give loud commands.

The result is a single voice that rolls over a large group of people, going for hundreds of meters while still being clearly understandable. For those who are not of a military mindset, stage actors and opera singers also employ a similar mindset and technique to make sure their non-amplified voices are still audible even in the farthest corners of a performance hall.

This technique is most easily implemented with older students who are expected to give presentations. Instead of sitting nearby, where soft voices and unassuming body language can be overlooked, create as much space as you can between the listener and the speaker. This forces the speaker to project over a distance. In team games, having the two teams on opposite sides of a room (a school gym is great for this) ensures a loud voice because there are also other teams calling out at the same time.

In teaching a powerful speaking voice, make sure to take your time. Some students have been so brainwashed with the mantra of “don’t stick out, just stay quiet and everything will be all right” that it reflects in their entire person, not just their voice. Body language, voice, eyes—everything says that the students want to melt into the floor if possible. Encouraging and supporting such students while expecting them to learn proper speaking is essential, and can be a long-term challenge.

English is a language in which what is said is sometimes not as important as how it is said. As such, teaching an appropriate noise level will not only help your classes go more smoothly, but also ensure that your students are better able to communicate effectively in English outside of your classes.

Try out these strategies, and be patient on modifying behavior. Remember, your students are with you at most 2-3 hours a week. The other six days and 22 to 23 hours, they’re with someone else. You might have to go slow, but still making the effort is important. Good luck.

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