Dealing with Latecomers

One of the things most guaranteed to annoy me when I’m teaching groups is when people turn up late – I don’t mean just one person occasionally being late, but the whole group regularly dribbling in gradually over the first twenty minutes or so. What can you do about it? I’d like to suggest three strategies : talk to the group about it; agree a course of action; and adjust your lesson accordingly.

Talk to the group

Your first aim in talking to the group is to find out why they come late.
  • Keep in mind that there may be a cultural element at work here – how important is punctuality in the culture? If you are working in a culture where punctuality is the norm (Swiss, German) and lateness a sign of disrespect (Japanese) you’re less likely to have problems than if you are working in certain Mediterranean or Arab cultures – where you may find that your expectation of punctuality and intolerance of lateness is far higher than that of your students, leading to your feelings of irritation in a situation that they find perfectly normal.
  • Secondly, with the best will in the world lateness is sometimes inevitable. If you live in a city where the traffic is chaotic, or if your students have a boss who frequently asks to see them just as they’re supposed to be leaving, the lateness may not actually be their fault.
  • However, lateness is sometimes due simply to a failure on the students’ part to recognise the true extent of its effect on the course. Your second aim is therefore to make sure that they realise that if not everyone is there at the start of the lesson, there are two possible consequences : firstly, that you wait and the lesson doesn’t start on time – which will mean that you don’t get through all the activities you have planned and that their learning will suffer; or secondly that you start, but each time someone arrives you will have to go back to the beginning and explain everything again, wasting an equal amount of time. Students often have no conception of a lesson as a structure with a beginning, middle and end which is planned precisely for the time available in the lesson. You need to make this clear to them if they are to understand the problems fully. I often show them a very simple plan (usually of their last lesson, so that they recognise it), with the activities and aims and timing for each stage specified. I point out for example how the lesson started with the presentation of new material, and then progressed through activities designed to help them gradually assimilate and use the new language. We then have something concrete to refer to in a discussion of the potential results for their learning of missing the beginning and/or not getting through to the end.
Agree a Course of Action
Needless to say, this discussion has to take place in a positive manner. It’s not a matter of playing the heavy-handed teacher, but of trying to collaborate with the students in order to improve the success of the course for everyone. The next step in the discussion is thus to decide on a plan of action to avoid the problems as much as possible. I usually suggest the following :
  • Firstly, that they do make an effort to be in the classroom ready to start at the start of the lesson – which means aiming to arrive at least five minutes early.
  • Secondly, that if they know in advance they will be late – for instance because of an important meeting – that they let me know, so that I can adjust my plan accordingly.
  • Thirdly, that if they do arrive late, they come in with the minimum amount of disturbance possible. I always ask students to leave seats near the door free for latecomers, so that they don’t have to climb over half the class to sit down, and I ask them not to launch into a long explanation of why they were late, or to start distracting their neighbours by asking what we’re doing, what page we’re on etc. They simply come in, sit down, listen, and wait until there’s a suitable point when I can catch them up.
How can this best be done? I would generally let whatever activity I’m in the middle of finish before turning my attention to the latecomers, otherwise the interruption may distract and penalise the students who were on time. There are then various possibilities :

  • If the students are currently working on an individual, pair or group work activity, the fast finishers can be asked to explain what we’re doing to the latecomer, while the others continue working.
  • Alternatively, at the end of the current activity I might ask the class as a whole to recap on what we’ve been doing. For example, if I had been doing a presentation of a new structure, I might ask one student to describe the “story” of the presentation situation, another to repeat the model sentences, and others to explain the rules. This not only involves everyone, but also helps me confirm that they have understood.
  • Or thirdly, if the student comes in just before I’m about to start the group on a IW, PW or GW activity, I might get the activity started, check that they’re all on task, and then sit down and briefly take the latecomers through whatever they’ve missed. This should not be done however, if it means not being able to monitor the rest of the group.
Adjust the Lesson Accordingly
In my experience however, although this sort of discussion and agreement can improve the situation, it rarely resolves the problem completely. The other option is therefore to accept that lateness will happen, and to adjust the lesson accordingly.

I feel strongly that this should never mean simply waiting for the latecomers. This simply penalises the students who have turned up on time (which is unfair), and teaches them that they might as well arrive late too. However, it is possible to plan initial activities which are useful for those present, but allow you to hold back the start of the main part of the lesson for ten minutes or so while the others are arriving. For example you can :
  • Check homework. This is often useful if there are only one or two students present initially. It gives you a chance to sit down with the students, look at their work, point out their mistakes and find out which they can self-correct and which need further explanation. It also means you have one or two workbooks less to take away and correct outside the class.
  • Spend some time on general conversation – What did you do at the weekend? Of all the things you’re working on at the moment, what is causing you the most problems and why? Describe the story of the last film you saw at the cinema or on TV etc. This can be done in pairs or groups with the teacher monitoring and then writing mistakes overheard on the board for correction. If there’s time left, students can then report back on what their partner said.
  • Use a filler activity for general listening or fluency practice. I would usually use an activity which is slightly below the level of the students in the class, so that it doesn’t need a lot of introduction or pre-teaching. For example, with an upper intermediate class, a fairly simple Find the Difference activity or one of the many other fluency activities described in the Teaching Speaking section. Or, in an advanced class I might use the type of activity focusing on idiomatic English which is included here in the Language Snippets section.
  • Do a remedial activity. For instance, if during the previous lesson you noticed that various students were having problems with a specific verb form, do a brief remedial presentation and an exercise focusing on that form.
  • Do a recap of the previous lesson. It often surprises me how few students review the last lesson before they come to the next. They therefore arrive not remembering at all what they did, and when the teacher tries to build on what has gone before, the foundations just aren’t there. Take them through the last lesson step by step. Ask them to recall the presentation situation and model sentences, to explain the rules, to remember what the reading or listening passage was about, etc.
  • Do an activity which you had planned for the previous lesson but didn’t have time for.
Whatever you do, the objectives should be that :
  • The students who are present feel that they have learnt or practised something useful and have not just been marking time.
  • When the latecomers arrive, they walk into a class which is in full swing – so that they recognise that they have missed something.
  • What they have missed does not prevent them, or anyone else, from achieving the main objectives of the lesson.
How long you feel you can hold back the “real” start of the lesson will depend on how long you have available. If you only teach 45’ minute lessons, it may be impossible to wait longer than five minutes. If you have two hours, it can be considerably longer. It’s a matter of balancing the time needed to teach a coherent lesson with the time available and the constraint that, if you start too soon, the lesson will in any case be disrupted and you’ll waste time repeating explanations.


Photo provided under Creative Commons licence by Malky via flickr

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