We’ve probably all got a different idea of what an English Workshop class entails. There is no definitive procedure, and nor should there be. So I will simply add my ideas to the mix.
The first ingredient for my English Workshop classroom is the layout of the desks/tables. I form islands of desks scattered around the room. My default setting is 5 islands, my students number about 15 to 30, and this is about right for me.
The students gravitate to any of the islands when they enter the classroom, and it normally ends up with 4/5 friends sitting together around each island. This is fine. If there is a unworkable imbalance I step in and alter things a little. If one of the islands is empty, but everything is otherwise looking good, no problem.
On each island is an activity. The activity is designed to take about 15 minutes (I have 90 minute lessons). After the time has elapsed the students move in rotation to the next island and complete the next activity. This is repeated until the students have finished the rotation, and completed all the activities. The remaining time is used for feedback, marking and anything else arising from the class.
That is the bare bones, a little more detail below.
- Each class has a (loose) theme, eg sports, Australia, mountains.
- I always include a reading island, where students can read graded readers of their choice at their pace. This island is the one in the corner, a quiet space, a little apart from the others.
- I always include a conversation island. This is where I’m mainly stationed.
- There is often a listening island. My preferred listening task utilizes songs, usually with the symbolsong procedure. This island is on the opposite side of the classroom to the reading island. The students have full control over the CD player. Does the repeated playing of the same song annoy the students? Not really. Just choose a really good, catchy, classic song.
- Other activities could be a vocabulary task, a grammar exercise, a puzzle, a quiz, or virtually anything. If you have the facility for an online English app, then this would also do nicely.
- It’s not easy to organise every activity into the same length, in fact it’s virtually impossible. It gets easier with practice, and is not really a huge problem, but if students can’t finish their exercise in the allotted time, they could always try to finish it off later while they are on another island, multi-tasking, why not?
- As mentioned I’m based on the conversation island, but this kind of set-up requires a fair bit of monitoring and facilitating, so I generally spend the first 5 minutes of each rotation wandering around the islands, checking and helping, before getting back to the conversation island.
- The students are a bit lost at first, but they soon pick up the system, and it seems to go like clockwork after about three classes.
- Do the students get a bit bored of the same procedure every class? Do they get bored with the lectures that they receive umpteen times a week? For them it is only once a week. Of course not every student is ecstatic, but generally speaking there is a nice, refreshing air in the classroom.
- My classes are 90 minutes each, but for different lengths of class the islands and activity lengths should be adjusted accordingly.
As I hope you can gather, the whole atmosphere of the classroom is much more friendly and relaxed than the conventional ‘teacher in front of rows of students’ layout.
One huge advantage is that the students are much more able to study at their own pace, and not worry so much about making any mistakes. We are always concerned that no student should be left behind, but perhaps we should also concern ourselves more with higher level students not reaching their full potential. In its own little way this workshop procedure allows higher level students to flourish, and not be held back in frustration while I am dealing with slower students.
And to top it all I spend a great deal more time using real language to talk and laugh with all the students. An English Workshop should surely be a component of any English program.