Dealing with the Chaos of Last-Minute Combined ESL Classes


When I began my ESL teaching career, I was working at a English language school that had a big problem with teacher absences, especially during flu season. At least once or twice a week, an ESL teacher just didn’t show up for one reason or another, and the administration didn’t find out until the last minute. We didn’t really have any substitutes, so the missing ESL teacher’s students were often dumped into another ESL teacher’s class for the day. More often than not, those orphaned English language learners ended up in my class. As a result, I became adept at handling the chaos that is last-minute combined classes.

For this post, I’ve decided to discuss the challenges of these classes and how to address them.

Challenge #1: You have no time to make adjustments to your English lesson.

Solution: Give yourself the time you need.

When you are suddenly inundated with students, your first move should always be to put students into partners and have them do simple English conversation questions. These can focus on easy topics such likes/dislikes and favorites. Usually 3-7 questions works best. The questions give you an opportunity to determine the level discrepancy between the students and also give you time to think of a game plan.

Challenge #2 You are angry, annoyed, or just overwhelmed.

Solution: Positively re-frame the situation.

To be honest, you have every right to be pissed off. It’s frustrating when a carefully planned ESL lesson goes awry. However, remember it’s not the students' fault that they got dumped into your class. So, be positive. Treat the visiting students as if they were welcome guests and not an annoyance. For your usual students, frame the experience as a fantastic opportunity to work with new people. These strategies may sound cheesy, but they will make a difference in how well both you and all of the students cope with the situation.

Challenge #3: The guest students don’t know your class routine or procedures.

Solution: Teach them.

This issue can spell disaster especially if you have younger students or students with short attention spans. Make sure the guest students know the major rules in your class. If you have multiple rules, focus on your most important three. These might be English only, be respectful, and stay on task. Write these on the board. If they are already posted, make sure to point them out.

Also, review usual procedures for the class. These may include what to do when you finish an activity, how to get the teacher’s attention, or what to do when you have a question. In my class, for example, students that finished early could a book in English or do English conversation questions with a partner. Sitting around doing nothing wasn’t an option.

Challenge #4: You don’t have enough copies of any worksheets or of the textbook

Solution: Share.

Ok, this one is kind of a no-brainer, but when you get flustered, it's easy to forget the simple things. Put the students into pairs or groups of three, and have them share whatever resources you have. If you are using worksheets for the class, have all the students write their answers on a piece of paper or in their notebook. If you would like students to work individually on an activity, you could have students with cell phones take a picture of the worksheet or textbook page and work from that.

Challenge #5: The guest students are lower level than your regular class.

Solution: Differentiate.

During the initial discussion time I mentioned earlier, review your ESL lesson material for the day. Mark any questions that you think would be easy enough for the lower level students to answer. When you begin working with the material, have the lower level English language learners answer the easier questions and your usual students answer the more difficult questions. If you are doing an English reading or listening activity, have the lower level students answer questions about overall gist or simple details. Have your usual students focus on more challenging questions involving specific details and word meaning.

Challenge #6 The guest students are higher level than your regular class

Solution: Differentiate.

This situation can offer a double dose of difficulty--different levels and the potential for a condescending attitude from the higher level students. During the discussion time, review your ESL activities for the class. If it’s an English grammar class, partner high level students together and lower level students together. Have the higher level students do the planned activities, but add some challenge. Have them, for example, write not just sentences with the grammar point, but questions as well. Give them some exercises which test their ability to make the subject and verb agree (eg use subjects like information, no one, or everybody.) For ESL reading and listening activities, consider engaging your students' higher level thinking skills. If most of your questions focus on listening/reading for details (who, what, when), consider adding questions why or how questions.

Hopefully, some of these strategies will help you handle this situation like a pro! Does anyone else have strategies for dealing with last-minute combined classes? If so, please share them.

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