Category Archives: Classroom management

Classroom Layouts – what do teachers say?

Post by Sandra Pitronaci  – April 2018

In my college we are currently grappling with classroom layouts and re-thinking how they can reflect/promote best practice in teaching and learning. I decided to throw the question out to the #AusELT brains trust to see what the rest of you folk were doing in your various organisations, and was stunned by (and most appreciative of) your interest, your ideas, and the sheer number of responses. So, on Lesley C’s brilliant suggestion, and in ode to you all, here is a summary of your responses for handy reference.

Desks in pairs came up as a first response. Obviously great for pair work, plus easy to split for individual work when needed, or for more effective monitoring of individual students.

The U-shape or horseshoe was another favourite, with one of the reasons being that students cannot hide in such a configuration. The downside of course is the face-threatening element and the possibility of it becoming a teacher-fronted classroom.

Rows came up, more as a method of classroom management, but did not seem to be popular, especially in an ELT classroom where communicative language teaching and learning is the aim.

Small grouped desks came out as king, especially for mixed-ability classes in order to group levels, or as self-guided workstations with different activities per grouping, and students cycling around to each one. Nesting in groups of four is popular, as is rotating students throughout the day. Large groups of eight were also suggested (also see boardroom set-up below). The downside of course is neck-twisting to see the teacher/board. (Perhaps if the board and teacher aren’t always situated in the same traditional place, this could be improved…?)

The circle was suggested for whole-class discussions, and this is known to be a very democratic layout, where the teacher is essentially situated at the same level of ‘power’ as the students.

The boardroom set-up is also in use, and this one fascinates me. Is it more egalitarian, or do boardroom distribution of power laws come into play according to who is sitting where? The teacher who suggested it has six long, narrow tables, and seven elementary students, with each person being able to speak to another and switch partners for different activities. The suggestion was that it can work for up to ten students, depending on room size. Another teacher runs small-group conversation classes at large tables with a similar set-up. And the ‘boardroom’ teacher also noted that as the room is quite large, she asks one student each day to lead the rest of the class in a physical exercise activity in the afternoon. Classroom as soccer field! What is there not to love?!

As for the furniture itself, anything that is quickly and easily rearranged is preferred. Node or pod chairs seem to be favoured, as they allow teachers the freedom to quickly create new groupings with little fuss, and anything on wheels is a plus. Some prefer squares, some prefer circles. Trapezoidal tables in the photo below provided by Nicki Blake, separated for exams and combined for pair- and groupwork (came with thigh-bruising warning); simple square table grouping observed at a UECA PDFest and light tables on castor wheels that students can easily move themselves, courtesy of Lesley Cioccarelli.Photos of classroom furniture, desk, chairs, etc. as described in blog post

I’ve also added here a photo of some of the pod chairs at my centre – as noted by Meredith Macauley, excellent on so many levels for use in ELT classrooms, as they move easily, bags are stored on the tray underneath, and they are especially effective when combined with whiteboard walls around the whole room. The downside is that sometimes the desks are a little too small, and that these small desks are not viable in some of our Foundation and Diploma classrooms, where a minimum desk size is mandated for university exams.

I wanted to make a special mention of some of Virginia Mawer’s use of desks, such as placing them against the outside walls. Such a configuration had never occurred to me, other than when I am trying to get desks out of the way. The suggestion is to have students completing some of their tasks facing the wall, and then turning and facing the centre for group discussions. Virginia also suggested a long runway down the centre of the room as per her photos below, facing either inwards or outwards. I will put a reference to Scrivener below with further ideas on such bold configurations.

Photos of 3 different classroom layouts as described in blog post

All the ideas and suggestions were tempered of course by the needs and type of class, the number of students and the size of the classroom, and the existing furniture. Physical constraints are of course a big issue. Classroom layout is sometimes (often?) governed by simple laws of physics, i.e. the best layout is the one that allows the greatest number of students in the room, especially for those schools in the CBD where pedagogical real estate is both costly and scarce. Some of you spoke of classrooms that are so packed that you can hardly move between desks to reach all the students, let alone reconfigure them. And large, heavy desks seemed to cause similar issues.

Hats off to Tori Bikutoria Uiruson who then brought student voice and choice into the picture, with the mild suggestion of “You could try asking the students…”. Different reactions came up as to how willing students are to move furniture (with most politely doing what the teacher asks) and whether they actually enjoy switching desks throughout the day/week. It was suggested that constant movement can be destabilising for anxious and introverted students, or simply irritating for others, and that students should have more control over how things play out in the classroom. One class would move the desks immediately into groups and then rearrange back into rows for the next teacher so that their teacher wouldn’t get into trouble. My own experience tells me that this is a common scenario, and makes me wonder why we teachers can be so grumpy with each other?

Overall, a more reflective and principled use of groupwork and mixing was proposed, especially for those working with traumatised students, where stability in the classroom might be more effective and appreciated, and simply negotiating the layout with students seemed to be a favoured approach. And then, as all good discussions do, this one eventually (d)evolved into something a little more quirky, courtesy of Clare McGrath, which in this case was Nissan’s self-parking robot chairs. Click this link if you are as intrigued as I was:

As we have all found, the semiotics of our classroom are powerful, and the simple result is: space speaks. Experimenting with how to best utilise that space is a fun prospect, and of course the common thread is that it is highly situated – dependent upon school, learner, space, activity, time.

Thanks once again everyone for all your responses, ideas and links. I’d love to be a fly on a wall, or a student at/not at a desk/in a pod chair/nested in a group/within the horseshoe/sitting on the runway in your classrooms. And I cheekily suggest that we all head slightly towards teaching on the edge of chaos (someone else’s brilliant idea, not mine), rather than by default. Mix your classrooms up, give Scrivener’s hotels, bars and aeroplanes a shot (reference below), get your students used to following the layout you have mapped out and posted up on the door and let them move the furniture themselves before you even arrive, and keep smiling sweetly at those of us who turn grumpy when the ‘leave it as you found it’ rule is broken…

One further question for you all: what about teacher layout? Does where we place ourselves as teacher in the classroom have an effect on student learning? Can we move our desks? Can we put a student at our desk? Can we sit behind the students, or in amongst the students? What effect does intentionally locating and relocating ourselves in the classroom have on the classroom dynamic? Perhaps a topic to throw out to the #AusELT community for experimentation and discussion…

For anyone who wishes to delve further, here are a few good readings on classroom layout and classroom ecology:

‘Classroom layout – what does the research say?’  (kindly provided by Stacey Takahashi)

Erhman, M. & Dornyei, Z., 1998, Interpersonal Dynamics in Second Language Education: the visible and invisible classroom, Sage, Thousand Oaks CA. (see pp.91-93 & Appendix E pp. 293-296)

Scrivener, J., 2012, Classroom Management Techniques, Cambridge University Press. (see pp.7-35)


Supporting Teachers New to the ELT Profession – #AusELT Twitter chat, 4th March 2018

This chat has now taken place. Click here to read the transcript.

Blindfolded teacher with one hand behind back image

A new teacher can feel like they’re starting out blindfolded with one hand tied behind their back.

The focus of the chat will be on supporting teachers that are new to the ELT profession and we are looking forward to hearing your stories whether you are new to the industry or not. We would like to extend a welcome to all new and experienced teachers and hope that this will be an opportunity to get a few tips together that novice teachers can follow.

We will structure that chat around the following questions:

  • What has helped you as a new teacher?
  • How can new teachers support each other?
  • How can experienced teachers support new teachers?
  • How can new teachers grow in their careers?
3 teachers with a #loveteaching sign

Share your love of teaching!

This chat has now taken place. Click here to read the transcript.


[Photos taken from by @CliveSir & Daniela Krajnakova, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

This post created by @heimuoshutaiwan & @cioccas

Group Work – #AusELT Twitter chat, 30 April 2015

Conditions for Group Flow in the Second Language Classroom: Slide from Phil Chappell's presentation at UECA PD Fest 2015

Slide from Phil Chappell’s presentation at UECA PD Fest 2015 (*)

View transcript of Twitter chat here

Questions discussed during the chat:

  • Why should group work be used in the language classroom, in your view?
  • Composition of groups – who and how?
  • How can group work ‘go wrong’ and how can we avoid and address problems?
  • How to monitor group work?
  • Are there inter-personal (and/or intra-personal) reasons for group work beyond ‘practice’?
  • When do you find group work most useful? Collaborative work? Brainstorming?
  • How does group work relate to other stages of the language lesson?
  • What are good practices for setting up a group activity and also for closing it?

View transcript of Twitter chat here

Some additional reading:

Chappell, P.J. (2016) ‘Creativity through Inquiry Dialogue ‘, in Richards, J.C. and Jones, R (eds) Creativity in Language Teaching: Perspectives from Research and Practice. pp. 130-145. London: Routledge.

#AusELT chat summary: Using L1 in the classroom (6/3/14)

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The March #AusELT chat was about using L1 in the classroom and was skillfully moderated by @forstersensei and @SophiaKhan4.

Currently, there is much emphasis on the communicative learning and task-based approaches to language teaching, which both encourage students to communicate in English the majority of the time. These approaches saw a big move away from the grammar translation method of the 1960s, which some of us, at some point, might have been subjected to in school. However, more recently there has been a shift, or at least discussion, on the use of translation in our communicative classrooms and how it might be useful. This is not a regression towards grammar translation but rather a question of using students’ L1 at certain points in the lesson to aid communication and learning.

This is also a hot topic among English language teachers. Some believe that allowing students to use their L1 in the classroom in certain learning situations, such as translating difficult concepts or arranging and organising activities, can improve the flow of a lesson and increase students’ confidence in using English. On the other hand, some teachers are totally against any language apart from English being used in the classroom. The biggest reason for this is that they are faced with multilingual classes, and while translating and preparing activities in their L1 may work for some of the students, others will be left out if they are the sole speaker of their L1 in the class.

During this #AusELT chat, there were lots of suggestions for how teachers can use students’ L1 to aid learning but also some cautions about making sure that L1 use is appropriate and monitored closely by the teacher. The question of English Only policies in English language schools was brought up and there was serious opposition to the idea of teachers having to monitor and enforce these kinds of policies, as well as reasons why allowing students to use their L1 outside the classroom could be seen as a positive thing.

L1 in the classroom

The chat started with @forstersensei’s question: Is it ok for sts to use L1 in the classroom in an Australasian context? Why/why not?

There were mixed responses to this, with @Penultimate_K saying that ‘it’s unreasonable to expect them to exclude their L1 if they use it to access learning’, although the point was made by some that using L1 to help with learning doesn’t work as well when the class is mostly multilingual.

@SophiaKhan4 thought that in multilingual classes, the ‘use of L1 can make sts with other mother tongues feel excluded’. Controlling student use of L1 in the classroom was thought to be difficult for teachers and some suggestions for helping with this were mixing nationalities on tables in multilingual classes (@Penultimate_K), and @forstersensei has used a demonstration to multilingual classes of ‘how uncomfortable it is for others when L1 is used’ by teaching part of a lesson totally in L1.

English Only Policies

The conundrum of whether or not to allow students to use their L1 in class contrasted to the overwhelming consensus about the controversial issue of ‘English Only’ policies in schools when the next question was raised: How do we feel about insisting on an “English only” policy in class/at school? Responses were very much against forcing students to speak English outside of the classroom:

I am very much against it – especially when they are in the school but not in class.’ and ‘Don’t get me started: fines, red cards, other humiliations like singing in front of the class’ (@Penultimate_K)

‘Don’t feel right doing this with adults. In my class it can be my decision but at school??’ (@SophiaKhan4)

‘And break time could be when ss talk about what they’ve learned in L1?’ (@thesmylers)

After some more discussion of whether or not teachers should ‘police’ English Only policies in their schools, the chat moved on to the usefulness of L1 in the classroom. Most teachers seemed happy for students to use L1 in class in certain situations. For example, @cioccas said that she is ‘happy for Ss to use L1 in class if it helps them with something that they can’t quite grasp with my explanation in Eng’, and @SophiaKhan4 thought ‘we need a better, deeper discussion of the issue with sts’ and that we need to ‘talk to Ss about when and how L1 is of benefit in L2 acquisition #evidence-based #respectful’. @cioccas took this a step further by relating the responses she got from her students when she asked them about using their L1 during lessons

Tips for L1 use in class

The next question for discussion was: Assuming we can somehow abolish “English only” on school premises – any practical ideas for encouraging (not policing) L1 in class? Participants responded with lots of useful tips:

‘in multilingual class I get Ss 2 teach each other 5 things in L1. Then the explain what they are saying in Eng. FUN’ (@forstersensei)

If S uses L1 to get help with something from another S, I often ask them to then try to explain in English, so I can clarify’ (@cioccas)

‘Supply lexical items to SS who are having difficulty understanding’ (@Penultimate_K)

‘I believe @breathyvowel is fond of having SS do pairwork in L1 the first time before shifting to English’ (@michaelegriffin)

‘Having Ss explain to you what they are talking about when you hear L1 makes them explain in L2…they feel like teachers’ (@forstersensei)

Recommended reading and useful sites – explores English as an international language, and how and why it has become so dominant – ‘A groundbreaking reconsideration of translation in English language teaching, this book is a survey and critical assessment of arguments for and against translation in different teaching contexts.’ (from Book Description)– Scott Thornbury’s experience of teaching using translation – for a blogger’s question about whether they should change to an English Only classroom with lots of good ideas in the comments – interesting article on a teacher’s experience with getting his students to assess his L2 (Korean) with the idea of encouraging students to give each other feedback on their L2 (English) in class – #KELTChat summary on using L1 in the classroom – #ELTChat summary on translation with lots of positive ideas for using L1 in the classroom – article on some research conducted on using L1 in the classroom – one teacher’s reflection on L1 use in the classroom – blog post about reasons for changing from no L1 in class to judicious use of L1 – a TED talk on how we should be more accepting of the native languages of our students – uses Google Translate to translate individual words in the subtitles of movies and TV shows

This summary by @thesmylers 

#AusELT chat summary: Managing mixed-ability classes (July 4, 2013)


The topic of ‘managing mixed ability classes’ was suggested by Jenny Kessel (@jenglishes) and proved very popular. You can see the original chat transcript here.

Karen Benson (@eslkazzyb) was an awesome moderator and somehow made sure the chat addressed 6 key areas in its fast-paced hour:

  • What do we mean by ‘mixed ability’?
  • Main challenges
  • Top tips
  • Useful tasks
  • Favourite extension tasks
  • Useful links/resources

What do we mean by ‘mixed ability’?

This question is knottier than at first it seems. Classes can be differentiated by level and by skill. But as @kathywa29798411 put it, it’s only a problem if ‘the differences make a difference.’

If we are talking about level differentiation, that is, overall ability, how do we judge that? @eslkazzyb pointed out: ‘Often stronger value attached to speaking. It is more noticeable. Is it more valued?’

If we are talking about skill differentiation, that is, for example, good writing but poor speaking and vice versa, the question arises of what skills are most prioritised on a given course. @andrea_rivett rightly pointed out that it depends on focus of the entry level test (or course). @MeredithMacAul1 was able to support this, tweeting ‘In my context, EAP, students are accepted based on IELTS score with an overall score and a minimum writing score.’ Nonetheless, there seemed to be general agreement that speaking is often what carries the day when deciding on a student’s class or ‘level’.

@sophiakhan4 thought that the hardest situation was when abroad and classes were grouped by things that had nothing to do with level OR ability (e.g., age). @eslkazzyb reminded us that study tours here are often like that also, but wondered if it was easier to satisfy kids than paying adults. @sophiakhan4 suggested kids might be happier with a ‘total’ learning experience rather than fulfilling ‘needs’, and @eslkazzyb agreed there were different expectations at work in this type of context.

Accepting that any class with an overall level still consists of students with different strengths and weaknesses, @eslkazzyb proposed that ‘in our ELICOS ‘streaming’ system, all classes are inherently mixed ability.’ @cioccas pointed out that it’s not necessarily an ELICOS phenomenon: ‘Happens everywhere I think. Except perhaps where you have huge numbers? In our evening classes, we only have one class at each level, so they are very mixed in ability – within students and across the class!’

@eslkazzyb agreed: ‘I should add our IELTS classes are mixed level too – Intermediate++.That is a challenge for the teacher!’ This sentiment was echoed by other chatters, and seems to be a familiar situation for IELTS teachers across the #AusELT community.

Main challenges in managing mixed-ability classes

  • Maintaining motivation: how to keep all students in the class motivated, interested and feeling like they are continuing to achieve.
  • Pitch: where to ‘aim’ your lesson so that lower level students don’t fall behind, and higher level students remain challenged.
  • Pace: managing the speed and pace of the lesson in such a way that higher level students don’t get bored and lower level students don’t feel rushed  (relates to the two points above)
  • Managing dominant students: students with strong speaking skills can easily dominate or disrupt a class – this may also be exacerbated if they also have low reading and writing skills, and don’t want to lose face.
  • Differentiated instruction: tailoring teaching to suit students with different educational backgrounds – for instance, general literacy and numeracy, academic literacy, grammatical background knowledge, etc.
  • Differentiated feedback: tailoring and focusing feedback to suit the individual’s level/ability, knowing when to praise and when/how far to push.

Despite these issues, it’s important to see the silver lining – as @cioccas wrote: ‘Lots of challenges, but also opportunities for getting students to help and support each other too.’

Top tips for managing mixed ability classes

Managing a mixed-ability class is not easy, and it requires a skilled teacher. As @cioccas says, ‘Sometimes you just have to teach them independently working on different skills, tasks, activities with different students, in groups if you’re lucky.’ Extra preparation and classroom-management strategies are essential for a teacher preparing to teach such a class. It may mean lots of extra planning, but also skill in thinking on your feet: ‘being nimble-footed in the classroom – ready to change direction at any time’ (@cioccas). However, you could argue that  this is true of any classroom: ‘difference not such an issue, just teacher challenging students’ (@eslkazzyb). Ultimately, as @Penultimate_K pointed out, ‘It hinges on knowing your students really well and directing the tasks accordingly.’ Below you will find a list of some of the strategies we came up with, as well some things to be careful of.

  • Strong + weak student pairing. Be careful to: ensure no one is losing face; ensure stronger students feel they are learning enough and not just supporting ‘weaker’ students; mix this up with other ways of pairing/grouping (see below).
  • Vary the grouping. i.e., high/high, low/low, high/low, depending on the task. Be careful to: give strong students the opportunity to work together sometimes.
  • Use students with higher ability in a skill as models, assistants, or even teachers (e.g., they can teach some of the target vocab). Be careful to:  make sure everyone gets a chance to shine (see below).
  • Make sure everyone gets a chance to shine. Even weak students, if they have been monitored and supported during the task, can ‘shine’ in feedback by sharing the correct answer with the class. ‘Everyone can be the “expert” depending on the focus/skill,’ says @andrea_rivett.
  • Use a range of graded or extension tasks. For example, jigsaws readings/listenings with more challenging or detailed tasks for stronger students, or with extra extension tasks for those who finish early. Be careful to: think about how feedback would work with different tasks (it may be easier to conduct feedback in groups rather than with the whole class).
  • Encourage students to value each other’s strengths. For example, X speaks well but Y has great grammar, etc.
  • Encourage weaker students to prepare the next lesson topic in advance. ‘Like a “half-flipped” class (@andrea_rivett).

These are all excellent ideas for trying to keep everyone happy, but @MeredithMacAul1 also made the important point that sometimes we have to focus on the overall aims and expected level of the course, despite having weaker students: ‘In my context, though, must continue forward and weaker or less motivated students must be strongly encouraged to do work outside of class, too.’

Useful tasks with mixed-ability classes

  • ‘Any ability’ or open-ended tasks: for example, ‘listen and note what you hear’ (with careful feedback). Click here to see a handy little list of open-ended tasks from p.13 of Teaching large multilevel classes by Natalie Hess (Cambridge University Press), forwarded by @eslkazzyb.
  • Graded tasks: same reading/listening text, but questions available in three levels of difficulty (easy, medium, hard); different levels of scaffolding/modelling available for speaking tasks (e.g., weaker students can use notes, higher level students can’t); etc.
  • Reduced tasks:  halve the number of questions for weaker students. This means less pressure on them, while stronger students still feel challenged.
  • Extension tasks: for students who finish early. For example, everyone does the same reading/listening text with the ‘easy’ questions, and the harder level questions are extension tasks; students who finish early can make a vocab quiz for the next day’s review; etc. (more ideas in next section!)
  • Jigsaw: students explore different reading/listening texts in groups, then report back to others (texts could be graded)
  • Work stations: setting up different tasks around the room, so students can pick what they want/need to work on (great for independent learning and teacher can monitor and help as necessary). @cioccas said ‘My ideal classroom would allow easy rearrangement of furniture and have a mix of desks & PCs/tablets so can have several diff activities simultaneously.’
  • Task-based learning (TBL) and project-based learning (PBL): this is great for mixed levels as the sense of task achievement is still there for everyone.

Favourite extension tasks

  • Extra tasks posted online or on a noticeboard (self-paced, self-checked)
  • Summaries
  • Highlighting new vocab
  • Highlighting strong and weak forms and practising this
  • Reflections
  • Using new vocab from the lesson in a paragraph
  • Writing answers on the board
  • Making vocab gapfill or comprehension questions for a review or quiz
  • Making vocab cards for the class to use the next day/end of week
  • Making a board game, quiz questions or challenges for review purposes
  • Using the ‘class vocab notebook’ or ‘vocab box’ – adding things, testing each other, review games . . .
  • Prepare for tomorrow: stronger students have to do more, e.g., bring collocations/sentence to ‘teach’.
  • ‘Word/phrase of the day’ – different students teach one each day – this can be from a list given at the start of the week, or they can simply find their own.

Useful links/resources for mixed-ability classes


  • Teaching large multilevel classes by Natalie Hess (Cambridge University Press). Recommended by @eslkazzyb.
  • Classroom Management Techniques by Jim Scrivener (Cambridge University Press) has a chapter on mixed levels. Recommended by @thesmylers.


Let us know if you would recommend any other links/resources – and thanks to all participants for another brilliant chat  🙂

This post by @sophiakhan4