How to Stay in Control of a Large ESL Class

Tips and tricks to bring your large ESL class into line immediately if things get a little over-heated.

Shelley Vernon
Controlling a large ESL class

Teaching English with games is becoming standard throughout ESL classrooms of the world. And this is good news, because children love to learn through games, and become much more motivated students as a result. However games often make children excited, and if you have a large class you need a few things up your sleeve to bring the class into line immediately if things get a little over-heated.

Here are some tips and ideas to help you contain your pupils’ enthusiasm and manage your large class. There are three sections. Essential basics, useful tips, and attention grabbers.

Some essential basics to manage a large class

Together with your pupils define the rules in the first lesson, and post them on the classroom wall for reference. Knowing WHY a rule is in place makes it easier to keep. You must establish the rules on day one and stick to them!

Be consistent in applying your rules. If you are arbitrary about how you dish out your rewards or ‘consequences’, or punishments you will undermine the rules themselves.

Praise good behavior to generate love and self-esteem. Whatever you do, avoid being like so many parents who spend their whole time telling their children, “don’t do this”, and “don’t do that”. By focusing on the positive in order to draw more attention to it you apply the universal law of “you attract what you focus on”.

If you are working in a school know the law and rules of your institution before you go into the classroom for the first time, and work in harmony with the school.

Start out strict and fair – and stay that way! Being strict is not about looking stern and being bossy. It is about making sure the rules are kept, in a firm but fair way. You can still be a really fun, loving teacher and be strict with your class at the same time.

Useful Tips

Don’t break your own rules by raising your voice to be heard. Instead talk quietly or stop and wait. Your class should know that for every minute you are kept waiting they will receive extra English homework, or whatever consequence you have designated.

Children love the sound of their own name more than anything else. So use an individual’s name for praise and avoid using it when telling someone off.

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Create teams and deduct or reward behavior points to a team’s score during a game. Your class will respond naturally by using peer pressure to keep the naughty children from misbehaving.

Empower your children with choices. For example, ask a naughty child, “Do you want me to speak to your Dad?” By asking a question you give the child the power to choose, whereas if you use a threat such as, “I’ll call your Dad if you don’t behave”, you take the initiative away and seem tyrannical.

You can also say things like, “you can either play the game properly or you can sit in the corner”. The child will probably choose to play the game properly, and you make them responsible for their behaviour.

Prevention is better than cure, so try giving boisterous children an important task BEFORE they start to play up. They may respond well to the responsibility.

It is important, especially with a large class, to hand things out quickly or use a system to have this done, such as giving the well-behaved children the task as a reward. Sing a song together or do some counting or a quick game to occupy the class while materials are handed out.

Play a mystery game and, before you start your fun game say that during the activity you will be watching the whole class for 3 well-behaved children who will be rewarded.

Only play games where you know you can keep a handle on the situation. For example there is no point playing a boisterous game with a lot of movement if you have more than around 20 children. With large classes, including classes of up to 60 children, you need special games where the children have limited movement – such as standing up or making gestures but while remaining in their seats. You can sign up to receive free games in the resource box below, and some of the free games given out are suitable for very large classes.

Attention grabbers

Start an English song the children know and love – they will all join in with you and at the end you’ll have their attention.

Clap out a pattern which the class must clap back, or start a rhyme they know with actions.

Use quiet cues such as heads down or lights off. Vary these with other fun quiet cues such as “Give me five”.1–on your bottom, legs crossed; 2–hands folded in your lap; 3–face the speaker; 4–eyes and ears open; 5–mouths closed.

You teach this repeatedly in the first lessons and after a few weeks, you only have to say “Give me five:1,2,3,4,5”, and the children will do it.

You can also use the Magic 1 2 3 idea. When a child does not comply start counting 1, 2,… The child knows that if you get to 3 there will be some sort of consequence, such as missing out on the next game. If you use this and you reach 3, you must follow through with an appropriate consequence consistently.

To summarise, establish the rules and consequences for good and bad behavior, apply them consistently, set a good example, use peer pressure and points, and use attention grabbing cues such as favorite songs, English rhymes with actions and countdowns. Above all play suitable games where you know you can keep in control of your class.

You can be firm and fun at the same time, and if you cannot manage your class, you should realize that, although it sounds harsh to say it, you are wasting their time.

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Shelley Vernon

Shelley Vernon, conscious of the vital role teachers can play in the lives of their pupils, promotes learning through encouragement and games. Sign up for free games and ideas on Make your job easy and fun teaching English to children through games.

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  • Magistene Silorent

    I am very happy for the tips I found how to teach ESL, and the way a teacher can establish to teach the students. For example using games to teach ESL is a good method to make the ESL students understand, because they enjoy the education via the games.

  • Catty

    Thanks for the ideas and tips. All of them work out! Trust me. Even after teaching for 15 years it’s good to read once again what we’ve learned before and sometimes we forget so easily because of routine. It’s a challenge for any teacher faced with a large group with different levels and interests.

  • Mehreen

    My class is really naughty and this is my first teaching experience. You shouldn’t say again and again to a class to keep quite! You should get them busy in an activity, I was searching for some useful articles on class management and I found this one really helpful. Thanks so much for sharing:)

  • Arlene

    Thank you for the tips, I am a first time ESL teacher in South Korea at a middle school, and I’m 22! The students have realised that I am young, and many of them seem to think that I will not enforce discipline, added to this it is easy to feel intimidated, I have started using the tips given and am starting to see results! Thank you.

  • Micaela

    It’s funny that 1,2,3 Magic is mentioned in this article. At the moment I’m reading the version for teachers (there’s one for parents as well). Although the method is geared toward primary teachers, most of the techniques mentioned can be applied to EFL and ESL classes. I’m finding it very helpful. I decided to take advantage of the Christmas break to come back fresh and new with an updated classroom management system. The kids are responding very well.

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