Almost certainly the final 15 ways of avoiding misunderstandings in your classroom

By Alex Case
How showing your grandmother how to send an SMS can help your classroom technique

1. Variations to make the language needed simpler
For example, to explain the game as it is written up in the photocopiable communications game book might demand language like “Choose which of your teammates you are going to ask the next question to”, but asking them to work in clockwise order will take away the need to make that understood.

2. Make it concrete
For example, make all example sentences about things in the classroom. This will mean that you are recycling the same language all the time (language you can consciously teach them in preparation in an early class), that you can point to or pick up that object to reinforce what you are saying, and even that they will be able to remember previous explanations about the same object when you are explaining similar things.

3. Use Yes/ No questions
This not only make answering easier, but also takes away the possibility of accidentally dropping in complications such as subject questions (e.g. “Who hit him?” vs. “Who did he hit?”) and complex question words (how far, how many times a week etc).

4. Make all activities variations/ Build on previous explanations
For example, play the definitions game one week and then Taboo the next, or explain Present Continuous this week and Past Continuous next week. You can then start all explanations with “You remember … last week/ two weeks ago? This is basically the same, but…”

5. Have classroom routines
For example, always start the class by checking the homework and then doing a speaking activity based on it. This helps because students are more likely to be able to understand what you are saying if they know more or less what you will ask them to do at that point. If you do this you will also be more likely to use the same language every week, allowing you to work on simplifying it and your students to work on understanding and remembering it over time.

6. Use the instructions in the students’ book
There is no shame in telling your students to “Turn to page 12 and do what the instructions there tell you to do”, as that is something they will need to be able to do on their own to use self-study materials such as the workbook.

7. Explain something else to a non-specialist
Showing your grandmother how to send an SMS is at least as difficult as explaining the Present Continuous tense to a false beginner class, and therefore especially good practice for people who don’t have any classes to practice simplifying language on.

8. Read factual books for kids
I have no scientific proof that this works, but if we expect our students to subconsciously pick up useable language from reading in English I think it is fair to expect teachers to also be affected by what books they read. History and science books for kids are actually fairly high level in terms of content for people like me who have forgotten almost everything they learnt at school, and you can always read them in private if you think their covers are a bit childish to read on the underground. Alternatively, reading such books in a foreign language will mean double practice and maybe more understanding from friends and family about why you are reading a book that was written for 12 year olds!

9. Learn from textbook readings and listenings
The sign of a truly interesting EFL textbook is that it has texts that even a native speaker would find interesting, e.g. trivia or surveys of cultural differences. Flicking through some textbooks looking for such interesting texts will give you a stack of stimulating things you can use with your students, and hopefully reading them will give you a feeling for what language of that level should be.

10. Read graded readers
Reading a 25 page version of the Iliad written for Elementary language learners might be dumbing down a bit too much for some people, but I have done it occasionally and think it can be a great way to get a summary of a classic book in less time than it takes to watch the film adaptation while also getting a subconscious idea of what kind of language makes complex ideas comprehensible for lower level students.

11. See if you can judge the level
If reading texts written for students for your own interest is not your thing, a more analytical thing you can do with them is pick a text at random, listen to or read it, and then guess what level of students it is supposed to be for.

12. Critique the grading
The next level of analysing graded materials is to see if you really agree that they are suitable for the level of students they are said to be for. You can then try them out on students at that level and levels above and below, check your predictions, and think about why you were more accurate than the authors or vice versa.

13. Compare different levels
Another type of analysis that should hopefully lead to a more instinctive use of the right level of language over time is taking similar materials aimed at different levels and analysing how they are different and which factor has the most impact in making them comprehensible or challenging.

14. Analyse what grading consists of
For the very scientific and thorough among you, making up a full list of what grading consists of, from analysing materials yourself or reading books and articles about it, might overwhelm you in the short term but can’t hurt with making sure your own language includes some of those factors in the long term. Conscious practice you can do with that list includes looking at texts and trying to identify if and how they have included the factors on your list.

15. Simplify texts
Rewriting reading and listening texts to be suitable for lower level students is another thing that won’t have an instant effect on your spoken language but is at least something you can do outside class and will lead to a product that you can use.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET September 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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