4 Ways for Language Teachers to Master Classroom Management

There’s a reason why this article is on classroom management and not classroom control.

Control is one-sided.

A successful class happens when teachers and students meet each other halfway.

Management is all about guidance, trust and reciprocity—but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to be tough every once in a while.

Some teaching programs skim over the bit about classroom management, since it’s more of an art that is largely learned on the job.

That may be true, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to come prepared with some tricks.

Why Management Challenges Are Heightened in the Language Classroom

Teachers of any subject face their fair share of management challenges, but in many ways language teaching takes those challenges to a new level. Here’s why:

  • Multiple languages: Regaining control of the class should be done without switching out of the target language, a challenge in itself.
  • Oversized classrooms: This is a problem with any subject, but the added challenge here is that to learn a language students must have adequate speaking time.

It may sound overwhelming for new teachers, but there’s no need to worry. While language classes present their own unique difficulties, there’s also an endless variety of management tactics to choose from that are particularly effective in language teaching.

Looking for some simple tricks to help keep your class running smoothly? Here are a few to get you started.

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4 Ways for Language Teachers to Master Classroom Management

1. Plan and Flow

Too much free time can be a dangerous thing in a language classroom. An organized class that flows from one activity to another has a few benefits:

  • Keeps students focused and in learning mode
  • Maintains confidence in the teacher
  • Prevents downtime, which leads to boredom and conversation

What to do:

Don’t stress about having a once-in-a-lifetime, cutting-edge curriculum planned for each class. What’s more important is that students trust in your plan. They need to understand each activity, why they are doing it and what they will learn.

To help ensure a logical, efficient course plan that students trust, try scaffolding, backwards planning and balancing.

To maintain class flow use scaffolding, in which you provide students with supplemental resources, instructions or activities that prepare or support them in order to make a given task more manageable. Here’s a simplified summary of second language scaffolding for beginners.

For example, if you want students to read a news article and summarize it, you could:

  • Have a class conversation on the topic beforehand to help familiarize them with it.
  • Provide a vocabulary key with definitions and synonyms to refer to while reading.
  • Have students work in pairs.

As students progress you will remove these “scaffolds” one by one. In a couple of weeks when students are more familiar with news articles, you could take away the vocabulary key and the pair work, keeping only the initial conversation. When you think they are ready, you will simply assign an article without any supplementary resources or activities.

Scaffolding helps you tailor activities so that they are neither too easy nor too difficult, keeping students from getting lost due to boredom or lack of motivation.

Backwards planning is one logical way to develop your course curriculum that leaves no stone unturned. Your students can recognize a well-planned class and can also sense when you’re flying blind.

As the term suggests, start planning your class from the end, beginning with your ultimate goal for the course and what you’ll need to achieve in each unit in order to get there. Here are the steps:

  • First determine what your specific goals are for the entire course. For example: Students should master the present tense; master household-, weather- and clothing-related vocabulary; and feel comfortable using commands. This list will most likely consist of your main goal for each unit.
  • Next decide what would be acceptable evidence to prove that those goals have been achieved. For the present tense goal above, this could mean that a student should be able to have a spontaneous, 15-minute conversation in present tense at normal speed and be able to write a one-page essay in present tense with less than five verb tense mistakes.
  • Lastly, plan out the steps. Make sure that enough class time and assignments are dedicated to each goal to ensure that the students will be able to display the defined learning evidence by the end of the course.

Here Grant Wiggins provides a more in-depth look at the backwards planning results-evidence-activities model.

Finally, when planning, aim to have a balanced class that includes a variety of activities: reading, speaking, listening, writing, individual assignments, group work, games and authentic materials. Authentic materials should include real written examples and videos such as those from FluentU.

It’s probably not possible to incorporate every material every day, so review your curriculum on a weekly basis to make sure that it’s more or less balanced.

2. Strategize and Group

Oversized classes are notorious for making classroom management a headache. One way to counter a large number of students is to incorporate more pair and group work. For helpful background information, check out this University of Waterloo article on implementing group work.

By using a format that has students hold one another accountable, you’re making class sizes more manageable without having to call in backup.

What to do:

Initially, you can let students split themselves up into groups. Here are some additional general group work techniques:

  • Observe how they interact. When you know the students better, select the groups yourself more and more often to ensure that you have strong and weak speakers paired together.
  • If you have a few students who are particularly quiet, try putting them all together. They will have no chatterbox to hide behind and will be motivated to speak rather than sit in silence.
  • Transitions into and out of groups can get messy. Give students 30 seconds to split up and start the activity. Countdown or use a timer. This strategy is only necessary if students have a particularly hard time staying focused during transitions.
  • Challenging activities will keep them more focused. If you think they need 20 minutes to complete an activity, then give them 15 minutes. Announce the remaining time at five-minute intervals. This added pressure will encourage students to take the activity more seriously.

3. Assess and Act

As a teacher, there are plenty of strategies you can employ to keep your students on track, but it’s also important to choose your battles wisely. This requires detecting challenges early on.

Students who are in a class that is well beyond or below their level will be tough to manage from the get-go. Even if they behave well, they won’t be truly engaged.

If a student is acting out because they are bored or discouraged, it’s possible that it’s because they have been placed in the wrong class.

What to do:

Start your course off with an initial assessment of all your students. Include a simple written quiz. Try to take questions from earlier chapters of the book taught in lower-level courses as well as questions from the chapters that will be taught in your class.

More important than this assessment will be the informal assessment you conduct on the first day of class. Have students stand up and introduce themselves. Ask basic follow-up questions that allow them to elaborate and think on their toes. For example, if a student says they like traveling, follow up by asking where they have traveled.

Thirdly, split students up into pairs and give them a list of questions to discuss. Try interesting icebreaker questions like these. Walk around and discreetly assess the conversations.

If there’s anyone who is well outside the curve based on those three assessments, make a note and observe for one more class. If the assessments still seem accurate, then speak with your colleagues to make sure a transfer is possible.

If it is, then meet with your student outside of class, preferably with their new teacher, and clearly explain why you think they would be best suited in another level. They’ll thank you someday.

Teachers often make the mistake of waiting too long to transfer a student. Try to act quickly, before the student gets attached to that particular class.

4. Rearrange and Move

It’s no secret that aesthetics and atmosphere affect learning. A dark room with stale air isn’t conducive to learning, and neither is a teacher who speaks too softly, stands still and makes no eye contact.

The classroom setting and your body language can have a huge impact on student behavior and the student-teacher connection. Ideally the seating arrangement will make it possible for you to make eye contact with all of your students when you scan the room. No one should be able to hide.

What to do:

Instead of putting desks in rows, try out a circle—which has the added benefit of letting you sit down during student-led discussions and blend into the group. If much of your teaching is done on the board then this won’t work all of the time.

A “U” formation is a nice compromise because all students can see the board, but are also facing each other. For student discussions, you can pull a couple desks in to make an impromptu circle or just sit down at the front of the room.

However your seats are arranged, make sure you move around, fluctuate the volume of your voice and make eye contact. Bring students into the class. Your body language should engage them, not put them to sleep. It’s okay to surprise or even startle them a bit with your enthusiasm. For specific ways to use body language in the classroom, check out NEA’s quick list here or these six tips from The Guardian.

Lastly, open the windows between classes or during breaks. Keep the air fresh and the temperature cool.

These tips may seem superficial because they are, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make a difference. They are simple to implement, so give them a try!

As teachers, we put hours of thought into our curriculum, but it’s easy for the “smaller” details to slip through the cracks.

Give these four tips a thought when you’re running your classroom, and watch them lighten your management load.

Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: www.aFarCorner.com 

And One More Thing...

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