Nowadays, mixed ability within the classroom is one of the biggest challenges facing teachers. Motivation is of paramount importance, and it is essential to find different ways of encouraging and helping every pupil in our English class. Sandra Font shows us how useful English corners can be.
What is an English corner?
An English corner basically consists of a space in the corner of the classroom with the appropriate materials placed on a shelf or table, within easy reach of pupils at any stage of the class. Games and books can be arranged so they are clearly visible, each having their own identifiable place so that pupils know where to find them and put them back. More can be added during the year to motivate pupils with new resources. If you have your own English classroom, English corners are very easy to set up because all you need are the materials and the space. If not, maybe you could come to an arrangement with the class teachers to create a similar space in the children’s own classrooms. This need not imply extra work on your part, as there will be enough materials to go round all the classrooms in the year group; books and activities can be swapped around at the beginning of each term, providing pupils with regular new resources. Many materials will be flexible and usable in different contexts. For example, a set of dominoes designed for learning colours will be used mainly with our Year 1 pupils, but we may also find them useful if we have a student with learning difficulties in Year 4.
How can English corners help to motivate pupils?
For most pupils, the most motivating thing about English corners is that they allow them to work at their own pace (alone, in pairs or in small groups) and without the pressure of the teacher. Pupils are learning and playing at the same time, which makes the learning process far more enjoyable. On occasions when the teacher is present, maybe helping an individual or small group, pupils feel less inhibited as their weaknesses are not being exposed to the rest of the class. This makes it easier for the teacher to build up a relationship of trust with individuals who may otherwise feel reticent.
Why use English corners?
The most useful thing about English corners is the number of different possibilities they can offer us:
- They can provide activities for fast finishers.
- They give us the opportunity to spend time individually with pupils who need help with a task they find difficult.
- They allow us to evaluate our pupils’ speaking, one by one or in small groups.
- They enable pupils to take a break from course work.
- They offer the chance to practise or review vocabulary.
Managing the corners isn’t as difficult as it might seem. For example, when pupils finish a task they consult with the teacher as to which of the three corners they should go and work in. Depending on the activity they choose, they can work alone, in pairs or in small groups of a maximum of four. It is important to emphasise that working in a corner does not literally mean several pupils crammed into one corner of a classroom!
Once the pupils have decided on the activity, they can sit down in their places or on the floor in order to leave enough space for the corner to remain accessible to the rest of the class. It’s possible to have all the pupils working from different corners at the same time. As long as everybody is clear about the task they are doing, the teacher is free to spend time with different pupils or groups. This is why the instructions for all the activities in the corner must be clear for pupils to be able to work autonomously.
What kinds of corners can work?
In our English class we have three English corners: a book corner, an activity corner with motivating games and activities and an ICT corner. If the classroom is big enough, the ideal scenario would be to set up the different corners in three separate corners of the classroom in order to distinguish them clearly. Here’s how we use them:
The book corner
A book corner in the classroom is a great way to encourage your pupils to read. It allows them to look through books of their own choice at their own pace (although your guidance may be necessary in many cases). Depending on their level, they can look for vocabulary they know or they can read an entire story or book. Reading should be an enjoyable task for our pupils in order to make them want to read, so the book corner should look as attractive as possible. It’s a good idea to bear in mind the following factors when organising it:
- Why not encourage pupils to write comments about the books they have read and stick them in the corner to motivate other pupils to read the book? This makes the experience interactive and gives pupils more input into the corner.
- It’s important that everyone in the class feels involved in the organisation and even decoration of the corner. This will encourage them to use it.
- A lending system could be devised so that your pupils can take books home. This is a good way to monitor how many books each of them has read. It could be done through a simple chart such as this one:
A book corner monitor can be appointed to keep the chart up to date in the above manner. As teachers we must find strategies to motivate pupils, like David above, who do not take books home, by guiding them towards an appropriate book, helping them to find words they know or to predict the text by looking at the pictures, etc. This could be a beneficial way of using book corner time with the teacher sitting down informally with small groups of pupils. Audio books that the pupils can take home and listen to may be a good place to begin.
The activity corner
The activity corner can contain materials such as dominoes, memory games, puzzles, motivating worksheets, arts and crafts, matching games and board games. Pupils must know the rules of each game in order to work independently. Even more crucially, they should understand the importance of working quietly, so as not to disturb the rest of the class that is busy with another activity. This may not happen overnight, as this way of working is likely to be new to them and they will need time to adjust. But once they’ve experienced and appreciated the benefits of it, you should see a marked improvement.
The way we introduce the activities can play a major part. I would recommend two stages, starting with the easiest games such as dominoes and puzzles. Later, the more complex ones that need more instructions can be introduced, once pupils are used to working more or less autonomously. If we know that the pupils find it difficult to work in groups, we can first introduce the activities that only need one or two pupils, and set up group games later. Again, a chart system can work well, where each pupil can draw a face to show if they liked that activity and, in this way, we as teachers can find out about their interests and their productivity in the activity corner:
This helps the teacher to monitor which activities pupils have chosen, and to make sure that during the year they try different ones. We can steer pupils with difficulties towards activities that are more relevant to them.
The ICT corner
As we all know, new technology provides us with a very powerful tool because it plays a large part in our pupils’ lives and is therefore very motivating. A computer (or two) and a CD player with headphones are ideal. In this corner we can have English songs, stories, roleplays, computer games, CD-ROMs and a list of interesting websites for children to work with. A monitoring system like the one for the activity corner can be used.
English corners allow us to work with our pupils individually and help them to become independent learners. Some pupils will inevitably spend more time there than others, but during the course of the year we should make sure that everybody benefits from them. Setting them up takes time and patience, but in in the long run, they will save you time; activities that would normally have to be integrated into class time at the expense of something else can now be done regularly and simultaneously with class work.