Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Teaching: Improving your "Teacher Language"

Have you ever studied a language for months, only to meet a native speaker and find yourself completely confused by what they're saying? Do you explain simple concepts to your students, only to have them stare at you blankly? Do you find yourself thinking how do they not understand this?

The problem might not be them - it might be your "teacher language". I watch a lot of lessons, and I have often seen elementary student bombarded with so much language that they have no idea of what is going on.

Imagine, for example, a class who is just learning to say "I can swim!", and the teacher starts to explain: "Well, you see, it's like... ability, what you can and can't do, so if you can do this, you are ABLE to do it. It can also mean something to do with what is acceptable, socially or legally. The word 'swim' here is in the base form of the verb, do you understand?" How do you think those students are going to feel? Let's add to that the fact that the teacher is speaking very quickly, mumbling due to nerves, perhaps with a strong accent. It's no wonder that students are often confused.

Here's another example: the teacher wants students to listen to a recording, and write down three words that they hear. What they say is: "OK, so in partners we're going to listen to this CD, this recording, and then pick out the lexis and write it down, then afterwards we're going to make sure you caught all the words and we'll confirm them, OK?"

What's the problem with that sentence? To a native speaker, it seems simple enough. To find out, you just have to look through a typical text book and see the kind of things that students are being taught. Yes, they might know a lot of the words individually, but you'll be hard pressed to find them being taught "in partners", "pick out", "afterwards" and "catch" (in this context) until pretty late on in their English-learning life. We use a lot of expressions, phrasal verbs, idioms and slang in everyday speech without realising it, and to a learner of English these can cause the most difficulty.

So, how can you make your English simple enough that your students will understand you? Some of these tips might seem obvious, but here they are anyway!

1) Record yourself - imagine you're telling a student about a topic, perhaps you're trying to explain a word, or just telling them something about yourself. You could even tape-record an actual lesson (if the students don't mind) and listen back to it later. You might be surprised to find how often you use complicated words and expressions, repeat what students say or give unnecessary comments!

2) Avoid phrasal verbs, expression or slang - for example, instead of saying "come up with some questions" (come up with is a phrasal verb), what could you say that's simpler? "Think of", "ask" or "write", for example. An expression like "we get on like a house on fire" is fine if you're specifically teaching it, but imagine what a learner thinks when they first hear it! Even saying "we get on well" can be confusing, as students will know the word "get" and "on", but perhaps not in this context. What would make it even simpler? How about "we are good friends". Slang can slip in to your conversation without you realising it - calling a pen a "biro", calling your friend your "mate" or "buddy", even referring to your class as "you guys" can be confusing at first! The way you speak to your students might seem unnatural at first, but over time you'll get the hang of it, editing your speech as you go.

3) Don't be afraid of giving direct instructions - it usually feels rude for us to tell somebody "write your answers" or "listen to this". Society teaches us to be far more indirect in order to sound polite - you might choose to say "OK, guys, just have a listen to this recording for me, would you?" or "Now we're going to write down our answers, if you don't mind". While other native speakers will respond to this, a learner will only hear a barrage of extra words - to a beginner, this can be very confusing. Your students will only learn what is polite and impolite in English through learning it - so don't think they'll be offended if you use direct commands. It doesn't mean that you have to use a bossy or demanding tone! Your students will, most likely, appreciate the fact that you're making task instructions as simple as possible.

4) Speak slowly and clearly - perhaps obvious, but nerves can make us speak a lot quicker than we normally would. It might also feel unnatural to speak slowly and to pause between sentences, but when people learn a language they need this pace in order to process what you are saying. When you play a listening track, students need to hear it two or three times. The same might be true for your instructions (especially if you over-complicate them). Leave a couple of seconds' pause between your sentences, and make sure you pronounce words clearly. If you have a particularly strong accent which distorts certain words noticeably, you might need to try saying them in a more "neutral" accent - the students might know the word "pen", for example, but if you come along and say it in a strong Australian accent they might be very confused until you write it down for them!

5) Use gesture, pictures and props to help you out - if you are teaching new words, for example, it really is true that a picture speaks 1000 words. Don't over-complicate things for yourself. What do you think is easier - saying "What's a word for a ceremony where two people promise to love each other forever, marked by the exchanging of a ring?", or just showing them a picture of a wedding? When teaching lower levels, you might sometimes feel as if you are playing charades - this is fine, and all part of the fun! The more expressive you are, the more easily your students will understand you. If you have a whiteboard, you can always add drawings, scales or timelines to help illustrate what you are trying to say.

6) Learn a new language - a slightly extreme step, but it helps! Learning a new language puts you in the shoes of your students. You'll know how they feel when an English native speaker overloads them with "natural" language, and you'll understand how much they appreciate slow, simple instructions. You'll find out what helps you learn, and it will make you a better teacher in general, as you'll gain an understanding of how hard it is not only to understand your teacher but also to remember what you have learnt from one lesson to the next.

7) Script your teacher language - instead of going in to a lesson with no plan, no instructions to yourself other than "explain the term 'easy-going'", plan it beforehand. You might think that you know a word, but how do you explain it in the simplest way possible? Try it now, quickly - what does 'appreciate' mean? How about 'please'? It can be tricky to think of explanations on the spot. If you plan your "script" before your lesson, you can work on exactly how to word it. Plus, you'll feel more confident when you have the words in front of you, rather than trying to make it up as you go.

8) Look at the grammar/vocabulary that they already know - this generally means looking in the text book that your class is currently using, and only going above that when you're teaching something new. So, avoid words like "spectacular" or "brilliant" if they have only just learnt "good". If they can barely create a sentence using "if", then asking something like "What would you do if...?" will mean nothing to them. In effect, you are toning your language down as much as possible - simplifying it and stripping it down to the bare bones. Let's take a sentence like "What would you say about restaurants in Prague? Do you generally find them to be positive or negative experiences?" - how many elementary level students do you think would understand that? What's a simpler way to say it? You could just say "Are restaurants in Prague good? Do you like to go to restaurants?".

9) Make friends with non-native speakers of English - the more learners and non-native you know, the more practised you will become at speaking to them. My own "teacher language" was improved a lot just by having friends at university who were from different countries - when I said something to them the way I normally would, they looked confused or pretended to understand. I soon learned to adapt my way of speaking into a careful, deliberate way that cut down any excess talk and avoiding strange expressions as much as possible.

10) Have an awareness of their native language - it's good to know which words are similar in English and the native language of your students. This will save you a lot of time explaining a word that they already know, and will allow you to drop some more complicated words into your speech. There may also be "false friends" - words that sound similar in English and their language, but which have very different meanings. This is good to know as students might assume that the meanings are the same - for example, in Czech, the word "angina" means "sore throat" (this can lead to some misunderstandings, as you can imagine!). They might have a word that looks similar but that they pronounce very differently. Knowing some of the grammatical rules can also give you an insight into which particular things your students will find really difficult, and which things they will breeze through, will also help you plan your lessons!


So, let's see how well you can do this! Grab a pen, read these examples, and write down the simplest way that a teacher could say these things. Look below for my answers!

a) "OK, guys, I'm thinking of a word. It's like... what you feel when something really good happens. For example, you just won the lottery, or you got a promotion."

b) "What particular dish or beverage do you enjoy the most?"

c) "So, pick out three examples and come up with your own. You can look up the words in your dictionary, you know, if you want to. Try to work them out on your own, though!"

d) "I can't make head nor tail of it. It's completely messed up - I have no idea what's going on!"

e) "What is anxiety? Well, it's really a kind of psychological disorder, for example when you feel very stressed or worried... let's say I have a big test coming up, so I feel anxious. My palms are sweaty and my heart is beating. I have butterflies in my stomach. I'm nervous! It can be a clinical condition - you can be chronically anxious - or it can just be temporary. Sometimes I feel anxious before I teach class, haha, but I didn't have to worry because you're all so nice! I don't know the etymology of the word, but we say you feel anxious if you have anxiety, and if it's a long-term thing you have an anxiety disorder. Does that make sense?"

Answers (of course, they're not the ONLY way to say it, but my idea):
a) Draw a smiley face or act very happy. Ask "How do I/does he feel?"
b) "What's your favourite food or drink?"
c) "Choose three sentences and write your own. You can check the dictionary, but try to think without it!"
d) "I am confused!"
e) Act anxious. Say "I am very stressed. I am worrying/panicking!"

Your students don't need to know every possible nuance of a word or its etymology - teach them only what's relevant for now. They can build up the rest of their knowledge over time. Hopefully this will help you regulate your own teacher language, and before long you will be able to make yourself understood even to complete beginners of English!

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