Teaching and Learning English Under Difficult Circumstances

Last week, Dr.Richard Smith had been due to give a workshop and attend an English breakfast in Buenos Aires prior to presenting at the 39th FAAPI / APISE congress in Santiago del Estero, Argentina. Unfortunately, he had to cancel at the last minute and the British Council Argentina asked me if I could come to Argentina earlier than I'd planned to so they could fulfill their commitments to the embassy and the school they'd planned the workshop for. I was happy that I could do so and decided to keep the theme of the workshop that Richard had planned. I prepared slides to go with it, but there wasn't a projector at the school, so I abandoned this and stuck to the low tech of paper, pens and post-its on the day. I told the 80 participants that I'd share the slides here and also summarise what they prepared, so here it is!

Many English teachers find themselves teaching in difficult circumstances. Large classes, multiple levels, and demotivated students are just three realities that can make language learning and teaching a challenge. The idea behind this interactive workshop is to examine these difficult circumstances and others, and to use our shared experience as teachers to help each other with classroom strategies and ideas to overcome the challenges we face on a daily basis.

The workshop:
The workshop was organised by the Ministry of Education of Buenos Aires, Lenguas Vivas and the British Council Argentina, and held at a teacher training school in the south of Buenos Aires.

The slides: 

Teaching & Learning English under difficult circumstances from Graham Stanley

I kicked off by briefly introducing some difficult circumstances that English teachers have to cope with (large classes, multiple levels, demotivation) to the 80 participants and some innovative solutions that have been put into practice around the world, with varying results (Crazy English, China; SOLEs, India and the UK; Plan Ceibal, Uruguay; Hole-in-the wall, India; Plasma teaching, Ethiopia) – these are all large-scale projects, but can individual teachers help each other teach in difficult circumstances? This was the purpose of this workshop – to use our collected experience to help each other.

Prevention/Solution game 
Participants wrote down on slips of paper (post-its) brief details of the most difficult circumstances they have had to deal with as teachers – they were collected, then the room was split into 2, with tables taking the role of ‘prevention’ or ‘solution’

Here are a selection of the participants' difficult circumstances that they said they had to deal with:-
  • A student was particularly disrespectful to the teacher several times (both verbally and non-verbally). When the teacher presented the issue to the school head, she underestimated the importance of this and offered no support.
  • I have a demotivated student who will not work. His family is absent an all respects. He just wants to play games in his netbook.
  • I have two students in the same class with different special needs, so I have to do different types of activities each class.
  • I used to have a student who never did written work, but he enjoyed oral activities, so half of the class he was brilliant and the other half he spent his time misbehaving or he fell asleep
  • The kids keep interrupting because they need to be the centre of attention
  • Many students come and go - that is, there should be 36 students but 20 of them usually attend and the others are absent. The absent ones usually come only once every month.
  • I have 80 students in my class and some have problems with their behaviour (including physical violence)
  • I have students with special needs (including a girl without a hand)
  • I have 18 students in the same room and they have different ages and levels (from beginners to pre-intermediate)
  • My students come from a complicated background - they are all from a shanty town and they are used to stealing, etc.
  • I have a class of 20 teenagers - 4 of them usually sleep. The rest are demotivated and they say their parents send them to school and they don't want to be there.
  • One of my first grade students gets violent and starts hitting classmates or throws objects at others. When he misbehaves it is impossible to do anything.
  • I have 39 students in class and 5 of them have phsychological problems, which leads to misbehaviour. 
  • My students hide a cell-phone in the classroom and make it ring as the teacher explains something or when the students are interacting.
  • I have a student who self-hurts himself in class, because of parental problems
  • I had 3 students in class with ADD - it was a great problem to teach them in a class of 28 13-year-olds.
  • I have kids who misbehave and parents who back-up the kid instead of supporting the teacher.
  • I have students who are not motivated to learn - they think they cannot do it.
  • I have 41 students in class. They do not pay attention. They do not work in class. They do not have the material (the book).

I next read out some of the difficult circumstances (we only managed to get through 2 of them because of the number of participants) and the teams discussed each one and then wrote their prevention or solution on the flipchart. Once each table was finished, the prevention/solution suggestions were read out and participants voted for and discussed the merits of each. 

Issue #1: (the responses to the post-it - prevention and solution mixed)

  • Create activities to integrate students from both groups and ask students from the higher level to help/monitor students from the lower one.
  • Change activities for that day and give students options. Alternatively, forget the book!
  • Plan the class to take this into account - divide the students between teachers if possible.
  • Assign different roles in advance and split the class up into separate groups with separate roles (speaker, scribe, reader, mouse controller, etc)
  • Organise a 'floating' teacher to take over (or a classroom assistant)
  • Give the same activity but have different tasks for each group
  • Mix the two groups to play a game. Advanced students can help lower ss or they can work on a listening activity (e.g. a song). Give activities according to their level/knowledge of the language.
  • Pair ss so that the 

Issue #2: (responses from the teams to the post-it)

  • Set relaxing activities/routines to start working and use simple instructions and demonstrations.
  • Assess students beforehand better to know their levels
  • Use a warm-up activity before giving instructions (sing a song they know, read a short-story, etc). Also, consider carefully the moment in the day when planning the class. Include an agenda on the board so the students know what the steps of the class are.
  • Come to an agreement with the class teacher on how to cope with the students' over-excitement
  • Set up quiet activities, such as a crossword, a short story or song.
  • Scaffold the instructions, play something easier before then increase the level of complexity
  • Do a relaxation activity to calm them down, then you can explain what the game is about.
  • Sing a song, make them sit down and be quiet, give clearer rules.
  • Do some sort of physical activity first (clapping hands and they imitate the rhythm) 
We finished with participants on tables discussing various broad subjects and then sharing their ideas with the whole audience:
  • Large Classes. 
  • Multi-levels. 
  • De-motivation. 
  • Lack of resources. 
  • Social problems. 
  • Other

The English breakfast
Photo thanks to Gabi Madera
The morning of the workshop, there was an informal English breakfast event held at the British Embassy's Official Residence of the Ambassador in Buenos Aires, with Jim Scrivener and myself being asked questions by Claudia Ferradas and members of the audience. 

I think it was a very successful event, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions that took place, from classroom management to demand high, remote teaching to digital games. Claudia, as moderator did an excellent job of making sure everyone was concise and that a range of topics was presented and discussed. 


  1. From Miguel Mendoza (via Facebook):

    I read pretty quickly the summary of this presentation by Graham Stanley. I could notice that out of 19 aspects reported by teachers about 6 (and maybe more) are related to special educational needs (SEN).

    This is what I thought of from the top of my head while reading this:

    1. Teachers do not really need to plan different activities to SEN students. Activities should be thought, planned, designed to benefit everybody including SEN students (inclusion)
    2. Teachers need to be trained to deal with SEN students
    3. Teachers need support and counseling from SEN experts/ professionals
    4. Teachers need to learn to be flexible enough to adapt curriculum
    5. It might be interested for teachers to learn a bit about differentiated instruction
    6. Teachers need to be familiar with different types of SEN
    7. Family support for SEN students is really important

    Knowing how to deal with SEN students can help face the sometimes uphill task of teaching large classes in the language classroom.

    Last July I explored adapting a test keeping the same content, but making minor changes to instructions to benefit two deaf students, an Asperger and one student who has been struggling with English during the semester. The result on the test was really satisfactory. This was my first attempt to make this activity more inclusive as well as some of the things I have been doing this semester to help SEN students succeed under a more inclusive (not only integrative) approach.

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