Quick Tip: Establishing a Classroom Community to Enhance Learner Participation

Audience: English language practitioners and program administrators in the higher/postsecondary and adult education setting

It cannot be overemphasized that instructed language learning is a bidirectional process between the learner and the instructor, and the development of linguistic proficiency is afforded by learner involvement in the pedagogical process through engaging in self-directed learning and co-constructing knowledge in classroom interactions. However, inadequate learner participation confronts instructors squarely in many EAL settings. Practitioners can get over this hump by establishing a classroom community, which potentially augments learner participation.

Exploiting the framework of the ecological approach to language learning and teaching, learner participation can be enhanced in L2 teaching by situating learning “in the context of meaningful activity” (van Lier, 2004, p. 223). Because learning emerges from participation (van Lier, 2004), it is a prerequisite to teaching effectiveness.
However, learners can take on a role of passive recipients in the classroom, which is further compounded by typical teacher-fronted classes—a widespread phenomenon. Numerous factors contribute to learners’ passiveness, such as monocultural classrooms where learners share their L1, linguistic dysfluency, learners’ previous educational experiences, and the like.

Classroom community practice develops relational connections and integration among learners, thus invigorating teaching as a bidirectional process. The following leveled strategies set the scene for the classroom community, which has yielded beneficial results in my teaching practice. These strategies are particularly relevant to EAL practitioners who struggle to reverse learners’ passivity in language courses. The strategies entail delegating, to an extent, teachers’ management tasks.

Strategy Level I: Curricular Decision-Making

Learners work on setting course objectives and deadlines, voice their needs, and contribute to materials selection.

Implementation: The teacher dedicates some time for learners to work on these tasks collaboratively (e.g., in small groups) throughout the term. These tasks, after some teacher-mediated adjustments, could be integrated into the curriculum.

Strategy Level II: The Onus of Classroom Control

Learners assume the roles of time-keeper, word-master, and activity guide.

Implementation: Students voluntarily fill these week-long roles:

  • Time-keeper announces the start and the finish of class, provides a 5-minute remaining cue for the teacher.
  • Word-master shares, biweekly, a few lexical discoveries in detail, especially about the word discovery process and the context.
  • Activity guide presents (7–10 minutes) an intriguing educational piece (e.g., video presentations, quizzes, or word games).

The key policy is that the incumbents choose role-players for the following week.

Strategy Level III: Autonomy Situated in the Community

Learners negotiate a self-study plan, report progress, and share insights/achievements with the classroom community.

Implementation: The teacher ensures that a handful of activities or tasks that necessitate learners work autonomously after the class are incorporated into the syllabus, and learners report/share the outcome in class. These activities could compose a study plan involving periodic consultations with the teacher, miniature research-write-present tasks, and self-reflective journals. Learners weekly swap their finds in small groups.

These strategies are equally valid for large-sized classes, which seems to be an archetypical feature of many EAL contexts. Although the strategies are geared toward nurturing a classroom community, a culturally normative facet (e.g., a birthday bash, field trip, and midsemester do) could be added to make it a more vibrant community of practice (CoP). In summary, a community approach not only fosters learner participation, but also reinforces “motivation-sensitive pedagogy that is tailored to the needs of a specific population” in order to create “enabling conditions for learner motivation” (Abrar-ul-Hassan, 2015, p. 40).


Abrar-ul-Hassan, S. (2015). Tackling learner motivation in language teaching. SHARE (TESL Canada), 6, 38–40.

van Lier, L. (2004). The ecology and semiotics of language learning: A sociocultural perspective. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic.

Note: An earlier version of this article was published in BC TEAL, Spring 2013.

Shahid Abrar-ul-Hassan is an EAL/EAP educator, academic researcher, and professional development consultant based in Vancouver, Canada. He is an alumnus of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.

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