Helping teachers to cope with

large classes
David Hayes
The issues raised by teaching in large classes1 are rarely addressed in preservice training courses. Those teachers-and
they are numerous-who
have to cope with classes that contain 50 or more learners are, therefore,
often ill-prepared
to deal with the situation in which they find themselves
in schools. This article examines an in-service training session developed
for use in the state sector in Thailand which aims to help teachers to come
to terms with some of the problems found in large classes. It is based on
the author’s previous experience in north-east Thailand, and his continuing involvement
there in teacher development
work.

Introduction

Principles
of inservice teacher
development

Classes in schools in many parts of Thailand may contain between 45
and 55 students. Many teachers consider that these classes are too large,
and that they give rise to a number of problems.2 However, initial
teacher training appears to do little to help teachers deal with the issues
raised by teaching and learning in large classes (Hayes 1996; Silvester
1994). In-service training provided by the Project for the Improvement
of Secondary English Teaching (PISET)3 has attempted to deal with
this, in part by exploring the use of classroom techniques appropriate for
large classes on its topic-based and skill-based courses; it has also
investigated the problems caused by large classes on training courses,
such as the two-day INSET course developed in north-east Thailand
which is the subject of this article. This course is grounded in a number
of basic principles of teacher development, which I shall now discuss.
In a wide-ranging report on INSET in the Netherlands, Veenman et al.
(1994: 314) explored characteristics of effective in-service activities,
concluding that:
knowledge utilization and implementation will be more extensive
under the following conditions: (1) the school organization and
climate are supportive and well organized, (2) the content of the inservice training activities is geared to the professional spheres of
influence of the participants, (3) [there is] clear advance explanation
of the goals of the in-service programs, (4) [the] subject matter [is]
relevant to [the] job, (5) practical skills [are] presented, (6) extra time
[is] invested in in-service activities, and (7) [there is] active
involvement of the participants in [the] learning activities.
The belief that these characteristics may also apply in other contexts is
given support by Ibrahim’s (1991) study of the effects of INSET courses
on the implementation of a new primary school curriculum in Malaysia.

106

ELT Journal Volume 51/2 April 1997 © Oxford University Press 1997

articles

welcome

: 125). For PISET it is axiomatic that all training should be directly centred on the everyday school situation. the credibility of some key personnel [the trainers] and the poor facilities. so that teachers are able to see immediately the relevance of the discussion to their own classrooms. Clearly. (See also Lamb (1995) on the importance of taking account of INSET participants’ existing beliefs about teaching and learning. which Ibrahim explains as follows: One could attribute this to the weaknesses in the courses. and relevant to them. deriving from classroom experience. recognizing that they will have their own perceptions of teaching and learning. for example. Such modes of training do little to encourage teachers to consider rationales underlying the use of particular classroom activities. even though that experience may have been reduced to routines over the years. resulted from an analysis of the International Network for Class Size Studies (INCLASS) research questionnaires completed by teachers in the Nakhon Ratchasima province of north-east Thailand. Perhaps it is these training styles that give rise to the kind of lament one hears from some trainers: ‘We keep giving them courses. teachers in Thailand had become used to a diet of lecture-based or transmission style INSET courses. The course also utilizes as input video clips of teachers in their own classes. Coping with large classes 107 articles welcome . especially since there is evidence to suggest that teachers themselves value the experiential as opposed to the transmission approach (Hayes: forthcoming). Accordingly. or in terms of other factors such as the course techniques. accessible. In these ways course participants are provided with content which is immediately familiar. Veenman et al. that for INSET activities to be effective it is desirable that teachers should be active participants in their own development. wherever feasible. All PISET activities are founded on this basic principle. teachers should play a part in the preparation of training courses. (ibid.) This initial basic principle also leads to the precept that training methodology should be primarily task-based and inductive. The structure and activities of the course on coping with large classes under discussion. This also means that courses provide opportunities to make explicit these perceptions.In that case. but they still teach in the same old way’. putting into practice to a large extent Bax’s (1995) recommendations for content-negotiable teacher development activities. training courses value participants’ existing knowledge. successful transfer of training was not achieved. the limited time allotted for the courses. It is surely better if courses try to develop the analytical skills which are an integral part of continued self-development. as well as the possibility of reassessing them.to ask themselves why should they teach in one way rather than another. then. and not treated as mere empty vessels waiting to be filled. and Ibrahim agree. which were informative rather than experiential. As in Malaysia (Ibrahim 1991). or to encourage specific teaching/learning behaviour .

though at regular meetings of school principals ERIC trainers have often explained the programme. then. (1994) as being likely to lead to effective in-service activities. individual attention. training in ERICs is. control. Problems of large classes INCLASS has promoted interesting research on the problems faced by teachers of large classes.or in-service-has been negatively evaluated (Hayes 1997. Discomfort 108 Many teachers are worried by the physical constraints imposed by large numbers in confined classrooms. since there is no room to move about. evaluation. Training given by ‘experts’ from local universities. Pair and group tasks enable participants to make available to others the wealth of knowledge and experience. They devise the majority of their own training courses. precisely because of the former’s classroom experience. when shared with other teachers. Usually this support is freely given. practical. and to become less dependent on the pronouncements of ‘experts’.On PISET in-service courses it is equally important that the trainers should themselves be teachers. This classification is supported by comments made by teachers in northeast Thailand who completed the INCLASS research questionnaires. to say to other teachers ‘I have tried this for myself and it works’. They feel unable to promote student interaction.4 To extend this principle still further. 1996). PISET teacher development courses. which can make the process of solving things which teachers see as problems that much easier. and sought their support in general terms for teacher development activities. previously confined to individuals. thus helping to reinforce the validity of the training proceedings. Using practising teachers as trainers has been shown to be valued by the participants themselves. Some teachers also David Hayes articles welcome . classroomcentred content. can lead to a body of theoretical insights and practical procedures’ (Naidu et al. In either case they are able. Characteristic (1) is not within PISET’s control. 1992: 262) is a first step in encouraging them to research their own classrooms. obviously. and even where they have not done so. All training is conducted by teachers who run English Resource and Instruction Centres (ERICs) in provincial schools. but just as important is the opportunity for teachers to share ideas and experience with each other. as in the present instance. with their emphasis on relevant. Trainers collaborate with teachers. clearly focused and explained. they are able to test the teaching ideas in their own classes and provide feedback to modify a course written by someone else.5 To sum up. on the other hand-whether pre. in effect. Not only that: affording teachers an opportunity to validate their ‘vast repository of classroom experience which. and learning effectiveness. ideally. Initial work investigating teachers’ concerns has suggested that they can be divided into five areas: discomfort. a collaborative process. attempt to take account of characteristics (2)-(7) identified by Veenman et al.

However. when we have the activities in class. (ibid. Some maybe understand . some students who aren’t interested in class will disturb the others . If it is a small class. It is noisy. available research evidence indicates that class size may not be the problem many teachers think it to be. Often I didn’t have enough opportunity to listen to them all. They are understandably worried if they don’t know who is learning what. Evaluation Teachers feel a responsibility for checking all of their students’ work. it will be difficult to control or solve their problems. 8).feel that teaching in large classes is physically very wearing (this is connected with the problem of ‘control’): The students can’t move easily and some students don’t do the activities.overcrowded. and are worried if they cannot do so. Large size of class makes me very frustrated and tired and I feel hopeless to manage the class successfully. the teacher can’t control them. Learning effectiveness All teachers want their students to learn English. If the students are too many. and that the classes become too noisy. . . for example.but some maybe not understand and the teacher don’t know what. I’m not sure that my students get what I’ve taught exactly. have a whole range of cogent reasons as to why smaller classes are preferable. Then the teacher can’t control the class. they make a loud noise. When students do activity. They feel they are unable to control what is happening. he also recognizes that there may be other factors at play: Even if we were able to demonstrate ‘definitely’ that class size need not affect learner achievement. As Allwright (1989: 3) has pointed out. 109 Coping with large classes articles welcome . we would still have an abundance of evidence to tell us that teachers. if student achievement is the criterion. I don’t know whether their pronunciation is right or wrong. Control Teachers are often worried by the discipline aspects of large classes. It takes a long time to check all of the students’ exercises. I don’t have time to help all students but only some. I must speak very loud and make me sore throat. It [is] difficult to control the students and I don’t know what they have learnt because there are a lot of students. for example when I want to practise speaking. Individual attention Many teachers are concerned that they are neglecting the needs of their students as individuals. I can give the attention to them well. There’s not enough room (space) to do the activity .

To counter any possible omission. and so to alleviate the genuine distress some feel at their selfperceived inability to teach effectively in crowded classrooms. Many of the issues raised by the teachers will be ones addressed in later stages of the session. with input provided in the form of a video containing highlights of lessons with a typically large class. Rather. some may be irrelevant. above all. worksheets are used with a second (and perhaps a third) viewing of the video. Each member of a group is given a different worksheet focusing on one of the five areas of concern. At this stage the tutor organizes the comments into related groups . .The comments from teachers I have cited indicate that many of them are unhappy with the size of their classes. The video does not attempt to show a perfect lesson. and examines the part students play in class organization. After an initial viewing. however. Equally. course participants are asked to rate the lesson impressionistically on a scale of 1 to 10. Some of the approaches discussed may be relevant elsewhere. The lists of likes and dislikes are then discussed in groups. It hopes. especially with classes which are considerably larger. It chronicles the stages of a lesson. shows how the teacher introduces new language and develops controlled and free practice. with the objective of clarifying ideas and descriptive terms (‘What do you mean by . and also to help to develop teachers’ analytical skills. and asked to complete it while viewing. focuses on students engaged in using English for a real purpose. The training course Awareness-raising Each course begins with an awareness-raising element. or the way in which they assist the teacher. . These help participants to identify important features necessary for later development.for example. to show teachers that solutions are possible. What follows was developed for the context of Thai secondary schools with about 50 students per class. For example. They are then asked individually to write down things that they liked about the lesson and things that they didn’t like. or the (small) amount of error correction. The in-service course on coping with large classes aims to make a start with that process. whilst negative comments may include the amount of noise in group or pair work. teachers need to be helped to come to terms with their problems. There is always the possibility. the teacher’s use of Thai in the class. the worksheet dealing with the area of control has the following questions: How does the teacher get the attention of the class? What does she do? 110 David Hayes articles welcome . it looks at the everyday lessons of an ordinary classroom teacher. ?‘) before class feedback. Given that class size is most unlikely to be reduced in the foreseeable future. that some topics which the session will cover may not arise from teachers’ initial comments. positive comments may focus on the friendly atmosphere of the class. and for a number of reasons. students’ extensive use of English. but one who is well organized and able to generate enthusiasm for learning English among her students. looks at classroom management.

and move around easily to monitor activities. Generally. They have to consider which arrangement best enables students to see the board. and then in groups. Participants are led to consider the advantages for studentcentred language learning activities of organizing the classroom in this way. Some teachers worry about being able to see and be seen by all of the students. and chalkboard. as well as students’ ability to see the board. can show how the positioning of desks at an angle to the board rather than head-on can make a difference to lines of vision. Each group of teachers is given some sheets of graph paper. Teachers 111 Coping with large classes articles welcome . in contrast to the drabness of a classroom lacking these things. Ample opportunity for collective discussion of each issue is given in later stages. cut them out. windows. using a large scale plan on manila card and groups of ‘desks’ attached with blu-tack. and move around easily to do activities. indicating doors. There is obviously nothing that can be done about the size of classrooms or the number of desks and chairs needed for the students. but there is no class feedback at this stage. perhaps even a book comer.What does the teacher do before she says anything to the whole class? How does the teacher speak to the class? Does she speak softly? speak normally? shout? Participants report to their group on what they have been asked to investigate from the video. Training activities Below are some examples of training activities for each of the problem areas described above. see and speak to each other. and which allows the teacher to see and talk to the students. teachers feel that the physical constraints of a classroom with large numbers of desks and chairs often prevent them from doing the kind of interactive activities that they would like. Having worked together on a typical classroom. Examples on video or in the form of photographs or slides can show a lively room full of displays of students’ work. Next they are asked to draw scale representations of the teacher’s and students’ desks on a piece of paper. and arrange them on the plan for a class of 50 students sitting in rows. a students’ notice board. of a typical classroom (they can measure the classroom they are using for the training course). according to scale. Tutor feedback on this exercise. In most schools classes are still arranged in rows. charts. teachers are asked to repeat the activity for their own rooms once they return to their schools. Possible extensions to this activity can come via consideration of the classroom environment as a whole. and asked to draw a plan. arrangement of the class in groups serves most of these purposes best. first of all. but this one is in groups. Discomfort As we have seen. Participants are asked to recall how the classroom on the video is arranged. but the optimum organization of furniture in a limited space is something that can be tackled.

it becomes clear that pair and group work noise can be said to be more productive than simple. cleaning the board. e. for example) and also list together the classroom language that they might use at various learner levels in situations where noise might be a problem. mechanical drilling (though this may have its place). What is possible in any given school depends. Both demonstrations are audio-taped and then replayed. and teachers are asked to decide which of the two is loudest. They are then asked to come up with practical ways to ensure that giving responsibility to students doesn’t mean that chaos results. and to try to define the differences between the two kinds of noise. and see that the teacher never attempted to compete with the class by shouting for attention. Lack of floor space need not prevent a room from being an attractive place to be. She encouraged her class to speak at normal levels. They review the relevant worksheet on the video lesson. collecting books. which is the next area of concern. etc. it may be worthwhile to train the students to rearrange the classroom for lessons in which the primary focus is group or pair work.) and decide which of these could be done by students rather than the teacher. Participants then try to think of their own attention-getting signals (a clap of the hands. on whether rooms are allocated for subjects or for classes. Purely on a decibel count. But if one looks at the kind of language used in each activity. Control Teachers’ concern over the issue of control may be linked to teacher-centred perceptions of the classroom. From this basis teachers are led to consider ways of keeping the noise level to a minimum. whereas free practice noise sounds like a disorderly hubbub. Where rooms are shared with other subject teachers it may be possible to jointly agree on a new arrangement (perhaps easier to implement in Thailand now that the Ministry of Education has adopted a new problem-solving. and the selection of group 112 David Hayes articles welcome . Participants brainstorm all the management activities that occur in a class (distributing worksheets. She always gave a clear signal when she wanted to speak. Often this results in suggestions for rotas for undertaking particular duties. choral drilling is usually loudest.might then consider how best to utilize the available wall space in their own classrooms. To do this would obviously require a high degree of class control. and waited for quiet before she began. if students began a task before instructions had been completed. The training course examines this through demonstrations of choral drilling and the free practice of a pair work activity. If agreement is not possible. of course. Further activities in this area centre on ways of making students more responsible for control. or if the noise level increased during activities. However.g. this is often regarded as well-regulated noise. The question of noise in pair or group activities is often cited as a reason for large classes being difficult to control. process skills approach to the secondary school curriculum). and tried to quieten them if they became too boisterous: if it was necessary to address individuals she did so by name.

Feelings are usually ones of annoyance.mixed ability groupings are preferable for this. The teacher herself moved around the room. however. Participants describe techniques they recommend.leaders to liaise with the teacher . These can range from seating plans (as long as students sit in the same places) to name cards and simple games. An important advantage is that students can learn from each other . whereas others will need closer guidance. monitoring and assisting as necessary. A simple mathematical exercise enables participants on the course to conclude that. and for what reason. accompanied by a desire to ignore the person calling out. Giving greater responsibility to students is also explored in the next two sections. Teachers themselves are also very concerned about how they can express this care through the amount of time devoted to individual students in a large class. this may be linked to a teacher-centred view of the classroom. This is an important factor when considering evaluation. collecting or returning materials or books. Disadvantages usually centre on the possibility of students copying or cheating. the teacher shown on video addressed her students by name. If they cheat or simply copy 113 Coping with large classes articles welcome . however. At the most basic level. and so experience is shared. Feedback then provides a useful stock of name-learning techniques which can be tried out in schools. which participants saw as one way to help establish control in a class. Using names is the initial step in showing students that teachers care about them as individuals. Individual attention As noted in the previous section. you!‘). But to do this with several classes of 50 students is not so easy! Some teachers seem to be better at learning names than others. In this section. Transferring these reactions to the teacher-student situation in the classroom makes teachers realize the importance of learning names. Evaluation Teachers are often somewhat suspicious of the idea of students working together. in establishing good teacher-student relationships. Again. The worksheet asks for an estimate of how many students she talked to. and so lists of advantages and disadvantages are elicited from them. if all activity is teacher-fronted. teachers feel that slow learners perform very badly in large classes. it brings into focus the part that students working in groups have in helping each other: the teacher does not have to do everything. In groups. teachers see that most activities were carried out in pairs and groups. Further. It has another more important function. participants list all the different ways of learning names that they have ever used. and any games are demonstrated.for example. What will they do for the other 49? Reviewing the video worksheet. then in a typical 50 minute class either all oral practice is mechanical drilling or each of 50 students can only have at most one minute of teacher time. a quick check that they are doing the activity correctly will often be enough. course activities start with teachers being asked how they would feel if someone called out to them without using their names (‘Hey. The intention is to help teachers see that not all students need individual attention in every lesson: for som e.

and the solutions to problems jointly worked out. and the setting of attainable objectives is stressed. Teachers must work within the constraints of their own school organization. dictation. Learning effectiveness It was noted earlier that available research evidence cannot prove any conclusive link between class size and learner achievement. Individual action plans are discussed by groups before final versions are written up. any change must result from individual teachers modifying their own classroom behaviour and leading students to alter theirs.they will also learn nothing! Teachers are therefore encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility among their students. Teachers listen. They then discuss which techniques they think appropriate for the controlled writing activities on the list given previously. Techniques are discussed. and the sphere of learner training is considered at various points in the course. The range of activities outlined above has shown some ways in which teachers may be helped to feel less overwhelmed when confronted by large classes. It may be just a teacher’s perception that students do not learn as well in a large class as in a small one. in order to devise an action plan for their own particular classes for the following semester. etc. Participants are asked to review all of the previous course activities. and students checking work in pairs before the teacher gives the answer. then perceptions of learning effectiveness in large classes may be altered. re-writing sentences to match pictures. Even so. one lamenting the hopelessness of keeping up to date with the correction of all written work. if the teacher is doing all of the correction it would still be a lengthy business. If they do so. There is a simple response to the complaint that checking all of the students’ exercises is very time-consuming . it is important that the perception be examined. Alternatives are therefore proposed via input in the form of a dialogue between teachers in a staffroom.) and asked in groups to grade them according to how much time they think it would take for a teacher to correct them. A final activity hopes to promote such changes.don’t do it. free paragraph writing. Teachers are given a list of writing activities (e. From this it is concluded that controlled writing activities are the quickest to correct. and a similar activity shows how errors can be minimized through techniques such as oral preparation for writing or writing in groups. The dialogue can be role-played or recorded on tape. Free writing cannot and should not be altogether avoided. Evaluation training 114 of the course All PISET training sessions are summatively evaluated by participants. such as students exchanging books or correcting their own work while the teacher gives the answers. gap-filling. the other explaining how involving the students more saves time. and for continuing David Hayes articles welcome . The resulting information is used by trainers to write reports for departmental officials. students writing answers on the board and being corrected by other students if necessary. matching sentence halves. the advice given to them. and write down the steps in the various techniques proposed.g. writing paragraphs following a model. However. usually by means of a questionnaire. If this is the case.

as Pennington (1995: 705) has noted. This INSET course hopes to help some teachers to take the first step along that path. 5 See Hayes (1995) for a fuller discussion of the teacher development principles underlying PISET activities. what games are boring. Conclusion From some points of view there may be nothing very radical in any of the strategies for coping with large classes discussed here. of whom I was one. Eight reported large classes to be their major problem. been able to make their own adjustments without this assistance and. This is a good thing because these students can practise more and they can help you. and I would like to end by citing this teacher’s advice: If you have to teach in large classes. 20 said they were one of the major problems. For the purposes of this article. 4 a very minor problem. 1996). For the most part. Though I do not have specific data for the course on coping with large classes. Others within the Thai context have. and then reconstructing ingrained practice and long-held beliefs’ which. I am working with teachers’ perceptions of a class size of approximately 50 students as being ‘large’. confining themselves to a trainer development role. Received March 1996 Notes 1 There can be no quantitative definition of what constitutes a ‘large’ class. leads to lasting change in teaching practice. of course. what thing you should adapt. 2 Sixty-five teachers completed the International Network for Class Size Studies research questionnaires (INCLASS. PISET continues . teachers’ reactions are overwhelmingly positive. It is to be hoped that such INSET courses will help in the process of ‘challenging. as perceptions of this will vary from context to context.as a project run entirely by the Thai Ministry of Education. 4 Native speaker ‘experts’ generally played no part in the direct teacher development process. but is far from easy to accomplish. formerly known as the Lancaster-Leeds Language Learning in Large Classes Research Project). change needs to be validated through personal experience.is even expanding . 31 a problem but not a major one. with the Overseas Development Administration providing assistance in the form of training for key personnel in Britain. the first important thing you have to do is finding some students who can help you. And the students will tell you what they want to learn more. 3 This was originally a joint Thai-British government project. a crucial aspect of any training course is the opportunity it affords for teachers to exchange ideas and talk about their own experiences. One teacher who completed the INCLASS questionnaires had obviously found his or her own personal way to cope with the challenge of large numbers. But in a context where teachers have traditionally been seen as the unquestioned givers of knowledge. and book presentations to resource centres and assistance from four full-time advisers. and 2 no problem at all. Coping with large classes 115 articles welcome .course development. interviews with a number of teachers from the north-east and other regions of Thailand have clearly indicated strong support for the type of training delivered by PISET (Hayes 1997. as I have argued. They will like English and often we’ll get some important information from them. ultimately deconstructing. what games are interesting. It really works. Try it.

A.. Pennington. M. London: Macmillan. 1994. In-service Teacher Development: International Perspectives. Hayes. J. ELT Journal 46/3: 252-63. H. E. He has an MA from the University of Lancaster. Naidu. 1992. Hayes. Hayes (ed. ‘In-service training in Malaysia for the New Primary Curriculum (KBSR)’ in K. 1994. and has been involved in teacher and trainer development in Malaysia. Lamb. D. D. Educational Innovation in Developing Countries: Case Studies of Changemakers.).References Allwright. ‘The impact of in-service training on teacher behaviour’. ELT Journal 49/3: 252-61. 3. and Sri Lanka. Ramani. 1995. and the UK. The author David Hayes is project manager of the ODAfunded Primary English Language Project in Sri Lanka. and M. Bax. B. R.A. TESOL Quarterly 29/4: 705-31. Before that he was a lecturer at the School of Education. University of Leeds. ‘Appropriate methodology: the content of teacher development activities’. System 34/2: 173-86. 1995. N. Voeten. K. Teaching and Teacher Education 10/3: 303-17. 1995. ‘Is class size a problem?’ Report No. Stuart (eds. Neeraja. ‘Prioritising “voice” over reaffirming the centrality of the “vision”: teacher in ESOL research’. M.A. Senegal. Nigeria. Viswanatha. University of Leeds.M.L. 1995. and is working towards a PhD on teachers’ perceptions of teaching and learning within their wider socioeducational context. 1997. ‘In-service teacher development: some basic principles’.). 1989. Lewin with J. and foreign language in the UK. Silvester.A. Veenman. System 23/3: 347-57. David Hayes articles welcome . S. 1991.S. ‘Researching heterogeneity: an account of teacher-initiated research into large classes’. second. S. M.. ‘Articulating the context: INSET and teachers’ lives’ in D. 116 of INSET’. and V. Lancaster: University of Lancaster. The teacher change cycle’. ‘The consequences ELT Journal 49/1: 72-80. Hayes. Shivakumar. ‘Initial teacher education in Thailand: A study of teacher perceptions in a Thai secondary school’. He has taught English as a first.A. Unpublished MEd dissertation. Ibrahim. 1996. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall Macmillan. Lancaster-Leeds Language Learning in Large Classes Research Project. Van Tulder. D. Thailand.