Setting the Table for Success: The Relationship Between Classroom Arrangement and Classroom Management

During my CELTA, I did two writing skills lessons. The first was a disaster: every time I walked in front of a student they would cover what they were writing. Why didn’t I just walk behind them? Well, the room was arranged like this:

Horseshoe Arrangement

traditional arrangement, Writing, Warm-up Writing, u shaped desk arrangement, horseshoe desk arrangement, classroom management, feedback, monitoring, cluster arrangement, ELT, EFL, ESL, TEFL, ELL
Horseshoe Arrangement

so that option was off the table. Needless to say, if you conduct a writing class and can’t give any feedback the lesson is a failure. However, as Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”


What did I learn: always arrange the class for the activities your students are doing. If you are lucky enough to have desks/tables that aren’t bolted to the floor, move them (just put them back for the next teacher).

For example, the u-shaped/horseshoe arrangement (pictured above) is fantastic for pair work  and activities like “Sprint to the Board” and “Writing Races.” Additionally, the arrangement of the desks provides a large central area for mill drills/mingles/surveys and role plays.

But what if you want students to work in small groups instead of pairs?

Cluster Arrangement

traditional arrangement, Writing, Warm-up Writing, u shaped desk arrangement, horseshoe desk arrangement, classroom management, feedback, monitoring, cluster arrangement, ELT, EFL, ESL, TEFL, ELL
Cluster Arrangement

If you are doing projects, group work or playing a board game,  the cluster arrangement is ideal: it focuses the students’ attention on the members in their group and creates a common space for them to work communally.

But what if you want students to work individually?

Traditional Arrangement

traditional arrangement, Writing, Warm-up Writing, u shaped desk arrangement, horseshoe desk arrangement, classroom management, feedback, monitoring, cluster arrangement, ELT, EFL, ESL, TEFL, ELL
Traditional Arrangement

When you need students to work individually (like when giving a test/practice test) or focus on what is going on in the front of the class (presentations) the traditional arrangement really is best:

  • no one has their back to the front of the class (cluster arrangement)
  • no one has to crane their neck to see the front of the room (horseshoe arrangement)
  • students are spaced further apart so the temptation to cheat should be lower
  • additionally, if you only use the traditional arrangement for exams/presentations, the arrangement reinforces the purpose of the days activity – students know this set up is for “x” not “y”

One last thing,

As for my second lesson, I kept the horseshoe but asked the students to:

  1. stand up
  2. grab their desk
  3. drag it one step forward
  4. sit down

By having the desks one step away from the walls, I was able to walk behind the learners and monitor while they were writing without making them feel self-conscious. Why do I mention this point? I’ve heard people say you can’t do “x” in such and such environment. Truth of the matter is you can do lots of things in several environments – you just might need to tweak either the activity or the arrangement a bit to make it work!

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