Sometimes it may be impossible and impractical to move the furniture around at all for many reasons including the fact that in some schools the tables are bolted to the floor!
However, even if the furniture is immobile, remember that your students aren’t, so you can think about how you want to group students and how you can use the space you have to your advantage. This may involve using spaces at the front, or down the side of the classrooms, letting students stand up or to sit on the tables to do certain activities.
In an ideal world the classroom furniture would be light and mobile so you could come in and quickly rearrange it to your liking. Unfortunately, in the real world it is often heavy and the rooms themselves are too small to make too many changes. Having said that I do think it’s worth thinking about the classroom layout and doing what you can to make it as appropriate as possible to your lesson. Here are some questions to consider:
- Can I see the faces of every single student and can they see me?
- Can everyone see the board (if you’re planning on using it)?
- Can the students see one another?
- Can I move around the room so that I can monitor effectively?
For me, the first question is really important. I substitute a lot of classes, so I don’t necessarily know all the students’ names so it’s vital to be able to see them all. Although it can seem like an extra effort and a waste of time I find that spending the first two minutes of a class moving the furniture so that I can see every single face is time well invested. You can usually get the students to help you and as long as you give the instructions in English it’s all good language practice! Now, I’d like to look at a few typical classroom layouts.
Tables in a horseshoe or three sided square shape. This is great if you’re doing board work and speaking activities. All the students will be able to see you, the board and each other and you will have a lovely space in the middle of the horse shoe and around the outside to monitor. If you have a very large class you can get a similar effect by having one horseshoe inside another and using double rows.
Chairs in a circle
Tables pushed to the walls and just the chairs in a circle. You can sit in the circle with your students. If they need to write at certain times of the lesson they can either go to work at the tables facing the walls around the outside or they can rest a folder on their knees and stay in the circle. The circle formation is great for many games, group discussions, welcoming your students at the beginning of the class, doing the register and really talking to your students.
Although many schools still use traditional rows, as you can pack in lots of people in a small space, there are very few advantages for a language teacher. If students are sitting in twos you have immediate pairs made for pair work but as you will probably want to change the pairs at some point this is only a limited advantage. If you can’t get around behind the students to look at their work it can be really difficult to monitor. If you have to work in this layout think about the spaces at the front of the class and the aisles between the rows. For mingle tasks make use of these. Look for alternative spaces for certain group tasks, such as the corridors, playground or halls.
Nested tables in groups
Nested tables are obviously great for small group work and project work. It can be difficult to start classes when students are already sitting on small tables as some students will have their backs to you. If possible have the students sit so they’re side on to you and remember to move around the classroom when you need to give instructions or change activities. Surprise your class by popping up at different places around the class.
I suggest you try as many classroom layouts as you can to see how you feel most comfortable. Experiment with the layout if possible. If you really can’t change how your classrooms are set up, then do spend time thinking about how you can vary where your students sit and where you position yourself in the room too. The classroom dynamics can improve dramatically when you change the layout, it’s a matter of experimenting and seeing what works best for you and your students and it’s something that you may want to take into consideration at the lesson planning stage.
By JO BUDDEN
First published 2008