Seating arrangements are often something that are at the bottom of a teacher's list of concerns. There are so many other things to consider after all.
The thing is though, seating arrangements can have a big effect on the dynamic of a class, and testing different arrangements can yield a number of different results.
Considering how easy it is to change how your students sit, it should be one of the first things you experiment with, especially when facing a difficult class.
If you're a new teacher and unsure about moving the seats round, consult with your school manager first.
The rest of this article is going to look into a few different options and discuss their merits.
The traditional classroom seating arrangement is rows facing the whiteboard, and is a very teacher-centric arrangement. A lot of ESL schools will not actually arrange their seats this way, but some still will.
While this arrangement encourages students to focus and keep discipline, it's not the best for learning and practicing a language, as it creates typically passive learning.
The exception is when the class is small or the students are adults. In this case, rows can be the best thing for them because it helps small classes maintain the classroom feel (and therefore discipline). Adults tend to expect, and prefer, to be seated in rows as well.
The horseshoe layout (with the whiteboard and teacher at the open end of the shoe) is also common in language schools and is thought to be better for encouraging total class engagement.
It's also easier for the students and teacher to interact with one another as it brings the teacher closer to the students.
Some younger students, or students not used to it in their culture, might find it a little intimidating to suddenly be face to face with other students rather than only facing the whiteboard, so that is something to consider. Usually though, the benefits of this arrangement will outweigh this.
It's also been said that this arrangement doesn't work for larger classes, but even classes with 18-20 students can be successful with a horseshoe arrangement.
If given a choice of any arrangement, we recommend that you attempt the horseshoe first.
The horseshoe can be operated with or without tables.
This can work better for older students (around high school age and up), and particularly in classes where group work would be encouraged. The cabaret style seating plan sees groups of 4 or 5 students seated around tables in a smaller horseshoe. This keeps students able to focus on the whiteboard, but encourages participation and engagement.
If you're looking for more student to student interaction, and have the tables/space to pull off this arrangement, then it's well worth trying.
This one is probably the least teacher-centric of all and is better for when there is a specific project that needs working on. It is also great if you are having class debates or generally practicing English.
You might run into problems with this seating plan if you're trying to teach a lot of material, as there is no real teacher-focus in the plan.
As well as the actual seating plan, you can consider rearranging individual students. As long as you don't pick on specific students (unless doing it for disciplinary purposes), it should be fine to move them around.
You can do this as a punishment or even as a reward for good behavior.
If you have a teaching assistant, you can sit them next to a struggling student, or a badly behaved one, and it can make all the difference.
You can even make a game of it by playing some chair changing games, such as fruit salad.
Mix It Up
There's no hard and fast rule that suggests you ought to stick with one seating arrangement for the entire lesson, or that you need to apply the same plans to all your classes.
Different students act differently, and when you consider class sizes, ages, and their familiarity with one another, you can see that there might be a need to experiment to find the best arrangement for that class.
Got a small class that has trouble focusing? Try putting them to rows. Want your students to talk more? Try putting them in a circle or horseshoe.
Got a horseshoe arrangement that works well, but makes pair work hard? Re-arrange the chairs for different activities, or even do away with chairs for some tasks.
The more you experiment, the more you'll learn.