A new class: building a learning environment together

Many of us are starting new terms and working with new groups. We probably already know what the learners are expected to achieve in their time with us, and the pressure is on.

It’s tempting to dive straight in, but any new group will need to work through interpersonal issues before they can function effectively as a group (and as individuals within the group). We can ignore these issues, but that won’t make them go away; we’re just more likely to get our feet tangled in them, like weeds under the surface of the water.

In a central work on group dynamics in the classroom, Schmuck and Schmuck [no, it isn’t just you that finds their names amusing  :)], observe:

‘ Our research has shown that classroom groups with supportive friendship patterns enhance academic learning, while more hostile classroom environments reduce learning…informal group processes in the classroom can, and do, make a difference in the accomplishment of the formal goals of the school.’

So, what can we do to encourage more supportive patterns?

Getting to know you activities

First of all, pay more than lip-service to the ‘getting to know you’ activities. Language learning is a high risk activity in terms of losing face and the student surrounded by unfamiliar faces is likely to either withdraw or ‘act-out’ as a way of controlling the environment.


It seems obvious, but make sure that everyone knows everyone else’s names. Rather than putting pressure on them to learn them, try a discussion activity about names. Some possible questions:

–          How did you get your name? Were you named for someone else? Who/why?

–          Does your name have a meaning?

–          Do you have a nickname (you are willing to share)? How did you get it? Who uses it?

–          Do you or other people shorten your name in any way? How do you feel about either the shortened name or the full name? (Many people feel they are going to be told off when someone uses their full name)

–          Do you like your name? Why/why not?

–          What would you like to be called in class?

This can be done in small groups, which either swap around, or feedback to the main group.

It goes without saying that you need to learn your student’ names as quickly as possible. A few tips:

–          Write down the names in the same layout as the students are seated (i.e. in a horseshoe) and refer to it often in the first class or so.

–          Use their names as much as possible to begin with.

–          When students are working on something mentally go round and test yourself on the names. Ask anyone you can’t remember to remind you (better now than in a month’s time)

–          Make a note next to each name of a distinguishing feature (e.g. curly hair).But be careful with this one….don’t write anything you wouldn’t want the student to see!

Find someone who…

This is a very well-known activity in some circles, so apologies if it’s too obvious, but it does work brilliantly. This is a variation which doesn’t require you to know anything about the students prior to the class, and ensures that students are comfortable about what is revealed (which can sometimes be a problem when this activity is done on CELTA courses, based on application forms!)

Put students into small groups (3-4) and ask them to think of three things to tell the other group members about themselves, which they are pretty sure will be new information.  They should take it in turns to give a piece of information, and the others should comment on it. Model this if necessary. While they are carrying out the activity, monitor and note down one fact about each student that you overhear.

Then dictate the facts to the class. E.g. Find someone who…

…has just been to Sweden on holiday.

…used to live in another country

Students will already know some of these from their small group work, but they can then mingle and ask others in the class, ‘Have you just been to Sweden?’ etc.  (no pointing at the sheet allowed)

Guess who?

This works better with groups which have worked together a little before. Each group member writes 2-3 sentences about themselves (anything they want to share). These are collected in and read aloud (by you or the students) and everyone writes down who they think each one refers to before the answers are revealed at the end.

An alternative is for 1 of 3 pieces of information to be a lie. In this version, we don’t have to guess who, but guess which piece of information is untrue.

Creating a sense of group identity

As well as getting to know each other better, we can also focus on creating a positive group identity.

Class Yearbook or Photo Album

Over the course of the year, a scrapbook (or the digital equivalent) is gradually built up by members of the class. You could begin with photos and a short bio about each member, then add updates as often as you and the class wish. This could cover what has been learnt, any social activities or trips, creative writing or articles, whatever seems appropriate.

At the end of the year, contact details could be added for those that wish to keep in touch if the group is breaking up, and maybe include a letter from the teacher about the experience of teaching the group.

Class history

(this idea comes from the wonderful Classroom Dynamics- Jill Hadfield)

Exactly how you do this will depend on the age range of your students. The idea is for each student to research a different year or other short period of time in the past and find out what everyone in the class did or was doing at that time.

After a mingle activity where they interview each other, the information can be put together on a time–line.  This is a great activity for working together and getting to know each other (not to mention using past tenses)

In my next post I plan to look at some activities for developing the class’s awareness of how groups work together and how they, individually, are contributing to the group. Feel free to sign up to be sent this post by email- button on the right.



Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology

13 Responses to A new class: building a learning environment together

  1. The last activity seems really interesting. I need to try it out. 🙂

    • Thanks, Joela. I’ve also been to have a look at your blog. Loved the story about Smok Wawelski and all the dragon photos. I lived in Poland for a few years (including Krakow) and it made me feel quite nostalgic.

  2. Ah, yes. I also like the picture of the blue men on the roof 😀

  3. Hi Rachael,
    I also like to use activities about names at the beginning of a new term: the meaning of names, put yourselves in alphabetical order according to the initial letters of your names… Here, you have posted quite a few other interesting questions, I will try them out today!

  4. Dear Rachael,
    So glad to be back here and once again, thank you for sharing some great ideas with us. The timing couldn’t be better either as I have just started the new school year!
    I’ll share my first lessons on my blog soon. and yes, I absolutely agree that taking time to build group dynamics in the beginning IS vital, no way a waste of time.
    Hugs from the Alps

  5. Pingback: Useful “Back to School”-related links I’ve found | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  6. Reblogged this on Ella's World of English and commented:
    I like the ideas but still am nervous about grouping my giant (40 kids at present) class simply because there isn’t space! I especially like the name idea – there’s always a story behind our names. Enjoy!

    • Thanks, Ella. I think it is still possible to get large groups working in smaller sub-groups (though they may not be able to move around!). The key is to make the task absolutely clear, and ensure that they are confident about the language they’ll need to do the task. And keep the activities short and sweet if they’re younger learners.

  7. I am going to use the suggested activities for my teenager students whose spoken English stands at a very low level. Should I pre teach the language that they will need for the activities?

    • Hi Kalim,

      I think pre teaching can work very well for the more structured activities such as Find someone who… for example, you could work on ‘have you +past participle’ , checking that they understand the concept using a timeline, checking or teaching the past participle endings and drilling the questions and answer. Then give them a sheet with some question endings, with the verbs in brackets. E.g. …….(go) on a plane? Students have to look at this, but ask each other Have you ever been on a plane? and so on.

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