Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Five ways to exploit the classroom as a learning environment

5 way to exploit the classroom as a learning environment

Here at the ELTC, we are fortunate enough to have lessons scheduled in the same classroom each week (or often every day). This gives teachers the opportunity to use the physical space of the classroom as a learning environment to complement the lessons that happen inside. Below are 5 ways teachers at the ELTC exploit their classroom space to maximise learning.

An dull classroom like this is unlikely to inspire students or teachers!

Step 1. Make it an appealing place to be

Making a space where learners want to spend time is the first step to creating a learning conducive classroom.

Tidy up after each class - clear away rubbish, old worksheets and other bits and bobs that get left behind.

  • Store stationery in drawers or in attractive containers to keep the room streamlined.
  • Open the blinds and let in the sunlight.
  • Bring in personal things from home - plants, throws, pictures, etc. to show that effort has been put into making the space attractive.

2. Make it relevant
When learners feel that the classroom is ‘their space’, they are much more likely to invest energy and commitment in what happens there.  If last month’s announcements and posters made by last year’s students are all that learners see on the walls, they are likely to feel that they are simply viewed as visitors to the space, not agents of what happens there. With this in mind:
  • put useful meta-language up on the wall for the day's lesson. This will depend on the level and the topic, but can be useful for guiding learners to practise target language and everyday phrases.
e.g.  How do you say ................ in English?
e.g.  What did you put for number 3?
e.g.  How do you spell .....?

  • If using a coursebook, extra vocabulary and stimulus on that week's topic may provoke conversation between learners, consolidate vocabulary and generate ideas. News stories, realia, photos and key words work well.

We teachers are always reminding our learners that English learning is not confined to  their lesson and that they need to find opportunities to practice outside the classroom. One way to encourage this is to have a place on the wall for notices about social activities that they can attend, e.g. conversation clubs, volunteering opportunities, local cultural events, etc. Here at the University of Sheffield we are spoilt with the wealth of activities on offer at the Students' Union, so information about that is invaluable to our learners.

3. Make it personal

Encouraging learners to bring in photos of their hometowns / families / hobbies, etc. can be a great way of sparking conversation, finding common ground among classmates and contextualising lessons. They can help teachers to get to know their learners better and can be used for context in lessons.
  • Find out what learners are into and source information on local activities that they might be interested in going along to. On a Monday morning, learners can go around the classroom and plan their social calendar for the week.
  • From the very start of term, invite learners to bring in things for the classroom that they think the group will like - events flyers, poems, song lyrics, newspaper articles, expressions overheard on the bus, etc. Having responsibility for finding things to bring along to class encourages learner-autonomy and makes for a more pro-active group.

4. Make it memorable

Classroom walls are a great place to put things that need to be remembered.

  • Exploit visual memory by putting flashcards for the week's vocabulary on the walls. Learners can be reminded to spend a few minutes walking round the room reminding themselves of words and phrases before the lesson begins. This approach can also be used for inductive learning - "There are 15 words on the wall" (in or out of context). "We will need them for next week's speaking activity / test / reading exercise, so make it your business to find out or work out what they mean". Old -school lesson activities such as running dictations, running information gaps and matching activities can be used to good effect using text and pictures on walls.

  • For learners with smartphones, QR codes can be an exciting way for a class to access texts, research a topic or play a game. They can be made easily on QR generating websites and create a buzz in the classroom with their intriguing mystery!
  • Often, my students will say, "I had something to ask you but I can't remember what it was!" Similarly, I often have things that I think of mid-lesson, during a speaking activity, for example, that I want to speak to my learners about but they completely slip my mind by the end of the task. Having a lesson-jotter on the wall is a way of avoiding losing these ideas. Learners can come and note up questions or things they'd like to review, and everything can be dealt with at the end of the lesson.

5. Make it contextual

  • The classroom can complement the content of a lesson - a phonemic chart to demonstrate tongue position for pronunciation; a map of the world to point out a place mentioned in the coursebook; a map of Sheffield to show where the bus station is - all make learning and communication integrated and contextual.

  • Reference sheets for the week / month's language points can encourage learners both to prepare for future lessons and review past items covered, making for more autonomous learners and better retained content.

I hope this blog post has been useful in sparking your imagination for your own classroom. If you have any thoughts on ways of exploiting the classroom space, or ideas within any of the five categories that have worked for you, I'd love to read your comments.

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