Classroom layout for ESL teachers

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As a trainee or novice ESL teacher you probably pay little or no attention to your classroom layout. You tacitly accept that the arrangement of the classroom furniture is as it should be – traditional rows. Unfortunately, ‘traditional rows’ is not always the best type of classroom layout.

If your ESL lessons are to be really successful, it is important that the classroom layout facilitates and enhances the learning experience. To this end, the ESL teacher should take the following points into consideration: the teacher should always be able to see the student’s faces, and vice versa for the students. Students should also be able to see each other, and they and the teacher should be able to move around the classroom with a minimum of disturbance to others. The whiteboard should always be clearly visible to all the students. With the foregoing considerations in mind, the ESL teacher can now arrange the classroom furniture in one of four ways: in a U-shape, in a circle, in nested tables, or in traditional rows.

The U-shape (semi-circle or horseshoe) is a popular layout for board work and talking; it is also a very friendly layout because the students can easily see and communicate with each other.  In the event that the ESL class is large, two U-shapes can be used: thus producing a front and back U-shape.

Some ESL teachers may think that the circle is not an effective classroom layout because with the teacher sitting in the middle of the circle: half the class will be facing the teacher’s back. The fault with this argument is that the teacher doesn’t have to sit in the middle of the circle: the teacher should sit on the circumference along with the students. This arrangement is very effective for games, discussions, and debates: one team can sit on the left of the teacher and the other team on the right.

Nested tables are most appropriate for group work: especially project work. The tables should be pushed together to form continuous square/rectangular surfaces made up of two or four desks, and the students should sit in such a way that they are side on to the front of the classroom.

The great advantage of traditional rows is that a lot of students can be accommodated in a relatively small classroom. If you are forced to use this arrangement, make sure that there is plenty of space to walk between and behind the rows of desks. The only other benefits of this classroom layout are that ‘traditional rows’ facilitate pair work and test/exams can be effectively conducted. It should always be borne in mind: a bad classroom layout can inhibit and frustrate effective learning.

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