Musical Chairs: Seating Arrangements for the ESL Classroom

By Cathy Sunshine

When we arrive in our classrooms, we usually find the chairs in rows, facing front. This traditional setup is familiar to most of our students, and it works okay for teacher-focused instruction and for testing. But it has drawbacks. For one thing, there’s an obvious front and back to this arrangement. Less-confident students often hang toward the back, where they can’t see and hear as well, and where it’s harder for us to reach them in order to give extra help. Just as important, with the chairs in rows, students can’t see each other. Those behind see only the backs of those in front, and those in front don’t see those behind at all. Not so good for student interaction or class cohesion.

When students sit in rows, somebody has to be in back. Students in back may not see or hear the lesson as well as those in front, and student interaction is discouraged.

One alternative is to place the chairs in a U or semicircle. This way students can see the chalkboard, but they can also all see each other. It’s an effective way to build community and encourage conversation in which the students talk to each other instead of each student talking to the teacher. But this arrangement has its inconveniences, too. If the classroom is narrow or the class is large, the chairs may have to squeeze together tightly to fit everyone into the U. This can make it difficult for students to get out of their seats and difficult for the teacher to work with individual students at their seats. But if the chairs can be spaced widely enough to allow a person to pass between them, it’s a good arrangement.

A third possibility is the closed circle, either one large circle or—more often—two or three smaller circles. These are ideal for conversations and other activities where students don’t need to see the chalkboard. A small circle of, say, three to six students creates a comfortable sense of intimacy in which shy students may find it easier to talk. In a class with two teachers, you can form two conversation circles, each facilitated by a teacher.

Closed circles encourage interaction. When a teacher joins the circle, it helps keep the conversation in English.

Sometimes the best seating arrangement is no seating. Especially in the second half of the class, when concentration may be waning, it can help to get people up and moving. Send them on a scavenger hunt in the building, or stage a funny skit, or push the chairs aside and play Simon Says to wake everybody up.

sical Chairs

When we arrive in our classrooms, we usually find the chairs in rows, facing front. This traditional setup is familiar to most of our students, and it works okay for teacher-focused instruction and for testing. But it has drawbacks. For one thing, there’s an obvious front and back to this arrangement. Less-confident students often hang toward the back, where they can’t see and hear as well, and where it’s hard for us to reach them in order to give extra help. Just as important, with the chairs in rows, students can’t see each other. Those behind see only the backs of those in front, and those in front don’t see those behind at all. Not so good for student interaction or class cohesion.

One alternative is to place the chairs in a U or semicircle. This way students can see the chalkboard, but they can also all see each other. It’s an effective way to build community and encourage conversation in which the students talk to each other instead of each student talking to the teacher. But this arrangement has its inconveniences, too. If the classroom is narrow or the class is large, the chairs may have to squeeze together tightly to fit everyone into the U. This can make it difficult for students to get out of their seats and difficult for the teacher to work with individual students at their seats. But if the chairs can be spaced widely enough to allow a person to pass between them, it’s a good arrangement.

A third possibility is the closed circle, either one large circle or—more often—two or three smaller circles. These are ideal for conversations and other activities where students don’t need to see the chalkboard. A small circle of, say, three to six students creates a comfortable sense of intimacy in which shy students may find it easier to talk. In a class with two teachers, you can form two conversation circles, each facilitated by a teacher.

Sometimes the best seating arrangement is no seating. Especially in the second half of the class, when concentration may be waning, it can help to get people up and moving. Send them on a scavenger hunt in the building, or stage a funny skit, or push the chairs aside and play Simon Says to wake everybody up.

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