The Value of Classroom Seating Arrangements: 4 Layouts to Try

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As ESL teachers, we tend to spend most of our planning time brainstorming activities, searching for materials and creating worksheets. However, there is one crucial aspect of classroom management that is often overlooked but can really make or break a lesson depending on how it’s used: classroom seating arrangements.

Changing the classroom layout can sometimes feel like playing a chess game. One desk in a different place and you may have just changed the outcome of the entire lesson. And although, no one layout is good, and what may work in one lesson or one activity may not work for another, there are arrangements that are more versatile and can work better in multiple situations. 

Choosing the best classroom arrangement

There are a lot of factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding where and when you are going to move your desks. Some of these are merely practical such as the age of your learners or the size of your class, while others have to do more with the learning experience. For example, what atmosphere would you like to create? And most importantly, what are your lesson goals and what is the best type of interaction for your students in order to achieve them?

Whatever desk layout you choose for a given lesson, remember you can (and often should) be ready to change it if an activity requires it. This doesn’t mean your class should turn into a game of musical chairs, but changing the class seating arrangement once or, for longer classes, even twice can help you change things up and break the monotony. 

Also,don’t be afraid to experiment. Especially at first, it can be quite tricky to discover which classroom layout works best for your classes and students, so don’t be scared to try out a few different setups, paying attention to how they affect your lessons. 

Desks vs Tables

The first conundrum we should try and solve is the old desks vs tables debate. Which is best in an ESL classroom? Well, most of the time, if you’re not a school manager yourself, you might not even have a say on whether you’d like to use one or the other.  However it is important you are at least aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Desks

Desks can be pretty convenient and are easy to rearrange into lots of different ways. Place them in the shape of a circle, a horseshoe or an ice cream cone for that matter (although, I don’t know why you would). Also, like little lego pieces, they fit pretty much everywhere and don’t take up too much space, making them great for smaller rooms. They are also easy to separate, so you don’t have to worry too much about your students cheating during tests and exams. 

On the other hand, while it is true that rearranging desks won’t take you too much time if you have a small class, if you try and do the same in the middle of a class with 20+ kids not willing to cooperate, things can get quite chaotic. Another thing to keep in mind is that placing students in their own little space may not be the best idea if you want to create a cooperative atmosphere. 

Tables

There is a reason why we don’t sit at desks when having lunch with family and that is because we normally want to interact while eating. For the same reason, tables seem to be the better choice for cooperative activities. Speaking activities, for one, are a lot easier to organize and so are peer-check and pairwork. 

Nonetheless, tables do tend to take up more room, so they might not be a good fit for smaller classrooms or for classes with too many students. Another drawback is that when sitting at tables, students cannot be easily separated. However, if you don’t administer a test every other hour, this problem can be easily solved by spreading students out a bit more if you have the room, or simply by keeping an eye on them to prevent them from cheating.

And the winner is…

At the end of the day there isn’t a big difference between using tables or desks in the classroom except for how much time you’ll be spending moving them around. However, since tables can be moved easily and most of the activities in an ESL class will be focused on cooperative tasks, they are probably the best choice.

Most popular classroom seating arrangements

So now that you’ve got your furniture ready, it’s time to decide what would be the best layout for your lesson. Here are some of the most popular classroom setups you can choose from:

Traditional

This is probably the seating arrangement most of us are familiar with. It’s a classic. The teacher standing by the board and the whole class sitting in rows of single desks facing him or her. 

Boring, right? 

Although the traditional layout works great for testing, the chances are good that your ESL learners will spend the majority of the lesson interacting with each other, either doing pair work or group work, both of which can be hindered by this layout. 

It is true that the traditional seating arrangement may help increase your students’ productivity, but it’s also true that it will likely make your lesson a lot less interesting and engaging.

Pros: 

  • Keeps students focused and may result in increased productivity
  • Hard to cheat during a test
  • Equal visibility for everybody

Cons

  • Does not allow for interaction
  • Students may not bond with other students
  • Decreased  motivation for students in the back
  • Easier to get distracted

Best for: tests, exams, watching a movie or any other task that does not require much interaction between learners

Horseshoe (or Semicircle)

The horseshoe is one of the most versatile classroom layouts. While it’s true that it’s still somewhat teacher-centered, this type of seating arrangement offers great flexibility and can easily adapt to different types of activities. One of the great things about it is that the horseshoe and semicircle shapes tend to make students feel more included in the group, which is crucial to creating a positive and cooperative atmosphere. 

However, this layout does present a major negative point. Group work and small group discussions may be harder to organize, especially for bigger classes. It may also be easier for some students, if particularly shy or lazy, to take a back seat and not participate in class discussions. 

Pros: 

  • Encourages cooperation and discussion
  • Creates a relaxed and open environment
  • Easy to interact with the whole class
  • Teacher easily sees all students

Cons: 

  • Harder to organize group work and small group discussion
  • Not ideal for bigger classes
  • Not ideal for shy students

Best for: presentations, explanations, pair work

Circle

This classroom seating arrangement probably shouldn’t be your go-to but it can prove to be incredibly useful when paired with the right activity. Oftentimes, students, even when encouraged to speak as a group, tend to speak to the teacher. Whether that’s due to insecurity or habit, they simply just can’t seem to be able to keep a conversation going with another classmate in English without looking for the teacher’s approval. Placing students in a circle eliminates this issue and encourages students to keep the conversation going independently.

Pros: 

  • 100% learner-centered
  • allows for easy monitoring

Cons:

  • suitable for a limited number of activities

Best for: learner-centered speaking activities such as discussions and debates

Clusters

Clusters are one of the most popular choices for ESL classrooms for multiple reasons. First of all, creating small groups of 3-4 students helps create a sense of belonging and a safe environment even for the most shy students. Cooperation is also easier, which makes small clusters ideal for pair work as well as group work and can easily be adapted to most activities. However, younger learners may sometimes get distracted in this arrangement but you should be able to limit disruptive situations as long as you’re careful when placing students.

Pros: 

  • Increased interaction
  • Creates a safe environment
  • Easy to organize pair work as well as group work

Cons: 

  • Not equal visibility
  • If not paired correctly some students may get distracted, which might result in decreased productivity

Best for: group work, problem-solving tasks, speaking activities, team games

So, as you might have realized by now, the power of a good seating arrangement is no joke. For this reason, next time you’re revising your carefully written lesson plan, remember to spare a couple of minutes to choose the best classroom setup for the activities you have planned – you’ll be doing both yourself and your students a huge favor. 

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