Setting Up a Classroom

Most seating arrangements designed for the TEFL classroom have two clear objectives: to help support communication and to help the teacher maintain control.

Objective 1- Supporting Communication

At the end of the day, we learn a language in order to communicate in that language. Whether that is by reading, writing, speaking or listening, it all comes down to giving and receiving information.

In our classrooms we teach new words and grammar but also, just as importantly, we want our students to practise their language skills, so we set up our classroom in a way that supports that goal. We need our students to be able to have eye contact with each other and the teacher.

Objective 2 – Maintaining Control

In any normal classroom, maintaining control is important but in a TEFL classroom we often have the added difficulty that many of our exercises are communication exercises, which means giving away a little of the control to the students. To help manage such situations, it is easier for the teacher if they have set up the lesson in such a way that they are able to keep visual contact on the class so that they can quickly see any problems and be able to regain control easily.

It is especially important for new teachers because, with so many new things to try and think about at the same time, having to fight to keep control, or even get it back, is one stress we could do without. So by having the classroom seating set up in the right way you are just making your life easier.

The U shape or Horseshoe

In an ideal world, we would always use the horseshoe layout. This set up allows the teacher to walk around the middle area, maintaining eye contact with all students, whilst encouraging communication and making everybody feel as though they are equal. You also have middle space to take advantage of.


Sometimes, the shape we set out the classroom is not determined by us. It can be determined by the school you are working in or simply by the size and shape of the room. The amount of students is also a factor. The one negative is that students who are less confident or a little shy may find this set up a little intimidating.

Student Clusters

Desk clusters allow the students to work independently but also to work in small groups. Although you lose the free space in the centre, it is still easy for the teacher to maintain control and keep an eye on the students. It offers a little more intimacy than the horseshoe, so students who are perhaps shy or lacking confidence should appreciate this set up more.

The Circle

Although not used often, the circle can be very good for project work or tasks where the students are meant to engage each other and present ideas. Normally, classrooms are set up using one of the other layouts and this one is adapted for specific tasks.

The Round Table

A more practical solution than the circle, the round table is the layout used for meetings. Besides the chairman of the meeting, or in our case the teacher, the idea is that every other participant is equal. This is used often in TEFL, especially with adults.

This layout is also often adapted when there is a little less space available. The teacher is able to maintain control easily, and students have decent eye contact with some members of the group (although not all like the U-shape). However, when you want to put students in a group to perform a communication task, it becomes more difficult to move students around a classroom with ease.

Traditional Rows

Most of us have experienced sitting in rows in one way or another. This has always been the most commonly used seating arrangement because, traditionally, teachers have used a lecturing teaching style, where the students either sat and listened to the teacher, or looked at the whiteboard or projector at the front of the class.

This layout makes controlling the class easy because the teacher has ready visual contact with all the students. The main problem with this layout is that it is almost impossible to facilitate class discussions, where students are able to look at the person they are talking to. Also, with group work, often it may involve the moving of chairs and tables, which then brings into play health and safety.

Common Sense

Nobody says that a teacher must decide once and for all how they are going to set up a classroom. It may be the case that a certain lesson would benefit from a specific classroom layout and it’s fine to change it.

Likewise, you must always remember to apply common sense. Make sure that there are clear aisles for both the teacher and the students to be able to move around the room. Remember, part of your role is to correct mistakes and to do that you need to be able to walk around and listen to different conversations taking place at the same time.

Generally, when dealing with students Health and Safety is a factor but especially so with kids. Remember, you are responsible for what happens in the classroom and you are paid to take this responsibility seriously. If your students are moving around then it is essential that chairs and desks are removed from the area, not just pushed out of the way. Some exercises are just not suitable for smaller classroom spaces, just as some students are too old or too young for other exercises. Again, common sense is normally enough to ensure a nice, safe environment but you must be wary of a “just this time” attitude creeping in. Most teachers will be able to tell you a story of when something terrible nearly happened and that they learnt from it. That’s fine but not everyone gets the benefit of a warning. You cannot let laziness overrule common sense because you may be one of the unlucky ones.