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How Can Classroom Seating Arrangement Be a Way to Encourage Speaking?

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by Bilal Naboulsy | 08 Jun 2021
Resource Description:

In a teaching session, there are lots of opportunities that teachers can make use of to encourage students to apply what they have learnt. In some instances though, teachers might miss on other opportunities which might seem negligible to them. Periods of time like the minutes students spend walking into their classrooms, the time teachers spend arranging students’ seats for a pair/group activity and etc. can turn into a boring routine.

In a task-based/supported language teaching (TBLT/TSLT) classroom though, a teacher might be particularly interested in the following tip that gives ideas about how to encourage students to speak while changing their seats to find their pair or group.


Audience: Adult, Elementary, Secondary, Teacher Training, University
Audience Language Proficiency: Advanced, Beginner, Intermediate
Teaching Tip:

Pairing students and grouping them is part of a teacher’s classroom management approach. A teacher might rely on students’ levels, gender, age and etc. to match them up. One of the key things a teacher needs to refrain from doing is to single out students by their names and ask them to sit here or there. If this matching method was based on students’ levels, let’s say high achievers with low achievers, both types of students will notice what you are trying to do and this could have a reverse effect. This might destroy a low achiever’s self-esteem as they would indirectly labeled as students who always need help and can’t finish a task without the help of someone academically better. The same applies to high achievers. You might notice some groaning or disagreement from them over such a matching method because working with a low achiever wouldn’t be challenging enough for them or wouldn’t provide them with mutual benefit that they might be expecting from their pair or group. So what’s the alternative? Use unpredictable random pairing/grouping methods. Here is how:

0)      Numbering (pairs/groups): I labeled this as zero because probably it’s the most common pairing/grouping method which doesn’t initiate a discussion at all. In this method, the teacher randomly labels students with numbers and asks students with the same numbers to sit next to each other. (See figure 00 in the attached material)

1)      Popsicle Sticks (pairs/groups): In this method, the interaction among students has slightly increased, yet, no speaking is occurring. The teacher would let each student select a colored popsicle stick randomly, then ask them to look around, find and sit with students that have the same colored stick. (See figure 01 in the attached material)

2)      Paper Strips (pairs/groups): This is a useful pairing/grouping method for beginner language learners that have just started learning the colors. The teacher here pre-prepares a number of paper strips equivalent to the number of students in the class. On one end of each paper strip, there is a colored dot which the student can’t see until he/she draws it from the hand of the teacher. Now each student has to walk around the classroom repeating the color they have aloud: “red, red, red…” if they were beginners’ level. Or, they can ask their friends one question as they walk: “What color do you have?” if they were elementary level. (See figure 02 in the attached material)

3)      Synonyms/Antonyms Cards Jigsaw (pairs): The teacher here hands out two sets of cards with vocabulary words, freshly learned from a lesson, on one set and meanings on the other set (or vocabulary words on one set and their antonyms on the other set). Students with the vocabulary words will be asked to move around the classroom asking their seated friends questions like: “what’s the meaning of…?” or “what’s the opposite/antonym of…?” (See figure 03 in the attached material)

4)      Question-Answer/Statement-Response Cards Jigsaw (pairs): The teacher here also hands out two sets of cards about either questions or statements related to relevant taught material on one set and answers or responses on the other set. Students with the questions/statements will be asked to move around the classroom asking their seated friends or reading them the statements on their cards until they find their match. (See figure 04 in the attached material)

5)      Survey (individuals/pairs/groups): now this is a method that can be used with different levels of classes. Starting with a ‘find someone who’ low level survey to high level class surveys that could tackle opinions on different topics. This method is particularly suitable for in-class group projects.

Let’s say your elementary level students have just finished a lesson about pets and as an end-of-unit/lesson task they are supposed to describe/talk about their favorite pet. Then, a ‘find someone who likes the same pet as you do’ quick survey would do the trick for a pairing/grouping arrangement. Now since there are tens of options that students might come up with, you can either limit the choices to a couple of pets that the students agree on as a class or you can leave it up to them to select whichever pet they like and then they try and find (a) classmate(s) they like the same pet as well. In the occasion that a student is left alone, it should be totally fine because sometimes being the only one to like something can make you special and it is also a way for students to understand that it is OK not to like what everyone else likes.

Let’s see how we can implement it in a higher level classroom. Let’s say your unit was about technology or education and as an end-of-unit project, you give your students the choice of either writing a letter to the principle trying to convince him/her why it would be useful if students were allowed to freely use their mobile phones on school premises and in the classrooms or why stricter measures need to be taken in order to limit mobile phones use on school premises and in the classrooms. Once every student has determined his/her stance, now they need to walk around the classroom and ask their peers if they have the same stance as theirs. If they did, then they group up. Since this is an agree/disagree topic, then of course you should be expecting your class to be divided into two groups (regardless of the number in each group). It might happen that the whole class turns out to have the same stance, I wouldn’t advise you to interfere. Let the class, as a whole group, do the task while you facilitate the task.

If you wanted the class to be working in smaller groups, simply change the task or include more options. The more the available options are, the more, hence smaller, groups you are going to get. In the above task, you can add a ‘neutral’ group; a group who is with the use of mobile phones on school premises and in the classrooms but rather under some limits and conditions. This way, you have three potential groups.

Want more groups? Not a problem. Why don’t we use the numbering method to divide the class in half, then each half has to survey their friends about who’s with the topic, against it or holds a neutral stance. This way, you have six potential groups! If you had time, it would be smart to merge the similar groups from each half together (so the group that is with from the first half of the class merged with the group that is with from the second half of the class and so on). This way they can share their findings and come up with one unified letter.

Final word:

It is totally OK to use methods zero and one every once in a while especially if you find yourself short on time. But I can guarantee you that using the other methods will certainly create a fun interactive environment where students feel their opinions/choices matter and they can actually be active players in the learning process.

Go out there and nail it!

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TESOL Interest Section: Adult Education, Elementary Education, English as a Foreign Language, Intensive English Programs, Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL, Secondary Schools, Teacher Education