How to deal with big classes

Today I’d like to answer a question from a dear teacher who sent in this email: “I teach kids from 3 to 5 years old, and I think my biggest struggle is managing big classes. On my 3-year-old and 4-year-old classes that is not a problem because I have around 15 students on each class, but on my 5-year-old class I have nearly 30! So it’s a bit difficult to keep everyone engaged and to make sure that everyone is paying attention and understanding the lesson. Do you have any advice on that issue?”

Additional info: She has 2 assistants who are basically just there to help with the class itself and don’t speak any English.

30 kids really is a lot, especially for a class of small children, so I can totally understand why managing them is a challenge, especially when you have assistants who seem to not be able to help much.

When I read the message 2 pieces of advice came to my mind. So let me share those with you here.

Advice number 1: Divide your class into groups. Or let’s call the whole thing “do centre activities”. With big classes I usually start with the morning circle time, meaning everyone is sitting on the floor and we do our routine such as “what’s the weather like”, “what day is it today”, singing songs we’ve learned before etc. This is quite fast-paced, so the kids don’t get a chance to get deconcentrated, plus their brain is still fresh at the beginning of the class.

I then introduce the new topic with either flashcards or realia and then it’s centre time. Every centre is made up of a different activity related to the topic.

Once a child is done, it moves to the next centre. This keeps their attention up. Ideally, you have an assistant per table. And you yourself have one table where you help the children and ask them questions in English and have them answer in English.
Let’s say you have an activity where the children colour something in. You’d ask them what they are colouring, what colours they are using, what’s their favourite colour, etc.
At the other table, the kids are playing a memory game with the assistant, naming the words when they flip the pictures.
At the other centre, they may watch a video / listen to a song.
At another centre, they may flip through a book you read together about the topic (or the centre is that you are reading the book to them) … the challenge to do such centres is to keep them ESL related.
After all, you are not the art teacher to just give a colouring page or crafting activity and then walk off to take care of another group.

If you are alone, without assistants this would mean you have to find centre activities that they can do more or less alone and all you have to do is walk around the room and listen in and peek here and there to check that they say/do/write/draw the right things.
If you have assistants it’s a little easier as they can do this for you (checking on the kids).
So ideally you have an (or more) assistants and in the best case that assistant would speak English just like you, but not many have this luxury unfortunately

This brings us to advice number 2: Teach them!
Obviously our teacher can’t change the way the school operates and get some native English speakers as assistants. So let’s see what we can do with what we have at hand. It might seem like the 2 assistants that don’t speak English are of no big help, but according to my experience .. that can rapidly change. Now, I live in France and French people (no offence) are not really known for their ability to speak English very well (there are some really good exceptions, but in general that’s the case). So most of our assistants don’t speak one word of English. You see, we got this in common already.

I still need their help and support though, so what I’m doing is …
When I can teach children a few words, I can also teach an adult the same words before the class. So, I’d give the assistant a list of the words the kids will be learning, And at the beginning of the school year I teach them some common classroom expressions that are used all the time (for example: well done, sit down, come here please, the colours and numbers till 10). I give them this list about one week prior to the class (minimum) to give them time to learn the words. They can either listen to the pronunciation on translate google or they can ask me about it.

I have never had any problem with an assistant not wanting to learn those words (seeing, it’s not like a long list anyway). Actually what often happened was that they became interested and wanted to learn more and took classes after a while. Or they were quite delighted to be able to learn English with you and the kids at the same time. So don’t be afraid to ask them for your help.

PS: If you are a teacher for very young learners (3-5/6 yo), you may be interested in the new Facebook group. Click here to find like-minded teachers and parents like you!