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Oct 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Adapting Activities for Large Classes: Many Hands Make the Bonfire Brighter


We are teachers of English who teach middle and senior high in Hunan Province in China. In our schools, students have around 6 lessons of 40 minutes a week. We work on texts from our course book and focus on different aspects of the texts, sometimes grammar and sometimes listening and so forth. Some students are enthusiastic but others are not so active in class. We are eager to improve this situation. We thank Linktop Education Group very much for providing this training opportunity that would not have been possible for us otherwise.

Hunan province is in central southern China where students do not necessarily have the same exposure to English as in Shanghai, Beijing or Shen Zhen. Students start to learn English in grade 3 (9-10 years old). In the countryside in our province there is less English teaching and it starts later. Parents may not have a good grasp of English. English is not used in daily life as it is in bigger places and so students (and parents) do not always see the value of learning English. It is also difficult to attract English-speaking teachers to come to our area. Nonetheless there is considerable pressure for students to score well in exams to gain entrance to quality tertiary institutions. So we often face the situation of having students under exam pressure who are not particularly engaged in learning English.  This is a frustrating challenge for English teachers.

Our aim on the course was to find activities and ideas that might improve this situation. Our trainer, Judith, provided communicative activities designed to engage students and then we thought about how to make them workable in our large classes.

We had come to Australia for a two-week methodology course. We learnt a lot of new activities that we found interesting and motivating but we wondered how we could use them in our classes of 60 in the short lessons we have allocated. We feel the pressure of meeting the exam requirements not only from students but also from parents.

These are a few of our attempts to adapt the activities we learnt to make them suit our teaching situation.

Shadow Dictation. (Davies and Rinvolucri)

Students are put into pairs A and B. A sits with their back to B. A has to listen and B has to write. The teacher dictates the text without stopping. At the end of each listening, A turns around and tries to help B fill in the text. It can be a competition and the first pair to finish correctly are the winners.

We feel that this activity does not require any special change but the teacher must have good control of the class and the students should agree not to shout or cheat. In order to make sure the dictations are correct, they can compare their work with another pair.  Otherwise a correct version can be displayed on the board. Even if everybody does not get the dictation completely correct, students are still practising listening, speaking, co-operation and note-taking.

Eliciting and repeating, recycling language.

In our classrooms, we normally teach grammar by giving the rule first and then asking students to remember the rules by doing fill- in- the- blank exercises.  Many students do not succeed at this and will almost certainly not succeed when asked to make up their own sentences. If they do not grasp the rule, they are lost.

We saw a lesson in which a tutor, David Noble, showed an old photo of his family and talked about his likes and dislikes as a child.  He showed us various pictures and asked us to guess whether he enjoyed them as a child or not. He created a context in which we understood that he was not allowed to go swimming until he polished his shoes and he elicited the sentence…’ My parents made me polish my shoes. My mother made me tidy my room’ and ‘My parents let me go to the swimming pool and have a dog.’

We were all clear about how to use ‘made’ and ‘let’ and we realised we could make our own materials with appropriate grammar structures/vocabulary by using visuals and creating interesting contexts. We have computers and screens in our classes so there is not a difficulty with the size of the pictures. We do not have Google in China but we have Baidu, another search engine. For teachers without computers, large pictures from magazines and newspapers can be used.

Writing skills in Johnny’s lesson.

We watched a lesson given by Jonathan Collett preparing his students for an academic writing assignment. (See his article in this issue) He gave a dictogloss from a sample assignment and kept the successful sentences on one part of the board.  On another part of the board, he elicited and wrote the structure of the text using key words. He asked the students to make short notes in simple language on the solutions to the problems in the topic. Other texts on the same topic were distributed to give students more information. In pairs, they took turns to ask and answer questions about the different texts. As they were doing this, Johnny was monitoring everyone’s work, asking questions to stimulate more and more correct writing and explaining anything that had not been understood. We would not be able to check everybody all the time in our classrooms but from watching this teacher we realised that we could check some of our students. We also realised that when the students had enough support from the lesson content, materials and the teacher, they were willing to write without constant individual supervision. They were given the task of working in threes and taking it in turn to write sentences, so, for example, one wrote the topic sentence and the other wrote a supporting sentence. The third student watched on and corrected errors.

Even though these students were not particularly gifted at writing English, the whole class worked well and successfully. We learnt that if teachers set up tasks effectively and give enough support prior to writing, students are able to  produce well written texts using each other as resources. We were surprised at how confidently they were able to write together using each other’s strengths and we think that this was also due to the encouragement and patience of the teacher. He praised successful work. Even though our classes are so big, we will try our best to encourage every student to show his or her ability even if it is only occasionally.

Using competition in vocabulary writing

Another tutor we watched, Jane Jacobs, demonstrated a vocabulary competition. Teams stood by the whiteboard and tried to be first to get the word, correctly spelt onto the board from the tutor’s clues.  When students struggled she gave hints like the first letter of the word. After the team event each student got the words to complete on a writing sheet and these were evaluated and marked. The students were very involved. In our classes only some students could work at the board but others could observe carefully and then take part in the second part of the exercise.

Running Dictation (Davis and Rinvolucri, Dictation Many Ways)

In this activity, students work in pairs.  A text is put up on a wall outside the classroom. Student A sits with pen and paper and student B runs outside and remembers as much as possible of the text and then comes and dictates it to Student A.  This is repeated until the text is completed. This would be difficult in a class of 60.  However, we thought students could work in small groups of 4 or 6 and the same text could be put up around the classroom to avoid crashes.  If this activity is too lively, students could simply work in pairs at their desks with one dictating to the other from a short distance. 

Half sentences (see examples in Grammar in Action, Frank and Rinvolucri)

Practising certain grammar structures with two parts (e.g. cause and effect, conditionals) the teacher dictates half sentences (sentence stems). When the dictation of half sentences is finished, students go back and complete each sentence with answers of their choice. In pairs they try to guess their partners’ answers.  Again, the teacher cannot check every answer in a big class, however a student who is strong at grammar, can be appointed to be a monitor (or mini teacher) of several groups.  We feel that this would engage our students and help them play to their strengths.

Jumbled words to make sentences

In this activity the teacher takes several simple sentences and jumbles the words on the board. Students take it in turn to come out and silently point to a sentence they have made up from the words complete with punctuation marks.  The rest of the class decides if it is correct or not.  If it is correct, everyone writes it down.  The process is repeated. In groups, students can then attempt to make even more sentences.  These are then given to other groups to check.  The teacher will not be able to check all sentences in a large class but can adjudicate if there are any disagreements.  In this way, students learn to have more responsibility for their work and realise that they can generate a lot of language from just a few words.  

Listening for mistakes (for examples, see Teaching Listening Comprehension, Penny Ur)

Especially for text review, before class the teacher can change a text to include a number of mistakes.  This can be done in writing as well as speaking.  For listening, the teacher can read the text with the mistakes in it.  In a small class, students can call out Stop when they hear a mistake and try to give a correct version.  In a large class, students can put up their hands with a stop sign and then the teacher chooses someone to correct.  Alternatively teachers can provide a couple of paragraphs of the text on the board and students can work individually or together (or both) spotting the mistakes. This can be done as a competition with groups working to find the greatest number of mistakes.



Even though many activities in published materials seem to be suitable only for small classes, we believe we can often make small changes to make them suitable for our large classes. 

Sometimes we need to:

  • ask students to work in groups with a student monitor, rather than in pairs with the teacher’s supervision
  • believe that students can work independently when necessary, given the right level of motivation and initial guidance
  • stop pushing students and show that, given the right support, they can find answers  themselves or by working in groups

We started by thinking about activities and techniques and how we could change them but we have come to realise that the teacher’s attitudes towards students’ behaviour, abilities and performance are critically important in any size class.  By working hard to create motivating classes, we build trust in our students and harmonious relationships with our students.  Teachers can teach more happily and the students can learn (through interaction not just with the teacher but with their classmates) in an atmosphere of confidence and in the belief that they have the ability to learn and succeed.

We say in Chinese.

Many hands make the bonfire brighter.


Thank you note

We thank Linktop Education Group very much for providing this training opportunity which would not have been possible for us otherwise.


 Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

  • Adapting Activities for Large Classes: Many Hands Make the Bonfire Brighter
    Jia Hua, Huang Jie, Deng Yulan, Tian Meijuan, Peng Bifen, Zou Xin, China