More Ways to Make Sure Students in Your Classes Understand You

By Alex Case
From making it longer to making it shorter, these techniques will help avoid misunderstanding in your classes

1. Stick to the textbook lesson plan
This will cut down on your preparation time and therefore allow you to concentrate on preparing what you are going to say, provide you with suggested explanation language in the teacher’s book and/ or mean that the class has a simple and familiar format that students can easily cope with even if your language is a little complicated.

2. Concentrate on that factor of your teaching
For example, add boxes to the top of your lesson plan for language you are going to use and language you are going to try and avoid, plan which games you are going to use over the term by how complicated they will be to explain, or even plan the whole syllabus around things you are going to want to explain and language they are going to need to understand it.

3. Make it longer
Being too concise can sometimes make understanding more difficult by, for example, tying several ideas together in one sentence, leaving out assumed knowledge that is best restated, or having the important information too close together without lots of “padding language” that the students can ignore while they are trying to process the last important thing they heard. If the sentences you write up on the board to illustrate grammar points often have to have words added to them to make them clear or if you are a two word answer person in your communications outside the classroom, this might be a point worth looking at. Another example of shortness not always being clarity is one word and short answers when the lack of context means that students cannot tell which of several homophones or similar sounding words you are saying, or cannot tell which of several meanings of one word you mean.

4. Make it shorter
Conversely, sometimes length can be a problem. For example, if you have the kind of students who still try to understand every word they hear, their understanding might be lagging behind your speech halfway through the first sentence. Alternatively, the length of the sentence might be a sign that you have put in words and structures to link the ideas together that they don’t know yet, such as relative clauses, pronouns like “one” or expressions like “the latter”. Quite often simplifying in this way is not a case of eliminating language so much as turning a long sentence into two or more shorter ones. If you are a wordy person naturally or if you often run out of whiteboard space, this is probably something you could work on.

5. Ask them to do something familiar
This could mean something they are used to in your classroom, something they are used to from earlier English classes (e.g. something all secondary schools in their country do), or things they are familiar with from other parts of their life such as games that are common in their country (to play or on TV game shows). This will mean that they can put all their concentration powers into understanding the language rather than the new rules etc, and that they can understand and remember the language from its familiar context.

6. Plan for two explanations/ have a plan B
For example, have your own explanation and the teachers’ book one as a back up, or take a monolingual and bilingual dictionary into the classroom (you can just show the latter to students if you want to avoid speaking languages other than English in class yourself).

7. Check their comprehension more often
For example, stop after each sentence and check they are following you or (better) ask a question that will check their comprehension, e.g. “You need a counter, such as an eraser or a paper clip. Take a counter now and hold it up.” or “The Present Perfect connects the past and present. If the past is yesterday, the present is…?” Think of it as something like taking both parts in an infomercial for a kitchen cleaning product (!)

8. Speak slower/ pause
Sometimes all students need is time for their comprehension to catch up with what you are saying. You can practice and prepare for pausing by putting the pauses into what you have written on your lesson plan, e.g. with forward slashes in the instruction sentences.

9. Volunteer for an even lower level class
This method might seem like sacrificing the lower level class’s learning and just using them as an intensive training course for yourself, but in fact grading your language with a class you assume understands almost nothing is easier than trying to get your language somewhere in the intermediate zone.

10. Conversation exchanges
I still don’t really understand why, but I found doing conversation exchanges while I was learning Spanish to be better training for regulating my speaking speed than teaching was. One theory I have is that it was because I didn’t have to worry about organising pairwork etc and so could concentrate on regulating the level of my language. Other possibilities are that my conversation exchange partners were more willing to say when they didn’t understand than my students were, or that it was easier because there was no mix of levels so which level I was aiming for was easier to work out.

11. One to one classes
Probably for some of the same reasons as I have stated in Conversation Exchanges above, having one student is better practice for speaking with language that they can understand than having a group class. Choosing to teach at least a couple of one to one classes, even if it is as extra private lessons in your free time, can therefore be intensive training for you and have a better effect on your future graded language in your group classes than just specialising in group classes would have had.

12. Record/ video yourself
You can then watch or listen to the class looking for misunderstandings and potential misunderstandings and the reasons for them (having something to concentrate on will also make listening to your own voice less embarrassing!)

13. Get the students involved in game instructions
For example, “Has anyone ever played dominoes before? Yes? Can you explain the rules of the game to the class? I will then explain how this English language version is different”

14. Explain the non-TEFL version first
For example, play Snap with a pack of playing cards before doing the same with the vowel sounds version or do a few rounds of coin tossing before showing them how they can use that to move around the speaking board game.

15. Get the students to rank you/ get feedback on this point
For example, “Which of the games we played this week did you find most difficult to understand?” or “Why do you think the second grammar explanation was clearer to you than the first one?” This works best if you have good records of the lessons to look back on or have kept a recording of your lessons on tape or video.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet 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
© Teflnet


  • Ssegwanga says:

    The information has helped me improve myself and improve my learners’ perfomance

  • Mwesigwa Fred says:

    This piece is helpful infact it has helped me answer my exam continue posting this kind of information

  • Nandipha says:

    Your information very clear thank you

  • Londeka Zondi says:

    This is simple and clear, its helpful and i did gain from this information. its not easy to make the lesson successful and i hope what i have learn today will help me keep up doing the great job TEFL THANK YOU!

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