Seating arrangements to maximize English use in the classroom

While current research (Chrisfield 2018) shows that it is perfectly acceptable for students to use their home language in the classroom as a means of understanding content as well as learning English, it is good to get students speaking English as much as possible. The first reason is simply because knowing English is a useful skill in our world. The second reason is, the more proficient students are in English, the more likely they are to succeed in schools where English is used as a medium of instruction .

Students are going to use the most efficient method necessary to accomplish whatever communication task is at hand. As bilingual Francois Grosjean researcher writes:

In fact, bilinguals know their languages to the level that they need them and many are dominant in one of them.

This is all the more true for emerging bilinguals. If they are in a group with students who are more comfortable speaking a home language, such as Korean, they will naturally do this. My students have also commented on how it is extremely awkward to speak in English when the person you’re speaking to can understand you better, and more quickly in another language.

This is also why it’s not good for parents to force their kids to speak English at home when English is not one of the first languages at home. I have had a number of parent-teacher interviews with a student present and witnessed the intense squirming of the student as their parent attempts to speak with them in English. It’s even worse when the parent’s English is also quite poor.

Anyways, back to the classroom. A simple principle when setting up the classroom is to group students in differing language groups as much as possible. The more diverse a school’s linguistic pool is, the easier it is to do. This simple arrangement forces students through necessity to engage in English, or at least observe up close how English for basic communicative purposes is used.

It also gets them to engage in the richer cognitive tasks demanded when going through course content. In my own classroom, I’ve sometimes felt that when I have a good language balance in my groups my role as a teacher fades considerably into the background, and I become more of a facilitator. Piaget showed that we learn best through social interactions, and this is especially true of language, whose primary function is a social one.

If you’re unable to separate students by language background, such as when students all come from one cultural background, then another alternative is to divide students strategically.

Here’s a priority list I follow, but not exclusively:

  1. Gender – Mix the students up, and avoid putting all the girls or boys together
  2. Proficiency – Put students with stronger proficiency alongside students with weaker proficiency. This will benefit both of them.
  3. Responsibility – Avoid putting all the responsible students together. Likewise don’t put all the students with low levels of self-regulation together. I sometimes might place a more outgoing, but less student with a group of quieter but proficient and responsible ones.

The end goal is to establish a social norm which is accepted by all because it’s the most efficient way to communicate or accomplish work.

Finally, avoid the following types of seating arrangements.

  1. Students choose their own. I used to do this, especially in high school, but it’s ultimately less equitable than you might think. If you do allow students to choose their seats, then make sure there are plenty of opportunities for students to interact with everyone else in the class.
  2. Allow the quiet studious sorts to sit together. We might feel we owe it to them to sit together, but in a language classroom, these students might be missing out on valuable opportunities to talk and even use language to problem solve.
  3. Allow the weak students who cause no trouble to sit together. From a classroom management point of view this can work, but it doesn’t help their learning. It also removes learning opportunities for stronger students, and those more proficient in English to help.

Experienced teachers already know the power of seating arrangements. But sometimes I think teachers may be guided by ultimate principles that do not correspond with maximizing learning opportunities for everyone in the classroom. A heavily enforced English-only rule or a strict seating arrangement that prevents students from engaging in social learning may serve the goals of order or a quiet, English-only atmosphere. But it is not natural, socially beneficial, necessary, or even sustainable.


Chrisfield, E. (2018). Challenging the monolingual habitus of international school classrooms. International Schools Journal, XXXVII(2), 77–84.

One comment

  1. […] I’ve written about a simple strategy to promote English language speaking. It involves dividing students from different language backgrounds as much as possible through careful seating arrangements. Another useful strategy is to plan for times when teaching course content where it can be explained by a stronger English learner using their first language with another weaker English learner of the same language background. Whatever risks there are of poor translation, in many cases it’s going to be better than what the teacher is able to do within the same amount of time. […]

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