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Teaching Spaces

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Alternative ways to organise space in and around the classroom

Where is the strangest place you have had to teach a lesson?

English Teachers around the world and all those engaged in the TEFL and ESOL communities will no doubt have taught in some unusual locations and classrooms from time to time. In this article, I will share a few personal stories about challenging spaces I have had to conduct lessons in and will go on to suggest alternative ways to make the best use of the teaching space in and outside the classroom. I doubt that the alternative classroom layouts I will describe later in the article will be new to most people, but the aim here is to identify which sorts of activities work best in different spaces and to encourage a bit of experimentation.

The Classroom

Teaching English as a foreign language has given me the possibility to travel and work around the world. Perhaps the most surprising thing I have observed about classrooms in different parts of the globe is how similar they are. Whether it is in Asia or Europe, an African village or an American city; the basic shape and geography of the classroom itself are remarkably similar. There might be differences in the amount of technology available, but in general, most classrooms are rectangular rooms with a board of some type at the front, and desks and chairs arranged around the room. Of course, there are exceptions…

Like most teachers, I have sometimes had to deal with classrooms that were too small, classrooms that were odd-shaped or rooms which were too hot or too cold. I have taught in corridors, libraries and converted kitchens. While none of these situations is enjoyable at the time it does help you to remember that there are always ways to organise the available space constructively. Well, nearly always…

Teaching Refugees

Some years ago, I was teaching English at a reception centre for refugees in a secret location in one of Europe’s capital cities. From the outside, the building looked identical to neighbouring buildings in a rather run-down area of the city. Only when you went inside and were confronted by armed security guards did it become apparent that this was no ordinary dwelling. In fact, behind the street façade, several buildings were linked together to form a makeshift refugee centre. It was an old building that was long overdue for either renovation or demolition. The walls were crumbling and seemed to be held together by ancient layers of peeling paint. It didn’t feel safe. Yet for many of the people who were making a temporary home there, it was no doubt a luxury in comparison to the places where they had sheltered during their escape from war and oppression. Roughly two hundred people were crammed into about twenty rooms within the building. The ramshackle structure had never been intended to house a school room of any sort, so my ‘classroom’ was in fact the cellar.

The basement was large in comparison to the other rooms in the building but very damp and smelly. It was lit with electric light bulbs that frequently exploded due to damp and poor wiring. There were no desks or tables but about fifty chairs in various states of repair. The problem was that there were usually about eighty participants in each class! The class consisted of people aged between eight and eighty with varying amounts of English. The idea was that the lessons would provide them with enough English to survive and find employment after their applications to move to an English-speaking country had been processed. So, while the lucky ones took the seats, the less lucky ones sat on other people’s knees, stood at the back or squatted on the damp floor. Meanwhile, my only option was to stand at the front, delivering lessons lecture-style. I wasn’t entirely without technological help; I did have a flipchart. Unfortunately, it was too dark in the room for anybody to see what I had written on it.

On one occasion I was in the middle of a lesson on giving directions when suddenly everybody in the room gasped out loud. I wondered what Faux Pas I had made. Then, in an instant, all those who had been sitting on the chairs started to climb up and stand on top of them. Confused, I looked behind me just in time to see a family of rather fat-looking rats scuttling off into a dark corner of the room behind me! Then everybody in the class ran for the exit at once and I thought people were going to get hurt in the rush to get out. It took more than a day and a lot of rat poison to convince people it was safe to come back to class!

Despite rodent interruptions, exploding light bulbs and uncomfortable seating arrangements most of the students came regularly to the lessons and I was able to adapt my teaching style and methods to the situation. I’m glad I’ve never had to cope with a classroom as bad as that again, but at least when I am confronted with a classroom that isn’t ideal, I can tell myself that there must be a way to work within the space.

Organising Space In The Classroom

Within the square or rectangular walls of the classroom, the only thing that can easily be changed is the layout of the chairs and tables or desks. Most of us have a preferred way to set up the classroom but sometimes we get stuck in a particular way of doing things. In the next paragraphs, I will suggest different layouts that are useful for particular activities. It usually only takes a few minutes (with the student’s help) to move chairs and desks around and put them back again at the end of the lesson. So maybe it is worth experimenting a bit and changing the layout we are familiar with a bit more often.

Rows and Columns

This is perhaps the most traditional classroom layout. The desks or tables are arranged in rows with one or two students sitting at each desk, facing the front. Some may feel this is a rather old-fashioned layout, but it does have its uses. It probably is the best layout for students doing examinations or tests. It can also be useful for any written task where you don’t want the students to be distracted by what is going on around them. It is also well suited to situations in which the students need to take notes while focusing their complete attention on the teacher at the front of the class. However, it is a very bad layout if you want the class to be engaged in collaborative or communicative activities.

Fixed Seating Arrangements

We may sometimes find ourselves having to teach English in rooms where the chairs and tables are fixed and/or can’t be moved around. Such locations could include science laboratories, computer rooms, art rooms and lecture theatres. While this can be frustrating, activities can be adapted to suit the room and take advantage of space wherever it may be. For example, the ‘alleys’ between rows of desks can be used for line up activities or team relays. We may be able to find room at the back or front of the class for role-plays or games. Pair work and group work can still happen but might be limited by proximity; those already sitting next to each other, or behind and in front of each other. Group and project work can be designated to desks that are easiest to gather around. Some work could also be done crouching on the floor in corners of the room. If teaching an ongoing course in such a room it may well be a good idea to befriend the school secretary or caretaker and enquire if any other classrooms could be made available!

Nests or Islands

Grouping two or three tables or desks together creating little nests or islands around the room is one of the best ways to set up collaborative and project work. It gives students more desk space to create posters or models and encourages them to work together as a little team. The slight disadvantage is that students will all be facing in different directions around the room so it could take slightly longer than normal to get the attention of the whole class at once. This is easily remedied by pre-agreed signs and rules and regular walking around the class. Most of us do this anyway. Since many of our students will not have a direct line of sight to the board it is helpful when using this arrangement to back up instructions on handouts or worksheets.

The Horse-Shoe

The horse-shoe or ‘U shaped’ arrangement of desks is one of the most democratic and communicative ways of organising the classroom. It is great for class discussions and debates and has the advantage that the teacher is equally distant from all the students and can easily see their faces and their reactions. Moreover, this arrangement frees up space in the middle of the room which can be used for mingling or performance-based activities.

Horse-Shoe Plus

In this arrangement, the desks are positioned in a horse-shoe around the room but pushed right back to the walls. The students sit in front of their desks facing the teacher and only turn around to use their desks when there is a written task which requires space to lean on. In this arrangement, there is nothing between the students and the teacher and it is very useful for discussion-based activities and drama. (If it is possible you might want to take some of the desks outside the classroom altogether to free up even more space).

Reading or Instruction Corner

The reading or instruction corner can work with any desk layout but is probably more associated with the nest arrangement. It is based on the idea often used in junior schools, that there is a designated reading corner where pupils can sit on mats and read. The same area is often used as a meeting point where the students gather around the teacher (either sitting or standing) and instructions are given. It is a useful device for reminding students that in this area they always need to listen and pay full attention before setting off on individual or group activities around the classroom.

Around The School

Not all lessons have to be based entirely within the classroom. With the permission of your colleagues, you can sometimes use the rest of the school building as extra space or a resource in its own right. Modern school buildings are often designed with shared spaces for students and teachers to use, but even when this is not the case there are rooms and corridors around the building which can be useful. For example, when you need to teach something connected with prepositions or giving directions, the school building itself is an excellent resource. 

What is the quickest route from the classroom to the Secretary’s Office? Can you draw and describe a map of the school? What is located between the first-floor toilet and the stairwell, opposite the window?

Beyond The School

Some of my favourite school memories were when the teachers took us out of school on nature walks. There is no reason why this couldn’t be done within the context of an English lesson. Think of all the vocabulary that could be covered. Or you could make a trip to the nearest town with a focus on shopping or business. You could organise a survey in which students have to question people they meet in the town. They could do that in their native language, reporting back in English or they could even use English to ask their questions, playing the part of English-speaking tourists, and then report back what problems foreign visitors to the town might have.


There has been remarkably little academic research into the advantages and disadvantages of various classroom layouts. What there has been, indicates unsurprisingly that rows and columns are better for a more didactic approach and tend to reduce off task (mis)behaviour, while nests and the horseshoe are better for collaborative and communicative work. One study by Marx, Fuhrer and Hartig (you can read it here) found that students asked their teacher significantly more questions when arranged in a horseshoe than when seated in rows. In reality, the layout you choose for your lesson will probably depend as much on the size and shape of the room as on academic or classroom management considerations. However, there are clearly some tasks and activities which work better when the classroom is organised in a particular way. Perhaps it is worth spending an extra five minutes to change things around from time to time.

What works best for you?

If you have invented any other ways to use your classroom space that you would like to share, please tell us in the comments.

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