5: Horseshoes and Action Zones

5: Horseshoes and Action Zones

Seating arrangements, getting learners to participate, and how to teach vocabulary.

Gill liked horseshoes. With up to 15 learners, Gill could feel close to the learners by arranging them in a semi-circular horseshoe. She felt far better with this arrangement than with either rows and columns or leaving the learners to arrange the seating by themselves, which normally resulted in a clustered mess.

Recently, however, for financial reasons, the private language school on the south coast of England where Gill worked had increased the class size. The new classes of 25 learners made a very elongated horseshoe which barely fit into the room, so Gill had arranged the students in a double horseshoe where she could stand in the middle and still feel close to the learners. Happy that she had solved the seating problems, Gill started the lesson.

The first hour concerned vocabulary building. There was a reading passage with a few difficult words in it, and these words were the focus of the lesson. Gill started by asking the learners to read the passage and highlight any words they didn't know or were unsure of. She then elicited these words from the learners.

"Yes, Raul. What's your first word?"
"Extolled. OK, everyone see extolled? Madeleine, can you find it?"
Madeleine nodded her head and pointed at the word in the text.
Gill continued. "Right, I'll look at what the words mean in a minute. Any other words first? Yes, Ingrid?"
"OK, everyone. Unify. Any more, Leif?"
"Yes, coerce is a difficult word. OK, more?"
"Ranting, thank you, Pablo. Everyone see ranting? Right, Ingrid?"
"Good, dissuade. More, anyone?"
The learners were quiet.
"OK. Now, how are we going to find the meaning of these words? Yes, Maria."
"Use a dictionary."
"OK, we can use a dictionary. But finding words in a dictionary is very slow. If we must know the meaning of a word, a dictionary is useful. But sometimes we can guess. For example, Ingrid said unify. What does this mean?"
There was no response.
"OK, look at the word unify. Madeleine, this word here." Gill pointed to unify on Madeleine's handout. "OK, what does uni- mean? Leif?"
"Good. Uni- mean one. What about -ify? Ingrid?"
"Make. It's a verb."
"Yes, so unify?"
"Make one." Ingrid replied confidently.
"Yes. Unify means make one. Let's look at the passage. The need to unify the nation. Does this make sense now?" Heads nodded, and a few learners made notes. "Right, let's try another one. Dissuade. Can you find it? OK, dissuade has the root suade. Do you know any other words with the root suade? Madeleine?"
Madeleine shook her head.
"Anyone else? Yes, Pablo."
"Suade shoes."
Gill smiled. "No, that's suede. S-U-E-D-E. Raul?"
"Good. What does persuade mean?"
"To make to agree."
"Yes, Ingrid. Now, what about dis-? Leif?"
"So can you guess dissuade? Anyone?"
Marco, sitting at one end of the inner horseshoe, put his hand up, but because Gill was standing very near the centre of the horseshoe, she didn't see him. "No-one? OK, Ingrid?"
"To make to not agree."
"Yes, dissuade means to persuade someone not to do something. Good, good. Right, looking at parts of words is one way to find the meaning, but it normally works well only with long words. For short words, we can't do this. For example, look at ranting. The verb is rant, R-A-N-T. There are no parts of the word to help you find the meaning. So what can you do?"
Again, Marco put his hand up but was ignored. Gill continued, "Well, you can guess from the context. What does context mean?"
This time, Stella who was sitting next to Marco tried to answer, but Leif got in first.
"The words around."
"Yes, yes, you can look at the words around rant. In the passage, we have a ranting madman. What do madmen do?"
At this point, the class erupted with the learners making strange faces, rolling their eyes and doing their best to act like madmen. Pablo even got out of his seat and started shambling around the room like a cross between Quasimodo and Caliban. Gill laughed and clapped her hands to get the learners' attention. "OK, OK, you're all good at being mad. What do madmen do?"
The answers came thick and fast from all the learners.
"Kill people."
"Talk to themselves."
"Act like Napoleon."
"Yes, OK, someone said, 'Shout'. Who said 'Shout'?" Three learners put their hands up, but Gill only spotted Raul. "Yes", she said. "Rant means to shout like a madman."

The lesson continued with Gill explaining how to guess the meanings of the other words and summarising ways of guessing meaning on the board. Throughout, Marco and Stella tried to answer Gill's questions but she was always looking the other way.

At the end of the hour, Gill gave the learners a ten-minute break. Marco and Stella came up to her.
"Why don't you like me?", Marco asked.
"What do you mean? You're a good student, Marco. Of course I like you." Gill replied.
"Then why you always ask Ingrid? I want to talk, but you never look at me. You like Ingrid, you don't like me."

Gill was surprised. She never thought she ignored Marco. Perhaps Ingrid had answered a lot of the questions. Was that Gill's fault? Had she been paying attention to only a small part of the class? Thinking back, she realised that maybe this was true. Perhaps she did stand too near the learners in the middle so she didn't see the learners at the sides. She would have to make amends. She would have to be fairer and give all the learners an equal chance. More immediately, she would have to placate Marco.


1. In the case study, three ways of arranging seating are mentioned, the horseshoe, rows and columns, and allowing learners to arrange the seating. In your teaching situation, are all of these possible? Which one do you generally prefer and why?

2. Different seating arrangements are appropriate for different purposes. For example, rows and columns are often used for exams. Can you think of other purposes for which certain seating arrangements are the most appropriate? What about pairwork and groupwork? Do these require different seating arrangements?

3. The picture below represents Gill's classroom.

Where do you think Gill, Raul, Madeleine, Ingrid, Leif, Maria, Pablo, Marco and Stella are in the diagram? In the diagram, which learners do you think will have least chance of participating in the lesson? What should Gill do to give all learners a more equal chance of participating in the lesson?

4. Gill is clearly focusing her teaching efforts on some of the learners at the expense of others (out of 25 learners in the class, only 6 were nominated by Gill). The area of the classroom where most of the interaction occurs is called the action zone. For many teachers, the action zone is the middle and/or front part of the classroom, but some teachers have biases towards the left or the right. Do you know whether there is a distinct action zone in your classroom, and if so, in what part of the classroom is it? How can you become aware of your action zone? If you do focus more on only one area of the classroom, how can you expand your action zone to incorporate the whole classroom?

5. Having realised that Marco's complaint is valid, how should Gill respond to Marco?

6. Gill's teaching exhibits a certain pattern of interaction. Typically, Gill asks a question, a learner gives an answer, and Gill gives feedback on the learner's answer. This pattern is termed Initiation - Response - Feedback, or I-R-F for short. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of using I-R-F as the main interaction pattern in the classroom? Other interaction patterns include lecturing, groupwork and having the students mingle. When do you think each of these interaction patterns is most appropriate? What purposes does each serve?

7. A final point concerning this case study is the teaching of vocabulary. Vocabulary can be taught as individual (or sets of) items, or through strategies. Vocabulary strategies include using a dictionary effectively, guessing from context, and ways of remembering words. What approach to vocabulary is Gill using in this lesson and what do you think the lesson aims are? Nowadays, a lot of vocabulary teaching takes the form of strategy training. Is this strategy-based approach also possible with other aspects of language, such as pronunciation, grammar and functions? If so, what strategies can be taught and how can they be taught? If not, why is strategy training less effective for these other aspects of language?

Further reading

Seating arrangements are discussed in Gower et al. (1995), Scrivener (1994) and Wright (1987), while Richards and Lockhart (1994) and Shamim (1996) look at the action zone in the classroom. Affective aspects of language which may be important in Gill's response to Marco are considered in Head and Taylor (1997). Allwright and Bailey (1991) and van Lier (1988, 1996) examine classroom interaction, summarising research into this area and producing a theoretical foundation respectively. Ur (1996) compares the different interaction patterns common in classrooms, and Lynch (1996) and Scrivener (1994) gives a list of suggestions for maximising learner participation. Vocabulary teaching is covered extensively and clearly in Gairns and Redman (1986), Hatch and Brown (1995) and Nation and Newton (1997), while Campbell and Kryszewska (1995) includes training activities to help teachers improve their teaching of vocabulary. Shaw (1996) focuses specifically on strategy training for vocabulary, and general models of strategy training are given by Oxford (1990) and Williams and Burden (1997).